REVIEW: A Parallelogram (Steppenwolf Theatre)

An astonishing message from the future

       
  

Parallelogram-1

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
A Parallelogram
  
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
at
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $50  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Forgive me, but I am going to use a cliché blurb: If you only see one play this year, see Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Parallelogram.

I know. You might be put off by the title. But I swear, this is not a dramatic telling of geometric principles. It is partly a lesson in physics, but really it’s more of an existentialist drama with a science fiction tinge. Like, have you ever wondered what it  would be like if Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut got together over a bottle of whiskey and hashed out a play? Well, this is that play.

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 09 Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper.

At the top of the play, Jay lectures Bee about smoking in the house. The only problem is, Bee doesn’t smoke. Enter the other Bee (Marylouise Burke) who watches this action from a place that is beyond time. She is Bee from the future and is visible and audible to young Bee only. Sitting in a chair stage left, she smokes and fills up on Oreos while providing her own personal commentary.

How is it possible for Bee to see herself from the future? Although we as the audience must suspend our disbelief, we do get an explanation. Time, as we know it, is merely a construction of the human mind. Therefore, the moment you are born and the moment you die are the exact same moment. Taken a step further, these moments are happening right now and will happen now forever. Add to this Einstein’s theory of the universe and that parallel lines if extended to infinity would eventually intersect, and you have the answer. Okay. So it’s a little confusing. But does it matter?

Younger Bee wants the Future Bee to tell her about her life. Future Bee obliges, even using a special remote control to give Younger Bee the chance to change the present in order to influence the future. But as Future Bee continually iterates, you may be able to alter the short term, but the long term is pretty much set.

There’s also tension due to Younger Bee’s dwindling sanity, her inability to have children and a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race. It’s definitely a lot to cram into one play, but Norris is a master of economy. He consistently manages to give a scene or a conversation just the right amount of time, his pacing is impeccable and he can tie together disparate elements in a way that makes perfect sense.

 

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 01 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 03
Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 05 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 07

The acting is phenomenal. You can feel the audience get giddy every time Burke opens her mouth. She plays Future Bee with a rare sort of comedic brashness. When she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, it plays like a George Carlin stand-up routine.

Arrington pulls us into her character, making us feel the pain of knowing, knowing how relationships will end and knowing how people will die. And Irwin makes a great sympathetic jerk who wonders if his future-seeing girlfriend is God’s punishment for his past infidelities.

Director Anna Shapiro knows this material well. She comes at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieves the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play

And although I don’t often comment on it, the set design is amazing. A Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.

If you don’t already have your tickets, get them now. But then again, what is now? And if you are going to see it, doesn’t that mean you’ve already seen it or that you are seeing it right now? Who knows? Whatever the case may be, go see this play.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

 

       

      
     

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Fruit Tree Backpack (Clove Productions)

The non-art of relationships

 

fruit tree backpack

   
Clove Productions presents
   
Fruit Tree Backpack
   
Written by Barrie Cole
Directed by Eric Ziegenhagen
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through July 17th  |  tickets:  $12  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Playwright Barrie Cole loves to play with words and conceptual themes like a child loves to play with Legos. In Fruit Tree Backpack, a tiny, taut and daffy trilogy, now onstage at side project theatre, her characters like to do the same. Clove Productions has teamed up an excellent cast and Eric Ziegenhagen’s simple direction keeps out of the way of Marisa Wegryn and Michael Kessler’s subtle and satisfying comic interaction.

“In the Middle of the Night” begins with a whacked out, out-of-the-blue project—or is it? It’s the midnight discovery of one’s partner/roommate wrapping an orange in packing tape and claiming its worthiness as a new and original piece of art. It’s the kind of thing that happens in the middle of the night—due to too much pot, too much time on one’s hands or too little sleep. When the partner declares it as a project worthy of repetition—wrapping oranges in packing tape and sending them to all her friends without explanation—then you know it’s either an idea that borders on artistic conceptual madness or is just, simply, mad.

“Intimacy” deals with a couple at the subtle heart of friction in their relationship. One believes the other has not been smoking for months, while the other reluctantly reveals, once on vacation, that he has been faking his abstinence from smoking all the while. Wegryn and Kessler successfully pull comedy from the situation for all its worth. That, or there are too many people out there who identify with this dilemma completely. But Cole’s writing quickly gets to the sulking heart of the matter. “Intimacy is such a burden, don’t you agree?” says one partner. But is the burden still worth it?

“Research” happily takes us to the netherworld of an ending relationship. I say happily because Cole’s humor never leaves deadened space in the relationship between these two characters and the cast’s teamwork to keep the scene light and resiliently firm and unflagging. One character just wants to be friends, but the other doesn’t know what that “friendship” is, what its boundaries will be, or what kind of support it will give for the future. One just wants to let it play out on its own and the other needs something graspable or definable. This is the charm of Cole’s work: even when uncertainty threatens to bring misery or instability, her characters still try to retain some kind of upper hand through the use of language. It’s inventive and loaded with emotional meaning, yet never overplayed by the actors. They are just two people breaking up, that’s all and, for all that, the world is not ending for them or for us.

      
      
Rating: ★★★
   
   

clove-productions-logo

REVIEW: Madeleine Remains (Clove Productions)

How an epic fail can destroy a delicacy

 

clove productions poster

  
Clove Productions presents
   
Madeleine Remains
  
Written by Michael Martin
Directed by Shannon Evans
at the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through July 17th  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Michael Martin’s new one-woman play, MADELEINE REMAINS: In Memory, A Wife of Genius, is quite a casual production at the side project theatre in Rogers Park. Not that that’s a bad thing. A certain community sensibility pervades the scene at Clove Productions. A feeling of comfort, casualness, and ease exudes from the presence of madeleine remains close friends, family, and long-time theatre compatriots in attendance. This is intimate theater in Chicago in the warm summer air. Here, new works in progress receive a low-key reception, profoundly appreciative of small and delicate work.

Directed by Shannon Evans and produced by Clove Productions, small and delicate is precisely how one should describe Madeleine Remains. It could also be called fine art comedy, since its humor is as ornate and fine-spun as filigree silver jewelry.

The wife of Andre Gide is explaining her life as the simple, unadorned and introverted muse of a modern literary genius. She is also the turn-of-the-century wife to a deeply closeted gay author. His love for her is of a heightened spiritual kind that has no need for earthly passion—or so he tells her when they marry. He even writes love letters to her, which he claims are his finest literary creations. Too bad the ethereal romance of their marriage shows its feet of clay when Andre runs off for a long romance with 16 year-old Mark. This leads Madeleine to burn Andre’s spiritual love letters, but not before she has committed each and every one of them to memory.

One would think this kind of monologue would be burdened with melodramatic histrionics. But Martin’s writing is more cunning than that and in Ariel Brenner he has an actress precisely cast for the role. Brenner has captured Madeleine’s every quiet, unimposing introverted tic and created a comic tour de force with her perfectly timed execution of Martin’s lines. It’s as if Brenner had invented “Less is More” with her exacting portrayal of Madeleine’s subtle personality and exquisitely demur ego.

Sadly, on the night I witnessed the production, an epic fail overthrew all that exquisite work. Brenner stalled right in the middle of the monologue, visibly retreated into her chair, and simply could not recover. A generous and ardent admirer from the audience took her hand and led her from the stage so that she could collect herself. Brenner returned to the stage, the rest of the script in hand, and picked up about where she had left off, relying on the script the rest of the way.

It’s truly difficult to assess the rest of Martin’s work from these unfortunate circumstances. Much of the well-established comic timing that Brenner had slain with was lost. Near the end, Madeleine remarks to the audience that she could recite the content of Andre’s love letters to them, but she refuses to do so until the audience comes to visit again. The ending seemed strikingly flat compared to such a light, bold, and promising beginning. Perhaps Martin would not like to imitate the writing style of Andre Gide by reproducing such an infamous lost text in his script. However, it would be nice to know what Madeleine thinks of a love that is based on airy nothingness—whether she thinks it greater or lesser than the earthly kind.

  
   
Rating: ★★