Red Bud

By Brett Neveuredbudlogo

Directed by Brant Russell

Produced by Signal Ensemble Theatre

Illustrated Example of Friendships Withering Under Pressure

As people get older, their changing bodies and responsibilities necessitate different interests, lifestyles, and sources of pride. Those who can’t adjust are in for a hard time, particularly as financial stress becomes less tolerable. Signal’s United States premiere play Red Bud, which is about struggling friends on the cusp of middle age, works towards its conclusion with mechanical inevitability. However, it provides the ensemble with an opportunity to play complex, challenging characters, and to tell a story of depressing relevance regardless of your age.

The Red Bull Red Bud National Motocross Event is a motorcycle race held every 4th of July in Buchanan, Michigan. Attending is the annual tradition of four men who have been friends since high school. The play begins with one of them, Jason (Colby Sellers), falling into a fire he was attempting to leap over by riding a cooler down a wooden track like a ski jump. Fortunately, one of the other friends, Bill (Joseph Stearns) is a fireman and carries around a small extinguisher. Jason and the third friend, Shane (Bries Vannon) regard this as an overreaction, and ridicule him for it. Ribbing each other is an ordinary way of bonding for these men, but this year, something’s different. Jason was laid off eight months ago, and has had to sell nearly everything he owns. Shane was demoted at his job as a social worker from handling cases to being something Jason describes as a secretary. Their jabs, which often seem like the sort a middle-schooler would make, are motivated by insecurity and defensiveness instead of humor.

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To make tensions worse, Bill and the fourth friend, Greg (Joe McCauley), have not only jobs, but romantic relationships. The men have gotten into the habit of scapegoating Greg’s wife Jen (Sarah Gitenstein) for their conflicts, and are paranoid she is trying to break them apart. When she actually shows up, they get along with her about as well as they do with each other because she shares their interests and had partied with them in years past, though she’s pregnant now and this will likely be Greg’s last Red Bud for a while. Bill has just started dating a nineteen-year old, Jana (Samantha Beach). It is quickly apparent that she does not have much interest in motorcycle racing, but she does enjoy toying with people. The older men are no match for her. A night that includes drinking games which involve hitting people, uncooked meat due to nobody bringing a grill, and endlessly repeated Kurosawa movie impressions quickly turns sour.

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What works about this play is that even though I did not like these people exactly, I felt I understood them. The acting, along with costumes designed by Carla Hamilton, makes everybody completely realistic. Sellers’s Jason is a huge jerk, though he’s in by far the worst situation, and pretty much everything divulges about his life humiliates him further. Vannon’s Shane has the underlying tenderness to want to do social work, but the trauma that resulted in his demotion has set him only slightly less on edge than Jason. The character I identified most strongly with was Jen, who being excluded from the partying due to her pregnancy, like the audience has to observe the deteriorating situation instead of participating in it, and tries in vain to play peacemaker. Jana, besides partying hard enough to remind the others of what they’re no longer capable of doing or attaining, insists on asking the questions that proper decorum demands you allow people to dodge. Beach plays her as someone who simply recognizes nothing in the others worth respecting, and lacks the maturity to see why it’s better to just get along.

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Red Bud is violent, and ends with the destruction you could see coming from the beginning. But suspense is not what makes the play worth seeing. In an inoffensive seventy-five minutes, director Brant Russell presents lifelong friendships dying before our eyes. We like to think friends can help each other through hard times, but we know pride often gets in the way. This parable forces us to reflect on who we feel comfortable telling the truth to, and what we really get out of relationships. The story is bleak, but is told well and contains important lessons.

Recommended

Jacob Davis

Reviewed January 30, 2015

For more information, see Red Bud’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-698-7389 or visit signalensemble.com. Tickets are $15-23. Plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Runs through February 28. Running time is seventy-five minutes with no intermission.

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