REVIEW: Fruit Tree Backpack (Clove Productions)

The non-art of relationships

 

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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: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Spin (Theater Wit)

Theater Wit opens new space on a dark note

 

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Theater Wit presents
 
Spin
 
By Penny Penniston
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
Thru June 5  |  Tickets: $25 (suggested donation) |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"I know you’re watching."

That phrase repeats over and over again in smart new play, Spin, as characters break the fourth wall and address the audience in a series of creepy monologues that compel us to consider life as art and everything we do as theater.

Wit_Spin_9_72dpi The solidly acted and impeccably staged world premiere by Penny Penniston, directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, inaugurates Theater Wit’s terrific new Lakeview home. Theater Wit confusingly calls this somewhat murky black comedy, Penniston’s first play since the 2000 time-travel romance now then again, a "modern-day farce." It’s often funny and sometimes absurd, but don’t expect slamming doors, mixed-up bedrooms, mistaken identities or lightweight humor.

Set in a modern bachelor pad, designed by Jack Magaw, that effectively illustrates what one character describes as a "Pier One explosion," Spin follows Brent, a 40-ish advertising creative in mid-life crisis. Played by Coburn Goss in an Alan Alda-ish vein, Brent’s out of work, recently divorced and questioning the reality of his life. He also has the hots for a gorgeous, teenage homeless girl whom he’s just "rescued" from a fight with her would-be radical boyfriend.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and old friend Redge, now heading his own agency, recruits Brent for a beer campaign. Joe Foust gives the soulless Redge just the right level of slime. They bring in self-made sports figure Ruby Jones (a cross between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods) — the slightly stiff Austin Talley – as a spokesman, and create a campaign aimed at a demographic oddly like Brent himself. But an unfortunate viral video and Brent’s unraveling self-image intervene.

The murkiness comes in most strongly with the troubling Lolita-like character of the homeless teenager, Danielle. Is she opportunistic or exploited? Alice Wedoff’s diffident portrayal leaves us guessing, and the role just gets ickier as the play progresses.

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Danielle’s boyfriend, Aaron (played with puppyish avidity by Michael Kessler) relies on her to feed his ego. Brent deludes himself into thinking she’s 19, when she’s really much younger. Redge takes out-and-out advantage.

She adds little to the play’s themes other than shock factor, though, and it would be a far funnier comedy without her, and particularly without her Act II monologue. Although they address interesting concepts, the introspective monologues obscure the humor generally — and sometimes feel like add-ons meant to stretch a one-act play into a full-length show.

Yet when the dialogue pokes fun at modern memes and 21st-century life, this comedy shines. Lance Baker’s wonderfully understated performance as Jack, a dry-witted account executive offhandedly commenting on the action, forms the highlight of the play. Elements like these overcome the tired tropes of crazy creative, materialistic ad man, impractical idealist and avaricious slut, and make Spin well worth watching.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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