By Seth Bockley
Directed By Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
“Aunt Susan is not of this earth, she’s apart of the cloud.”
Life In The Age Of Digital Communication
As technology evolves, we find ourselves forced to adapt the way we communicate with one another. Since we’re spending more time in front of computer screens and less time face to face, the world can feel increasingly lonesome, making it difficult to talk out your problems and gain an emotional reprieve. Meet Aunt Susan (Alex Stage), your digital shoulder to cry on. The play, Ask Aunt Susan, tells the story of a young male writer and coder who’s left unemployed after a devious Yelp.com business venture goes sour. Steve (Marc Grapey), his cheeky entrepreneurial boss offers up a new opportunity to become an online advice columnist at AskAuntSusan.com.
Inspired by Nathanael West’s 1933 novella Miss Lonely Hearts, Ask Aunt Susan takes West’s ideas and brings them into the digital age. Although there’s an obvious problem with a male masquerading as a female advice guru, Aunt Susan, that is not the point of the play. Instead, it’s a fable for the digital age that questions how we choose to experience life, conduct business, and trust the anonymous users and developers of the web. Most people are aware of the pitfalls of digital communication, but few works of art are attacking these conundrums, especially not in the entertaining and humorous way that Ask Aunt Susan expertly achieves.
Often times when a playwright and director attempt to tackle a timely topic, such as digital communication, it can be difficult for an audience to stomach the criticism without some discretion on behalf of the artists. Playwright Seth Bockley aptly avoids this risk by wrapping his commentary snugly under stock characters, easy to grasp humor, and classic story telling techniques. Even though a lot of the humor was cliché and obvious, it did not lack wit. The humor made the story accessible to the audience, allowing them to drop their guard and absorb the satire. Bockley’s characters seem heavily influenced by the stock characters from the Italian theatre movement, Commedia dell’Arte, still used today in the contemporary sitcom. We already know the characters, so we know what to expect. The audience doesn’t need to waste time dissecting the characters, rather, they can mainline the core concepts of the play.
Although a lot of care was taken to make Bockley’s concepts easily available, some of the emphasis was lost when the plot-driven play was dictated through monologues, which functioned like movie montages. The play would then slow to lengthy character driven scenes, which stalled the plot. Although the characters are very interesting, we already understand them. More time could have been spent showing the plot rather than telling it. Nonetheless, the characters and actors’ performances were magnificent. Alex Stage played an energetic and endearing Aunt Susan who struggles to balance his life and his desires with the altruism he develops through his tenure as Aunt Susan. Stage presents a wonderful everyman for the younger generation, and gives entertaining insight to an older crowd. Grapey delivers the seductive, bold, and domineering businessman Steve with a fine balance of liveliness and control. Robyn Scott was an exceptional treat to watch as she juggled three distinct characters with captivating grace.
The production was so fluid and polished that the director’s hand was nearly invisible. Henry Wishcamper’s coordination of the play’s many elements were so precise and adept that he respectfully placed the characters and story above a declaration of auteurship. Wishcamper did have the opportunity to show off his directing chops with a beautifully wild, dense, yet concise dream sequence.
In the realm of theatre, where body and voice are king, it can be difficult to use video screens effectively. Although the play was not reliant on the use of video, the collaboration between Wishcamper, Bockley, set designer Kevin Depinet, and projection designer Mike Tutaj effectively presented the idea that we live in a world of screens. Furthermore, Depinet’s set was absolutely gorgeous, displaying elements of a Chicago apartment, diner, and bar as if they crash-landed onto the stage. The set pieces sit at extreme canted angles, mirroring the broken and crumbling lives the characters struggle to navigate. Although the set is beautiful and sends a clear message, its expressionist nature may have been a bit over the top considering the tone and presentation of the play. Nonetheless, it is a visual spectacle, which functions well and can be seen as a nod to the expressionist style of West’s original novella.
Funny, spectacular, and engaging, Ask Aunt Susan will entertain while sneaking in immensely timely commentary. It’s easy to find comfort on the internet, but at the end of the day we are all human beings who yearn for tangible interactions. If you find yourself buried in your tiny screens, come to the theatre and spend some time with Aunt Susan. Take the time to be in a physical room full of people instead of a chat room and let Ask Aunt Susan carry the burdens of the digital age.
Date Reviewed: June 1st, 2014
For more info checkout the Ask Aunt Susan page at theatreinchicago.com
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org, tickets $10-$40, Wed-Thurs 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm, running time is 80 minutes with no intermission, through June 22nd, 2014