Strange Tree Group‘s production of The Dastardly Ficus, and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery, by Strange Tree founder Emily Schwartz, offered one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Funny, twisted, poignant, macabre, and a little sad: this was an evening I won’t soon forget. While scant on plot, Dastardly Ficus offered a voyaristic look into two highly eccentric and reclusive women who live with their own rules, march to their own drummer, talk their own language. Think Grey Gardens meets Tim Burton with a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace.
Upon entering the basement theatre of the Chopin space — a space that is unique in and of itself — the tone was set. You literally walked through a house facade to enter the performance area — the parlor of Jennifer and Geneva Derbyshire. In this tight, musty space, these two middle-aged sisters play out their twisted parlor games, bicker incessantly, and argue with their house ficus. The younger sister (by 13 months), Jennifer, has an affected English accent and an affectation for whimsy and the occasional anonymous cat funeral, and Geneva is a pinched spinster who at first seems like a wet blanket, but underneath the tailored and spectacled exterior lies a heart aching for love and acceptance. This is a relationship rich in co-dependence and love, albeit multiple threats of death and disownment (and possible dismemberment?). You are never quite sure who really owns the power in this dysfunctional family. The moment one seems to have the hand, the other plays the Ace. (I’m not sure what that really means since I don’t play cards, but it sounded good.)
As the elder sister Geneva, Carol Enoch was fantastic. When she literally and figuratively unbuttoned herself in act two, I fell in love. However, Nancy Freidrich stole the show as the dotty younger sister Jennifer. Her work in the second act was nothing short of brilliant, as she shuffled around orchestrating an ill-fated date for Geneva with Mr. Clock (the warm and quirky Scott Cupper).
I only have two quibbles: 1) The expository and vignette-heavy first act was overshadowed by the strength of the act two; and 2) this was probably one of the most uncomfortable spaces I’ve sat in. It was hot and stuffy, with zero leg room and seats that seemed determined to make you shift every two minutes.
Overall, Strange Tree really delivered a gem of a production. I must note Amanda Berg Wilson’s pitch-perfect direction, complete with choreographed scene changes, and Emily Schwartz and Kate Nawrocki’s set, which resembled a macabre pop-up book.
When I left the Chopin Theatre, I felt like I just spent an exceptional evening in the parlor of two wonderfully eccentric women — and I’m waiting for my next invitation. If this isn’t the point of theatre, what is?
Photos: Josh Hawkins