Sunday, September 2, 2018

Backyard Renaissance Out On A Philosophical Limb With “Smokefall”.

Do apples fall far from their tree? One would have to say definitely not! They fall just where they grew on the branch. Those branches closest to the tree fall closest etc., but never further out from the furthest branch, especially not in Grand Rapids, Mi. where our story begins and where a huge apple tree that was growing in the backyard, has died.

After sitting through Noah Haidle’s quirky and whimsical  “Smokefall”, now on stage in La Jolla at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre where Backyard Renaissance Theatre is in residence for the rest of this year, the apples on Haidle’s eccentric family tree are as close to being replicas of their past (four generations) than they will ever know.
Cast of Smokefall
Apple trees (dead and re-grown); a daughter that hasn’t spoken a word in years and eats mulch; tree bark, shoes and drinks paint to wash them down is just the beginning of Act I (Help Me Remember).  

A depressed husband that walks away from his family; a loving (pregnant) mother who has a running dialogue with her unborn twins fetus’ (One and Two) that talk to each other in utero, and a grandfather who is a retired Colonel (Antonio TJ Johnson), suffering from dementia make up this dysfunctional family unit.

The narrator who is called Footnote (Brian Mackey) enters at the top of the play.  He tries to keep all the apples in their proper places by telling the audience, what to expect and what is. This family will inhabit the Shank Stage through Sept. 16th.  
Jessica John Gercke and Francis Gercke
Mackey’s character, Footnote walks us through most of the dialogue with little action coming from the characters. Dad Daniel (Francis Gercke) has already decided he is not coming home tonight. At night in bed he makes lists of all reasons to be grateful.

On this morning he kisses his daughter Beauty (Fedra Ramirez Olivares) hello, and checks in on the twins ‘who he feels were a mistake’ and he talks to the Colonel about how he feels. He kisses his wife goodbye, leaves the house and never returns.   

Before that, his wife Violet (Jessica John Gercke) will remind him to ‘talk to the twins, which he does … (‘Help me remember the glory of living’) and he lets us in on the health and needs of the Colonel whose sickness has gone downhill since his wife’s death.

Footnote: “After breakfast, Daniel will drive past his office, he’ll buy three loaves of bread from the gas station and feed the ducks. He’ll call in sick, get in his car and start driving west. By 11 he’ll be in Chicago. After this morning, Daniel will never see any of his family again.”  
Francis Gercke and Brian Mackey
Act II is the pièce de résistance and what makes “Smokefall” so memorable (Where We’ll Never Grow Old). It takes place in Violet's womb where we meet up with the twins, Fetus One (Francis Gercke) and Fetus Two (Brian Mackey). It’s a dark chamber with red neon lights attached to each twin with enough length to allow for standing and moving about and an eventual flight into the world.

They are dressed in straw hats, argyle socks and matching knitted vests, Two is wearing saddle shoes, One has on black shoes. They are sitting atop the duo layered set, legs are dangling and their conversation/discussions take on different tones.

They seem to be in the middle of a philosophical debate about the next chapter in their lives after they are born and what lies ahead for them. The banter gets a bit heady when the conversation turns to ‘original sin’, (Remember that apple tree?) to free will, to Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” after one of their jokes bombed.  

They argue over which one will be named Samuel and who will be called Johnny. As they prepare to leave the warmth and security of the womb, they look very much like they will be jumping out of a plane.

The whole act is surreal, oft times funny oft tragic, but much too delving into the theoretical and theological for moi. Unfortunately the act ends in tragedy for one of the twins. As in life childbirth is not without its risks and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to let us know that as fast as love grows, it can be taken away in a heartbeat or in this case an umbilical chord.

Fast forward to Act III in the future (The Attempt Is How We Live).

It’s 74 years after the twins’ birth. The once fallen apple tree has sprouted up between the floorboards in the kitchen; Beauty comes back into the picture. She is now in her 90’s never looking a day older than she was in Act I and speaking in whole sentences, thank you. The (back then) Colonel is the now the older Johnny whose now son Samuel has come back to the family home for a birthday celebration. 
Jessica John Gercke
There is a lot going on here especially since the playwright has a tendency to repeat, mostly through the narration, what’s happened in the past. Again, rather showing us, he continues more of the same information hoping it will sink in?

Be that as it may, I had more trouble dealing with the ‘original sin’ conversation (one of the themes from Elliot’s poem), along with his themes of Time-Past, Time Present, Time- Future as defined by the narrative than I did understanding that what the future holds is up to us, not necessarily from Devine intervention alone.

But watching a talented group of actors challenge themselves to make the whole thing work gave yours truly a sense of gratitude that they gave us this opportunity.

Work it did, with the help of lighting designer (brilliant lighting) Curtis Mueller, Jeanne Reith’s costume choices, Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design and Justin Humphries set design (the chrome kitchen set looked just like the one I had in my first apartment and the floor lamp greatly resembled mine as well) especially after the break when an apple tree welcomed us back between Acts II and III.

Co-directing, artistic director Francis Gerke and Andrew Oswald keep a tight reign on their actors allowing them to give back what the playwright has set before them. Delving into family dynamics is often fraught with danger.

The characters, while lacking much in depth on the surface but for the narrator’s descriptions, all manage to shift gears and take on multiple identities. The one constant is Jessica John Gercke’s Violet. Her sweetness and nimbleness radiates throughout making the themes that the greatest gift of all is love, and “Nothing lasts forever, it isn’t supposed to”, believable.

Hats off to Backyard Renaissance with Brian Mackey, Antonio TJ Johnson, Fran Gercke and Fedra Rameriz Olivares for taking risky theatre choices and making them look like ‘a piece o’ cake. 

Beautifully done!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept. 16th
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company
Phone: 619-977-0999
Production Type:
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA92037
Ticket Prices: $18.00-$35.00
Venue: Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre
Photo: Daren Scott


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