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‘The Compass’ points in a winning direction for Steppenwolf Young Adults show

You really have to hand it to Steppenwolf Theatre. A year after its wholly misguided (if controversy-generating) Young Adults production of “This is Modern Art” the company has produced another world-premiere show, “The Compass,” that corrects all the errors of that earlier work in the most creative and productive ways.

Rather than preaching all the wrong messages, this show, devised and sharply directed by Michael Rohd, opens the theater up — both on stage and throughout the audience — allowing those on both sides of the “fourth wall” to engage in free, open, honest and unbiased debate about a multitude of important contemporary issues.

The jury assembles in “The Compass,” a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Courier)
The jury assembles in “The Compass,” a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Courier)

‘THE COMPASS’

Highly recommended

When: March 4, 5, 11 and 12

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20 ($15 with student ID)

Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org

Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

At issue in this story, which is set just a few years in the future, is nothing less than the question of whether free will and personal responsibility can survive in a society so obsessively drawn into, and swayed by, social media outlets and the algorithms that drive them. Of particular concern is the use of a new fictional app, The Compass, devised to relieve people of decision-making, or at least to tell them what, based on all their previous interactions with such technology, “would be” (as opposed to “should be”) their choice of action in a given situation.

The Compass app is the brainchild of Ada (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), a mathematician/designer, and her associate, investor/businessman (Tim Hopper). And it has now become a tool for 16-year-old Marjan (Ariana Burks, a fine actress whose beautiful face registers emotion with unimpeachable truth), an exceptional high school student with an activist mentality who is outraged by the aura of violence and lack of safety she feels in her neighborhood school.

When Marjan’s provocative story about “how to bring a gun to school” is banned from the high school newspaper, but posted online, there are unexpected consequences. To prevent what she believes will be true disaster, and “supported” in some sense by the Compass app, as well as by her friend, Chaz (the zesty Johnathan Nieves), she calls in a fake bomb threat about a backpack left at the school — an action that causes its closing, and all the collateral chaos. This action also results in criminal charges being lodged against Marjan, who, if found guilty, will receive a mandatory sentence of two years in an adult prison.

In scenes that alternately operate in real time and as flashbacks, we learn about the circumstances of the case, and then witness the trial, where Cheryl Lynn Bruce (as the prosecutor) and Sean Parris (as Marjan’s defense attorney) do their incisive questioning and make their powerful final arguments.

At several junctures along the way, eight skilled “facilitators” (Lindsey Barlag Thornton, Bryan Bosque, Jasmin Cardenas, Melissa Duprey, Krystel McNeil, Abby Pajakowski, Emilio G. Robles and Alejandro Tey) lead the eight groups (into which the audience has been divided) in further discussion. Along the way, many of the mitigating factors and arguments about the case are raised. And those facilitators later become the onstage jury whose views are well and strongly scripted, with Pajakowski supplying a particularly notable bit of comic relief.

Cruz Gonzales-Cadel and Tim Hopper play the forces behind the powerful app in “The Compass,” a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Courier)
Cruz Gonzales-Cadel and Tim Hopper play the forces behind the powerful app in “The Compass,” a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Courier)

Rohd, a Northwestern University faculty member and author of the book, “Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue,” drew on material gathered from a series of free events held by Steppenwolf during the past couple of years that were designed to engage multi-generational audiences in a dialogue about what goes into making a decision, and “how we are each guided by our own moral compass.”

NOTE: Although most of the performances of “The Compass” are for school groups, there are four more weekend performances remaining for the general public).