A Ride Through Late Capitalism With The Agency’s HELLCAB

PICTURED: Rusty Schwimmer (frontseat), Kate Jacobsen (backseat). Pictured by Bill Richert

“Blessed are the filthy rich, for you can only truly own what you give away, like your pain.”

-Kendrick Lamar, Get Out of Your Own Way.

Hellcab is a Jewish play with a Catholic name. The catholic dogma of the name suggests that whoever is going for this hellish ride must’ve earned it, as is the case with anyone that the Roman Catholic version of the almighty casts into the fiery pit. However, much like the audience, and the Jewish idea of existence and eternity, the cabbie at the center of this play is merely along for the ride. There is no heaven and no hell, just the ride, and the questions about life, liberty and late-capitalism that ride raises must be discussed and dissected while being equally unanswerable.

Rusty Schwimmer’s Cab Driver doesn’t feel like the type to be along for the ride. She’s a decidedly-Chicago character, equally equipped to help a traumatized customer, while also strong enough to sternly tell a customer when not to touch her. She’s equal parts lace-curtain and shanty, as any cab driver should be. Most importantly, she’s vulnerable.

That vulnerability is the heart of the play. There is no traditional story structure. It is simply a series of fares in the life of a Chicago cabbie. There is a suggestion that the play takes place in one night, but through the use of blackouts and scene breaks, the length of the shift, day, month, year feels amorphous, until the audience is trapped in the white lines of the highway with the Cab Driver.

Author’s Note: [This is where I should bring up that the performance I saw had technical difficulties, and was presented without much of Connor Ciesil’s sound design. I assume that the sound design adds to trapping the audience in the Cab Driver’s head. It is a credit to Rusty Schwimmer’s performance that she wears the sound design, the text, the location, the show, the cab, and the character like an extra costume piece. It also speaks to Sommer Austin’s direction that the lack of sound design felt like effective minimalism. It is my opinion that no technical aspect can only enhance a show, it cannot save a show, and at no point is this show in need of saving. With sound design or not, this is a cast and crew that understand and carry the text with sensitivity and confidence.]

Rusty Schwimmer carries the show, as it is the Cab Driver’s job to drive this play, but the rest of the cast play their multiple roles wonderfully. It wasn’t until the curtain call that the size of this cast was seen. The stage could barely contain them at the final bows, and that added to the play’s message that, even with multi-casting, life is too big for one person’s story.

There is an empty seat next to the Cab Driver during the whole play. This wouldn’t stand out, except that there is a beaded seat cover over the empty seat. The seat gets occupied a couple times by people close to the Cab Driver, but spends the majority of the play empty but the beaded seat cover remains a lampshade hung on the Cab Driver’s loneliness. Much like the rest of us living under late-capitalism, Jesus isn’t this Cab Driver’s co-pilot. The Cab Driver is on her own, at the whim of those with a little more spending money than her, and the only people she invites into her passenger seat are her fellow cab drivers, and the blind.

It is her customers that drive the conflict at the center of Hellcab. They come in every shape, size, color, and temperament. Like Pharaoh, they require the mental, verbal & emotional labor of the Cab Driver to help build them pyramids to their own experience. These are not bad people, except for the ones that very much are. It can be argued that the worst are clearly the result of a lack of accountability, but that’s the game of Hellcab. The customers are usually big enough assholes that there is no way the Cab Driver deserves these customers, but to judge the people in the backseat is to be snared in the trap, as none of them are presented with enough detail to be a full-portrait of their character, but each character is presented as capable of making their own choices. It leaves the audience in the truly human situation of saying “Look, I don’t know you, but…”

This is the truly Jewish nature of this play. The people that the Cab Driver encounters are not a punishment. They are not to be judged. They are not to be damned. They are not to be saved. They are merely passengers of a passenger. The questions they raise, and the conflicts they bring with them are not theirs alone. They are at the best you assume them to be. They are the worst you assume them to be. They can be looked at, and judged, with both lenses.

Each of us bring the good, the bad, and the ugly with us, and will carry them through time immemorial. We drive through life with an empty passenger seat, that we can fill, or not; an empty backseat in the back of our skulls, and whomever we let into that backseat will bring their entire lives with them. Who are you bringing with you? What are they leaving behind? Are you being duly compensated?

The Agency Theater Collective presents Hellcab, running through Dec. 17th at The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are available HERE.