Sunday, July 26, 2009


This is not, strictly speaking, a review. I went to see InnateVolution's production of Edward Albee's one-acts The Zoo Story and The Sandbox because I have a friend in the cast--Casey Chapman, who plays Jerry in The Zoo Story and Daddy in The Sandbox. The show was interested in being blogged about, and I wanted to see it, especially since I'd never seen either onstage, so I went. What little journalistic objectivity I may have still had probably went away when my drink after the show with my friend turned into karaoke with the entire cast. So take this with a grain of salt.

Disclaimers out of the way, how were the shows?

The Zoo Story and The Sandbox were among Albee's earliest plays, and the former was the major hit that put him on the map. Both demonstrate a strong Absurdist influence, though it is more obvious with the latter.

Zoo appears to be a realistic story of a meeting between "permanent transient" Jerry (Chapman) and buttoned-up executive Peter (Raymond Cleveland) on a Central Park bench. Jerry tells increasingly bizarre and frightening stories to Peter, who gets more and more aghast at what he's gotten himself into. The violence that erupts is somehow both inevitable and shocking.

But pay careful attention and it becomes harder to find your way. Why is Jerry so hostile? Where does he really come from? Why doesn't Peter just leave? These questions aren't answered, and maybe they can't be. But the play hints at depths of despair and furious violence that are always just out of reach, and even at an hour long has a surprisingly intense impact.

This production mostly brings that impact across. Director Toma Langston made one very strong choice that I'm not sure about. Throughout the story, Jerry describes the residents of his boarding house. It seems to me that we should never be sure whether anything Jerry says is true, that all of these stories are inherently untrustworthy. Langston chooses to put all of the boarding house residents onstage when they are mentioned. In fact, they appear before the play proper begins, showing the chaos from which Jerry emerges.

For me, this had two effects: it gives Jerry a realistic context, which seems to take away from his status as a mysterious, inexplicable force of disruption, and it puts the audience in the place of Jerry more than Peter. Both effects are fascinating, and some might find them quite illuminating. For me, they subtly threw off the play's balance.

However, whether or not this choice works, it's certainly done well. The figures are not overused, and the characterizations are vivid and creepy. They create some startling stage pictures, and always feel like they are supporting the images in the text, whether or not they are necessary.

Incidentally, Albee himself is responsible for another problem--he recently revised the script to take place in the present day, rather than the late 1950s when it was written. However, a few references to Stephen King are not enough to cover up how rooted it is in its time, in the details--a boarding house and pornographic playing cards are not very common today--the attitudes of the characters, and the general philosophical concerns. Apparently Albee won't allow productions of the original script, which is unfortunate.

However, those concerns aside, the production still works. Much credit goes to the work that Chapman has done. He and Langston wisely realized that this is not a realistic play, and Jerry is not a realistic character. A naturalistic portrayal would flatten Jerry into a case history. So the heightened, theatrical performance that Chapman gives works very well. Jerry is a destabilizing force of nature, and that's disturbingly clear.

Cleveland, as Peter, has far less to do, and the production seems not quite to have settled on who he is. Is he a buttoned-up businessman or a more relaxed, artsy type? Is he who he appears to be or not? (And why, when his being married is constantly referenced, did he not have a wedding ring on?) Still, despite this blurred presence, Cleveland certainly stepped up at the crucial moments.

As for The Sandbox, well...big choices don't always pay off. It's a very odd show, with a sitcom-perfect Mommy (Lyn Scott) and Daddy (Chapman) taking Grandma (Patricia Tinsley) to the beach and placing her in a sandbox, while time passes suddenly and a Young Man (Christopher Boyd) stretches and does exercises. It's billed by Albee as a tribute to his grandmother and it's clearly a meditation on death.

The program notes say that it's being presented as a sitcom, rather than a drama, but that doesn't seem quite accurate. Langston has encouraged his actors to leave any subtlety or clarity behind in search of any joke they can find. There are bad wigs, spontaneous arias, dance numbers, and a variety-show announcer (who I think was completely invented for the show). The scripts genuine humor--dark and absurd--is completely lost, along with any understanding of the play's point and ideas. The actors are clearly capable of being funny, but the staging and the script clash so completely that the effect is grating rather than funny.

A few more thoughts on elements surrounding the production:

1) InnateVolution is so named because of the Buddhist concept that all people have the innate ability to evolve. In fact, the entire company is animated by the principled of Nichiren Buddhism. It's a lovely idea, but the company's name crosses the name between intriguing and silly.

2) Serving drinks in the lobby is always a good idea, even if they are flavored vodka. I hear that Thursdays and Sundays also have appetizers. Excellent decision.

3) Don't read the program notes before the show--they spell out the plays' ideas, and the production is quite clear on its own.

So should you go? If you've never seen The Zoo Story live, absolutely--it's a hugely important play, and this is a very strong production. And what's heartening is that this is a production that takes risks. Some succeed, some bellyflop, but the desire to try something new is definitely something to encourage.

The production plays Thursday-Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through August 9th at the Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway. For tickets ($10 Thurs and Sun, $20 Fri and Sat) call 312-513-1415 or visit

1 comment:

Pun said...

Hi Zev, I've enjoyed reading your reviews and posts. Are you planning on reviewing the national tour of Spring Awakening when it plays Chicago (Aug 2-16)? I'm the blogmaster for TotallyTrucked, the tour's blog. Could you post our discount code for your readers?

Email me if you think there's a way we can work together. Thanks and keep up the good work!