Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Montana Bruns
What is the nature and meaning of friendship? How do our friends affect who we are? What do we ultimately owe them? These are heady questions to deal with in a comedy, but perhaps when it is a comedy inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters it all makes perfect sense. The Sound’s latest play, the World Premiere of Beth Hyland’s Red Bowl at the Jeffs, deals with these issues and also manages to take a caustic microscope to the world of live theatre, yet the play is very funny almost all the way through. It lets us explore its many issues while laughing, which is usually the best way to do it.
Red Bowl at the Jeffs is about a tiny theatre company (like the Sound, perhaps?) founded by friends from college that has finally, after five years, received some recognition: its production of Three Sisters has snagged three non-Equity Jeff nominations. We meet the eclectic members of the company at the awards ceremony, a setting full of meta humor, stereotypes, and theatre in-jokes as well as an opportunity for these young friends (the “adults” of the company have decided not to come, leaving the 20-somethings to represent Red Bowl) to explore who they are in relation to each other. Of course, it isn’t always a pretty discovery.
The show begins and ends with the focus on Elena (Georgi McCauley), the company’s director and the only one present who was not nominated: the ensemble received a nod as well as two members up for Best Actress. From the start, we learn that she has had a five year relationship with the company’s leading man, Gabe (Aaron Latterell) that she has broken off, and that she is now upset because he has started to date another company member, Julie (Ella Pennington). Also palpable in the company is jealousy of Gabe, who has just been cast in a show at Steppenwolf. These Chekhovian elements threaten to cast a pall over the evening, but perpetually upbeat Alex (Faith Servant) and Elena’s best friend among the actors, Caroline (Anne Thompson) are determined not to let that happen, interceding at every dangerous moment and keeping the humor flowing. To start a play with that much heaviness and yet have an audience laughing constantly is a nice balancing trick, and Hyland’s script does it well, aided by some nice direction by Rebecca Willingham, who uses the limited space at the Frontier beautifully and extracts very strong performances from each of her cast members, who also include Andrew Cutler as Andy; Pernell Myers as Devin; Carter Caldwell as Caroline’s younger brother Hank; and Margaret Kellas as Sophie, who is sitting with another ensemble with whom she is also nominated. Impressively, each of these nine characters is completely individual, a tribute to the actors, director and the playwright, who sometimes paints with broad strokes (especially with Hank, Sophie, and Julie) yet keeps each character alive and vital throughout the play.
Theatre itself is, of course, a bit of a punching bag in this show. There is a running gag about how low-rent the non-Equity Jeffs are compared to the Equity ones and the notion that younger companies are not treated the same as established ones, symbolized by the fact that they cannot even get the name of the company right (they keep calling it Red Bowls) and a variety of lines about how far from the action this table is. (“We’re sitting in the parking lot,” one character complains.) The barely-covered jealousy about Gabe’s new gig contains both humor and the undercurrent of something ugly, which is the knife edge on which this entire play sits. Constant sniping at other companies, too, shows the dark underbelly of the theatre, the covetousness with which these characters view their more successful brethren. Of course, much of this is also part of the Chekhovian theme, but everything in this play serves multiple ends.
There is also some hilarious stereotyping going on. Pennington’s Julie is an uncultured simpleton who rarely knows what is happening; the actress dives into the part with effervescent joy. Caldwell is a hoot as Hank, a socially inept young man who has a penchant for saying bizarre and wildly inappropriate things. Kellas enters late in the play as Sophie, who is apparently incapable of recognizing the fact that her Red Bowl mates are tired of her overbearing ebullience and enthusiasm. Devin and Alex both appear in flamboyant dress, an homage to the outré clothing choices that are often visible at the Jeffs. (Both outfits are admired by other company members, for good reason. Shout out to Elly Hunt, whose costume design for everyone is totally on point.)
Ultimately, the show focuses its attention on Elena, Caroline, and Alex, with Gabe on the side (as he’s placed himself with his career move). Thompson is in perfect “best friend” mode as Caroline, the company’s least splashy member (her clothing is even called out for its blandness), who can always be counted on to try to calm things down and have someone’s back. The actress embodies her character, letting her blend into the background of the scene yet always being staying focused on what is happening around the table especially if it involves Elena. Servant is amazing as Alex, a bundle of energy at the play’s start who settles into the more sedate role of aspiring playwright as it goes on. Servant’s expressions and body language, like Pennington’s, range from super excitement to harrowing disappointment, and she gets to add outright anger. There is always a reminder that theatre is a life choice and a job that is under-appreciated and underpaid. (Alex complains a lot about her waitress gig and almost every character speaks about their day jobs.) As such, theatre is also a struggle.
Nowhere is that struggle better embodied than in the character of Elena, known as “Mom” to her cast. McCauley plays her close to the vest, rarely allowing the character’s churning emotions to surface, but from the start we can see them in her face and eyes. There are points when she is on the verge of yelling, of crying, and of other emotions as well, but Elena is too keenly aware of the fact that her cast looks to her for guidance to let them show, and McCauley is expert at playing them quietly. One of the only times Elena truly lets emotions fly is in denigrating another company that always wins awards only because, in her opinion, they only do so because they have established themselves. None of the Red Bowl members thinks much of this other group, which is often the object of their ire. The rest of her overt emotions McCauley saves for her character’s private encounters with Gabe and Andy (with whom she had a brief liaison).
Gabe is the stereotypical “tall white male” whose success is almost fore-ordained. (They all agree that they’ve known all along that he would make it, while black female Alex, for example, has to fight much more.) In Latterell’s hand, though, the character takes on depth far beyond the stereotype. He is able to make a good-looking, successful man whose dating within the cast has riled his former lover, the most-beloved troop member, into a sympathetic character: no mean feat. From the start, it’s hard to hate Gabe even though we are pre-programmed to by the opening scene; Latterell plays him as quiet and unassuming, unwilling to brag and generally nice. Gabe seems to be a rarity in theatre—a great actor with little ego—and Latterell’s calm portrayal simply enhances that conclusion.
This very funny play is also a powerful one filled with betrayals small and large. How much we can count on our friends is called into question multiple times. Its final several scenes are brilliantly poignant. Hyland’s script is artful and carefully crafted, and is enhanced by Alex Beal’s lights and Shain Longbehn’s sound design, which truly gives the sense of being in that huge crowded hall though we are in the tiny Frontier. I had very high hopes for this show based on its description alone; it did not disappoint in the least. I’m tempted to give it three and a half stars because of a joke in the script, but it deserves four.
Red Bowl at the Jeffs is a production by The Sound now playing at the Frontier, 1106 W Thorndale Ave in Chicago, until April 21. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from The Sound. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.