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Chicago by John Olson

Recent Tragic Events
Uma Productions

When this production was announced just over a week before the series finale of Six Feet Under and I noticed that author Craig Wright was one of the writers of that series, I wasted no time in making plans to see the play. Recent Tragic Events shares many of the qualities I enjoyed of Six Feet Under like its keen eye for contemporary life, exploration of philosophical themes and ability to move between easily between realistic drama and a more freeform style.

Set the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, Recent Tragic Events ponders the extent to which we have control over our destinies. (To help you control yours, I must advise you there are mild spoilers in the remainder of this paragraph). Andy, a Minneapolis bookstore manager (Eric Evenskaas), meets blind date Waverly (Elaine Robinson) at her Minneapolis apartment and slowly realizes that he has previously met the woman's twin sister, a New Yorker whom Waverly has been unable to reach by phone since the Twin Towers' fall the day before. Waverly has no reason to believe her sister would have been near the site of the attack, but Andy suspects he said something to the sister that may have inadvertently caused her to be at the World Trade Center that day. If she died in the tragedy, is Andy partly responsible or was it her destiny? The topic is debated by Andy and Waverly along with her slacker musician-wannabe neighbor Ron and the author Joyce Carol Oates, Waverly's aunt who visits after her coast-to-coast flight is grounded in Minneapolis and who is portrayed by a sock puppet. (Really. And the device works quite well).

Wright first makes a case for the philosophy of determinism, showing how we face many forks in our road each day, moments where our choices impact subsequent events. We can stay or we can go, say yes or no, order pizza in or go out to a restaurant. To show this he has an actor as "stage manager" announce that the cast, borrowing a technique from improv, has two scripts to perform. Their choice of script will be determined through a coin toss by a member of the audience and a buzzer will announce each moment in which the two scripts deviate. The buzzers get irritating rather quickly and their purpose is not clear until the second act, in which Wright argues the alternative philosophy of fatalism - in which all significant events are believed to be inevitable.

Wright's empathy for his characters' everyday struggle to find meaning in life - to build careers that will pay well enough yet be satisfying and not demeaning, to find lovers that will share one's values - is established through his eye for the details and ear for the language of the under- and barely-achieving middle-class as they approach middle-age. His realism is served well by Uma's production and the direction of Mikhael Tara Garver.

Elaine Robinson creates a Waverly that is both anxious and charming. As Andy, Eric Evenskaas seemed at first insufficiently spontaneous but as his performance continued I found myself increasingly impressed with how clearly he had established his insecure yet kind and well-meaning character. Paul Noble plays goofy neighbor Ron with dead-on accuracy, and Audrey Francis is priceless in a dual role as Ron's nearly speechless date and the voice of the bodiless sock puppet Joyce Carol Oates.

The relaxed, natural performances of the cast are established within a realistic environmental set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, in which the audience is entirely surrounded by the four walls of Waverly's apartment, with the luckier audience members sitting in sofas and arm chairs. Its furnishings are easily recognizable as those of an early-career professional in a rented apartment and the costumes by Aly Greaves ring true in the same manner.

All of this realism is set in contrast to Wright's explicitly theatrical devices, using the script of his play as an analogy for fatalism. Are the fates of our lives as predetermined as those of the characters in the script? Or do we subscribe to a philosophy of determinism, in which every event is caused by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences, as he would seem to be suggesting through the buzzer device? Recent Tragic Events may have one or two devices too many, but in this production, it's an entertaining and stimulating evening.

Recent Tragic Events, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago; will be performed Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM through October 15, 2005. Tickets, $15.00, are available by calling 773.347.1375, visiting www.umaproductions.org or at HotTix. There is an added industry show on Monday, September 26, at 7:30 PM. Tickets for the industry show on 9/26 are $5.00 with presentation of a resume/headshot/card.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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