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Chicago play takes on celebrity culture

A new Chicago play uses humor to take a deeper look at our obsession with celebrity culture.

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Chicago play takes on celebrity culture

The TomKat Project actors playing Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, the leader of the Church of Scientology.

Photo Courtesy of The Tomkat Project

Six actors file into a black-box theater dressed all in black.

Julie Dahlinger, who portrays Hollywood star Katie Holmes, acts out verbatim dialogue from a Seventeen magazine interview, as her overprotective family from Toledo, Ohio, tells the audience how Holmes got the leading role in the late 90s teen drama Dawson’s Creek.

Walt Delaney, as a scrawnier version of Cruise, is heartbroken after the end of his relationship with Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. He’s always had bad luck with women, Cruise and his agent explain, and he blames it on his abusive father.

These quick-paced vignettes kick off The TomKat Project, a two-act play that takes on the most public of Hollywood relationships: the marriage and divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (known as TomKat in the tabloids).

The satirical play isn’t just trying to be funny. The TomKat Project is trying to send a message about our obsession with celebrity.

The different characters in the play – 54 in total – are played by seven actors. One moment, an actress is playing Nicole Kidman. The next, she’s playing Oprah for the public revelation of the TomKat relationship that comes, of course, through the infamous couch-jumping incident.

This world of celebrity gossip is all too familiar to the play’s writer and narrator, Brandon Ogborn. He’s an improv actor and aspiring TV and film writer with encyclopedic knowledge of the movie business. Tabloid chatter is like a newsfeed for his career.

But when news of the TomKat relationship flooded every media outlet, he got drawn into it as entertainment, like so many of us do.

“I’ll have, like, Yasmina Reza plays in my bag and instead of reading those while I’m waiting somewhere, I’ll be reading US magazine about Tom and Katie,” he said.

When Ogborn started writing a play about TomKat, he thought the couple would make good comedy. The eerie Scientology rumors that surrounded the TomKat relationship gave Ogborn plenty of material to work with.

The TomKat Project is complete with humorous reenactments of auditing sessions, the routine therapeutic meetings in Scientology in which Cruise supposedly revealed very personal details to fellow church members. Ogborn made David Miscavige, the head of the Church of Scientology, one of the main characters in the play.

But halfway through writing it, Ogborn had a realization that changed his approach to his subject: He started to question why 14-year-old girls and 45-year-old women end up having opinions about things like TomKat and Justin Bieber’s haircut. And Ogborn realized he was making the same mistake as some of the public—he was buying into a tabloid version of events that probably wasn’t true, or at least was greatly exaggerated.

“You might be an A-hole for thinking what you’ve read in tabloids over the years is true about these people, and about most other human beings that happen to have jobs in film and television and also happen to be attractive,” Ogborn said.

Ogborn takes that dilemma onstage in the second act, as he plays himself. He shows himself as the narrator and writer of The TomKat Project, questioning why he believes what he reads in the tabloids and why he even wrote a play about the VIP couple in the first place.

He physically tussles with the character of Maureen Orth (played by Allison Yolo), the Vanity Fair contributor who wrote a controversial cover story about TomKat last year. Ogborn accuses Orth of trying to make a name for herself by writing about celebrities. She accuses him of trying to turn lowbrow nonfiction into highbrow theater. Ogborn escorts her out of the theater.

Ironically, Ogborn himself is making a name out of writing about famous people. The play sold out most of its run at Lakeview’s Playground Theater, and took the stage last weekend at Just for Laughs Chicago. Now it’s heading to Second City’s UP Comedy Club on June 20, then moving on to New York’s Fringe Festival in August.

A DePaul University sociology professor who specializes in celebrity culture doesn’t share Ogborn’s conflicted feelings on dishing about them. Deena Weinstein recognizes the stars are easy targets—she calls writing a play on the TomKat relationship “kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.”

But she says gossip about other people is a tradition that goes way back in time, and she sees meaning in it.

“When we lived in small societies, we could gossip about people we know. Living in the metropolitan area, we don’t know very many people about whom we can gossip but we all feel we know celebrities,” Weinstein said.

She said many people today are increasingly isolated. They live farther from their families, and they may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but only know a few of them well.

Weinstein says talking about Hollywood stars can provide a false sense of intimacy, and that can help some people feel less isolated.

Diana Buendía is a WBEZ arts and culture intern. Follow her @buendiag

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