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Surviving the mind of a survivalist

THEATER REVIEW: 'The Burden of Not Having a Tail' at Sideshow Theatre Company ★★

Chris Jones

July 4, 2013

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Among life's tribulations, you might not consider your lack of a distinct appendage to your torso to be at the top of the list. But for the character of Woman in Carrie Barrett's unusual new play, "The Burden of Not Having a Tail," that's just one more potential resource unavailable in the event of some earth-threatening disaster. Better, then, to be fully prepared.

Woman, played in the Sideshow Theatre Company production by the lively Karie Miller, is a perky, coupon-queen survivalist who delivers lectures on what to stockpile for when senators, truck drivers, governors, et al., have landed in the equivalent of a mass grave made of Salisbury steak, to borrow one of the metaphors that Woman favors. Woman might have dark information to import, but she's hardly the dour type. She pulls a guest from the audience for a long, onstage visit, and, at another moment, she pulls out a beach ball and coaxes her viewers to join her in throwing it around the theater. Still, even as she talks, shelves are collapsing all around her. By the end of the 70-minute show, she's virtually swimming in a sea of dried goods.

Barrett is a young writer who cut her teeth in Chicago and is not without some talent. Woman — give her a name, for goodness' sake — is an engaging characterization and comes with a certain Beckettian cheerfulness in the face of the horror that apparently resides inside her own head. But the problem with this monologic play is that there is no external dramatic tension.

What's going on in the theater feels mostly like an extension of the inside of Woman's mind. And when a playwright sets up a situation like that, then the character to whom you must listen for an hour had better be darned engaging and her worldview intensely provocative. Beckett, of course, knew this better than anyone: His optimists in the face of death, like Winnie in "Happy Days," are a blast.

Alas, Barrett's Woman tends to outstay her welcome, partly because she is too wacky and neurotic to be empathetic and also because you can never quite believe that she is real. There's a broad humor to the writing, with dark comedy as the aim, and "The Burden of Not Having a Tail" is quite successful in that regard. It is funny in spots. But there's not enough change in a character whom we dismiss too early as deluded: There's far too little sense of either emerging panic or renewed stoicism.

Either one would work, but this play spends too much time in the deadly middle. And thus the inevitable risk of the static that comes with a one-character show very much comes into play. We aren't invested enough in this person to want to spend a night with her rambling notions of the end of the world; we do not feel what she seems to feel with such intensity, nor do we see its logic.

This was one tough assignment for Miller, and this genial actress certainly gives it her all under the direction of Megan A. Smith. Miller is a tad broad, for sure, but there's also an honest and gutsy element to her acting and embrace of character. It's not quite sufficient to make this script or production work.

There's enough here to make you want to keep an eye on Barrett, who is quite the observant conceptualist. Now for a play with a tail that might just wag a little.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Aug. 4

Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.

Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Tickets: $20 at sideshowtheatre.org