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‘Hellcab’ takes a different direction for Christmas pageant

Director Darrell W. Cox (left) actor KonstantKhrustov discuss 20th anniversary producti“Hellcab” Profiles Theater Chicago. | Andrew A. Nelles ~ Sun-Times

Director Darrell W. Cox (left) and actor Konstantin Khrustov discuss the 20th anniversary production of “Hellcab” at Profiles Theater in Chicago. | Andrew A. Nelles ~ Sun-Times Media

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♦ Through Dec. 23

♦ Profiles Theatre at The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway

♦ Tickets, $35-$40

♦ (773) 549-1815;

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:12PM

Back in the ’90s, “Hellcab” was the Energizer bunny of the late-night theater scene.

It opened in the fall of 1992 — scheduled for only 12 performances at Famous Door Theatre. Ten years later, Will Kern’s story of a Chicago cabbie and his fares during one long Christmas Eve ride finally ended its amazing run.

“Hellcab” began with very low expectations and no budget; the set consisted of four chairs on stage to approximate the seats in a cab. Eventually, a real cab was squeezed onto the stage after Famous Door realized the show wasn’t going anywhere.

“It was quirky, interesting and off the beaten path,” recalled Dan Rivkin, artistic director of the now defunct Famous Door. “For a full year, we packed our 100-seat theater at Jane Addams Hull House. When we moved the show to the 500-seat Organic Theatre, it packed the house there too. No one was more surprised than we were.”

Now Profiles Theatre is getting behind the wheel of “Hellcab” for a 20th anniversary production directed by the company’s artistic director Darryl Cox. Of course, there will be a real cab on stage, but instead of six actors playing more than 30 characters, Cox has cast an actor for each role, making for a very crowded backstage area at the small storefront theater.

“We wanted to do something different with the show,” Cox said. “The thing that Will does so well in the play is capture the diversity of the city, and I think some of that is lost when actors do multiple roles. With this group of actors, it’s like you’re truly experiencing Chicago.”

Two-dozen plus vignettes make up the 80-minute “Hellcab.” The only consistent character in each scene is the cabdriver, played by Konstantin Khrustov, a 27-year-old actor in his first major stage role.

“I enjoy being able to show what this guy is going through and the hurdles he has to overcome,” Khrustov said. “He is trying to make the world a better place through conversations with his fares but is not as successful as he wants to be.”

Kern thinks the play, which has been produced all over the country, endures because “people feel a great empathy for the driver.”

Cox admits that the play’s legendary status is something he hopes the Profiles production will live up to but in a new way.

“With a show like this, one with such a rich history, there is a certain pressure to stage a knockout production and that is our goal,” Cox said. “We want to make it an interesting and new experience for everyone who saw it in the ’90s as well as for those who have never seen it.”

While “Hellcab” is a play about loneliness, it’s also a very funny play. But above all it’s “about a man who is desperate and searching for some kind of connection, some kind of human contact in his life,” Kern said. “And I think that is something everybody can connect with.”

Kern, who now lives in South Korea and teaches at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, based the play on his own experiences as a cabdriver in Chicago: “Roughly 85 percent of the play happened to me, and the other 15 percent are stories I heard from other drivers.”

He started driving a cab when he couldn’t find other work and debts were piling up. The hours were grueling — 16 hours a day on weekdays, 10 on Saturday and eight on Sunday. “I lasted seven months and never took a day off,” Kern said. “I hated the hours but I did get out of debt. I guess I got kind of obsessive about the job.”

In “Hellcab,” the cabbie’s long day begins at 6:30 a.m. when he picks up a born-again couple on their way to church and continues with a dangerous trio of druggies, a piggish businessman, a benumbed rape victim, a drunk women, a smug lawyer, a randy couple and two boisterous New Yorkers ready for a night on the town.

It is the rape victim who still lurks in Kern’s memory.

“I picked her up very late at night at the end of a long day,” Kern wrote in an email. “She showed me the police report, I asked her why the police didn’t take her home and she said she didn’t know why. That always bothered me. She was black and reeked of alcohol. I’m sure that’s why, and it was cruel and unfair.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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