CHICAGO — Do pedophiles deserve sympathy if they don't act on their urges?
That's the cringe-worthy question awaiting the audience of the one-man show "A Virtuous Pedophile," one of 50 performances set to overtake Jefferson Park during the Chicago Fringe Festival running from Aug. 30-Sept. 10.
The play unleashed a torrent of outrage on social media after the festival published this year's list of shows. Its head-scratching title was enough for some neighbors to condemn it, but the play's description is even more provocative: "Can liberals accept that pedophilia is a legitimate sexuality?"
One of dozens of global offshoots of the 70-year-old Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Chicago festival intentionally promotes outside-the-box, avant-garde theater by choosing its plays through a random lottery instead of screening them.
Actor and playwright Sean Neely said he is not a pedophile and insisted that his play doesn't advocate or condone sexual abuse; instead it explores an "online community" of adults who abide by the law despite being visited by sexual thoughts about children, he said.
"The majority of these people are in no danger of offending, but they're quietly suffering because there's no open door to ask for help without being shunned," Neely said. "So for me personally, I thought there's no better forum than the theater to talk about this in a matter-of-fact way."
A self-described "stay-at-home dad" with two children of his own, Neely has a penchant for putting on one-man shows that make audiences squirm. He's portrayed a white supremacist in one performance and a serial rapist in another, he said.
The shows are "an effort to explore crimes from the perspective of the perpetrator, instead of the victim, which is what a lot of theater does," Neely said. "It's an exercise in empathy and an experiment in belief."
Still, "A Virtuous Pedophile" touched a nerve among the nearly 1,000 followers of the Facebook page Residents Against Upzoning at 5150 N. Northwest Highway, an online forum of neighbors opposed to a controversial mixed-income housing complex that was proposed earlier this year.
Group members have called for a boycott of what they call the "Fringe Pedophile Fest," writing that the event and its supporters — particularly 45th Ward Ald. John Arena, a frequent target of theirs — are complicit in promoting the taboo.
"Does anyone believe that by giving this fest your money or attention that they will stop promoting this 'fringe' agenda?" the group's administrator posted on Friday. "Don't reward what you don't want to continue. What would be on next year's lineup?"
But offensive art is a far cry from incitement, according to Chicago Fringe Festival Director Anne Cauley, who said on Monday that her staff takes "serious preparations to make sure everything in the festival meets federal, state and local law."
"We do not allow illegal activity in our festival, but that doesn't mean illegal behavior can't be represented in our shows," Cauley said. "The arts for all time have been exploring uncomfortable situations. You don't look at 'Game of Thrones' and say 'That must mean HBO condones rape.'"
Arena, who led the effort to bring the festival to Jefferson Park, took to Facebook on Saturday to address the outrage.
The alderman wrote that the play's "deeply offensive and repugnant title ... crossed a line for me and many of our community members."
But while Arena vowed to skip the show, he defended its spot in the festival, writing that "ultimately, the best response to art we find disgusting and offensive is to reject it in the marketplace of ideas."
That wasn't enough for one commenter, who called for a change to the festival's random lottery system.
"A better response would be that the Alderman is looking into removing the show altogether, and investigating how it made into the lottery in the first place," said a commenter on Arena's post. "I don't think you can get any more passive than 'I won't be viewing this provocative show.'"
But to Cauley, any effort to filter the festival's subject matter would cut against the Fringe's founding commitment to "uncensored and unjuried" art, she said.
"The spirit of the Fringe when it was founded is to create a space where artists can experiment and test out new work, even if people find it surprising," Cauley said. "We encourage people to go out there and find something that interests them. It's going to be an awesome experience, and I wouldn't let one show impact the way you view the whole."