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.

     
     

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REVIEW: Medea with Child (Sideshow Theatre)

When the Goddess devours her own

 

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Sideshow Theatre Company presents
 
Medea with Child
 
by Janet Burroway
directed by Jonathan L. Green
at La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston  (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Medea With Child by Janet Burroway confronts the shallowness of modern-day existence still under the burdens of sexism, racism, age-ism, and nationalism; only these age-old fault lines are compounded further by contemporary image obsession, especially as political manipulation. It’s also a play about a (supernaturally) powerful woman reeling over lost love, lost youth, lost dignity, and, therefore, needing no more pretenses regarding motherly devotion. Sideshow Theatre Company clearly has too much fun with this material, yet they are simply co-conspiring with the playwright’s fast-paced, satirical wit and inspired juxtapositions.

MedeaWithChild4 Based on Euripides’ classic play The Medea, Media (Sojourner Zenobia Wright) acts out as the ultimate, ethno-folkloric Mommie Dearest—slaughtering her children in revenge against her husband’s infidelity and his total sociopolitical displacement of her. Burroway keeps the theme of Media’s barbarism completely intact from the Ancient Greek original but stretches its metaphor of the total stranger to its outer limits. Perhaps even more than Euripides’ heroine, Media is the eternal sister outsider.

Rising mythically out of Africa’s primordial depths, Media’s expansive, magical perception of reality extends far beyond normal human experience. As a result, she lives in the perpetual state of no one ever really getting her. She can talk on and on to slippery politico Crayon (Richard Warner) or to wayward husband Chasten (John Bonner)—but no one truly understands what she is saying and thinking.

Indeed, given their own total self-absorption with image and all its ramifications, no one around Media may even be trying. This establishes to some of most sublime contradictions in the course of the play. Glossy (Nicole Richwalsky), Crayon’s daughter and Chasten’s new secretary/squeeze, proclaims herself a feminist and claims Media as her feminist icon. But she is wrong on both counts. Media is not a feminist; her powers do not come from feminism–they come from a more primal place and go well beyond anything so dry as feminist political theory. She is what every feminist wishes she could be—especially the old school, Second Wave warriors who claimed witches for their feminist role models. Likewise, Glossy’s upstaging of Media in her affair with Chasten could hardly be recognized as a feminist act. Indeed, Glossy seems more fascinated with Media’s celebrity feminist status than any actual empowerment for herself or other women. When all is said and done, she basks in Media’s reflected glory by bedding her husband.

It’s a fine example of Burroway’s wry, twisted wit winking through the dialogue. Sisterhood is powerful; but not when young feminist sister stabs sister in the back because she has a mistaken idea of what feminism is. It may be completely mute in the company of men who have no interest in contradicting Glossy and every interest in moving Media aside for a brand, new (post-feminist?) order. It’s not just that the prospect for women’s empowerment goes down the tubes. Puerility replaces substance; swapping out Glossy for Media is like substituting The Runaways with The Spice Girls.

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By no means is that the limit of this play’s comic scope. Indeed, several viewings might be needed to savor every flavorful drop of its juicy, wicked goodness. Director Jonathan L. Green has assembled a superlative cast, all evenly sure and subtle in their delivery. As Media’s children, both in their play and their prognostications about mother, Fairies (Andrew Sa) and Murmurous (Lea Pascal) have the sacrificial victim thing disturbingly down pat.

So much meticulous attention has been given to every detail in performance and design each moment brings new discoveries and revelations. Joshua Lansing’s set design not only provides versatility, it places surprises in every corner. David Hyman’s construction of Media’s costume alone deserves an award and Wright certainly wears it well. She may be a killer, but girl knows how to bring the Hoodoo Mama chic!

One thing remains peculiarly striking, however. For all the humorous and inventive ways Burroway plays with the myth of Medea and Jason of the Argonauts, Media remains comparatively serious and unable to use humor as her weapon or shield. Wright’s portrayal of Media is nothing but fiercely and sensually witty, but Media herself seems unable to step back and realize the laughable ridiculousness of Chasten’s mid-life-crisis affair with shallow Glossy. In having Media feel too much and without ironic perspective, Burroway preserves the tragicomic nature of the play—exploring, as she wishes, the dark psychodynamics of enmeshed anti-motherhood and love’s betrayal. But is she, consciously or unconsciously, re-inscribing a humorless proto-feminism in the character of Media?

At the start of the play, Crayon holds up a list of possible options for the outcome of the story, in the hope that this time no one would have to die. I didn’t see a palimony option on that list. But palimonied freedom for Media and custody of the kids for Chasten and Glossy would be a completely different play, shifting the myth from tragedy to tragicomedy to comedy. The kind of 5th century BCE political comedy that made Aristophanes famous–wherein the hero, through his trickster nature, overcame his opponents and got everything he wanted. Is Media, for all her dark power and mystical nature, still not a trickster? Does that kind of comic ending still only look good on men and not on women?

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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