The Emerald | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Emerald 

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Knee Deep Theater

at Cardiff Giant Theater

By Justin Hayford

The stories of Donald Barthelme offer actors a lot to sink their teeth into. His writing is concise, imaginative, and clever without being arch. His plot lines, when his stories have them, move effortlessly forward. His stories are playful, though the elements he plays with have deep psychological associations; the result is that his writing seems paradoxically flip and heartfelt at the same time--and therein lies its beauty and power. A favorite example from Overnight to Many Distant Cities:

"Areas of the city, they told us, had been designed to rot, fall into desuetude, return, in time, to open space. Perhaps, they said, fawns would one day romp there, on the crumbling brick. We were slightly skeptical about this part of the plan, but it was, after all, a plan, the ferocious integrity of the detailing impressed us all . . . "

But the very qualities that make Barthelme's stories seem so simple to read can make them curiously difficult to act. Finding psychological consistency within his characters is daunting; Barthelme seems to put into their mouths whatever words happen to be passing through his head at the time, from the most rarefied to the most colloquial, often within the same sentence. You almost have to play his texts like music.

So when walking into Knee Deep Theater's production of Barthelme's "The Emerald," I had preconceived notions about how Barthelme's work should be performed--a dangerous mind-set for a reviewer, especially at a company's debut production. Not surprisingly, Knee Deep's production did not match up to my expectations, although I admire their effort in staging such a challenging and beautiful work.

"The Emerald" is an absolute gem of a story. It's about a witch named Mad Moll who is impregnated by the man in the moon--Dues Lunus--and gives birth, after a seven-year pregnancy, to a 7,035-carat emerald. The quasi-evil Vandermaster will do anything to get the emerald, for if he ingests one carat of emerald dust each day for 7,035 days, he will be able to live twice.

The story is wildly imaginative and fast-paced, written almost entirely in short snippets of dialogue. Knee Deep's production is aptly sparse, with no set and only essential set pieces and props. Director Thad Davis doesn't clutter the story with typical theatrics (like blocking out the actors' movements) but instead lets it run as freely as he can (although his use of full blackouts between scenes seriously inhibits the play's momentum).

The production's weakness is in Davis's direction of his cast. The six actors seem to be swimming against the current. They chew on the text, working from sentence to sentence, rather than finding the rhythm in longer stretches of dialogue. For example when Lily the newspaper reporter (Meredith Neuman) first meets Mad Moll (Sara Koenig), she explains that "editors are the ones who say this is news, this is not news, maybe this is news, damned if I know whether this is news or not." Instead of going through to the end of the line, Neuman shifts gears after each comma, trying to embody the imaginary editor with each statement. By the time she gets to the end of the sentence, she's lost sight of the reason she started it in the first place.

I don't intend to single out Neuman. The rest of the cast--Koenig, Garrett Eisler, Daniel Aukin, and Gavin Witt--address the text the same way. Certainly this commonality of style is evidence of much hard work, for creating so shared a sensibility onstage is a difficult task. The actors pay great attention to the details, which is certainly important, but they have't yet found the larger structure of the piece. As a result, almost everything in the play is presented with uniform weight, making it difficult to separate the important ideas from the decoration.


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