Steven Strafford, the creator of one-man show “Methacular,” has left an indelible 2016 imprint on the Chicago theater market — and this critic. I had the pleasure of seeing him inhabit the role of dastardly, but ultimately redeemable editor Chick Clark in the Goodman Theatre’s smash musical production “Wonderful Town” earlier this fall. In that guise, Strafford was all lovely song and dance in a welcome early 20th Century meditation on foiled patriarchy.
Where “Wonderful Town” contained cotton candy set pieces and a mostly wholesome view of New York City in the 1950s, Stafford’s autobiographical work in “Methtacular,” is, shall we say, a departure? Very unfortunately, the show just concluded a limited two-night engagement as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s LookOut Series. However, this past weekend was not the first Chicago mounting of the work and perhaps if theatergoers ask Strafford very nicely, it won’t be the last.
Press materials describe “Methtacular” as follows: “Through comedy, songs, and plenty of honest storytelling, Strafford brings audiences on a journey through the chemical highs, devastating lows, and ultimate redemption from his drug addled, sex crazed life.”
Seemingly against rational logic, “Methtacular” is exactly the triumph over tragedy night of good fun a battered American electorate needs. It’s true. I feel personally fortunate to have seen the show last Friday night. A mere three days after the once improbable triumph of Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton to become our nation’s President-elect, I felt I might never laugh again.
Like so many other shell-shocked and concerned citizens, I spent the previous 72 hours in withdrawal, afraid for the future of our democracy and so many of its demographics: the LGBTQ community, Muslims, immigrants in general, women. Pretty much everyone.
“Methacular” is a jolt of honesty, self-deprecation and entertainment that offers hope, even where the emotion ought to be in short supply. As Strafford wastes no time telling a rapt cabaret audience, he was a capital “M” mess before he grew into the celebrated and acclaimed performer Chicago knows today. Once upon a time he was a virginal Jersey boy, a budding performer new to our Midwestern shores. A young man who found himself lost in a drug clouded world of bathhouses, physical danger, deception and crime.
By all accounts during the 75-minute show, we ought to be speaking of Strafford in the past tense. One such testimonial is offered by Steven’s mother through a series of poignant, heartbreaking video clips. There is much to take seriously about the helpless experience of watching a loved one kill themselves in slow motion.
Yet the poignancy is a conduit to redemption. Strafford and his Director Adam Fitzgerald take great pains to step in all the ugliness — to bring the audience to an uncomfortable climax. And yet Strafford’s winning stage presence, his song, humor and visible health give away the ending right from the start. He is more than ok. He’s thriving. It’s fine to let loose and laugh at the absurdity of near death.
And there are plenty of laughs to subvert the darkness. Strafford directly engages the audience — with eye contact and by literally including members in some of the sketches. The performer brings something special to this stunning and entertaining confession. He knows that we know what it’s like to struggle with addiction, or to watch the disease take hold of a friend or a family member. It’s a heartbreakingly universal experience and yet through pain, there is always, forever, humor.
As we approach a time of great economic, social and judicial insecurity, “Methacular” doesn’t offer any easy answers. As Strafford says toward the end of the show, he’s not sure why he stayed in New Jersey and got sober at last. He “just did.” It’s as arbitrary an admission as it is inspiring. Perhaps it’s true of human nature that invariably, we get sick of being stuck and isolated. And we can laugh at ourselves on the path to enlightenment.
“Methtacular” ran through November 12 at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.