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.

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REVIEW: Adore (XIII Pocket Theatre)

Not your dad’s idea of a dinner date.

Adore3

Thirteen Pocket (XIII Pocket) presents:

Adore

Written and directed by Stephen Louis Grush
Through April 25th at
Steppenwolf Garage (more info)

by Ian Epstein

What is palatable theater?  Can a show about cannibalism be savory and wholesome?

XIII Pocket‘s Adore, a multimedia mix of stage and screen raises questions like these.  It’s one of three shows being performed at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre in repertory as part of their Visiting Company Initiative and it tells the star-crossed love story of Armin (Eric Leonard) and Bernd (Paige Smith). In Adore, writer/director (and Artistic Director of XIII Pocket) Stephen Louis Grush paints a disturbing psychological portrait of two men whose definitions of love converge not in the bedroom but on the dinner plate.

Adore2 Armin is a modern German citizen — and he would also lead us to believe that he’s a cannibal trapped in the body of a mild-mannered, small-town German citizen since his birth.  And it’s notable that Armin lives in a little village down the street and around the corner from a house once occupied by the Brother’s Grimm. Armin talks straight to the audience in a rambling, psychologically revealing monologue that tells his story and his character. 

He badly wants to be in love.  He has been looking for a long time – his whole life, even – but he’s never found that perfect dinner date. He explains this, mixed in with other digressions, in his monologue and at times illustrated by projections onto a gorgeous gilt-framed movie-screen.  The digressions are balanced and delivered to elicit a certain amount of sympathy for this lovelorn, anthropophagic character. Armin sees the consumption of a lover as an act of all-consuming love.

Then we meet Bernd — a tight-lipped, in-the-closet, Berlin businessman who is restless and bored with a life that he knows is enviable and a lover he knows is dedicated. Paige Smith is a brilliant Bernd, bringing a lightness to the character that even elicits laughs.  He does a wonderful job speaking in dialog to pre-shot movie footage and not having it sound affected or interruptive. At the end of the day, Bernd just really wants to be eaten.

Adore1Through the decentralized, anonymous, immaterial monolith that is the internet, Armin awkwardly meets Bernd, his true love, who is the man that he will eat for dinner.

Adore feels like it’s set in one of those dark, fraying, seldom-seen corners of the mind.  It takes all the ephemeral strengths of live theater and blends them with horror-movie-like traumatic flashes and flashbacks. 

Technically it’s very strong; Adore blends stage and screen with effortless naturalism — something that’s very often attempted but usually ends up failing.  But form aside, Adore is a show with content that’s tough to handle.    It’s technically admirable qualities emphasize the disturbing core of the story: people who willingly undertake an act of anthropophagy as love.  Adore strays inadvertently into the tradition of playwright’s like Sarah Kane or Antonin Artaud with his Theater of Cruelty, where theater is used like a violent shake to wake up a sleeper. 

Is Adore an accurate title?  Dangerous question.

Rating: ★★½