Chicago Theatre Review
Our Inner Demons Send Faxes
By Jason Grote
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave Chicago.
It is a sad thing when an nonhuman entity garners more sympathy than flesh and blood people in a play. Maria/Stewart focuses around a middle class family coming together to celebrate Grandma Ruthie’s (Susan Monts-Bologna) birthday and, later, funeral. This family does not put the fun in dysfunctional: they’re so gone over the edge of healthy behavior, they’ve discovered a new edge beyond the horizon to teeter upon. You have the prickly, perfect sisters Lizzy and Marnie (Mary Anne Bowman and Jennifer Joan Taylor), their respective offspring Hannah and Stuart (Scottie Caldwell and Nate Whelden) who are nursing healthy neuroses of their own. Oh, and did we mention Sylvia
(Ann James), Ruthie’s daughter with the hooks for hands? She’s there too.
But amidst this fraught and fretful gathering two uninvited guests are circling around like sharks. The first is a pink scented envelope, the sole remaining clue of an unnatural and unhappy affair. The second is Spanish Mary, a shapeshifting spirit who shouts German, guzzles soda and gives dire warnings of things past and things to come.
Maria/Stuart is a story about crimes. The horrors that are practiced behind doors to each other, which can be just as odious as the graphic ones and just as hard to forgive. It raises questions about how one should live as a human being, and that fact is worth the price of admission.
That said, it is a relatively new play and needs a bit more tinkering. The mysteries of the pink envelope and Spanish Mary, and the ethical problems they raise, are well crafted and carefully cultivated from scene to scene. But one secret peters out too soon and is not given the full climax it deserves. And in-between revelations the same old expository nature of who is allied with who goes back and forth, the same old family gossip stirred up, the same ground tilled over and over while more interesting earth, where answers may lie buried, remains undisturbed.
Spanish Mary is the most engrossing character in the text, and her peculiar language, full of archaisms, German, and gorgeous imagery, contrasted with her cold and almost robotic nature, cannot help but coax a surly audience member to the edge of their seat. She is both terrifying and charming, and those actors who’s form she adopts blossom under the challenge of making this eldrich creature human. It takes real grace from performer and playwright to put so much meaning into such words as “the stickies” “something will go Bump” and ,perhaps the most resonant line in the whole play, “Poof”.
She is certainly better written than the more conventional characters. Bowman and Taylor have their character-defining actions down pat, but those actions are often disproportionate to their stimuli and therefore ring false. They have built their monuments
on sand. The same may be said of their offspring, though to a lesser extent. Caldwells Hannah is so cold-shouldered I could not detect a single reaction at all, no matter how shocking the circumstance. But she has the advantage of being given her brusqueness as a defense mechanism against her family. Whelden’s Stuart opens up marvelously when he is left alone to discuss his passion (40’s graphic novels recreated with literary flavors), but becomes hemmed in and predictable whenever enacting with his family. This may also be laid to the writing, perhaps the poor boy really is that needful.
Mots-Bologna and James have the choicest roles and make the best of them: one is hiding a dark secret, the other is the tragic casualty of a multitude of lies. Sylvia in particular, despite her odd ball manner, is engrossing. Long moments of silence are given over to just let the actress grapple against every day tasks with her hooks, and she generously shares her satisfaction when she accomplishes them.
A word of warning: there is a lot of food thrown in this show. If seated in the front row, be prepared to fend off flying cheese balls, or worse, and watch amazed at the soda fountains bubble forth like Old Faithful. The flying edibles are certainly immediate and attention grabbing, but sometimes become a crutch for the action. Also, it is worth it to know, that the title of the play, comes from a work by Schiller of the last days of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and a translation of the play that, while never mentioned, is the crux of the whole affair.
Maria/ Stuart is yet in its infancy and has just gotten to its feet teetering. But it needs more time, and more care, before it can walk.
Cautiously Recommended, by Ben Kemper
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