Tag: Aaron Weissman
Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival
|Dog & Pony Theatre presents|
|Dead Letter Office|
|by Phillip Dawkins
directed by David Dieterich Gray
at Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18 | tickets: $17-$22 | more info
reviewed by Barry Eitel
The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.
Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.
The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.
Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.
The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.
It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.
Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.
Perpetuating denial through the company we keep
|the side project presents|
|People We Know|
|by Robert Tenges
directed by Adam Webster
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through June 6th | tickets: $18 | more info
reviewed by Robin Sneed
There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.
The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.
Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.
Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.
Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.
Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.
The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.
In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.
Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.
The curious case of Jennifer and June
|Dog & Pony Theatre presents:|
|The Twins Would Like to Say|
|Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through April 25th (more info)
reviewed by Catey Sullivan
Note: This review was originally published on March 1 on Chicago Examiner.com
Just like the titular twins, you can’t escape mirror images in The Twins Would Like to Say. With Dog & Pony’s innovative examination of the curious case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, ever-shifting halls of mirrors offer both literal reflections of the twins’ lives and a metaphor for them.
Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley, the staging for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series was inspired by the Gibbons twins, born in 1963. As children, the pair made a pact to do everything in absolute unison, and to speak with no one but each other. Extraordinarily, they succeeded for 20 years, all but entirely silent outside the confines of their bedroom, despite the frustrated efforts of their parents and a cadre of psychiatrists who remained utterly stumped. When separated, the twins became catatonic.
Their lives are whitewashed a bit here – June and Jennifer’s lengthy criminal records, tragic incarceration and Jennifer’s early death are glossed over in a dreamscape of stylized movement. Yet from the lookalike parrot puppets that open the show to the two simultaneously played sorrowful scenes that end it, The Twins Would Like to Say is cryptic, playful and innovative.
Bockley’s deft at intermingling sadness, beauty and sound (if you saw Boneyard Prayer, you don’t need us to tell you that). de Mayo’s ability to configure a story into non-linear, non-traditional formats received a well-deserved and high-powered spotlight with Dog and Pony’s The Vivian Girls, which she devised and directed. Together, the pair constitutes a dream team of unexpected storytelling.
The Twins Would LIke to Say is theater as a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an ever-shifting funhouse maze where reality is warped and the line separating fantasy from reality is fluid. By using a promenade staging, Bockley and de Mayo ensure the audience is an active part of the story – Rather than sit back and watch as they might with traditional stagings, ticket holders have to participate, moving from room to room as the scenes progress.
The audience’s entrée through the lookingglass is Mr. Nobody (Nick Leininger, a winning mix of the sinister and the sympathetic ), who ushers the audience behind a curtain with the flourish of a side-show huckster keen to have the audience to learn about some strange unknown world rather than just gawk at it.
The first visual we get of June (Paige Collins) and Jennifer (Ashleigh LaThrop) is both spooky and enthralling. Standing stock still at the dead end of a long hall, the girls stare out with dead eyes, an adolescent vision of those twins from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”
The promenade structure isn’t without drawbacks. Among them: You’d have to see the piece at least twice to take in it all in. See it only once, and you’re forced to choose between scenes. Eavesdrop on the twins’ psychologist (Kasey Foster) trying to make sense of their behavior, and you become keenly aware that you’re missing what’s going on elsewhere, as dialogue floats in from some unseen periphery. No matter how deft the performances or compelling the action, you’re often left wondering if you’ve made the right choice – and if something more interesting is going on just around the corner.
That shortcoming is especially evident in the final scene, when the audience is split in half and divided by an opaque black curtain. Too say that missing half of the piece’s conclusion is immensely frustrating is an understatement.
That aside, the performances in The Twins Would Like to Say are marvelous, cryptic, playful depictions of people living in a world that’s half stylized fantasy and half brutal reality.
Collins and Ashleigh are wonderful, giggling and whispering in their room like teenage girls the world over up; silent, sullen and above all fearful whenever they’re forced to contend with the outside world. As their taunting, eerie classmates Kathryn Hribar and Teeny Lamothe are cruel and typical teens, shrill voices and nasal giggles evoking a thousand mean girls nightmares. (In real life, Jennifer and June were bullied so badly, their school allowed them to leave 5 minutes early, so as to get a head start on the kids who wanted to beat them up.)
As the twins mother Gloria, Millie Langford is the kind, patient, enabling opposite of the twins father Aubrey (Brandon Boler), whose tough love cruelty results in a cacophony of torment when the twins are forcibly separated.
To depict the intricate fantasies that June and Jennifer spun by filling journals full of elaborate fictions, de Mayo and Bockley stage plays-within-the-play, bringing the pulp fiction storylines and outrageous sexuality of such dubious works as “The Pepsi Cola Addict” and “Discomania” (Dan Stermer’s disco choreographer is absolutely delicious). Andrea Everman’s shadow puppets also make the twins’ stories pop with vibrance. All seen in silhouette, a snarling dog, a dying boy and a bereaved father takes on emotional resonance rich in childlike poignance.
The Gibbons lives are by no means completely rendered here, but that hardly matters. What we do get in the 60-minute production is a chance to enter an alternate universe of intricate storytelling.
The Twins Would Like to Say runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted. Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore (our review ★★½) and Pavement Group’s punkplay (our review ★★★) is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.
Thursday, April 9
God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz
3111 N. Western Ave., Chicago
Don’t miss this special evening of reflection and discussion with the creative team of God’s Ear. Following the performance, please join the cast and crew for pizza and beer and participate in an intimate and animated discussion of the work. God’s Ear is a heartbreaking work that uses unconventional structure and language while exploring a couple’s relationship as they mourn the death of their son.
Show begins at 8 p.m.
Event begins immediately following the performance
TICKETS ONLY $20
For reservations call 773.296.6024 and mention “Theater Thursdays.”
Midwest premiere directed by Artistic Director Krissy Vanderwarker.
The Cast: Gina D’Ercoli, Jeff Fisher, Luke Hatton, Faith Noelle Hurley, Teeny Lamothe, Elizabeth Levy, and Mike Trehy.
For a complete list of upcoming Theater Thursdays, click here.
All Theater Thursday postings sponsored by this fine entertainment accessory retailer.