No woman is an island in powerful Chicago premiere
|Rivendell Theatre Ensemble presents|
Review by Clint May
Rivendell’s has certainly stepped up their atmosphere game for the second production of their "Body Politic" season. Entering the lobby, one is struck by a distant smell of chlorine and the muffled sounds of splashing and whistles. Posters that at first glance appear to offer standard poolside advice are actually cleverly disguised factoids regarding abortion in America.
That remarkable eye for detail—equally present in Joanna Iwanicka’s locker room set—and subtle messaging is appropriate and well reflected in the Midwest premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel‘s Dry Land. This is a bold new work that takes on a thorny issue with brutal honesty and surprising notes of grace and humor. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it’s all the more impressive what is achieved by trusting the actors and audience to go on this harrowingly personal journey. I had to think back to another Rivendell production—2012’s Crooked—to remember a time when a short one act involved me this deeply.
Amy (Bryce Gangel) and Ester (Jessica Ervin) are swim teammates and friends of a sort. Clear at the outset is Amy’s alpha dog ‘mean girl’ attitude and Ester’s corresponding sycophantic adoration. They’re under a lot of pressure – not just from the insane pressures of high school itself but the athletic prowess they’ll need to demonstrate to get into a good university. "There is no off season," remarks Ester, commenting not just on swimming but so much of life in general.
We are hooked from the first scene. Amy and Ester discuss the minutiae of life in their humdrum world while Amy repeatedly asks for a punch to the gut. What appears to be some kind of locker room fight club is far more disturbing. It’s one of several attempts at a do-it-yourself abortion. Ester is thrilled that Amy asked her to help over their teammate Reba (Charlotte Thomas), a woman we are assured is so badass she kills deer with her bare hands.
The future here is an amorphous blob for these girls on the cusp of womanhood. Life is all about what the weekend will hold for scoring good weed at some lame party hosted by college freshman not cool enough to break all ties with high schoolers. As one of them will admit, it’s been hard to like herself enough to even imagine wanting something in the future.
Beneath all the bullshit facades of armor and too-cool-to-care attitudes, real vulnerable hearts are beating. Amy struggles as the pregnancy progresses and her dependency on Ester grows, their post-practice locker room chats becoming accidental confessionals. The claustrophobia of the tile and unflattering fluorescent lights is as harrowing as the fear they feel at the brink of adulthood with few people to guide them and fewer to whom they’d listen.
Everything about Spiegel’s dialogue feels palpably real beyond the rather graphic crescendo we all suspect must be coming. What’s most intriguing is how willing she is to divert from the main thrust in this short time to provide scenelets that find truth and humor and compassion for these characters. One scene struck me as particularly curious. Ester practices a presentation on the draining of the Florida Everglades while Amy listens and braids her hair. The presentation discusses how the early settlers to the area didn’t find the swampiness amenable so undertook to drain the land, not caring what effect it would have on the Seminoles living in the area. It’s an oblique commentary on the kind of Cartesian control-over-nature philosophy that pervades a certain major American party that need not be named. Without giving away too much of the plot, it’s enough to say that a janitor’s (Ric Walker) duty will linger for uncomfortable moments on stage, another corollary to our own desire to ignore or sterilize an uncomfortable topic.
All of this is handled with a matter of fact attitude by director Hallie Gordon. Nothing comes off as preachy or propaganda and nowhere within hailing distance of an after school special or Lifetime movie.This is a story of a troubled young girl looking for a real friend amid a difficult time. Gangel is a marvel. She embodies all the toughness and vulnerability of a character with severe self esteem issues acting out and trying desperately to ask for help even as she scratches at anyone who gets near a wound. Ervin is her match scene for scene, a gangly girl with a faltering voice looking for acceptance and growing fitfully into a well-defined woman. Even a small part like a college freshman (Matt Farabee) entrusted with a girl’s care is played with knowing nods to the real world.
It’s again worth noting that Dry Land finds many moments of humor in its observations of teenagerdom. You don’t have to have had a traumatic high school experience to recognize the beats of life that hound these characters. The tedium of mediocrity. The desire to escape. Secrets of the flesh. Shame. We laugh and wince in self defense. Every blow lands.
Dry Land continues through May 28th at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 4pm. Tickets are $35 (students & seniors: $25), and are available by phone (773-334-7728) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at RivendellTheatre.org. (Running 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Bryce Gangel (Amy), Jessica Ervin (Ester), Charlotte Thomas (Reba), Matt Farabee (Victor), Ric Walker (Janitor), Olivia Shine, Ireon Roach, Jackie Seijo (ensemble), Marcus Barnes, Willie Goodson (understudies)
behind the scenes
Hallie Gordon (director), Ashley Neal (assistant director), Tara Kupferfer (production stage manager), Stephanie Niro (stage manager), Diane Fairchild (production manager), David Blixt (fight choreography), Joanna Iwanicka (scenic design), Aurora Klok (scenic artist), Janice Pytel (costume design), Charles Cooper (lighting design), Mary Abrecea (asst. scenic artist), Sarah Putts (original music, sound design), Cody Ryan (asst. lighting design, master electrician), Jerre Dye (lobby design), Stjepan Misetic (properties design), Carina Abbaticchio (dramaturg), Sam Moryoussef (technical director), Chelsey Echvarria, Trisha Hooper (box office managers), Michael Brosilow (photos)