Category Archives: Lia Mortensen

We keep Company at Writers Theatre . . .

plus K. raves over Between Riverside and Crazy (her summer home), while J. celebrates Pride Films & Plays’ adaptive reuse of an abandoned space.



Merchild at 16th Street Theater: A Confusing Look at Gender Confusion

K. sez:

The world premiere of Aline Lathrop’s Merchild at 16th Street Theater tells the story of 8-year-old Adam, whose highest aspiration in life is to be Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”  After his habit of wearing Ariel’s costume to dance on the beach leads to his near-drowning by a group of bullies, his liberal-minded parents determine that he needs to be re-educated to be a boy.

Lathrop has put her finger on a particularly sore spot in contemporary American culture, the contested intersection of gender fluidity and feminism.  If a boy can know he’s “really” a girl, does that mean there’s a fixed meaning attaching to being a girl?  And if so, what does that leave of the feminist notion that girls and women can be whatever they choose?  To “cure” Adam of his predilection, must Mom (Lia Mortensen), a high-powered academic, stay home and bake cookies?  Must his sister suddenly become bad at math?  Or is a cure really what’s called for?

Ann Filmer foregrounds these questions in her production, which features strong performances by all concerned and especially by the remarkable Peyton Shaffer as Adam.  (Shaffer is, in fact, a girl, which I didn’t realize til I looked in the program; what might one infer from this incidence of gender fluidity?)  Nor does the piece shy away from the aspects of Adam’s situation which are truly troubling, like his effort to cut off his penis with an Xacto knife.  Lathrop skillfully mixes fantasy (Adam-as-Ariel in romantic scenes with the Prince [Will Crouse], actually his sister’s boyfriend) with reality—right up until the end.

But that end is so ambiguous that the audience wasn’t sure the play was over: the gap before applause began had nothing to do with the quality of the production and everything to do with unresolved questions in the play.  When Ariel renounces the Prince and life on land in the final scene, was that Adam renouncing his desire to be a girl?  Or did he just drown himself?  Yes, those alternatives—“just a phase” vs. “a condition whose treatment destroys its patients”—are at the heart of the social debate, but the playwright can’t really refuse to resolve them without crossing the line from being thought-provoking to being just plain bewildering.

A worthy near-miss.  Through October 17 at the 16th Street, 6420 16th Street in Berwyn.


In brief: Second City e.t.c., Profiles and LiveWire

K. sez:

I generally prefer the work of Second City e.t.c. to the work on the mainstage. Why is that? Yes, the mainstage people are all preoccupied with auditioning for Saturday Night Live; but the e.t.c. people are all preoccupied with auditioning for the mainstage, so the caution and self-consciousness level should be about the same. It isn’t, though: e.t.c. is routinely looser and therefore closer to its comic improv roots than the main company. That’s true in its new review Apes of Wrath, but it’s not otherwise one of the troupe’s best efforts. The three women—Carisa Barreca playing against dizzy-blonde type, Brooke Breit displaying real acting chops, and Punam Patel in the tradition of fat chicks who make fun of themselves before other people can—are excellent, regardless of their material. The men are less distinctive—two of them even look alike—and thus more dependent on comic opportunities which the script rarely provides. But Eddie Mujica has incredible physical-comic skills which form the foundation of running jokes about robots and meth addicts (don’t ask). Director Jen Ellison keeps up the pace.
Often I leave Profiles Theatre wanting to kill myself, regardless of the quality of the play. Chalk this up to the company’s generally masculinist sensibility and close collaboration with Neil LaBute. But Annapurna is a gratifying exception to this rule. Company member Eric Burgher takes his first turn in the director’s chair, and does an impeccable job of bringing out the raw emotion in Sharr White’s script about a long-divorced couple trying to reconcile their memories, if not their relationship. That description makes the play sound kitchen-sink ordinary, which it’s completely not: there is indeed a kitchen sink, but it’s crawling with ants. Husband Ulysses, played with growling truth by Darrell Cox, is living in a revoltingly filthy mountain hut far from everything, barely bothering to get dressed. (Certificate of Profilian authenticity: we see Cox’s tush.) Urbane Wife Lia Mortensen (likewise utterly honest) arrives without notice in search of some resolution of their long-ago relationship. She arms herself with Lysol and the battle is joined. Any more description would ruin the delicately-wrought structure of Annapurna; suffice it to say the interactions are beautifully layered and the end is hopeful and life-affirming. I enjoyed it so much I almost felt guilty. This Midwest premiere (the show opened off-Broadway only last month) runs through July 20 at the theater’s Alley space on North Broadway. It’s a fine showcase for the work of two of our finest veteran actors: see it. And never fear: Profiles returns to type (and to Neil LaBute) on August 28, opening its new season with the playwright’s Reasons to be Happy.
There are some witty lines in Partners at LiveWire, and director Kendra Miller does what she can with Dorothy Fortenberry’s play about two couples—one gay, one straight—and their lives, which interlock because Ezra (from couple #1) and Clare (from couple #2) are best friends from college and partners in a food-truck business they haven’t yet managed to get off the ground. The play suffers from too many themes and not enough plot: it’s obvious from the beginning that Clare is dragging her heels about the business and that Ezra will eventually confront her about it. Meanwhile there are intense discussions about marriage equality, monogamy, adult acne and the libido-suppressing effects of reflux medicine; until suddenly late in Act I the play turns out to be about money—its inaccessibility to Ezra, its marriage-altering potential for Clare, its meaning to their respective life partners. Money is a great topic but you can’t write a play about it by wandering around til you light on the subject accidentally. And the gay best friend is a pretty hoary device by now, though Will Von Vogt does his best with it. Through July 20 at the Den on Milwaukee Avenue.