In one of the more confounding uses of wasted soda pop since the Insane Clown Posse began spraying concertgoers with Faygo in 1993, Sideshow Theatre continues its 2012/2013 season with the Chicago premiere of Jason Grote's "Maria/Stuart." The comedy drama, which explores themes of family secrets, the occult and all sorts of forbidden love, while boasting fine performances from Ann James (as mentally disturbed eldest sister Sylvia) and Susan Monts-Bologna (Grandma Ruthie), is ultimately a tone deaf clunker.
While it's hard to imagine how the incest motif could ever be funny, one mustn't forget that a wealth of creative types have launched successful careers out of finding humor in the taboo ("South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone immediately come to mind).
I've wondered at several intervals across Chicago theater's middling 2012/2013 season whether my ennui stems from specifically bad direction, or a general choice of weak source material. Out of respect for Director Marti Lyons, I will award the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter in this case.
In press materials, Lyons describes the plot of the play as follows: "On the surface is the family, a dynamic recognizable to all, but underneath lurks the abuse, lies and conflict, all compressed into something so powerful it explodes into a supernatural creature."
Even before the curtain went up, so to speak, I failed to find that summary compelling. And in the ensuing two hours (with one intermission), the literal mess that unfolds onstage mirrors the script's endemic chaos.
As the story opens, the titular Stuart (Sideshow Ensemble member Nate Whelden) is on the phone with first cousin Hannah (Artistic Associate Scottie Caldwell), excitedly detailing plans to sell the movie rights for a graphic novel project he has undertaken. Stuart is the offspring of tightly wound neurotic Marnie (Jennifer Joan Taylor), while Hannah calls agitated Martha Stewart wannabe Lizzie (Mary Anne Bowman), "Mom."
Lizzie and Marnie are the guilt-ridden younger sisters of Sylvia, a veritable boatload of pain and idiosyncrasy betrayed by the hook hands with which Sylvia manages to deftly eat snack foods throughout the play. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sylvia, the favorite of the women's never seen father, may or may not have been sexually abused by her adored parent.
In fact, with the exception of Stuart, invisible men are a huge focal point of the play's dramatic tension. The sisters' father has died long ago, yet his possible malevolence lingers above them all, living through the oddly timed emotional outbursts of the sisters.
Marnie has recently separated from her husband, Stuart's father. Lizzie makes reference to her own barely tolerated spouse, who never appears onstage. Hannah dates a man named Rocco who is conspicuously absent every time she seeks a getaway from uncomfortable family situations.
Is this the reason that Stuart becomes the channel through which these frustrated women direct their energies and appetites? It's possible that it could have been interesting to contemplate the answer.
But instead, large and terrible philosophical questions are trampled by inexplicable, oddly rhymed slapstick and physical comedy. This promises the neat resolution of an "I Love Lucy" episode rather than ongoing existential deliberation. It is of no credit to the production that at the conclusion, I was left with only two questions: 1. Do they spill this much soda and throw this much food at every performance? 2. Whose thankless task is it to clean the mess?
Suspension of disbelief becoming increasingly impossible, I turned my attention to the performances of James and Monts-Bologna, standouts in a confusing, off-putting debacle. The character of Sylvia could easily have been rendered a one-note freak, but in James' hands, she is a heart-tugging mix of innocence and pathos. Monts-Bologna, looking very much like a contemporary Cloris Leachman in her stage garb, brings elements of that actress' comedic timing to the table.
It is telling that I audited the production a mere two days after the official press opening. In addition to my companion, the two seated ushers, and myself there were not more than half a dozen paying customers. The word is out. This is one to miss.
"Maria/Stuart" runs through May 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 773-975-8150, or visit the Theater Wit website.