Frontiers, which follows roughly 30 pioneer women in Kansas, around the turn of the century, is a celebration of women and their raw strength that's never shrill, strident, or exclusive. What a pleasure to see a show about women that doesn't sacrifice stagecraft and solid story telling to an agenda. However important an agenda may be, it's rarely well served by characters who act only as mouthpieces or dialogue that's thinly veiled rhetoric. Of the half dozen or so plays I've seen in the last year that dealt with "women's issues," none succeeded in presenting flesh-and-blood women as well as this series of monologues and sketches written by four women (Valery Daemke, Doreen Dunn, Kathleen Gaffney, and Nancy Sellin).
It is 1847, and a fever of westward expansion finds a number of women facing the challenge of life on the Kansas prairie. A young woman from the east eagerly embarks on a two-month journey by stagecoach, meeting a cowboy who lives up to her romantic notions and discovering life and color in a landscape that had only been described to her as bleak. A gentle Missouri bride travels to meet a groom she's never met, contemplating a future she has no control over. A girl on a wagon train experiences her first kiss and moments later watches a girlfriend die when her bonnet ribbon brushes against a skittish horse. An intrepid Englishwoman and her brothers fail in their naive attempts to raise crops ("We have planted our little seeds and are now waiting for the food to appear") and embark on an equally disastrous buffalo hunt. An Irish wife is left alone for weeks in the middle of a drought while her husband goes in search of water. A woman raised in the east observes her children playing in the shadow of a recently lynched man and prays to God to send her back home. "But Mama," one of her children reminds her, "you are home." While none of these situations is particularly relevant today, the women's quiet power and tenacity as they battle drought, grasshoppers, tornadoes, illness, and isolation with a beguilingly human mixture of ferocity, humor, and resignation is inspiring.
Four excellent actresses and the spare direction of Alec Wild keep the show from veering off into superwoman cliches tinged with pioneer pathos. Karin Anglin, Celia Alice Madeoy, Morgan Rowe, and Elizabeth Swan invest their various frontierswomen with depth, brains, an occasional touch of cowardice, and absolutely no glamor. Their acting is uniformly superb, even during the weakest moment of the show, late in the second act--a tale of the abduction by Indians of two women that's so familiar it's almost trite. By this point, however, a little obligatory Indian action is not too difficult to sit through.
The Folio Theatre Company's mission is not complicated: according to the program, it aspires to be a "classically trained theatre company" and hopes to "showcase the best non-equity talent in Chicago." Judging from what I saw last weekend, its emphasis is on actor's pieces--plays with ripping good parts that demand talented actors. That can be a dicey criterion to base a season on, the obvious trap being that many plays are only as interesting as their performances.
This is the case with Folio's late-night offering, Theatre of the Film Noir by George F. Walker. It's a smoky, dimly lighted mood piece with much to offer in the way of clever dialogue--but ultimately very little to say. Yet Folio has delivered the performances, and no one can deny that the show is a lot of fun.
Set in Paris in 1944, just after the arrival of the liberation army, the play initially seems to be about a police inspector who's investigating the murder of a young communist. He's helped and hindered by the dead man's lying sister Lilliane, her German secret lover Eric, and the dead man's lover, Bernard. Oddly, the play pays little attention to the beleagured inspector and his investigation, though his monologues open and close the show; it focuses mainly on the cringing, manipulative Bernard, who's trying to live off Lilliane, who's clearly disgusted by him. It's a little like watching The Maltese Falcon from the point of view of the Peter Lorre character.
This is more than OK, since the performance of Tim Curtis as the drunken, neurotic, but always erudite Bernard is a tour de force. Every moment he's onstage is worthwhile, whether he's groveling at the feet of the menacing German lover he's threatened to expose ("Please excuse my glibness--I am quite genuinely terrified") or callously dismissing his dead lover ("I was fond of his flesh"). He delivers a weasel worthy of Peter Lorre.
Amy Carlson does less well with the rapid-fire delivery, though she looks every inch the femme fatale. Peter Blood adds irony and life to the deadpan delivery of the inspector. Alec Wild is a chilling Aryan ubermensch, and Kirk Sanders is hilarious as a childishly self-important American GI whose misplaced chivalry leads him into a mess. It would be gratifying to see such outstanding performances in a show about something other than style.
FRONTIERS Folio Theatre Company THEATRE OF THE FILM NOIR Folio Theatre Company