Bliss transports Greek tragedy to midcentury suburban America | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Bliss transports Greek tragedy to midcentury suburban America 

And it’s too cute by exactly half.

click to enlarge bliss-1.jpg

Tom McGrath

What's a suburban American housewife living in 1960 with a philandering husband, two needy kids, a tortured past, and a millennia-old curse to do? Well, it depends which housewife you ask in Jami Brandli's new, too-cute-by-exactly-half play, currently staged by Promethean Theatre Ensemble.

Maddy (Alice Wu), maniacal about maintaining traditional gender roles in her stereotypically pre-women's-lib enclave, takes the theatrically precious route, adhering to the strictures of Emily Post's Etiquette with the fervor of a religious convert. Her devotion to serving "a proper tea" blocks out the sources of her sublimated but readily apparent anguish: she betrayed her family, her heritage (she's half Hawaiian), and her humanity to become the ideal white wife. Once Brandli sets her in motion, she becomes to contemporary audiences a cartoonish exemplar of Wrong Choices. Thus she's rarely interesting or surprising, even when her life implodes and it turns out she's Medea.

Clementine (Jamie Bragg), on the other hand, takes the theatrically demanding route. Having suffered a grievous loss at the hands of her loutish husband, Arthur—and blamed for it by judgmental female neighbors—she sees through the hypocrisy of gendered propriety but lacks the courage or means to strike out on her own. Her only hope of finding her true self, she believes, is to run off with the family doctor, yet she'll need legal cause for divorce. Enter Cassandra (Kaci Antkiewicz), Arthur's new typist and seemingly the town's only African-American, whom Clementine hopes to bribe into a compromising position with her husband. Cassandra may end up lynched, but Clementine imagines she'll be free.

It all blows up spectacularly in Clementine's face, but her route to disaster is full of all the moral ambivalence and pressing stakes absent from Maddy's journey. In essence, Brandli puts Clementine, a modern-day Clytemnestra, in a genuine predicament while placing Maddy in a mere setup.

Brandli tries to imbue everything else in the play with mythic resonance. Cassandra is, well, Cassandra, cursed by Apollo (a vainglorious, toga-clad prick) to speak true prophecies no one believes. And neighborhood teen Antonia (Kellen Robinson), whom Maddy tries to indoctrinate in all things Emily Post, is just barely Antigone, living with her unyielding business-tycoon uncle, Creon. Her great moral test comes not from burying a traitorous brother but from taking part in the civil rights movement. But for all the classical allusions throughout the play, about the only use Brandli makes of them, Clementine's dilemma notwithstanding, is a rather simplistic admonition that women should make their own decisions.

Director Anna Bahow keeps her strong cast charging forward for more than two hours, finding impressive nuance along the way. If this had been entirely Clementine's play, it might have paid off.   v

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Performing Arts
Henchpeople Jarvis Square Theater
July 09
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