The energy in the Den Theater last Thursday was electric, as The Secretaries, writtenby Omer Abbas Salem and directed by Laura Alacalá Baker, made its highly anticipated debut with First Floor Theater. The dark comedic play was first developed through Goodman Theatre’s Future Labs and marks Salem’s first full production as a playwright in Chicago.
The Secretaries, set in 1944 Berlin, centers four German women as they compete to be the Führer’s personal secretary. In the span of 90 minutes, they engage in morally dubious behavior and sabotage—all in the name of public interest and national honor. If this sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is, as Salem’s script embraces eccentricity to explore themes of complicity and the desire to act in one’s self-interest.
Through 6/11: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; industry nights Mon 5/23 and 6/6, 7:30 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, firstfloortheater.com, $25-$35 ($20 students).
When the play’s central character, Hannah (LaKecia Harris), opens the show, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her as she struts across the stage in her bright blue and hot pink suit with an alluring sense of confidence and control. Soon she meets Helga (Emilie Modaff), the head secretary and Hannah’s boss, whose German pride and love for cauliflower is unmatched.
The audience is eventually introduced to two more secretaries, Helena (Sarah Price) and Henrietta (Tina Muñoz Pandya). The four women are each dressed in full Aryan drag, a bold creative choice that elevates the production’s avant-garde nature. Price’s portrayal of Helena is the highlight of the night as she fully leans into the outlandishness of her character, resulting in a shockingly hilarious and seductive performance.
Despite such a strong opening and tremendous acting across the board, The Secretaries soon loses steam. While it is marketed as a parable, the play’s fast-moving, hard-to-follow script prevents it from being easily interpreted as such. On the First Floor Theater website, The Secretaries is described as “fearsome, outrageous, and absurd.” However, the production’s pursuit of such absurdity leads to an unsatisfying viewing experience, as you may spend more time struggling to decipher what is happening onstage, as opposed to becoming invested in the characters and the work as a whole.