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by Melissa James Gibson

Echo Theatre

Directed by Terri Ferguson
Set Design – Robert Winn
Property Design – Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke
Lighting Design – Brooks Powers
Costume Design – Ryan Matthieu Smith
Sound Design – M. Graeme Bice
Stage Manager – Michelle Foster
Assistant Stage Manager – Stephanie Butler


CAST
Ian Ferguson – Theo
Kelsey Leigh Ervi – Babette
Dan Schmoker – Frank
The Couple Down Below – Surprise Guests each night
Mrs. Jorgenson, Delivery Man and Dr. Greenspan - Anonymous


Reviewed Performance: 9/12/2014

Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Three minutes into Echo Theatre’s production of [sic}, I knew for certain that playwright Melissa James Gibson had obviously been spying on me, watching my relationships with friends, then placing the whole thing into her own silly, twisted, hilarious scenario for me to live through again. That is how recognizable, in sync and relevant her play is and how eerie it is to be watching bits and pieces of one’s own life onstage. No fear however, one need never know just how close to your reality the play is, as the audience’s laughter will dispel any possible finger pointing!

Living in adjacent, one room “closet” apartments, three youngish neighbors discuss their ambitions, argue, share dreams and plan for uncertain futures with degrees of hopefulness and despair. Theo is a wannabe composer working on a heroic theme song for an amusement park ride. Babette is working on finishing (or even starting) a book based on the theory that temper tantrums were the forces behind great historical events. Frank is training to be an auctioneer via a mail order kit and by constantly practicing tongue twisters. Not at all the complete twits you would gather, the three live lives of wit and remarkable wisdom within their circle of denial, dejection and resurrecting optimism – and yet it’s a comedy of absurd measure!

Gibson’s play, her first, about the self absorption of its characters was commissioned and work-shopped as part of its New Plays Lab during their ’97-’98 season. That’s seventeen years ago and we can all see what time and the social media stratosphere has done for self absorption now! Gibson was ahead of her time . . . The play went on to workshop at Soho Rep’s Summer Camp in ’99, moved on to Chicago’s Roadworks Productions in June 2000, and finally on to NYC at Soho Rep in November 2001. The play won the 2002 Obie’s Kesselring Prize for playwriting, Gibson winning the 2002 Whiting Writer’s Award given annually to ten emerging writers.

The title [sic] becomes amazingly accurate on so many levels. To quote Gibson, “[sic], of course, is a Latin term that appears in writing, as a signal to the reader that an apparent mistake is in fact an accurate citation. This notion of distancing one-self from responsibility informs the three main characters of the play, who exist at arm’s length from their own situations, as if their real lives were yet to be inhabited”. The pronunciation of the word [sic] also reflects our society’s sickness in believing we have to constantly justify and rationalize our careers, relationships, even our very existence.

In her preshow curtain speech, Director Terri Ferguson spoke of the play echoing themes of obstruction, communication and language. I came away feeling I’d observed that trifecta at its finest.

Gibson is a master linguist, her language razor sharp and not unlike the absurdist plays of Ionesco, Beckett and Genet. The script has no punctuation, i.e. e e cummings, which allows both director and actor to free form the words’ inherent meanings – what a wonderful luxury. Her words have an allure and the power to produce guffaws while also punching the breath out of you. In [sic], her words are a mix of intelligence and the Pinter-pause slang of then thirtysomethings.

Obstruction comes visually in the physical form of set design. Robert Winn’s genius design literally pushes through the requirements of the script. Across the down stage is the hallway of one floor of a NYC brownstone, four doors denoting the tenants on that floor. Winn cleverly cut out the rectangle panels on three doors in order to see or hear the tenants within, the fourth tenant being a mystery. Adjacent walls are removed, as one can hear others in the building anyway, and Theo, Babette and Frank’s lives are so oddly entwined, the thickest of walls wouldn’t be enough. On the back hang frames for doors, the hanging mirrors or footed tub the only indication they are bathrooms, and also working, half windowpanes. The stairwell on the side is the actors’ only exit or entrance. Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke understand these characters and decorated each one-room, cracker box apartment in the lifestyle of their dwellers with the things they need most – sofa or daybed, tiny desk or TV tray for table, Theo’s electric keyboard, Babette’s quilt and antenna phone, Frank’s tidy bed and suitcase.

Lighting design by Brooks Powers also reflects obstruction as separation, using harsh downlights in different hues on each actor to pinpoint their character’s thoughts, their isolation, their loneliness at times. The lighting is clean, the cues sharp and jarringly precise, the very visual needed for the mood of those scenes.

A more light-hearted, looney mood is communicated through the costuming and sound design. Ryan Matthieu Smith picked from a contemporary clothing bin, dressing Theo in rumbled plaid shirts and jeans, and well-fit, styled slacks, tucked-in shirt and belt for Frank. His glam-sequined cowboy shirt is stunning. And thank you Mr. Smith for leaving Babette mostly in her pink, panda T-shirt and pajama pants, the uniform of choice for those of us who sometimes work at home. Her shiny, bright blue ankle boots are a fashion statement, paired with red dress and shrug.

M. Graeme Bice’s music picks come from several different genres, blending pop with hip hop, Edith Piaf with Dylan (I believe). They reflect past youth, over-the-top drama or a political/societal hip status the characters never held. And to whoever wrote Theo’s brief amusement park ride theme, it is . . . memorable.

Gibson’s characters advertise all three elements – obstruction, communication and language – in their relationship with each other, with their chosen “work” and in their desire and need to find some meaning to it all. Obstruction always rises when one is in denial of reality, communication falters within that false reality, and language is all that’s left in finding one’s true self. The three characters, by themselves, are rather lost souls, but in the heightened reality of Gibson’s language, they find a oneness, a camaraderie of spirit. Their dialogue with each other is in short-hand, idiosyncratic and full of wordplay. Stinging witticisms, such as Babette’s retort when Theo asks if she’s going to therapy, “I can’t afford mental illness right now”, is balanced with wise reflection, “You’re drawn to people you wish you were or you are like”. Often times, characters say together what one of them is only thinking, to hilarious results. The structural inventiveness of the language is exciting, exacting and sometimes grander than the speakers themselves.

Terri Ferguson cast actors who obviously could play well together – and I mean that as it reads. Actors that can allow themselves to take on all the foibles of a character can then have fun seeing just what their character is willing to do to get what they want. This particular script is a virtual springboard in which the actors can dive and swim around in the joy of discovery. And these three actors swim like Olympic medalists.

Ian Ferguson perfectly understands the kind of guy I’ve befriended many times before. Theo is smart but can’t figure out how to invest in those smarts. Theo’s dreams are real but ill-conceived, and the need to be successful is mainly to prove his worth. Ferguson paints Theo in broad, physical strokes, flopping down on his sofa, on the floor or over his keyboard when frustrated or perplexed. Ferguson’s anxious movement and continual perceived annoyance display how hard Theo was(n’t) working. A natural comedian, Ferguson also plays on Theo’s melancholy, his sad, confused facial expressions adding endearment to his characterization.

Babette is also of obvious intelligence but sometimes lives life in a bubble of denial. She’s friendly but often uses it to take advantage of others. Kelsey Leigh Ervi portrays Babette brilliantly in showing the two sides of her personality – half nurturing/half needy. Ervi easily shifts moods, playing up Babette’s desire for attention and recognition. Her body language makes bold statements as to how Babette is feeling in any particular moment and Ervi’s comic timing is sharp and clever. One may not know exactly how they feel about Babette, but Ervi is definitely worth the watch.

I love Dan Schmoker’s interpretation of Frank, the meek and mild. His need for order borders on compulsion, becoming truly funny, and Schmoker plays this up in his dress, posture, exacting vocal quality and expressions. All is precise and controlled, except when behind closed door. That’s when Schmoker reveals Frank’s inner demons and anxiety, and those quiet moments are pathos-filled, theatrical gems. He has a subtle, Buster Keatonesque comedy style that grows on you.

Labeled a dysfunctional comedy, [sic] is indeed laugh out loud funny , but it’s also an intelligent and quirky take on urban existence, friendships, and the power of words.

Echo Theatre’s new season opener is a solid winner, and with the theatre taking a new direction, they are starting anew with a vengeance. If their production of [sic] is any indication, this is definitely one theatre company to watch.

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Echo Theatre
at Bath House Cultural Center
on the east shore of White Rock Lake
521 E. Lawther Drive
Dallas, TX 75218

Plays through September 27th

Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday, Sept. 20th and 27th, at 2:00 pm

General admission ticket prices are $30.00 and $20.00 for the two Saturday matinees, which include a Post-Show Talk Back. Seniors (65+) receive a $5.00 discount at the door with ID. Student Rush tickets are $5.00, sold five minutes before curtain if seating is available. Please sign up for that at the box office upon arrival.

For all the information and to purchase tickets, go to www.echotheatre.org. You may also reserve tickets for payment at the door by emailing reservations@echotheatre.org or calling 214-904-0500.
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