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: Shea Petersen. Photo by Daniela Monico.
By Bec Willett
Just as with space travel in the 60s or the Y2k bug in the late 90s, the apocalypse is a topic currently at the forefront of the American psyche. While many might focus on telling the very valid and relevant stories of how we could get there or of the event itself, Exit 63’s production of TREEFALL by Henry Murray explores what might happen to future generations. Digging into questions about social constructs of gender, sexuality and consent, TREEFALL asks us to examine what happens when who we are is at odds with who we’re told to be.
August (Shea Petersen), Flynn (Andrew Garcia), and Craig (Matt Schutz) were just small children when they were brought by Flynn’s mother to the cabin they inhabit. Their mother, now long gone and presumably dead, has through her absence become a god-like figure. Her teachings about family and gender form the foundation of their worldview with cultish devotion. However, these children are now growing into adults and their environment and bodily changes are at odds with the moral code they learned as children, causing friction in the family they’ve created. When Bug (Kirra Silver) unexpectedly turns up, the explosion is unavoidable.
It’s near impossible not be enveloped by the world created by TREEFALL’s artistic team. The direction, the performances, and the design present an inescapable vision of this fictional world and what it’s like to live in it. David Goodman-Edberg’s lighting design sculpts and highlights the textures of Bill Gordon and Jeff Simpson’s meticulously executed trash-filled set, among it cassettes with their tape leaking out, a stack of filthy blankets, a styrofoam head. Yet as the story progresses, what seems like trash to us is revealed to be relics of the past. The limited range of Jazz-era cassettes are not disposable but rather the melancholic soundtrack to their lives, the blankets their source of comfort, the foam head the centerpiece in their shrine to the only woman they ever really knew: their mother. Layered periodically with bursts of light from the harsh sun and the unsettling transitional rumbles of Teddy Gales’ sound design, it makes it easy to empathize and identify with a situation quite removed from our own.
As a company “by actors for actors,” it’s no surprise that this ensemble is consistently connected and present, believably embodying the characters and their world. Of note, is Craig’s puppetry of his best friend and theatrical diva, his baby doll Drusilla. It’s in these hilarious yet truthful moments of juvenile play-acting — that tell stories of romance and death (many of them based on Romeo and Juliet) — that it’s revealed how he perceives relationships, sex, and gender. Watching Schutz’s masterful execution of a child at play, it becomes clear to us how much of the social construct he’s been taught is from a world he’s never experienced. It’s just another relic he and his adopted brothers are holding onto, and it’s a construct that’s not only becoming irrelevant but also destructive. This creation of truthful, intimate moments is something seen in all the performances, evidence of the actors’ dedication to being present and connected with each other. Unfortunately, however, there are also some moments where this idea is so heavily invested in that some specifics of the overall story have been unexplored or overlooked. While this means that some scenes drag or at times important details are unclear, as a whole this is an ensemble of actors whose performances are consistently engaging, encouraging self-reflection.
It’s the detail of the design and the connectedness of the ensemble create that make Exit 63’s TREEFALL such an absorbing experience. Despite the difference in circumstance, the strength of these continually tether us to this apocalyptic world, the parallels invoking the question: “if we were in this situation, who would we be?”
Exit 63’s Chicago premiere of Henry Murray’s TREEFALL runs through September 2 at Trap Door Theater, 1655 W Cortland Ave. More info at www.exit63theatre.com.