Dust that was a city

“99 Histories” surprises even the playwright with directorial magic.

Greg Corradini

Cecilie Keenan doesn’t like to direct kitchen-sink television dramas.

Instead, the Chicago-based freelance director enjoys productions that allow her to pull out all the tricks and trapdoors and make the experience what it should be – theatrical.

In Julia Cho’s new play “99 Histories,” opening tomorrow at Theater Mu, Keenan had the chance to flourish her wand and reinvest a play with her magician’s hand.

“99 Histories” investigates the past of 29-year-old Korean-American Eunice (Jeany Park).

Wayward, depressed and pregnant, the former musical prodigy moves home to confront her mother Sah-Jin (Maria Cheng) and her own past.

Cho’s play is a time-shifting narrative that moves rapidly between the past, present and abstract, licensing poetic strides and rich imagery that Keenan can play with freely.

In a scene of the present, Sah-Jin argues with Eunice about her nomadic lifestyle. The scene then shifts to a young white man ironing his shirt.

Eunice tells her ex-boyfriend in New York that she is departing, and as her past tends toward a dream state, the scene shifts again to her writing a letter to her unborn baby.

To make this imagistic continuity work, Keenan drew on her visual background in dance and deaf theater, which is image based.

“Transitions are actually a very strong point for me because I just really love scrims, trapdoors and puppets,” Keenan said.

She went further and compared Cho’s script to looking at a piece of expressionist modern art rather than a more representational style. Keenan said looking at a performance in this way helps promote fluid transitions.

But “99 Histories” didn’t only provide Keenan with transitional magic.

Keenan said her work with Cho allowed the playwright some insight into her characters and the blind spots of the creative process.

“That’s what’s fun about new scripts. You really don’t know what you’ve written until someone else looks at it. I’m sure (Cho) will have some moments where she’ll go, ‘I had no idea that was that way.’ “