Review: Arms and the Man (ShawChicago)

     
     

A well-acted, comedic pretend!

     
     

Arms and the Man - poster

  
ShawChicago presents
  
Arms and the Man
  
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
at DCA Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $10-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A young girl is enchanted by war.  Her plan for survival is to close her eyes and cover her ears.  When the enemy advances through her window, she must rethink her strategy.  ShawChicago presents Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.  In a Bulgarian village, the Petkoffs are treated like royalty.  They have wealth, servants and a library.  Their pampered lives have them glossing over the bad stuff… even war!  The arrival of a tattered soldier into their home changes everything.  At first, the armed man is a harbored rebel.  When he returns to the house, he’s a dark, secret indiscretion for mother and daughter and an honored guest to father and fiance.  Who is the chocolate cream soldier really?  Arms and the Man is a witty make-love-not-war farce.

As is the ShawChicago tradition, Arms and the Man is billed technically as a staged reading.  A staged reading has no costumes, no sets and no physical movement.  And actors read from the script and don’t interact with each other. As often is the case at ShawChicago, Arms and the Man falls closer to ‘play‘ than ‘staged reading.‘  Under the direction of Robert Scogin, the talented ensemble use vocal stylings, facial expressions and limited gestures for powerful impact.  With ‘noble attitude and thrilling voice,‘ both Jhenai Mootz (Raina) and Ian Novak (Sergius) are hysterical exaggerated versions of the upper-crust.  Shiny-eyed optimist, Mootz charms with her amusing grandiosity.  Staying within his small designated space, Novak throws s a magnificent red-faced, body convulsing tantrum.  Kate Young (Catherine) is animated with elegant sophistication and natural animosity.  When her husband muses that ‘Raina always happens at the right moment,‘ Young zings the one liner with a droll ‘yes, she listens for it.’  Christian Gray (Bluntschli) ends the show in tears.  Gray is beautifully swept up in the romantic moment and weeps.

It’s Gray’s and the others’ level of character interpretation that pushes Arms and the Man away from ‘staged reading’ and up the spectrum to ‘play.‘  The entire cast performs magic.  Sure, in the beginning, it’s a bare stage with music stands holding scripts.  But as the actors connect on an in-depth level with the audience, theatrical imagination produces the window, the bed, the chocolate creams.  The charade constructs the majestic house on the hill.  You see it because the actors feel it.  Arms and the Man is well-acted, comedic pretend!   

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

George Bernard Shaw writing

ShawChicago’s Arms and the Man continues at the DCA Studio Theatre, 77 E. Washington, through May 15th, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm; Mondays at 7pm.  Running Time:  One hour and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are $10-$22, and can be purchased online or at the door.

  
  

Review: There Is a Happiness that Morning Is (Theatre Oobleck)

  
  

A witty, cerebral look at love in all the wrong places

  
  

Diana Slickman, Colm O’Reilly and Kirk Anderson in Theater Oobleck’s “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is”. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

  
Theatre Oobleck presents
  
There Is a Happiness that Morning Is
   
Written by Mickle Maher
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: pay what you can  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

The college watches two people have sex on the quad.  Shocking… especially because the public intercourse is between teachers who will enter courses the morning after.  Theatre Oobleck presents There Is a Happiness that Morning Is. Two poetry professors consummate decades of collaboration. The next day, they acknowledge the super-sized P.D.A. in very different ways.  A barefoot Bernard is in full bloom with twigs and leaves sticking out of his hair and pants.  He poetically states ‘I happy am‘ but wants to apologize for the visual spectacle.  A pulled together Ellen owns the intimacy to her class but not necessarily to Bernard.  And she absolutely refuses to ask for pardon from the college. They teach unrelated but related lessons on William Blake’s poetry.  Discourses of ‘Infant Joy‘ versus ‘The Sick Rose‘ probe happiness and dark secret love.  The Colm O’Reilly and Diana Slickman in Theater Oobleck’s “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is”. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.separate verses are interrupted by the college president’s twisted reveal. There Is a Happiness that Morning Is is a witty, cerebral look at love in all the wrong places.

Playwright Mickle Maher pays homage to 18th-century poet William Blake with this show.  Maher builds the action from two characters’ interpretations of two different poems.  It’s living verse as the professors reflect on their intellectual and physical connection to the words.  As an Oobleck practice, the story unfolds without a director.  The devised piece works with the cast’s obvious synergy in storytelling.   Looking like Timeout’s Kris Vire’s brother, Colm O’Reilly (Bernard) is hilarious using his fornication as education.  A starry-eyed O’Reilly teaches a lesson in ‘at last I am this poem.’  Diana Slickman (Ellen) counters O’Reilly’s flowery romanticism with no-nonsense practicality.  Slickman’s drollery entertains with a he-said/she-said discourse.  Overlapping lectures set in different times are particularly amusing as he pours his heart out and she takes attendance. In an opposites attract way, O’Reilly and Slickman’s mismatch heightens the humor.  Kirk Anderson (James) surprises with his arrival and adds another kink(y) to the lovemaking.  Anderson deadpans his buffoonery with lighthearted results.

‘Love makes all the difference. With love, all things are better.  Love makes a magic zone.‘  Poets write about love.  Poetry professors interpret the meaning of love… from their own personal experience. There Is a Happiness that Morning Is is a clever, intellectual love lesson.  Although avid readers of poetry will sustain a higher level of pleasure, this course is a stimulating perusal for anyone! 

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Diana Slickman, Kirk Anderson and Colm O’Reilly in Theater Oobleck’s “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is”. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

There Is a Happiness that Morning Is continues through May 22nd at the DCA Storefront Theater, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are pay-what-you can ($15 donation suggested), and can be reserved online or by calling the box-office at 312-742-TIXS.  Show running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.  More info here.

        

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REVIEW: Carmilla (WildClaw Theatre)

  
  

WildClaw starts the year with fang-tastic Gothic treat

  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

  
WildClaw Theatre presents
  
Carmilla
  
Written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Adapted by
Alyrenee Amidei
Directed by
Scott Cummins
at
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Purist fans of J. Sheridan LeFanu might curl their toes in horror over the liberties taken with his novella “Carmilla in WildClaw Theatre’s latest action-packed production, now onstage at the DCA Storefront Theater. But then, not knowing any LeFanu purists, just revel in this adaptation’s delightful mix of classic gothic style, self-conscious and knowing humor, insightful take on relationships, energetically executed fight scenes (Scott Cummins and David Chrzanowski) and–oh yes–lesbian vampires.

In our Buffy-Twilight-True-Blood saturated culture, you’ve seen vampires, you’ve seen lesbians, you’ve seen lesbian vampires–that’s entertainment. But WildClaw’s production, under Scott Cummins’ direction, cunningly returns audiences to the original dangers of women loving women, plus the wild danger inherent in giving oneself over to love, period.

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront TheatreYoung Laura (Brittany Burch) is on the cusp of womanhood, passing her days at her father’s (Charley Sherman) rural schloss with only her governesses Madame Perrodon (Mandy Walsh) and Mademoiselle LaFontaine (Moira Begale-Smith) for feminine company. Amusing as the older women are, Laura craves a companion for which to socialize. The visiting and slightly amorous General Spielsdorf (Brian Amidei) has a ward, Bertha (Sara Gorsky), who just might fill the bill. However, word of her sinking into a mysterious illness cancels any chance of Laura making her acquaintance and draws the General away to see to his ward’s care. Laura faces her disappointment stoically, as well as the teasing Perrodon and LaFontaine give her on being a prospective match for the General. Living where they are, few options exist from which to choose a mate who could appeal to Laura romantically. She accepts that any marriage might have to be sensibly arranged for her future security more than anything.

During a family outing in the moonlight, a carriage careens by and almost crashes—three strangers emerge from the accident, a veiled woman, a younger woman who has collapsed and a servant in an eye patch. The veiled woman (Erin Myers) seems mysteriously familiar to Laura’s father but she refuses to reveal her identity. She only discloses that she must hurry on to take care of business critical to their family’s welfare, but doesn’t dare to take her weak daughter any further on the journey. Laura’s father offers to take the girl in for the three months the woman requires to secure their future. So it is that Laura becomes friends with the strange and fascinating Carmilla (Michaela Petro), who has seen Laura’s face in a dream, just as Laura has seen hers in a similar dream.

Cummins’ direction strikes a steady and creative balance between building eerie tension and swinging into bursts of action that enliven the storyline and push the plot forward. Beyond the excitement of fight scenes, the play’s interjection of gypsies, either at play or at mourning, work to disrupt the close, fever/dream relationship between Carmilla and Laura, as well as suffuse the play’s atmosphere with foreboding, unrelenting superstition. Superstition is gospel among this play’s lower orders, but its upper class characters are never far from its infecting influence. Dr. Hesselius (Steve Herson) seems at times as helpless as any medieval physician—resorting to bloodletting as part of Laura’s “cure” when she falls under the same wasting illness that takes Bertha’s life.

But more to the point, Burch and Petro successfully capture the delicate sensuality that was an intricate part of 19th century genteel women’s relationships. Even before Carmilla begins to put the moves on Laura, their relationship wobbles along a fine line between friends and lovers. Carmilla may have seduced others, but she invests earnest passion more in the chase than in the conquest. As for Burch, she skillfully renders Laura with all the befuddlement of a young woman who, besides not knowing about the birds and the bees, simply cannot know or imagine the emotional impact overwhelming love can have. Carmilla dominates Laura from the possession of greater knowledge and experience and maintaining the mystery about her.

     
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

Aly Amidei’s script has taken the best of LeFanu’s poetic text and interwoven it with a clearer feminist impulse. Carmilla comes across as more of an intellectual in this play than she does in LeFanu’s novella. Carmilla’s story also benefits from Amidei integrating 19th century beliefs about suicide leading to vampirism and the dead needing to be staked down so that they do not rise and prey upon the living. The men who come after Carmilla, the General and the Ranger (Josh Zagoren), strike the exact note of righteous masculinity prevailing against the disorder of a feminine fiend. Going after vampires is not without its humorous moments, though, and these are well played by Herson and Sherman.

Having so much going for it, it’s disappointing when instances of amateurism plague the show. There were times I simply loved Bertha (Sara Gorsky), Carmilla’s earlier prey-turned-vampire, prowling the countryside like a feral beast, only to watch her animality go over the top in other scenes. Carmilla’s occult powers over Henri (Scott T. Barsotti), her competition for Laura’s affections, also strained credibility and made his departure to go hang himself more laughable than convincing.

All in all, though, Wildclaw shows real dedication to intelligent horror entertainment. Audiences won’t be fed the same old vamps but something that evokes the rich subtly of women in close personal relationships. They will also find Charlie Athanas’ special effects and the sound design of Mikhail Fiksel and Scott Tallarida well paired with LeFanu’s language, rounding out Carmilla as a good, solid gothic treat.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

 

     
     

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REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

 Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 002

   
Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 006 Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 005

The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 003

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Theater Thursday: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire-DCA Theater)

 Thursday, September 2nd

 
  
Hideous Progeny
  
LiveWire Chicago Theatre 
Written by
Emily Dendinger
At the DCA
Storefront Theater
66 E Randolph, Chicago
   

hideousprogenyEnjoy the world premiere production of Hideous Progeny then join LiveWire Chicago and the Progeny creative team for a post-show discussion on the mezzanine of the Storefront Theater for tea and desserts. It was a dark and stormy night in a house by the lake, when Mary Shelley famously took up her host Lord Byron’s challenge to write a terrifying story and created Frankenstein, one of the most famous novels in the Western canon. Witty, salacious, and often melodramatic, Emily Dendinger’s world premiere play directed by Jessica Hutchinson depicts the larger than life romantic figures as the normal teenagers they were – overeducated, egotistical, and ready to change the world.

Show begins at 7:30 p.m.   Event begins at 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $20

For reservations call 312.742.8497 and mention "Theater Thursdays," or visit www.dcatheater.org.

   
   

REVIEW: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire Chicago)

The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama

  LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_01

   
LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents
       
Hideous Progeny
  
By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_05 Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.

It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.

Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.

Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.

The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.

Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.

Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.

Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)

 

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There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.

While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.

Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.

If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle.  The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_08 Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.

Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.

Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.

In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

 

  

        
        

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 002

   
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 Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 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.

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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.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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