Review: “Tail Eats Snake: Part Deux” (The Side Project)

Noah Simon and Sarah Scanlon/Photo: Scott Dray
Noah Simon and Sarah Scanlon/Photo: Scott Dray

Show: Tail Eats Snake: Part Deux

Company: The Side Project

Venue: The Side Project (1439 W Jarvis Ave)

Die Roll: 47 (on a d%)

Longevity in the theatrical field is something to be celebrated.  Especially in a market that has as high of turn over as the Storefront community of Chicago.  In 2016, Rogers Park’s own The Side Project is celebrating 16 years of making art and bringing new plays to their community.  That’s pretty impressive.  What’s even more impressive it that the group champions the work of new playwrights and consistently pushes out well-crafted new work on a regular basis.

It therefore seems completely natural that a themed ten-minute play festival would be the perfect way to celebrate their anniversary.  Tapping their reservoir of playwrights whose plays have formerly graced their stage, The Side Project has commissioned one play for each year that they’ve been in existence.  Eight plays are performed each evening without intermission.  So, if you go on a Thursday or Friday you’ll be seeing one half of their line-up (2000-2008 or 2009-2016).  Saturdays and Sundays are booked with two shows, so that if you attend the matinee and then the evening, as well, you’ll see the scope of the company’s entire duration represented.

A quick word on reviewing a short play festival:  it is hard to do.  Each play stands on its own, and if there is no connection between the works, it is difficult to evaluate whether the viewing audience gains anything from seeing the evening in total.  That being said, I really love ten-minute play festivals.  At least, when they have a well-executed theme.  And this one play per year set-up is perfect as far as framing devices go.  So, there is something upon which to judge the pieces as part of a whole.

On the night which I attended (which was a Friday), the second batch of plays was presented.  I cannot comment on the first set’s qualities, except to say that if they were treated as well as those of the second night, then I expect it makes for a good evening of entertainment, too.

That last sentence was probably a bit of a spoiler.  Sorry about that.  It is true that I enjoyed this set of plays.  Of the eight presented, five were great, two were good, and one left me wanting something more, but still wasn’t bad.  That’s a good ratio of quality.  The evening starts a little slowly, which was surprising to me, as the first two plays are written by men whose work is familiar to many.  The inaugural piece, written by Sean Graney, is set just after Barack Obama’s own inaugural address, and serves as both a philosophic analysis of the speech, and also a glimpse at the disconnection between people.  The concept doesn’t click as well as most of the others that follow it, but it does set a very clear timeline for the plays of the evening.  We’re in 2009 again, at place and time wherein hope and fear have come together in one memorable event.

Taryn Wood and Stephen Cefalu/Photo: Scott Dray
Taryn Wood and Stephen Cefalu/Photo: Scott Dray

Scott Barsotti’s “Pyrofuckingclastic Surge”, set in 2010, is a loose assemblage of lines that represent an aimless and pointless conversation between a married couple who may or may not deserve each other, and may or may not even matter as human beings.  There is nothing at stake in this play, which means that there really isn’t any reason to watch it.  It’s disappointing that the former Wildclaw artistic director couldn’t deliver a piece with muscle.  Instead, it seemed to strand two actors on stage in an earnest attempt to make sense out of their ill-crafted lines.

The good news is that once one has survived the initial bumps of the evening, the plays pick up steam and the momentum carries on all the way to the end.  The strongest of the night are all directed by Anna C. Bahow.  Her sure hand guided scripts by Laura Jacqmin, Mark Young, and Steven J. Spencer.  Presented back to back, these three plays stood in for 2012, 2013, and 2014.  The actors featured in these pieces were also the evening’s strongest.  In Mark Young’s “Fear and Trembling”, Noah Simon plays a philosophy professor who had learned the joy of eating his neighbor’s pets raw.  It is a darkly comedic piece that delves into a sickly twisted mind shares its charmingly normal dysfunction.

Simon also appears in “Fear and Paranoia” with Sarah Scanlon.  Spencer’s script is an exploration of what happens when an unbalanced conspiracy theorist tries to purchase a machine gun from a well-balanced and completely grounded dealer at a gun show.  It is a refreshing look at who really may be dangerous, and who stands in their way.  Scanlon embodies a tense and not quite right in the head woman who could easily do harm to someone due to her own unfounded fears.  This is in contrast to the very grounded, very sharp, and rightly fearful woman who she plays in Jacqmin’s script two plays earlier.  Scanlon and Simon both show impressive range in a short period of time.  And Bahow clearly knows how to stage the pieces to work to her talent’s skills.

Todd McConville and Rachel Slavick/Photo: Scott Dray
Todd McConville and Rachel Slavick/Photo: Scott Dray

The final two shows of the evening take a more serious turn.  Jacob Juntunen’s “The First Yes” brought tears to my eyes, as a dying writer and his wife relive his final days.  Daniel Talbott’s “Whale Watching” then takes us on a voyage into society’s last breaths.  Unlike the others, the year that Talbott’s script represents hasn’t come to pass in its entirety.  So, who knows if his prediction of an essentially post-apocalyptic existence will be part of our 2016.  I certainly hope not, but if so, it seems that this scene about two people on a park bench may be a fitting end.  It was for the evening’s entertainment, at least.

In closing, let me just say, that I understand that the ten-minute play is essentially the short story of the theatrical field.  And that not unlike the short form of fiction, it appeals to a select audience.  I postulate that short stories tend to be consumed most readily by other writers in the literary field.  And so it is with ten-minute plays.  Generally, this is theatre for theatre people celebrating the life of one theatre in particular.  It’s a great thing to celebrate, and a good evening of works that accomplish their goal.  As a playwright and theatre person myself, I really enjoyed it.  Were I you, I’d roll the dice on this one.  Technically, I guess I did.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sixteen plays celebrate 16 years of similarly solid new works.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”