Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Bradley Halverson, Kristen Alesia and Alexander McRae | David Zac
By Bec Willett
Noël Huntzinger’s costumes of Pride Films and Plays production of THE GREEN BAY TREE are well-curated, with specificity of era and a nuanced eye for color and shape. Beyond that, this production of the iconic script is full of missed opportunities.
Mordaunt Shairp’s 1933 THE GREEN BAY TREE is a play of its time. A classic British farce in structure and style, the play manages to both espouse and question the moral code of the day, astutely using the tools of wit and pace to subvert without alerting censorship. At a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Shairp infers a same-sex relationship between man of luxury Dulcie (Alexander McRae), and protégé Julian (Bradley Halverson), whom he adopted from a working-class father at the age of 11. Enter Leonora (Kristen Alesia), a woman who works as a Veterinarian and with whom Julian falls in love. Dulcie threatens to withdraw his allowance should he propose, and yet he does anyway, determined to live a less comfortable life for the sake of love. Despite his efforts, Julian is eventually tempted back to Dulcie and his leisurely ways, forsaking a life of work and with it his fiancée Leonora.
In a text evocative of the antics of Oscar Wilde’s work, this is a production that could have sparkled with pith. Yet neither the performances or Amy Sarno’s direction show an understanding of the heightened comedic style or a grounding in relationship or character. The best efforts come from Aleisa, who tries to remain present and build relationships with her scene partners. However, with little in-kind reciprocation from Halverson and McRae – to the point where even eye contact is a rarity – these attempts result in little magic. With an audience response in the form of an orchestra of oddly-timed chortles, it’s evident that, while the source material is humorous, this production just doesn’t get it.
With most of the performances seemingly all belonging to their own plays, the fractured vision in design is not unexpected. As mentioned earlier, the most successful in supporting the play were the costumes, followed by Hillarie Shockley’s props which mostly evoked the era. The other design elements, however, fall short in either execution or cohesion. On what seemed intended to be a realistic set, my focus was repeatedly drawn to the unevenness and incompletion of the stenciling in the painted ‘wallpaper,’ juxtaposed against the untreated stage-black floor. The sound design features unrealistic, almost radioplay style effects, an aesthetic that belongs to the light, tongue-in-cheek version of his play to which we were not privy.
Shairp’s text asks: who is it that we’re afraid to acknowledge on stage and in society? Who is it that’s at risk of censor because of who they are, who they love? Without grounded performances or a cohesive vision, this production misses the opportunity the text provides to explore not only how this was an issue in the past, but how it’s also relevant today.