You may have seen Buzzfeed’s “If _____ Were Honest” series. “If Couples’ Fights Were Honest.” “If Bridesmaids Were Honest.” Watching the Chicago premiere of A Red Orchid Theatre’s “Do You Feel Anger?” I couldn’t help but draw a thematic parallel between the two. “If Your Co-Workers Were Honest” or “If Offices Were Honest,” would be equally fitting titles for this immersive yet surreal play.
“Do You Feel Anger?” is an exploration of empathy—or the general lack of it—in the workplace and between genders. A study in stealth feminism, “Anger” sneaks in themes of emotional manipulation, microaggression and male privilege to an audience that’s busy laughing, hysterically in some cases. These portrayals of identifiable workplace archetypes are both hilarious and haunting in their accuracy, such as man-children valuing their feelings over those of others, sometimes to the point of their female counterparts fearing for their safety.
The play’s portrait of persistent terror is Eva, the human equivalent of the “This Is Fine” meme. Ensemble member Sadieh Rifai presents Eva as a female employee constantly suppressing the need to scream. She works her cries of help seamlessly into conversations like someone whose kidnapper is in the room with them. The brilliance of Jess McLeod’s direction and Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s script is in the subtlety of its exaggeration: Sophia (Emjoy Gavino) pretending an offensive joke is funny to prevent a male temper tantrum; Eva apologizing for no reason; the sweater of a colleague who’s been “in the bathroom” for months. It all leads to a bigger conclusion. The depictions are honest and unfiltered, yet there is meaning in the subtext.
This genuinely funny and stimulating analysis is only momentarily derailed by a baffling, prospector-like villain, who would’ve been more coherent if portrayed in a culturally relevant likeness, such as an incel or a mass shooter. The geometric fluorescent lighting (Mike Durst and Rebecca Jeffords) and matching generic tiling (scenic design by Jeff Kmiec) set us into a world that feels familiar but slightly distorted.
“Anger” presents “facts” without judgement: in order to succeed, men intimidate and women submit and that’s just the way it is. But the play also suggests there are other options. Everyone of legal working age should see this show because, if we were honest with ourselves, workplace harassment is ubiquitous and empathy—not anger—may be our only way out of the bathroom. (Hayley Osborn)
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells, (312)943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org, $30-$40. Through March 15.