REVIEW: Auctioning the Ainsleys (Dog & Pony Theatre)

     
     

‘Auctioning’ is a hard sell

     
      

Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley (standing) and Kate Kisner (seated) and Teeny Lamothe in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

   
Dog & Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Auctioning the Ainsleys
   
Written by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by
Dan Stermer
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through Dec 18  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Laura Schellhardt’s Auctioning the Ainsleys is painfully, blatantly, and delightfully quirky. Dog & Pony Theatre Company’s treatment of the play feels like it was lifted from the mind of Wes Anderson or Diablo Cody. There’re plenty of sweaters, vintage silverware, and arrested development, and the show – directed by Dan Stermer – is undeniably fun. Unfortunately, the only thing it’s really missing is dramatic heft.

Austin Talley and Kate Kisner in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building StageThe titular Ainsleys are a gaggle of childish adult siblings who live with their reclusive mother in a massive auction house. Each has some neurosis that makes them perfect for the estate-sales business the family runs. Annalee (Faith Noelle Hurley) is more than a tad OCD; therefore, she oversees accounting. Amelia (Teeny Lamothe) obsesses over matching—both objects and people—which makes her perfect for setting up the auction lots. Aiden (Matthew Sherbach) eschews all material things, so he takes care of all the polishing, cleaning, and refurbishing (or distressing if that’s what people are buying). Their world is turned upside down when their aging mother, Alice (Kate Kisner), decides to auction off the house and everything in it. The enormous sale recalls wayward daughter Avery (Rebekah Ward-Hays), whose caustic domineering ways upset the Ainsleys’ balance even more.

Schelhardt’s play is about people, but it is also very much about things. It riffs on what our objects say about us in a myriad of intriguing, charming ways. According to Avery, a smart auctioneer is not selling tangible items, but the stories behind those things. Alice has a trinket she uses to symbolize each one of her children (a teapot, a stapler, etc.). Her deceased slave-driver of a husband, a character never seen but who drives much of the action nevertheless, represented each one of his brood with a price tag.

Stermer’s production is beautifully designed. Every design aspect clicks wonderfully with every other. Tracy Otwell’s and Annalee Johnson’s playful envisioning of the Ainsley homestead stuffs the vast Building Stage space. Stermer uses it very well, carving out scenes on the various levels. Kevin O’Donnell’s amusing, jazz-inspired soundtrack is also of note, slathering on the vibraphone and woodwinds.

Schelhardt falls prey to a flaw that plagues many young writers and theatre companies in our age of indie films. The play flits along for the first act, introducing the wacky characters and their defining eccentricities. As the Ainsleys’ auctioning continues, though, there is a jarring push to explore dark family secrets (abuse, prejudice, long-lingering hatred). This is done to manufacture some stakes, but the heavy issues feel very artificial considering the first half of the play. Many of the revelations uncovered in the latter half come off as either unbelievable, a bit dumb, or insignificant. Avery harbors a deep-seated hatred for her tyrannical dad, but her reasoning seems tangled.

 

Austin Talley and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage (Left to right) Rebekah Ward-Hays, Austin Talley, Kate Kisner (seated), Teeny Lamothe and (standing, back row) Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage
Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage Austin Talley and Matthew Sherbach in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

Stermer collected a talented cast that breathes life into Schelhardt’s whimsical world. Lamothe is mousy and hilarious. Sherbach is another standout, often responding with ridiculous physical responses when Aiden cannot come up with words. Both the script and the cast occasionally fall back on unmotivated character idiosyncrasies. This includes Hurley’s cartoony hand gestures or, once he finds out Alice’s auditor (Austin Talley) is a collector, Aiden’s annoying habit of calling him a synonym of “souvenir” (knickknack, brickenbrak, curio—something that would be funny if done, like, only five times instead of five times every conversation). The best scenes, both in terms of writing and acting, are the ones between Talley and Kisner. They are sweet but weighty, peculiar but relatable, and the most dramatically interesting sections of the production. These few scenes are what the rest of the play wants to be.

Through Auctioning the Ainsleys, Dog & Pony exudes plenty of charming hipster quirk that is certifiably enjoyable. However, Schelhardt obviously wants to make some sincere comment on the cult of materialism. The message is lost in the clutter.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Rebekah Ward-Hays (right, front) and cast in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys

TICKET DEAL: Pay What You Can is available at the door every Thursday and Sunday provided the show is not sold out.

     
     

Continue reading

REVIEW: Mud (Village Players)

An update on Tobacco Road

 mud2

 
Village Players presents
 
Mud
 
by Maria Irene Fornes
directed by Lawrence Keller
at
Village Players Theatre, 1101 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
thru April 25th |  tickets: $15-$20 |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The opening action of  Mud features the character of Mae (Stephanie Ganacoplos), a woman burdened by the weight of the laundry that she carries and by the harsh conditions in which she lives. When Lloyd (Nick Bonges) enters, his role is uncertain – is he her husband, another relative, a boarder?  Bonges plays the role of Lloyd with an atavistic ferocity as bounds into the scene and stares at Mae while she irons. The scene – spare on dialogue, save for a terse exchange of expletives – crackles with a dangerous sexuality.

It is eventually discovered that Mae’s father brought Lloyd to the home as a child. He was supposed to be company for Mae and in some fashion a future spouse. However, the father died and the children were left to raise themselves in poverty and illiteracy. Mae is the first to step out and try to learn arithmetic, leaving Lloyd to animal husbandry with the pigs. What follows is an excellent exploration of servitude, poverty, and the struggle for power in domesticity.

mud Having matured without adult guidance, Mae and Lloyd are accustomed to running on instinct. Mae’s sexuality is ripening and unrequited, as Lloyd has found sexual release in bestiality. The excellent timing and nuance of the actors temper the shocking revelation that Lloyd is having relations with a pig, and we’re not meaning a female slob. When it comes to human relations, Lloyd is impotent and an unfortunate venereal prostate disease has given him a constant fever.

Mae recruits a classmate from her arithmetic class, Henry (Dennis Schnell), to read the pamphlet on venereal disease to Lloyd, which hopefully will convince Lloyd to get some medicine. Schnell’s first scene is quite funny as he portrays Henry as a pompous stiff who can read big words. Henry believes that pronouncing the words will make people believe he knows what they mean. This sequence sets up the dynamic between the three of them, making Lloyd continuously suspicious and on guard. He is more worried that his portion of food will be compromised. Mae is enthralled by Henry’s knowledge of words and they begin a sexual relationship.

Lloyd is told that he can make a pallet on the floor from newspaper. It is similar to what he does for his swine. Mae has already compared him to pigs and wished that he would die and rot in the mud. Her frustration and desire lead her to believe that Henry will free her from the dirt. Lloyd shows himself to be more astute that believed when Henry has a stroke. He has the upper hand and Henry’s care is delegated to him but both men are shown to be dependent and ignorant. They tether Mae to the house, the marital bed, and the mud.

Mud is written by Maria Irene Fornes and is featured as part of the Village Players Theatre “Women on the Cutting Edge” series. The dialogue is beautifully written and lends itself to varying degrees of interpretation. My theatre companion for the evening was disappointed the actors did not have country accents, though it could be said that the scenes prove to be much more visceral without accent – this dire situation could surely take place in urban America just as much as the boondocks. Affecting ‘country’ accents would have put too much Erskine Caldwell in the mix.  Though the action seems to take place in the 1930’s, it could be in present time as well. How often are we supposedly shocked at tales of lurid sex and unusual relationships on the evening news? Or worse, inured to tabloid adventures of the local citizenry (especially if they’re famous!).

Kudos to Annalee Johnson for her set design and props – both superb. The props look authentic down to the washing bowl made of distressed zinc. I cringed every time the character of Lloyd would soak a rag in the water and suck on it to cool his fever. Though counterintuitive, it takes talent to create a palpable feeling of dust, sweltering heat, and despair in the set design.

Applause is due to director Lawrence Keller for excellent staging and pacing of what could have been melodramatic or overwrought. This series is dedicated to showcasing women writers or women characters with an edgy sensibility. Mae is a woman on the edge and punching her way out of an untenable situation. The ending left me shaken even though I knew what was coming. The actors created a fever pitch unsullied by self-awareness. All three actors were amazing and completely consumed by the characters. The surprise was that they could shake off the characters to smile when they took their bows.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

“Mud” plays through April 25th at Village Players Theater 1010 Madison Street in Oak Park. Call the box office at 866-764-1010 or go to www.village-players.org for ticket information. The theater is easy to reach by public transportation or Metra. It is worth the field trip to the suburbs.

"Mud" stars Nick Bonges, Stephanie Ganacoplos, and Dennis Schnell. Designers include Annalee Johnson (set/props) and Emma Weber (costumes). Kelly Herz is stage managing.