SHOULD YOU GO TO HELL?
Sarte said that Hell is other people, but playwright Ethan Coen proposes that watching other people experience hell is supposed to be hysterical. Coen’s Almost An Evening is the inaugural show in Circle Theatre’s new, more intimate space, and while J. Christopher Brown’s production can be devilishly fun at times, the triad of one-acts is wholly unremarkable. Coen, half of the famous Coen Brothers responsible for Fargo and The Big Lebowski, attempts to demonstrate absolute hell, both literally and figuratively, but any laughs of the night result from pure, unadulterated schadenfreude.
When you enter the theatre, there is a depressingly familiar office space already set up, with the treacherous clacking of a typewriter and the daunting, plastic smile of a secretary. As part one begins, we see our first protagonist begin to slip below lucidity when he begins to believe he is in purgatory. Based on what looks to be a technical error on the part of the administration of purgatory, thousands of years are tacked on to his already served sentence. As we watch this man’s sanity decompose, the audience recognizes that this is not purgatory, but hell. Watching Robert Rafferty crumble as the Hell-bound man was an absolute delight (even in subsequent smaller roles, Rafferty stood out amongst the strongest in this cast).
The plot of part two is a bit more ambiguous than the others, and only earns a few chuckles: a spy, played by Chris Carr, must go back and console the father of a casualty, the spy’s crisis is that he can’t give the man any other reason that his son died other than “it was a matter of national security.” He and his partner try to carry on a top-secret conversation while constantly being interrupted, making perhaps the funniest moment in this part. The rest of the piece is a lulling, as the writing isn’t strong the cast didn’t seem that involved. It is unclear how this piece relates to Hell – other than how awful it might be to ineffectually offer consolation, or to be stuck in a job where you can’t find meaning. For the audience, hell is not being able to find meaning in the writing.
Luckily, part three picks steam in a staged debate between a God who Judges and a God who Loves. Railing against piercings in absurd places (“the vulva?!”), Ian Paul Custer takes on a Godfather-like persona as the God Who Judges, and it was impossible not to fall in love with this crotchety old bastard. In contrast to him, David Besky plays the God who Loves as a hilariously effeminate, mega-church, pseudo-pastor, who is all about (falsely) empowering his audience. Naturally, the two don’t get along well, and turn on each other quickly. The scene shifts to a restaurant where two couples intensely discuss what turns out to be a theater piece. The discussion quickly decays into a full-on brawl, and this, we realize, is another contemplation of hell – making a big deal out of something as stupid as a show where “God kicks God’s ass.” This act overshadows everything that came before, and it was an absolute riot, especially because we are in on the joke: this part is directly poking fun at the audience members. Bridget Haight stands out as the girlfriend of the actor who had played the God who Judges, and comes close to stealing the show.
Brown’s direction is fast-paced and actor-driven, keeping the focus on the riotous plights of each of the characters. Although the show feels like a series of skits, it has some seriously strong performances to bolster them, making the evening move quickly. I was a bit disappointed to see that Brown didn’t do anything all that exciting with the space. The play was fun, but if you’re building a new black-box theatre, I would guess you would want to do something a bit more inventive with it. Brown’s staging was only slightly geared towards their new space, but could have been just as easily moved to a proscenium or thrust stage.
For those already close to the Circle Theatre, this fun but ineffectual play is worth visiting. For those who have to travel to Oak Park, however, the night becomes a bit of a stretch, and you may leave the theatre feeling like you had just experienced the title itself: almost an evening.
photos by Bob Knuth
Almost an Evening
Circle Theatre in Oak Park (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on July 8
for tickets, call 708-660-9540 or visit http://www.circle-theatre.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com