Exquisitely designed, passionately produced –
despite thin source material
|TUTA Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
I last saw TUTA Theatre when I reviewed their 2014 production of The Jewels, an adaptation of a story by Guy de Maupassant. TUTA’s latest, Gentle, is also a story adaptation, this time of “A Gentle Woman” by Dostoevsky. As a company, TUTA has an exquisite sense of design – everything from movement to music to set is breathtaking and innovative. However, the source material leaves a lot to be desired. I haven’t read “A Gentle Woman,” but if I never see this type of story on stage again it will be too soon. Gentle is so beautifully designed, lovingly produced and well-acted, it almost makes me forget that the story itself isn’t much. Almost.
The 90-minute play, both adapted and directed by TUTA’s Founding Artistic Director Zeljko Djukic, centers around a nameless pawnbroker (Tom Dacey Carr) who makes a comfortable living buying and selling others’ prized possessions. One day, he encounters a young immigrant woman (Dani Tucker) who is scraping by through selling her worldly goods and relying on the kindness of strangers. The pawnbroker decides he wants to marry the young woman, but his motives are far from kind. Little by little, he breaks the girl’s spirit and drives her to extremes, while his maid Lukerya (Lauren Demerath) looks on with a dry sense of humor and horror.
In this day and age, where our President has openly bragged about sexually assaulting a much younger woman, it’s difficult to watch an older man emotionally abuse an 18-year-old girl. And one would argue, not necessary, when all we have to do to see similar acts is look at a newspaper or open Facebook. Sometimes I question why a company chose a particular work above all others, and I ask this question with Gentle. Why this story? Why this subject matter? Though the pawnbroker seems slightly redeemed at the end, it’s almost not worth the 85 minutes it took for him to get there.
Story and script aside, Gentle is beautifully and passionately produced. Assistant director Aileen McGroddy has a gift for movement (I recently saw her work in Emerald City Theatre’s The Snowy Day) and thanks to her staging, the nonverbal sequences pop. Scenic designer Kurtis Boetcher and costume designer Natasha Djukic create a stark, stunning effect – black and white with pops of bold colors – like a prison crossed with a jewel box, a deeply appropriate reflection of the pawnbroker and his ego. Director Djukic has assembled and guided a terrific trio of actors: though Carr’s pawnbroker is unlikable, he’s extremely compelling, even charismatic. Tucker resembles a young Brooke Shields and her melodious voice and quiet intensity are striking. And Demerath delivers witticisms and commentary with excellent comic timing and a spot-on Russian dialect.
Not all theater is comforting or comfortable – art can, will and must challenge. However, Gentle doesn’t appear to have much of a point, nor does it dig especially deep into its antihero’s psyche. Thankfully, the material is elevated through stellar production values and first-rate performances. Once again, TUTA Theatre fulfills its press release promise of “characteristic sophistication and inventiveness.”
Gentle continues through March 26 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $25-40 for adults and $20-35 for students/seniors, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Tutato.com. (Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission)
Photos by Austin D. Oie
Original music performed by Sasha Mirikovic (viola) and Natasha Bogojevich (piano and Orchestra Metamorphosis)
behind the scenes
Zeljko Djukic (director), Aileen McGroddy (assistant and movement director), Wain Parham (music director), Natasha Bogojevich (composer), Kurtis Boetcher (scenic design), Natasha Djukic (costume designer), Keith Parham (lighting design), Jeffrey Levin (sound designer), Letitia Guillaud (props designer), Andrew C. Donnelly (stage manager), Evan Hill (dramaturgy), Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach), Helen Lattyak, Keith Parham (production managers), Aileen McGroddy (graphic designer), Austin Oie (photographer)