SUDS—Studio B, 7:30pm. Wednesday—Saturday, April 30—May 10.
The Detectives Handbook—a blend of hip hop, jazz, and film noir—is SUDS, and musical theatre, at its audacious best. With words by Ian Ferrington and music by Olga Solar, The Detectives Handbook recounts the story of the grizzled Detective Thompson and his naïve young partner, Hartman. They’re forced together by bureaucracy to solve the murder of a pair of fellow detectives.
Ferrington’s verse has an unmistakable rhythm over a smooth jazz score. It’s polished, with a compounding rhyme scheme that builds momentum both within and between lines. The wordplay and staging reveals a thematic focus on duplicity and the illusory nature of language. Natasha Vickery, the female lead, wears two wigs in playing three iterations of the femme fatale—each one united by archetype but distinguished by her utter knack for characterising with her eyes and facial expressions. Carrying the theme, the show’s most memorable songs dabble with entendre, as when Thompson pours himself “two shots” while, on the opposite end of the stage, Hartman puzzles over the “two shots” fired at the crime scene.
Any feeble criticisms I could level only give way to greater praise. You might say the transitions between scenes are too long, but they’re carried by musical interludes and necessary for the construction and re-construction of a number of settings. The detectives’ investigations take them throughout Chicago, from the station, to a seedy bar, to a Polish delicatessen that doubles as a dating hub (among others). Each new space is differentiated by subtle, yet effective, set pieces: saloon doors and hanging trays of meat, evidence lockers and dead bodies.
The final setting—which I won’t spoil—is left to your imagination (dammit, I spoiled). Ferrington knows the financial and spatial limitations of student drama, but uses them for parody with a self-awareness that transcends SUDS’ $500 spending cap. Things we don’t see are acknowledged with aplomb, exposition is offered freely with the knowledge that plot is second to character and wording. The play has an “unjustified tapdance”—why not?—and Elliott Miller and Victoria Zerbst display both a flair for physical comedy and an immediate chemistry that makes their every appearance exemplary. The same relationship on stage is brokered in reverse between the initially opposed protagonists, played by Alessandro Tuniz and Matt Bartlett. Tuniz exudes a squalid cheerlessness, the kind Harrison Ford had in Blade Runner, while Bartlett shines as the almost-virginal paragon of good police procedure. Police Chief Flint, played by Alexander Richmond, negotiates the space between his two detectives, both sympathetic to Thompson’s questionable methods and owning a much admired copy (by Hartman, anyway) of “the Detective’s Handbook Volume II”. In her three roles, our femme fatale, Natasha Vickery, embodies the play’s most nascent political interest by undermining the noir genre’s historically regressive approach to gender. These characters might be archetypes, sure, but they have a charm indescribable in terms of stereotype. Not to forget Alice Birbara, the Polish matriarch who runs the dating agency with plates of pierogi in the window. She possesses an incredible vocal range and a flawless accent, conjuring some of the play’s funniest moments while giving off those spinsterly vibes of experience that every 19-20 year old actor strives towards.
Negative criticism is incredibly attractive to write and to read, but nothing compares to the experience of seeing or hearing something you love, and being able to pore over it. I was among those who proposed (and lost, obviously) against Ferrington for the slot which became The Detective’s Handbook. Even the mildest trace of bitterness or cynicism (sorry) that I carried from that evaporated with the first verse of the performance, giving way to an irrepressible feeling of joy. The Detective’s Handbook exemplifies the potential of SUDS. Familiar but original, it runs on the heart and soul of aspiring young artists. It’s coherent and polished in a way much student drama isn’t. It has a wonderful tone, an effective aesthetic, and convincing performances. If you love language—if you even incidentally like language, or jazz, or rap—then see this play. Take someone you like. Bash your own brains out and forget this review and go in utterly blind to everything I’ve said and see if you don’t leave smiling.
See this play.
See this play.
See this play.
Tickets to see The Detectives Handbook won’t be cheap for long.
Producer: Jonathan Rush
Director: Ian Ferrington
Musical Director: Olga Solar
Choreographer: Josh Chee
Head Designer: Julia Robertson
Frank Thompson: Ale Tuni
Jimmy Hartman: Matt Bartlett
Femmes Fatale: Natasha Vickery
Mrs. Kowalski: Alice Birbara
Police Chief Flint: Alexander Richmond
Officer Ickie: Victoria Zerbst
Officer Rush: Elliott Miller