Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling
|Chicago Dramatists presents|
|Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12 | tickets: $32 | more info
In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.
But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.
Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.
Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.
Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.
Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.
Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.
Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.
And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.
Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.
The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.
Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.
Marissa Wegrzyn (playwright); Russ Tutterow (director) Simon Lashford (set design); Jeff Pines (lighting); Barry Bennett (sound design); Samantha Jones (costume design); Jenniffer J. Thusing (props); Nathalie Ayala (props asst.); Emily Duffin (production manager); Emmi Hilger (asst. director).