DWARFED BY COMPARISON
Curious Theatre Branch
Beau O’Reilly is a lucky man. He has not one but two of the sharpest actresses in town playing the leads in his new play, Dwarfed by Comparison. Lisa Black and Marianne Fieber, playing the quintessential sibling rivals Trixie and Alice Dashinski, put everything they have into bringing this script to life. Any actor in town could learn something from watching these two women work.
O’Reilly certainly hasn’t laid out an easy course for them. His play moves back and forth between farce and psychological realism as Trixie and Alice try to navigate their way through and ultimately out of their absurdly dysfunctional family. Their mother Lucy (Beth-Ann O’Reilly-Amandes) can understand her life only insofar as it is reflected in television sitcoms from the 50s and 60s (she named her daughters after characters in The Honeymooners). Their father Sydney is a drunken, lascivious slob who constantly mumbles vaguely discernible vulgarities. He is such a cartoon that he is portrayed simply as a huge, horrifyingly comical bloated head (a puppet exquisitely designed by Blair Thomas and manned by Peter Reinemann).
Trixie and Alice have been scarred by their family in opposite ways. Trixie, who manifests a chronic skin disorder that seems to be eating her alive, is a chain-smoking alcoholic avant-garde theater artist. Alice, who practices her tap routines as though her life depends on it, is constantly cleaning up everyone’s mess. By presenting his play in two distinctly different styles at once, O’Reilly gives Black and Fieber a run for their money. One moment Trixie is huddled nervously in the corner, scratching her infected back against the kitchen wall while shouting invectives at her hated mother; the next she is offering a generous hug to her mother at a funeral. Alice goes from tap-dancing on the kitchen counter to get her family’s attention to sitting quietly in a bar and sharing her feelings with Gus the Waiter (Reinemann).
Both actresses meet the challenge. Their remarkably flexible performances make clear the precise level of reality the play is on from moment to moment, and they imbue their characters with a complexity and humanness that sets them apart from their one-dimensional family.
O’Reilly’s warring theatrical styles create an accurate picture of family life: one moment an outrageous comedy, the next a made-for-TV movie. But while the structure adds a certain texture to the play, the two styles remain so distinct that it’s difficult to tie all the intriguing fragments together into a unified whole.
Black and Fieber are supported by a strong cast, which also includes Jennifer Cozzi and Mark Comiskey. John Coyne’s continually surprising set, with flats and platforms that alternately spin, fold down, and open up, ingeniously solves the dilemma of creating half a dozen locations in a space as cramped as the Curious. It’s delightful to see so much intelligence in one production.
Doorika is the only company in town I know of that continually works to understand the psychological impact of history–consisting sometimes of recent or even current events. Such an endeavor could be a dry academic exercise, but in Doorika’s hands it becomes a passionate quest. Their fourth original theater piece in Chicago, Satellite Babushka, continues this exploration, juxtaposing Russia in the 1860s (a decade after the serfs were freed) with America in the 1970s (a decade after the establishment was almost toppled).
The presentation of these two worlds is quite straightforward, with the Russian scenes taking place in a conventional playing area in front of the audience, while the American scenes are hidden in small, partially obstructed pockets around the room. The Russian scenes present something of a conventional narrative in a self-consciously Chekhovian style, as everyone waits around for the family estate to be sold. (The characters even seem to be standing in Chekhov’s famous cherry orchard; the stage is full of already-chopped-down trees, braced against the ceiling beams in order to keep them standing. The American scenes are more fluid and ambiguous, a series of evocative non sequiturs–disguised as ordinary conversation–about depression, love, perfection, and sexual frustration.
It is no surprise that the American scenes work beautifully, as these scenes embody the kind of work that Doorika has been doing successfully since arriving in Chicago nearly two years ago. The Russian scenes, which represent a new direction for this company, seem a bit unfocused by comparison; the series of plots that develop among four aristocratic young Russians are hinted at rather than fully theatricalized, and since the scenes’ underpinnings aren’t clear either, it’s hard to figure out what the performers intend us to focus on.
The show draws an interesting parallel between these two moments in history, both of which were preceded by an enormous cultural upheaval that offered the promise of a truly egalitarian society. But instead of experiencing a feeling of liberation, the characters seem to experience paralysis and emotional deadening.
Satellite Babushka would be a challenge to any actor, as Doorika’s theatrical language is extremely dense and idiosyncratic. The performers who have been with the company longest seemed most at home on the stage. Lisa Perry, in her third show with the company, set the standard, providing an enormous emotional undercurrent to the Russian scenes and an equally affecting emotional absence in the American scenes. Casy Spooner, in his second appearance with Doorika, followed Perry turn for turn, but he hasn’t quite developed the technical range to take the lead. In their first appearances with Doorika, Marianne Potje and Jim Rodney turned in thoughtful and poised performances, although they have yet to develop the kind of flexibility needed to follow the contours of this difficult work.