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On Stage: the comic potential of two sisters and a severed head

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Kara Marie Klein and Carol Enoch first performed Emily Schwartz's Entertaining Mr. Topps in 2001, when all three were students at Indiana University. The show was an eye-opener for the actors. "I thought it was this touching, very dramatic piece, and that my character was this very sad person," says Enoch, who played the elder of two well-off spinster sisters, the Derbyshires. "The first time we did it the audience was literally rolling on the floor, and I walked off the stage in tears. I was completely mortified."

"We didn't know it was supposed to be funny," says Klein, whose character--the younger sister--falls in love with a severed head that she finds in a swamp.

"People were laughing until they were crying," says Schwartz.

Entertaining Mr. Topps was the first of four fanciful one-acts Schwartz has written about the Derbyshire sisters. A full-length piece that compiles them all, The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery, opens this weekend at the Athenaeum Theatre. "The two characters are based on two sides of my own personality," says Schwartz, a fan of ghost stories, Edward Gorey, Harry Potter, and unusual fact books. "There's the very inhibited, uptight, buttons-to-top-of-the-chin, anal-retentive sister and the one who likes to take her shoes off and go stomping in mud and find things in the swamp and bring them back to the house."

Enoch and Klein didn't know each other, or Schwartz, before they worked together in 2001, but they've been playing the Derbyshires ever since. Schwartz wrote the sequels--in which the sisters enlist the aid of a ficus tree to fight off imaginary bandits and use knives to torment a gentleman caller--with the women in mind. "They're on the same wavelength as me," she says.

Shortly after moving to Chicago, Enoch and Klein performed Mr. Topps at the 2002 Women's Theater Alliance showcase. Schwartz, who was working in Indianapolis at the time, came up for the show, and that's when the trio met showcase producer Scott Dray. By the time the two actors appeared in another Derbyshire play at last year's WTA event, Schwartz had moved into Klein's Lincoln Park apartment. After the performance Dray approached them about producing a full-fledged show; showcase judge Kerstin Broockmann wanted to direct. "Their scenes really caused a buzz," says Dray. "It's the right combination of quirkiness and comedy. But the relationship between the characters is very touching too. And I really couldn't see anyone else playing these two roles."

At that point the three decided to launch their own theater company, Strange Tree Productions. "It just made sense," says Enoch. "We were doing this together and wanted to do more things and needed money and a bank account." Their next project will probably be Schwartz's 2002 play, A Conspiracy of Nuts, which she describes as a backstage farce a la Noises Off. But she's also working on another series of Derbyshire plays.

The two actors "have become like sisters," says Schwartz. "They'll bicker and make each other laugh about the stupidest stuff....It's evolved into this other life that we have--an imaginary life. We'll see things in daily life and say, 'Look at these plates, wouldn't they go well in the house?' But the house doesn't really exist."

In fact, strangers often mistake the pair for actual sisters. "We don't even look anything alike," says Enoch. "I'm pointy and pale, she's brown and round and has huge eyes and is very nice to everyone, but everyone still thinks we're sisters. It's pretty funny."

The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery opens Friday, July 2, at 8 and runs through July 31 at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets are $15, $10 for performers if you bring a head shot. Call 773-935-6860 or see the theater listings in Section Two for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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