Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association.
Note: This show, originally slated to be performed live at Theater Wit, is available online instead due to coronavirus. For a discussion of theatres responding to coronavirus restrictions, click here.
16th Street Theatre was about to open Methtacular, a revival of a one-man show by company member Steven Strafford about his struggle with addiction, just when the coronavirus shutdowns hit. In a marvelous example of serendipity (or, as artistic director Ann Filmer puts it, “dumb luck”), Strafford owns a professional-quality video of his play, filmed last year during a two-night engagement at Steppenwolf, as well as all the rights. Thus we now have two streaming plays in Chicago, after the debut of Theater Wit’s Teenage Dick, and Methtacular is another exciting opportunity to experience theatre in your own living room.
Strafford’s show is punctuated with songs and often very funny, but it is at its core a brutally honest, adult-focused exploration of the difficult life he led after he became involved with drugs as a young man. Directed by Adam Fitzgerald, Strafford engages us in his journey from promising actor to drug-addicted, desperate, and deluded…and back again. He shows us the most hellish moments of his life with no sugar-coating, and doesn’t pull any punches as he allows us a glimpse into the addict’s mind—a place where remaining high on a drug that makes everything in the moment seem wonderful is far more important than the practical necessities of staying alive to do so.
As he describes the ecstasy he feels when he takes crystal meth, we are right there with him on his high; we almost understand why a person might choose to feed the urge for more because it is such a potent feeling. Strafford tells in extensive detail of hunting for his twin obsessions: drugs and sex. Trolling for partners and “seeking out fantasy sex,” he tells of ending up in weirdly incongruous spaces that look like “a leather dungeon lined with a dusty Precious Moments collection” before he finds and moves in with men who are able to supply him with both. He spends as much time as he can stoned and having sex with any man who is willing, both at home and at the bathhouses that he visits so often he might as well be living there.
During one visit to the bathhouse, at a moment in which he is handcuffed to a St. Andrews cross, he is discovered by the manager of the theatre where he not only has a job, but in fact is supposed to be onstage at that very moment. Suddenly, he tells us, “I’m fired, naked in a bathhouse.” All he wanted, he says, is to “have a normal life where I do crystal meth all the time with someone my own age,” but with nowhere to go, he turns to his mother, who has been telling him all along to “come home” (and is seen repeatedly on video throughout the show).
For no reason he truly understands, when she gives him an ultimatum to clean up or go away forever, he actually gets his life together. “There’s no formula for who gets to recover and who doesn’t,” he says. This is his unique story of redemption after a fall, and Strafford doesn’t pretend that it is anything from which people can generalize. There are no “life lessons” or precepts here. He doesn’t even suggest that drugs are bad; on the contrary, he describes the experience of taking them as one of serene calm and beauty, at one point hearing a chirpy song from The Wizard of Oz in his head: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night…” Having access to meth and men who can supply it and give him sex was, to him, perfection. What his story does tell us, though, is that it is a false perfection that has the capacity to destroy. Though Strafford lived for the zoned-out euphoria that crystal meth induced, he landed in the gutter on more than one occasion because of it.
Methtacular is, of course, available only on video. As a one-man show, though, it transfers to that medium with ease. We lose none of its nuance, and the talented Strafford is an accomplished storyteller. Harrowing as his story may be, it is entertaining, educational, and unforgettable. But it’s only available until April 4, so don’t wait.
Methtacular is a 16th Street Theatre production now streaming online due to coronavirus until Apr 4. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and how to stream. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.