Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery, or, Should Joel Become a Cricket?

On Saturday, R.A. and I went to see The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery. Written by Emily Schwartz, it's playing now through April 4 at the Chopin Theatre at 1543 W. Division St. in Chicago, right on the east end of Wicker Park. It's produced by "The Strange Tree Group," which bills itself on its website as, "A Wickedly Whimsical, Delightfully Devious Chicago Theatre Company." If this is their goal, then I guess that they succeeded with The Dastardly Ficus; it is both wicked and whimsical, delightful and devious.

First off, this was the first time that I had ever been to the Chopin Theatre. It looks a little out of place on Division St., with its columns and cream-colored facade on a strip shared by the dark and industrial-looking EvilOlivE bar and a towering apartment building that reminds me of the Soviet Union. Inside, the Chopin continues to be uncannily charming, with its walls painted golden and bright red, and its parlors and sitting rooms furnished with Restoration-era chairs and sofas. I would very much like to come back here, maybe during the light of day, and maybe have a cup of tea or a cocktail whilst I read the weekly journals and await for the evening post.

This, of course, is precisely the type of mindset that the audience is intended to have when entering for The Dastardly Ficus. The plot - or plots - revolves around the misadventures of two orphaned sisters, Geneva and Jennifer Derbyshire, the former played by Carol Enoch and the latter by Nancy Friedrich. The Derbyhires are a wonderful comic duo, inheriting a lot of Laurel and Hardy, a tiny bit of the sadism of Spiker and Sponge, and a lot of the surrealism of Neil Gaiman's Cain and Abel. There's a lot of violence and threat in their relationship - the cruelest of insults are hurled, relationships are sabotaged, and you're never quite sure why there are pistols and knives hidden all about their house - but there is also genuine sibling love and, perhaps frighteningly, mutual need.

The narratives of the play take place purposefully outside of space and time. We don't know how old the Derbyshires are, although we are constantly reminded (by both!) that Geneva is 13 months older than Jennifer. We don't know what year (or years) this is taking place; the antique radio that the sisters are constantly turning off and on plays everything from "If I Didn't Care" (1939) to "God's Away on Business" (2002). (More on this in a minute.) Even their accents shift from Victorian British to Connecticut Wasp to Southern Belle and back again.

To this end, then, the four vignettes that make up The Dastardly Ficus spin out like weird little dreams, ones that may occur right on top of each other, or that may take place years a part, or that may, in fact, have no temporal relationship to one another. Each scene exists within its own twisted "dream logic," that, when it works, which it does usually but not always, pulls you into the "game" with it. Jennifer brings home a severed head she found in a lake and announces that she plans to elope with it. The villains on the TV show come alive and threaten to take over the house. A tea party thrown for a not-long-expected-visitor turns deadly.

There were a few things that I thought could be improved. The screenplay's weird nature takes a while to get accustomed to, and for the first third or so of the play, the audience (myself included) were unsure how to respond to the actors (laughing at the wrong time, for example) and this struck me as distracting. I also thought that the lighting was a little distracting, often not sure what color the stage wanted to be. The acting was superb, although Ms. Friedrich has to restrain herself from stealing the scene (she gets all the best lines, the best being, when preparing for battle against an army of phantom raiders, "The ficus out ranks me?!?"), and Ms. Enoch tends to constrain herself to a too-narrow emotional spectrum (being the straight man in a comic duo is hard).

After the play, I asked R.A. what genre she would classify The Dastardly Ficus. She said, "Gorey-esque." Edward Gorey does permeate a lot of the play, especially in terms of his morbid sense of humor. This sense is reinforced throughout, from the playing of not one but three different Tom Waits songs to the constant reference to the presence of the Derbyshires' dead mother, who may not only watch over them but also commune with them and, possibly, interfere with their affairs. Of course, the music of Tom Waits also references two additional influences for The Dastardly Ficus: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (especially in terms of the twisting of logic in dialougue) and Georg Buchner's play Woyzeck. Gorey's writings are only one instance of an aesthetic and theatrical tradition that goes back at least two centuries, one that (I think) includes Gogol's "The Nose," many of the writings of Kafka, and Allan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If you're one of those who enjoy these dark and absurd stories, than I think you'll enjoy The Dastardly Ficus.

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