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Chicago by Charles Eichler

On The Verge Or The Geography Of Yearning

The basic premise of On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning, which recently opened at Circle Theatre in Forest Park, defies a definition. The play, written by Eric Overmeyer and directed by Greg Kolack, uses the following recipe to concoct a 2-1/2 hour presentation: start with the eccentricities of the title characters in Travels With My Aunt and Auntie Mame, add the silliness of many Monty Python sketches, mix with a pinch of the wit of a well-written Tom Stoppard play and simmer with the broad theme of feminism throughout the centuries. The end product is a delightful, innovative play which charmed this reviewer by offering an escape into a "time warp" that gradually makes sense as the play progressed.

Circle Theatre has always been daring in offering new works instead of the staple community theatre productions in order to attract a widely diversified suburban and city audience in the Chicagoland area. In the past, original productions such as Murder Americana: People vs. Lizzie Borden, Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane?, shrubtown, as well as more traditional renderings of Nine, Hedda Gabler and The Seven Year Itch, have long distinguished Circle Theatre (located in a small storefront location) as a theatre which presents artistic challenges, both for the cast and technical support, as well as the audience members.

On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning starts off with three intrepid late 19th Century female travelers setting out on an adventure to destinations unknown. We meet them at the start of their journey, dressed in traditional Victorian skirts, packing their rugged knapsacks with a variety of provisions including climbing ropes, machetes, pith helmets, food, maps, journals, ledgers and of course, umbrellas, ready for their world-wide sojourn.

Mary, the leader of the group, played with gusto and stoical endurance by Jenni Fontana, explains that the venture is to explore the terra incognito. Alex (Kelly Schumann) appears to be the comic foil in their efforts whereas Fanny (Katie Johnston) is the delicate romantic, leaving behind a marriage and strong emotional feelings.

It soon becomes apparent that this journey is not going to be a traditional one. As the trio travels through jungles, mountains and cities (stylistically suggested in a clever setting of screens, curtains and minimal props), they transcend into the future. Along the way they discover an "I Like Ike" button; they find an egg-beater (which becomes an effective running prop throughout the show); they meet a variety of male characters (all wonderfully played by the versatile Robert Kaercher), ranging from a Mel Brook's "Springtime for Hitler" Nazi to a fortune teller to a gas station attendant. But most of all, they engage in conversation, sometimes to each other, at other times to the audience, which is a wonderful expansion of the English language, idiomatic references we know today, and anachronistic interplay. This definitely gives the play its comic impetus.

Example-
Early in act one, the three very genteel ladies decide to eat, and Fanny produces some raisin bread and what looks like cream cheese. The characters exchange:

"This is cream cheese"
"It's not cream."
"It's not cheese"

"Then, what is it?"

"Mrs. Butterworth."

At first the contemporary reference does not make sense. But the audience is constantly being bombarded in this trio's journey with allusions to Mr. Coffee, Noxema, Cool Whip, Mamie Eisenhower, etc. At one point they discover a cave (a batten hung with such things as CDs and inflatable tourist items) and they are held in amazement. The wordplay is witty, well written and appropriate for each character. The audience soon realizes that this journey is meant to transport the lives of these three ordinary women into a future they must accept and/or reject.

I'm not sure where playwright Overmeyer wanted to go with this play. The three ladies eventually end up in 1955 (no reason is given) at Nicky's Peligrosa Paradise Bar and Grill (Nicky is again played by Kaercher, who turns in a Bill Murray character as the proprietor of the place). At this point the play becomes sluggish with little definite direction. Fanny ends up falling for Nicky (they wear matching bowling shirts), Alex becomes the traditional Sandra Dee surfer girl type, and at the end, Mary leaves them, still continuing on her quest for terra incognito, although this time she sheds her skirt and is wearing female trousers.

What makes this play special is that each female performer is carefully depicted without traits that would overplay their part. Fontana is beautiful and gracious and looks like a dead on look-a-like for Glenn Close. She sparkles as the invincible leader of the group. Kelly Schumann can be frumpy and awkward, which is right on target. Katie Johnston as Fanny is a beautiful actress and carefully underplays her role until she blossoms as she realizes she has found her match with Nicky. And Bob Kaercher in a variety of roles is simply wonderful!

Production highlights on this odyssey include appropriate and interesting instrumental and vocal music chosen by Peter Storms (Sound Designer), a very imaginative set and use of theatre space by Brett Bergin Kashanitz, and effective yet subtle lighting by Kurt Ottinger. Marisa Davis' costumes are also to be complimented.

What director Greg Kolack has done is create a refreshing, charming play. I enjoyed sitting back and letting the play unfold rather than waiting for heavy exposition or character development. There is an "ease" with which the whole production is presented; the actors seem to be having fun with the script and its interpretation.

On The Verge Or The Geography Of Yearning will be presented at Circle Theatre in Forest Park, Illinois through December 15. Circle Theatre is located at 7300 W. Madison, Forest Park, Illinois. For reservations call 708-771-0700.

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-- Charles



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