REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

Dead Pile - XIII Pocket Theater - banner

        
        

Artists

 

Cast

     
  Justin James Farley Jeremy
  Allie Long Nance
  Andy Lutz R.J.
  Mark Minton Russel
  Chip Davis Boss

Production Team

     
  Megan Shuchman Director
  Paige Smith Asst. Director
  Tim Schoen Co-Lighting Design
  Janna Webber Co-Lighting Design
  Michael Dutton Stage Manager
  Courtney Jones Costume Designer
  Christopher Kriz Sound Designer
  Mike Mroch Scenic Designer
  Dustin Pettegrew Props Designer
           

Playwright Bio

Laura Jacqmin’s plays have been produced and developed in Chicago by Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago Dramatists, the Goodman Theatre, Around the Coyote, Collaboraction, and the side project; and in New York by the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Atlantic Theatre Company, Ars Nova, Second Stage Theatre, Joe’s Pub, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Page 73 Productions and The 24 Hour Plays Off-Broadway. Her original comedy Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (our review ★★★) premiered in Chicago in summer 2010 to great acclaim, and will be remounted at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, February 24-March 26. Jacqmin was the winner of the 2008 Wasserstein Prize, a $25,000 award for an emerging female playwright. She is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and a member of the Goodman Theatre’s inaugural Playwrights’ Unit, and is currently working on commissions from the Goodman, Arden Theatre Company, InterAct Theatre and the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project.

        
        

One Response

  1. Wow…way to rip it to shreds. I saw the place this weekend and actually thoroughly enjoyed it. I can understand a few of your criticisms, however I think the overall message and execution were wonderful. I have seen a few of XIII Pocket’s plays and really love the fact that they don’t do the cookie-cutter crap that I see in so many other young companies in the city. I found the play to be engaging, the actors on point and the script a wonderful piece of new work for a very talented young artist. I wish you had a more open mind, but I guess critics usually don’t.

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