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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER REVIEW Sagittarius Ponderosa
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-07-11

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Playwright: MJ Kaufman

At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-728-7529; Redtwist.org; $35-$40. Runs through: July 29

Sagittarius Ponderosa is stuffed with unfulfilled possibilities despite a more-than-competent production. A work of magic realism, it seems an exercise in style and technique rather than focused on character or story.

For reasons not fully explained, the setting is central Oregon near a majestic ponderosa pine forest ( perhaps there's a personal connection for playwright MJ Kaufman ), and scenic designer Kristen Martino's set skillfully incorporates four gargantuan tree trunks. Here, between one Thanksgiving and the next, a small family goes through major transitions.

First, returning late-20s daughter Angela ( Jaq Seifert ) has transitioned to Archer, a name taken from hir birth sign, Sagittarius the hunter. Spending nights in the forest, hir meets Owen ( Christopher Acevedo ), a grad student, and they begin an affair. Then, long-widowed Grandma ( Kathleen Ruhl ) creates a love potion ( intended for Angela ) that triggers a romance with her geriatric neighbor ( a puppet operated by Brian Parry ).

Archer's father/Grandma's son ( also Brian Parry ) takes a new name, too, so Death won't know him. He has an unspecified lingering illness with no symptoms ( but perhaps diabetes ), and Death collects him anyway halfway through the 75-minute play. He reappears to Grandma and Archer in supportive ghostly visits but not to his newly alone wife ( Jacqueline Grandt ), who has mutual communication issues with Archer.

Then, Owen leaves without telling Archer his last name, where he's going or if he'll return ... and Archer doesn't ask. Ze decides to stay with Mom and get a local job. And then it's Thanksgiving Day again with Mom, Archer, Grandma and her new bf counting their blessings.

Earlier, Owen tells Archer about old Native American knowledge of controlled burns that cleared the forest floor, thereby renewing and strengthening the ponderosas, and the play seems to be about renewal. It's difficult to tell because there's so little information about the characters; things such the parents' reactions to Archer's transition, why they live in the woods or the source of mother-daughter conflict. Next, Dad's relationships to his wife, child and mother are so incompletely written that his death makes no difference. Finally, Owen's abrupt departure is unfulfilling for the audience and leaves a gap in understanding Archer, the play's central figure. At the end, only Grandma appears to have chosen life and renewal via her new relationship. Mom and Archer count their blessings, too, but they really don't seem to have any.

Sagittarius Ponderosa is well-performed under director James Fleming. The actors have charm and tenderness despite the sometimes-confusing "magic" style. But the character writing is so sketchy that it's difficult to really care about them.


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