High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Awooo! Werewolves of Birthday: Strange Tree Group's Mr. Spacky, The Man Who Was Continuously Followed

As you may have noticed, we at the Telecommuniculturey don't usually need an excuse for a night out. So, naturally, it being my birthday, we decided to doubly indulge with a tasty dinner and a night at the The-ah-tah. Plus, delicious, delicious ice cream pie

I'd originally wanted to try the Dining Room at Kendall College, because I'm a firm believer in both education and gluttony. However, their only reservation was for 6 PM, which would have been pushing the 8 PM curtain for the show. We may, instead, try to go to the Monday night dinner when the chef from Courtright's is on the menu, as it were. We went to Courtright's for the second of our second anniversary dinners (our first two anniversaries having been on Sunday and Monday, when many fine dining establishments are closed, forced creativity on our parts—also, see above re: gluttony), and we had a great evening, despite my skatewing tasting of ammonia.

Anyway, we wound up at West Town Tavern. That's not exactly a hardship under any circumstances (Fried Chicken Monday Nights! With Biscuits!), and it happens to be very near the Chopin Theatre, which is where we were headed afterward.

We were headed thusly because I had seen a poster for Mr. Spacky, the Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves in the window of a business up in Lincoln Square. Both the design of the poster and the title caught my eye, and I actually noted and remembered the theater name and checked their website to find out more about the play. (Obviously this was last week, before senility officially set in.)

I've actually been on a hunt for a show to take my niece to for her birthday, but 13 (13?!?) is kind of a rough age. Having now seen Mr. Spacky, I'm actually not ruling out a repeat visit with her.

The Chopin, at least in the lobby spaces, is in significantly better repair than the last time I was there. (And I don't think it's entirely painful memories coloring my experience.) There are vintage sofas and chairs scattered throughout, a nice little cafe on the way to the downstairs theater, more high-end thrift store furniture in that lobby, and just plenty of pleasant spaces to sit and talk about social versus cultural controls, environmental determinism, the fallacies of libertarianism, and so on, as we are wont to do of a celebratory evening. There were also snacks, wine, and water to be had for a modest donation.

The program for the show comes in scroll form that unrolls to an 11 x 17 sheet. Rather than being hemmed in by conventions like reading from left to right and up to down or attempting to provide information in serial fashion, the sheet is smattered with has limericks, mangled limericks, and out-of-context quotations in lieu of cast and crew bios (my favorite "Can I bum a smoke/ I wish to sound like Tom Waits/ and I need a light"q, love poems to those who deserve to be thanked, and Microsoft-esque stamps promising "Now With More Wolves!" Clever, still provides the info one wants, not bulky, and fewer trees, strange and otherwise, were harmed in the making.

Because we were deep in our deep conversation (and yes, every one of the subjects mentioned above was on the list of topics for the evening), I hadn't had a whole lot of time to peruse the scroll or the smaller paper inserted inside it, which will become relevant later. Soon enough, the cast burst through the house door to inform us in song and dance that the house was open and they hoped we'd come in. Once inside, the dancer on our side of the house was tapping people to their seats. We were wily and seated our selves, so we got a "buffalo."

All the while she was literally framing herself, and I admit I was a little preoccupied with Dead Rising (we bought an xBox 360 today, and thus gaming consoles become the official gift of the Gemini birthday) right up until the band started playing the Violent Femmes ("Add it Up"; and, really, you haven't heard the Femmes until you've heard them on two acoustic guitars, accordion, and banjo) and she stood on her head inside the picture frame and provided bow-legged tap accompaniment. No, I am not making any of that up. If I do return with the niece-let, we'll have to sit at house left because I can't imagine what was going on over there.

In addition to the Femmes, the band treated us to a little Elvis ("It's Now or Never"), Tiffany ("I Think We're Alone Now," with very game participation from an audience member who got well-deserved applause), the obvious Warren Zevon (we were given direction to howl whenever cued with the word "London," which doesn't quite work out as intended, but we awoooed enthusiastically nonetheless). Just before curtain, we got the intro and just a touch of "White Wedding" to kick off the action.

The play is by Emily Schwartz, a transplant from Indianapolis (most of the Strange Tree crew seems to have escaped from central Indiana, to which I and the Bottle Rockets offer a hearty "well done!"). It is, quite frankly, demented. M and I independently thought "John Waters" (and if Kara Klein's Edwina Dumont is not deliberately modeled on some brilliant Egg Lady/Dawn Davenport hybrid, I'm going to have to revamp my thoughts on the likelihood on some arguments for paralllel evolution). Specifically, I thought, it's like Oscar Wilde directed for Samuel Beckett by John Waters. (M informs me that this is why I will never win an Oscar, though I'm unsure how the two are related.) The press release describes the set and production design as "Midwestern Gothic," which works too.

Really, the plot, and it does have one (a crucial point overlooked by many offbeat theater ventures), could be lifted from anyone at any time, from Richardson to Tolstoy to Dickens to DuMaurier to Johanssen. It involves an indeterminate countryside ravaged by an unspecified war. It has unaccompanied women of all ages in obscure locations for ill-defined reasons and almost certainly under false pretenses. It has absent fiancés, eternally disappointed lackey lovers, and a teeny tiny band.

The dialogue is rapid-fire exposition expertly interleaved with meaningful, gothic pauses. The set is at once claustrophobic and cramped and bleak and looming. The musical numbers are exactly silly enough. If there's anything at all negative to say about the play itself, it's that the action leading up the climax is so much fun, the audience participation, which leads into one of two endings, sneaks up on you and then end feels a little abrupt.

So, as a play, it's a nice, tight piece of work. And I will probably be having nightmares about being expected to direct it without ever having rehearsed, because in the wrong hands it would be an utter disaster. Fortunately, Strange Tree seems to have secured the rightest hands possible. The cast is terrific and the direction is excellent.

The downstairs theater at the Chopin is only a theater in the sense that any room can be a theater. It is, in fact, a basement, complete with support poles, acoustics-killing ceiling, and no seating. For this production, the house is set up with kitchen chairs on three banks of risers and a few armchairs and such on the floor. We sat in the center section near downstage left. This put me behind a pillar that made some of the action in the kitchen of Mrs. Dumont's cottage a little hard to see, particularly that of the eponymous "hero?" who was seated on that side through for a long while. But that was probably the worst problem in the house, which says a lot for how cognizant Carolyn Klein must have been of the limitations of the space.

The set was separated from the house on the floor by a line of baskets, crates, and so on filled with random Cracker Barrel-esque tchotckes. The set itself consisted of two levels of floor that was too rickety by half for my tastes (and a conversation with the stage manager after the show, concluded with the secret, bitter handshake of stage managers everywhere, [seriously, what you need to see starts about 2.5 min into that clip, but you do need to see it] reveals that it was also too convincingly rickety for her tastes). The lower of the two (about 6" off the floor) was the kitchen, the upper (maybe 6" above that) was Edwina's upstairs bedroom. These were each only about 6' wide and maybe 7' deep.

The kitchen had window entirely occupied by a weeping, dreary painting of the "Manor House" in the distance. Shelves artfully stocked jams, jellies, cutting boards, and colanders gave the room a close, depression-era mentality feel and that Manor House, dude, that just boded. The exit from the kitchen to the upstairs was curtained off in contrasted to the exit from the cottage (and up to the Manor House for SUGAR mwah ah ah ah ah!) was marked with a few tall, white flats that also served as the wings.

Edwina's room had a window framed by frosty birch branches at stage right, suggesting desolate, frozen grounds around the cottage. Those grounds just happened also to be inhabited by the band/servants/vagrants/wounded soldiers of unsavory reputation. The back wall didn't really exist, save for a strangely surrealist, yet representational painting of a battlefield, making it unclear whether it was a view out another window, a painting on her bedroom wall, or a signpost up ahead.

The entrance to the room, although immediately next to the entrance to exit/from the kitchen, was framed and masked differently enough that, with the help of minimal, but well-designed lighting, the separation of the two spaces was quite clearly conveyed. Really a great design and use of space that could have been a nightmare.

The cast was so note perfect (not necessarily musically, not that that's important, and not that some of them aren't, but I'm rambling now) in handling a challenging script (in the good sense, not in the euphemistic sense), that it's no surprise that the main cast are all members of the Strange Tree Company and seem to have worked with one another and with Schwartz's material before.

Jennifer Marschand (Elizabeth Lyonn, the fianceé marked for death) must have done some serious long-distance running to train for delivering that sheer volume of cheerful dialogue at that rapid-fire pace. She played Elizabeth as a mixture of Rosa Bud and Cecily Cardew with a good deal of real person thrown in. Before things went strangely horizontal with Edwina, she tried to connect with her as a best girlfriend with exactly the right amount of sincerity, rather than exhausting every opportunity for laughs. Nice singing voice, too.

Carol Enoch (Mrs. Agatha Dumont, the would-be sister-in-law, murderess in residence, crazy-priest-manipulating mastermind, and baffled mother of Edwina), in addition to her mad yoga 5k1llz (for lo! She was the head-standing obscene tapper to whom I referred earlier) stared down Marschand's breathless delivery and took pauses that could frighten Pinter. Her preferred mash up seems to have been Mrs. Danvers meets Miss Havisham and they have a voyeuristic, if frustrating day out with the "before" Anna Karenina. Giving her make up somewhere in between the band's scary-and-probably-already-dead look and Elizabeth's fresh-scrubbed face was a good move for the sake of characterization and for masking the fact that she, her "daughter," and said fresh-faced n00b are probably all about the same age.

We liked Scott Cupper in Rogue 8 and loved him here, despite lack of follow-through on the wolves front (we weren't sure whether we were supposed to howl whenever he mentioned the wolves, and the wolves rather fell by the wayside by the end anyway). He and Marschand had a nice "Nobody Outcrazies Ophelia" vibe with one another that created a relationship separate and distinct from his with either of the two ladies already in residence. Other actors and other directors likely wouldn't have bothered to set that up in what is, after all, a highly silly comedy. He also worked the multiple dimensions of crazy nicely, as he was believably hot for Agatha's chilly bod and just-ever-so-slightly-Freudian in his paternal, yet wrong affection for Edwina.

Ah, Edwina. You know how you see Jennifer Coolidge in something, and you never sure whether she is an incredibly brilliant actress, or just completely bug-fucking crazy? Well, I'm pretty sure that Kara Klein is a really good actress, but her Edwina is juuussssst a little bit over into that scary territory. Don't get me wrong, she has to be. I just . . . you know . . . would seek out the closest crowded well-lit space I could if I found myself alone somewhere with her. I'm just sayin'. She and Marschand did great physical work together in a very small (and rickety, have I mentioned rickety?) space together.

All the band members, who really are part of the cast, were great, as well. I'm disappointed that my entry on the Boxer Rebellion's Assassins is 100% Wes Clark free. I recognized him early on (although didn't place him until I grabbed the press release for the show), and he was the one with the most acting to do and the most audience warm-up, and he was great at both.

The best part of the evening, though, and the part that brings us back around to the mysterious slip of paper inside the program was the fact that the whole damned cool set, as well as a whole bunch of really nifty ceramic pieces that had been out and about in the lobby, are for sale. All the objects on the set were found and/or made by artists and contributed to the production. Sales benefit both Strange Tree and the artists. Despite the comprehensive awesomeness of the set, we seemed to be the only ones who took them all up on the offer to walk around it and view the stuff for purchase.

This is when I bonded with Amanda Dravecky, Stage Director and fellow sufferer from on-stage shennanigans and very nearly killed myself by falling from the bedroom into the kitchen, despite the fact that we had just discussed the dangerousness of the floors. Stupid cute backless shoes. A special thank you to Weston Davis, the scary man with the washboard, for saving my life. Also for promising to incorporate me into the set if I had, in fact, died. (Hey, they have a jar of real human teeth [I checked. A lot.] floating in mysterious liquid, I'd fit right in.)

Most exciting of all, we scored the incredibly awesome Manor House painting (no good picture of it, alas, but it's by Sarah McMurray, a member of the Strange Tree company and. AND AND AND my super duper awesome Bloody Soldiers painting. which seems to be by artist/photographer Lee Klawans. This is very exciting to me, after having missed out on the sparkly horse-head chair of my dreams last summer.
. Many of the pieces in the lobby, particularly the "old wallpaper" patterned mugs were gorgeous, too, but seriously, if I buy one more coffee-holding vessel, I think M may leave me.

Anyway, great show, great theater company. Go see it. And lovely birthday. Cool.

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