The Dressing Room
Playwright: Kunio Shimizu, translated by John K. Gillespie
The $30,000 Bequest
Playwright: adapted by Alexander Gelman from the story by Mark Twain
At: Organic Theater Company at the Ruth Page Auditorium, 1016 N. Dearborn
Phone: 800-595-4849; $29
Runs through: April 8
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
When most theatre companies die, they never rise again. Chicago's Organic Theater, that pioneer in the Off-Loop Theatre movement in the 1970s, is the exception, its history a chronicle of several resurrections following on periods of dormancy. The latest claimants to the legendary name have assembled, by way of introduction, an eclectic program of four plays, currently running in rotating repertory.
These plays include artistic director Alexander Gelman's adaptation of Herman Melville's short story, Bartleby The Scrivener ( source of the famous refusal 'I would prefer not to,' uttered by an insubordinate servant with cataclysmic results ) , and Eugene Ionesco's absurdist Man With Bags, along with the two that I attended the inaugural weekend: contemporary Japanese playwright Kunio Shimizu's The Dressing Room, and Gelman's adaptation of a Mark Twain story entitled The $30,000 Bequest.
Shimizu's 1977 existential drama recounts the observations of four actresses backstage during a production of Chekhov's The Seagull. One of them is the aging leading lady, still cast as the ingenuous Nina, despite being 'nearly 40.' Two others are 'prompters'—anonymous understudies positioned onstage near the principles to feed lines to the latter if such assistance should prove necessary. The fourth, however, is a former prompter who has chosen this night to pay her embarrassed colleagues a visit from the sanitarium to which she was committed for her violent behavior after cracking up on the job.
The discussion sparked by this real-world intrusion on the illusory world of theatre-as-metaphor incorporates speeches from familiar western dramas such as Shakespeare's Macbeth and lesser-known ( to American audiences ) Asian 'classics' like Miyoshi Juro's Slashed Senta, in addition to the aforementioned Chekhov's Seagull and Three Sisters. But while it's not implausible for actors-as-characters to discourse in an artificial manner, John K. Gillespie's stilted translation imposes an obtrusive formality on conversations meant to be casually colloquial, compounding the didacticism of Shimizu's philosophical ruminations on women searching for their 'eternal roles.'
Under Gelman's direction, however—and Terrence McClellan's mirror-and-veil scenic design—the quartet of Patricia Skarbinski, Meghan Shea, H. Lynn Kendziera and Jessica Webb embrace their potentially soapy personae with verve, compassion and humor ( especially Shimizu's satirical replications of 'pre-' and 'post-war' performance styles ) , their industry so transcending cultural differences that we share unreservedly in the elation of the moment when, literally, sisterhood triumphs over the threat of emotional isolation.
Mark Twain's cautionary fable presents far fewer obstacles, being the tale of a poor but contented husband and wife for whom notification of 'great expectations' promptly inspires obsessive fantasies approaching folie à deux. Gelman's adaptation is noteworthy for its retaining every word of the original text, even to the 'He said's and 'She replied's. But never for an instant does the stage picture, visual or aural, languish in torpor. Josh Anderson and Jessica Webb, as the naive couple—supported by utility player Joel Stanley Huff—sprint through their paces with agility, even during a sequence requiring them to swap repartee while kicking up their heels in a frenzied ragtime dance, choreographed by Deborah Robertson to the uncredited, but perfectly-selected, score of dixieland jazz.
Debut productions, like debut novels, have the advantage of leisurely gestation, and it remains to be seen if the re-born Organic Theater can sustain the high level of quality to be found in these 'calling-card' productions. For now, however, the outlook is optimistic for the welcome return of this venerated Chicago institution.