A couple of noteworthy things about “Hellcab,” now at Profiles Theatre’s new Main Stage venue: 1) 34 actors thread their way through the action, a record number for this small company; and 2) the crew managed to move a genuine taxi onto a stage the size of a single parking space. Add those things to an engaging script by Will Kern, astute direction by Darrell W. Cox and an affecting performance by Konstantin Khrustov as the cabbie, and Profiles has a nicely twisted holiday hit on its hands.
“Hellcab” premiered in Chicago 20 years ago at Famous Door Theatre as a late-night show scheduled to run for 12 performances. But the show had legs — or wheels — and ended up running for more than 9 years. It has traveled all over the U.S. and been performed in Scotland, Israel, Singapore and Ireland. The script hasn’t changed, however, and if the audience doesn’t know Chicago’s geography, they miss out on half the fun as this tired, beleaguered cab driver weaves through the city, encountering a new character on every corner.
The action begins on the morning of a frigid Christmas Eve as the cabbie tries to thaw the car’s frozen door lock by performing CPR, warming the lock with his breath. Reviving the carburetor takes more effort, and when the ignition finally catches, the driver caresses the dashboard in thanks. Khrustov puts body English into those initial endeavors, but once seated behind the wheel, his acting is mostly confined to his face. Luckily, his face is supremely expressive: as he eavesdrops on backseat conversations, he shows us without speaking exactly what he thinks.
As the 33 riders jump into and out of the cab we learn bits and pieces about the driver as he interacts with them, starting with the fact that like many Chicago cabbies, he is Russian (Khrustov hails from Kazakhstan). By the end of his long shift, we know much more, namely that he is probably far too empathetic to last long at this job. When he can keep his detachment, he is amused at the antics of his passengers, those backseat entertainers. But at other times he can’t help but recoil from the lies and cruelties he witnesses.
That each passenger who enters the cab will be outrageous or distinctive is a given during the play’s rapid fire 85 minutes. One rider opines that the way to rescue America is by mining minerals on the moon. Cross-dressers, yuppies, hookers, lawyers, gang bangers — as soon as one exits the cab, another enters. As over-the-top as some of these characters seem, they pale in comparison to some of the actual riders that playwright Kern encountered when he was a cabbie; the program includes a few surprising examples of these.
Although “Hellcab” can be performed by as few as six actors, director Cox enriched the production with his more-is-more casting. The 34 actors, almost all of them non-Equity and many of them at the very beginning of their careers, add to the human texture of the play. And with most of the parts mere snippets — one lasts less than a minute — everyone has a chance to shine.
Clever stagecraft enhances as well, especially Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, which animates the cab and sets the scene. Graffiti artist Anthony Venturini has turned one wall of the long-ago ballroom space that is the theater into a Christmas-colored abstract painting — Santa on meth? Spot-on set design by Shaun Refro and lights by Mike Durst. Raquel Adorno clearly had fun costuming the cast.
And then there’s the real star of the show: the dented, topless 303 Taxi that serves as a stage. (One quibble: 303 Taxis drive mostly in the suburbs, not the city.) Getting the vehicle inside the theater involved removing the engine and flipping the cab on its side to squeeze it through a doorway. It was worth the effort. As the driver learns of each new destination, he turns the steering wheel, rotating the tires. His journey through the streets of Chicago/hell feels so real that you can almost smell the exhaust.
Profiles Theatre’s Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago
Through December 23, 2012
Tickets: $35 – $40, student and senior discounts available; www.profilestheatre.org or (773) 549-1815
Photos: Michael Brosilow