A.T.A.T.A. | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Rubicon Theater Productions

at the Synergy Center

Imagine joining a professional orchestra before you've learned to play your scales. Or accepting a role with a ballet company without knowing first through fifth positions. Or photographing a model for a fashion magazine without knowing how to bracket an exposure.

No professional would be so foolhardy. Yet an analogous disaster-in-waiting happens in professional theater all the time. Anyone can put words on a page, and unfortunately just about anyone does. And with the abundance of inexpensive rental spaces in Chicago, it doesn't take much to become a "professional" theater.

Jennifer Verson, author of Rubicon Theater Productions' A.T.A.T.A. (which stands for "A Tragedy and Two Acts"), seems to lack the basic skills required to make a piece of writing dramatic. Her two-hour drama wanders, rambles, and most problematically wallows in superficial despair. But it doesn't communicate theatrically. It's like a piece of music that neglects to use sound waves.

The play concerns three women--Jeanne, Thea, and Ellen--who have gathered in the apartment of Gwen, an up-and-coming writer who has inexplicably committed suicide. Each has a different agenda regarding Gwen's work. The women spend the first 15 minutes or so talking about how they feel about Gwen's last uncompleted manuscript, and even their various plans to organize her papers (sort versus read aloud). Had Verson allowed her characters to be pushed along by dramatic urgency rather than talking about an urgency that is not palpably present, the scene could have moved beyond academic exposition.

This dramatic flatness hampers every element of the play. The women spend their time describing their own personalities--Ellen tells us she is "systematic" at least half a dozen times--instead of behaving in such a way. Never is a character allowed to act in an ambiguous manner, allowing for that most human of traits, contradiction. Even Gwen is resurrected from the dead and given an aimless half-hour monologue in which she robs the play of its central mystery, explaining away every detail of the emotional conflict that drove her to suicide.

And that conflict ultimately lacks weight; Gwen can't seem to accept the fact that there will always be conflict in the world or, to use her metaphor, that the lion will never lie down with the lamb. Spending two hours elevating this adolescent crisis to the level of tragedy is laborious indeed.

Fundamentally, Verson does not allow her play to develop. Instead of moving forward into new territory, as any performance must, the play continually doubles back on itself, revisiting in the second act the struggles and tensions that were presented in the first.

This dramatic inertia is further exacerbated by uncommitted performances. Under Beth Ellen Carter's direction, the actors focus their energy on polishing a veneer of naturalism--everything here is self-consciously unself-conscious--rather than on creating rich inner lives.

Verson needs to study the basics of play writing in order to create a work that belongs on the stage. And Rubicon needs to reexamine the standards it applies to work its produces. Chicago's theater scene is already glutted with mediocrity. Audiences won't remain patient forever.

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