Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

A Still Life in Color
TUTA (The Utopian Theatre Asylum)

Jacqueline Stone, Jeremy Glickstein and Alice Wedoff
In early 1999, auditioning for the part of Bobby in the U.S. premiere of Sondheim's Saturday Night at Chicago's Pegasus Players, college freshman Philip Dawkins' reading so astonished producer Arlene Crewdson and director Gary Griffin that Crewdson remarked "I want to be his agent. I could retire on what he'll make." (I observed the exchange while on assignment for The Sondheim Review). Dawkins went on to win the part and earn rave reviews, but to the detriment of Mrs. Crewdson's 401K, he stopped performing and turned to play writing instead. He's still astonishing, though. A Still Life in Color, a philosophical fable told in a mock kabuki style is an impressive display of talent from this 25-year old writer.

The play is a fairy tale about the young prince (Jeremy Glickstein) of a kingdom called "Crevatia" that sits in a valley and is becoming engulfed by a nine-year flood. His only companion during the rains has been a girl (Jacqueline Stone) who loves him but whom he has ignored. "How hard can it be to notice the only one you see?" she asks. A second girl (Alice Wedoff) arrives after adding story after story to her own house to escape the flooding until her home is eventually is as high as the castle, which sits on the highest peak in the valley. The second girl and the prince fall instantly in love, much to the heartbreak of the first girl.

The girl played by Ms. Stone is aided by a wizard (who is also the narrator) who coaches in magic. She must choose her spell wisely. She can either enchant the prince into loving her for the short time they will have to live before the rain engulfs them, or she can stop the rain, which she hopes will earn his love. She chooses the latter and the while the prince is grateful, her good deed is not effective in redirecting his affections. She returns to the Wizard (Mike Driscoll) who explains to her that while her magical powers have run out, "real magic is an unnecessary part of real magic." Ms. Stone's character uses logic and fear to separate the Prince and his love for centuries, each on "opposite peaks of (the valley's) tiny mountain and gigantic hill," keeping them alive but frozen at their current ages. Eventually, she relents and frees the two because "all (her) places to run have run out." The lovers are reunited briefly but die as time catches up with them.

It would be easy for a piece of this nature to be excessively artsy and pretentious, but this one isn't. The kabuki-style narration and staging play jokes on themselves and the characters combine contemporary slang and attitude with classical sounding language. Bits of stage "magic" that clearly aren't magical add to the irony. Director Zeljko Djukic and cast keep a fast pace and a light tone ... never pressing either the comedy or the poetic elements too hard. Martin Andrew's set design cleverly uses kabuki elements like sliding screens and wooden platforms and, together with Natasha Vuchorovich Djukic's costumes, set the piece clearly in kabuki-land.

A Still Life is filled with ideas, but the chief theme seems to be the role of growth and change as necessary parts of life. Can "still" life actually still be life? Before the arrival of the girl he comes to love, the prince announces his intention to suspend himself in the current moment. After the "non-real magic" spell of the odd-girl-out is cast, the prince and his lover are stopped in time against their wills. They never change, grow older or die, but they're not really living either. When the spell is broken, they lose their innocence, age and die. A recognition of the nature and the inevitability of aging may be less recently learned among audiences out of their twenties than it would be for those of Dawkins' age. Still, it's a theme worth revisiting.

Still Life may suffer from a few too many ideas, an excess of wisdom dispatched in proverbs, and it may be some fifteen or twenty minutes longer than it should be, but Dawkins' wisdom, facility with language, and ability to deliver this all in a clever and funny package make him a most promising playwright. A Still Life in Color is the type of piece more likely to find a regular place in the repertories of colleges and regional companies than in the commercial theater, but regardless of whether Dawkins makes millions for himself or an agent, audiences will do well to invest some time in following his career.

A Still Life in Color is performed at Chicago Dramatists Theatre, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue, Thursdays through December 18. Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. (no show on Thanksgiving). There will be an industry/actor night Sunday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. For tickets, call 847-217-0691.

Photo: Andrew Rothenberg

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