The spirit of the Fringe has infiltrated the national headline-making Women’s Voices Theater Festival. With a lively, if modest, production of Jennie Berman Eng’s Whenever You’re Near Me (I Feel Sick) Thelma Theatre stakes a claim as a new play focused theater to watch.
The highlight here is playwright and director Jennie Berman Eng’s sharp, honest, dialogue and fresh characters. Two New York hipster-types, Wendy and and Andre, have reached that point in their late 20s when they’ve banged their head against the wall of artistic dreams just long enough that the call of suburban domesticity, and the stability it allows, is starting to look good.
We’re clearly meant to see these two as a One True Pairing, but darn it, feelings are complicated and both have ended up in less passionate, safer relationships.
Philosophical, underemployed punk Andre (charmingly played by Ricardo Frederick Evans) leaves New York for Austin at the behest of his girlfriend Sarah (Marta Kotzian), while charming, never-satisfied Wendy (Ariana Almajan, kicking a fair amount of ass, but in a super vulnerable way) marries her unseen corporate-type beau. Scenes play out vignette-style over the course of a decade, give or take, as the two reluctantly embrace domesticity while always holding a torch for their old friend.
Of course a chance encounter brings the two star-crossed back into each other’s orbit at the time of most atom bomb-like impact on their lives.
Eng’s secret weapon here is Kotzian, bringing depth and charm to a the traditionally thankless role of the “wrong” partner in a story clearly skewed towards the Andre/Wendy pairing. She makes for an especially sympathetic Baxter-type. Kotzian and Evans have an easy chemistry and their scene immediately following their backyard wedding is perhaps the play’s most charming.
At times, the production’s lack of polish (and budget) shine through. At Friday’s performance (the production’s first, to be fair) some technical details were in need of tightening. For instance, Dan Kemper’s perfectly lovely photo projections, meant to invoke the iconic 80’s toy View-Master, click by a little too fast to make much of an impact, especially during any moment they share the space with actors in motion.
WHENEVER YOU’RE NEAR ME (I FEEL SICK)
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 17 – October 4, 2015
at Trinidad Theatre
1358 Florida Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002|
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Details and Tickets
Eng, directing her own piece, has a knack for bringing detailed character work out of her actors, though her two-person conversation scenes, a majority of the piece, tend towards the visually static. In this piece, at least, Eng clearly prizes conversation over action. Thankfully those conversations are often remarkably charming and often seem very of-the-moment, capturing the work and relationship stresses put on older Millennials who came of age through a war and matured through a recession.
Thelma Theatre certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. Whenever is actually running in rep at the Trinidad Theatre with a second play, Patricia Connelly’s Princess Margaret. Running a two-play rep as your second project, right in the middle of a huge festival, shows a level of guts, rare for new kid on the block. I look forward to watching them develop.
Whenever You’re Near Me (I Feel Sick) . Written and Directed by Jennie Berman Eng . Presented by Thelma Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.