Thursday, April 11, 2019

REVIEW: Midwest Premiere of UTILITY Via Interrobang Theatre Project at Rivendell Theatre Through May 4, 2019

Adult Night Out
ChiIL Live Shows on our radar:
Midwest Premiere!
Interrobang Theatre Project Presents
By Emily Schwend
Directed by Artistic Director Georgette Verdin

(left to right) Patrick TJ Kelly and Brynne Barnard 
All Photos by Evan Hanover

Through May 4, 2019 at Rivendell Theatre

by bonnie kenaz-mara

Emily Schwend's aptly named Utility is one of the quietest plays I've seen in a long time, with a message that comes through loud and clear. I'm still enthralled with Brynne Barnard's pregnant pauses and long, contemplative smoke breaks, as harried young mom, Amber. It's tough enough to be quietly absorbed in your thoughts in real life, and quite a feat to pull it off successfully, with an entire audience observing. Brynne nails it.

It takes a village to raise 3 young children, yet Amber's "village" is populated by a realistically relatable mother, Barbara Figgins (Laura), who expects to be waited on, and begrudgingly helps with her grandkids, and a husband who might as well be a 4th child, for all the assistance he provides. While overworked Amber handles all the logistics and stress of 3 young dependents, a flooded home under construction, and two jobs, her partner coasts along giving little physical, emotional, or practical support. 

Sure, Patrick TJ Kelly (Chris) is a hottie, but he's a philandering manbaby of a guy who's unemployed and unreliable for the most basic tasks. His screw up, forgetting to pay a bill, results in the electric being shut off on the eve of Amber's daughter's big 8th birthday bash. Aside from the obvious physical discomfort and inconvenience of a Texas summer sans air conditioning and refrigeration, they now need to hustle the party food out to a working fridge and negotiate everything by candlelight for a few days, till the utility company opens again and can restore service. The heartless utility is also now calling in the whole debt, instead of the monthly minimum that was due, before they'll power things up.

 (left to right) Brynne Barnard and Kevin D'Ambrosio 

During the course of the show, playwright Emily Schwend incorporates just about every use of the show's name. Chris' utility comes seriously into question. The Utility company provides some great physical and emotional obstacles for the characters with a lack of electricity, and it becomes readily apparent who Amber can truly count on in a crunch. Kevin D'Ambrosio (Jim), may not be the cute and charismatic charmer his brother is, but he's dependable to the core, and even more importantly, he has the wisdom to see past the superficial.

1.  the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial.
synonyms: usefulness, use, advantage, benefit, value, help, helpfulness, profitability, convenience, practicality, effectiveness, efficacy, avail, service, serviceableness, advantageousness; More

2. an organization supplying the community with electricity, gas, water, or sewerage.

1. useful, especially through being able to perform several functions.
"a utility truck"
2. functional rather than attractive.
"utility clothing"

(pictured) Brynne Barnard 

If only people had the smarts to choose their partners with their brains and not their eyes or hormones, the relentless work of childrearing, and staying afloat financially would be a bit more manageable. But the handsome, flirty addicts still seem to get the girl, more often than not. And at least in our country, women still disproportionately bear brunt of the time and energy burden of caring for children, whether they have a supporting partner or not.

 (left to right) Brynne Barnard and Patrick TJ Kelly 

The struggle is real and I couldn't be happier it's on stage. Theatre is a unique window into the lives and psyches of others, and it's integral to see the truth of so many women's lives finally being explored. I also love that one of the big stressors, the children, are always just off stage. This is not about the kids, but rather about the toll that raising kids pay check to pay check takes on the adults in their lives. Our country is massively failing working families below the poverty line, in childcare, healthcare, and basic quality of life.

Utility takes place entirely in the kitchen, during the eye of the hurricane, the tiny bits of quiet, kid free time in the daily grind. Instead of relaxing down time, it's telling that these little snippets in Amber's life are when the lunches get packed, gifts get wrapped, and everything else needs to get done, regardless of how exhausted she is from work. Her only vice and comfort is the solace in her solitary smoke breaks.

I loved the truthiness of this piece. Kudos to Interrobang Theatre Project for the excellent choice. Do note, this is not the show to wear squeaky shoes to, or chow down on noisy snacks in. It was so quiet, I could literally hear the stomach of the man behind me, growling incessantly. So take a pre show antacid if you need one, and be prepared to think, breathe, and just be, in those still, small spaces in a hectic life. Utility is highly recommended.

 (left to right) Brynne Barnard and Barbara Figgins 

Bonnie Kenaz-Mara is a Chicago based writer-theater critic-photographer-videographer-actress-artist-general creatrix and Mama to two terrific teens. She owns two websites where she has published frequently since 2008: (adult) & (family friendly). 

 Interrobang Theatre Project is pleased to conclude its ninth season, exploring “identity/crisis,” with the Midwest premiere of Emily Schwend's drama UTILITY, an intimate look at an East Texas woman's struggle to make ends meet, directed by Artistic Director Georgette Verdin*. UTILITY will play April 5 – May 4, 2019 at ITP’s new resident home, Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Tickets are currently available at or by calling (312) 219-4140. 

UTILITY features ITP Ensemble Member Brynne Barnard* with Kevin D'Ambrosio, Barbara Figgins and Patrick TJ Kelly.

Amber is doing everything she can to keep her head above water, but no matter how hard she tries it never seems to be enough. Money is tight, her marriage is in turmoil, and she’s juggling two jobs just to make ends meet. As she struggles to plan her eight-year-old daughter’s birthday party, Amber must stay strong as she feels increasingly invisible in her own life. Meticulous and heartbreaking, Utility offers an empathic glimpse into America's' working poor. Winner of the 2016 Yale Drama Series Prize.

Comments Managing Artistic Director Georgette Verdin, “This play fits snugly into both Interrobang’s mission and our 9th season, whose theme is: identity/crisis. It’s important to remember that in large swaths of our country, whether it be small towns decimated by dying industries or inner cities, the concept of identity is frustratingly wrapped up in the fight for basic survival needs. And while Trump’s election has given many of us so much to be saddened by and infuriated about, I’ve come to believe that liberals are often entering into one-sided conversations with people we imagine to be like the characters in Utility. People who, in reality, are preoccupied with keeping food on the table, and the electricity flowing. If if we really want to shift the needle and get our country headed in a direction that feels inclusive, we'll have to reach out to the marginalized in all corners across all cultures and employ radical empathy.”

 (left to right) Brynne Barnard and Patrick TJ Kelly

The production team for UTILITY includes Kerry L. Chipman (scenic design), Michelle E. Benda (lighting design), Erik Siegling (sound design), Adam Borchers (properties design), Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach), Claire Bauman (assistant director), Richie Vavrina (production manager), Bryan Zoleta (technical director) and Nick Plakas (stage manager)

*Denotes Interrobang Theatre Project Ensemble Member or Artistic Associate.

Cast (in alphabetical order): Brynne Barnard* (Amber), Kevin D'Ambrosio (Jim), Barbara Figgins (Laura) and Patrick TJ Kelly (Chris).

Location: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago

Dates: Previews: Friday, April 5 at 8 pm, Saturday, April 6 at 8 pm and Monday, April 8 at 8 pm

Subscriber/Board opening: Thursday, April 11 at 8 pm

Regular run: Friday, April 12 – Saturday, May 4, 2019

Curtain Times: Thursdays, and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm & 8 pm; Mondays at 8 pm.

Tickets: Previews: $16. Regular run: $32. Students $16 with ID. Group discounts available. Tickets are currently available at or by calling (312) 219-4140.

(left to right) Patrick TJ Kelly and Brynne Barnard 

About the Artists:
Emily Schwend’s (Playwright) plays include Utility (The Amoralists in New York City, Orange Tree Theatre in London, 2016 Yale Drama Series Award, 2017 IT Award for Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play), The Other Thing (Second Stage Theatre Uptown), Take Me Back (Walkerspace), South of Settling (Steppenwolf's Next Up Rep) and Splinters (CUDC Source Festival). She was a 2016-2017 Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard University and the inaugural 2014 Tow Foundation playwright-in-residence at Second Stage Theatre. Her work has been developed at The New Group, Roundabout Theatre Company, ACT Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, Partial Comfort Productions, Ars Nova, the Alliance Theatre, PlayPenn and the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, among others. She is a frequent contributor to Christine Jones’s Theatre for One booth. She is the recipient of a Bogliasco Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship, the ACT New Play Award, the David Calicchio Emerging American Playwrights Prize, the Lecomte du Nouy Prize, and the Heideman Prize. Her work has been commissioned by the Studio Theatre in D.C., the Ensemble Studio Theatre through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Old Vic in London. She is a proud alumna of the playwriting programs at Juilliard and Tisch.

Georgette Verdin (Director) has been working with ITP since 2014 and currently serves as Managing Artistic Director. She is also a freelance director, theater and speech educator and arts integration specialist. She was the founding theater teacher at Polaris Charter Academy, an Expeditionary Learning School in West Humboldt Park, where she taught full-time for eight years. For Interrobang, Georgette directed last season’s Jeff recommended production of Grace by Craig Wright, season seven’s production of the 2013 Yale Drama Series winner, Still by Jen Silverman, as well as season six’s Katrina: Mother-In-Law of ‘Em All by Rob Florence and the Jeff recommended Recent Tragic Events, also by Craig Wright. Other recent directing credits include Jeff Recommended 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas (Assistant Director, Lookingglass Theatre Company), Jeff Recommended Time Stands Still (AstonRep), Phoebe in Winter (Assistant Director, Facility Theatre) and Goodman’s A Christmas Carol (Assistant Director). Georgette holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Performance from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA and a Master in Directing from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. 

About Interrobang Theatre Project

Now in its ninth season, Interrobang Theatre Project, under the artistic leadership of Georgette Verdin, has been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as a “company to watch” and by Time Out Chicago as “one of Chicago’s most promising young theatre companies.” Chris Jones called Foxfinder, which kicked off Interrobang’s 2017-18 season, “...a ripping good yarn,” earning it 3.5 stars from the Chicago Tribune. Foxfinder also garnered seven non-Equity Jeff Awards nominations including Best Director and Production of a Play, and took home two awards for Best Original Music and Set Design. The company also earned seven non-Equity Jeff Nominations for their seventh season, including Best Director, Production of a Play, Solo Performance and acting nominations for Lead Actor, Actress (win) and Actor in a Supporting Role (win). Productions have included the world premiere of Calamity West’s Ibsen is Dead (Jeff Recommended), the Jeff Recommended The Pitchfork Disney, Orange Flower Water, Recent Tragic Events, The North Pool, The Amish Project, Falling, Grace, The Goat or Who is Sylvia? and I Call My Brothers. Director James Yost’s critically-acclaimed Really Really was one of six shows chosen for Chicago Tribune’s “Best of 2015 in Chicago Fringe Theater.”

What’s an interrobang?
An interrobang is the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point, joining the Latin for “question” (interro) with a proofreading term for “exclamation” (bang). Through the plays we produce, Interrobang Theatre Project aims to pose worthwhile and exciting questions which challenge our understanding and assumptions of who we are and the world in which we live.

For more information, please visit

 (left to right) Patrick TJ Kelly and Brynne Barnard in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Midwest premiere of UTILITY. All Photos by Evan Hanover.

No comments:

Post a Comment