Rivendell’s ‘Dry Land’ Illustrates an Authentic View of High School

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Graphic by Daniella Mazzio

 

By Lauren Quinlan, Critic

Uber drivers are always a mixed bag. Sometimes they will never say a word to you the whole ride. Sometimes they chat with you and turn out to be fascinating.

And sometimes they mansplain to you, on everything from your college major to the play you and your friend were privately discussing in the backseat. Believing he is the expert on all things, he feels compelled chime in.

This instance with my Uber driver is by no means a one-time event. I have noticed that many men often feel that their opinion is of a higher caliber than a woman’s, without considering the woman’s personal experience. Through their work, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble works to curb this affront by exploring only women’s perspectives and elevating the talents of female theatre professionals. By doing this, Rivendell occupies a gap in the Chicago theatre scene, but by no means fills it.

Just as Rivendell is an exception to the rule of many Chicago theatres, Dry Land defies the expectations and stereotypes placed upon plays that deal with high schoolers, as it explores the improbable friendship of Ester and Amy as they navigate the pains of growing up and the intricacies of a DIY abortion. This comes as no surprise, as the Midwest premiere is directed by Hallie Gordon, who is the Artistic Director of Steppenwolf for Young Audiences. Gordon has plenty of experience working with texts centered on young people, and that knowledge shines in Rivendell’s production.

So many plays about the high school experience adopt a pandering attitude toward their audience that immediately turns them off to whatever message the creator hopes to convey. This turns a piece of potential art into something as base as educational theatre – the horror of every high schooler in every sweaty gymatorium across America. Gordon and Spiegel both understand what it means to be a high schooler, specifically a girl in high school, and can speak the language in a way that is so organic it feels seamless. They speak to and with young people as equals, while still writing from a place of secular wisdom.

Every actor plays something beyond a trope or label, and brings a level of realness and nuance that communicates authenticity to any wary teenagers in the audience. Ester, played by Jessica Ervin, navigates a potential romance with Victor, a college student played by Matt Farabee, with the gawkiness associated with youth – without reverting to a quirky caricature of an awkward teenage girl. Bryce Gangel, who portrays Amy, embodies her brief stint as Ester’s tormentor in a devastating way that lays bare Amy’s inner turmoil, but does not cry out for the audience’s pity. I have seen both Ester’s aloofness and Amy’s self-sustaining fierceness reflected in my own friends, and their wry humor often surprises the audience into nervous laughter. Ester and Amy’s unlikely and turbulent friendship enforces the reality present in Spiegel’s script and the messiness of teenage life.

The slovenliness of being a teenage girl comes with its fair share of anguish and angst. This barely-tapped entity manifests itself in many ways. In Rivendell’s Dry Land, it comes through in stunning violence that captures the power and payoff Chicago storefronts can achieve when they don’t shy away from the ugly, bloody mess of life. This violence is not facile, either – David Blixt’s fight choreography and Gordon’s direction blend together in true, harrowing meaning that makes the audience feels sucker-punched along with Amy.

One scene in particular – one of the play’s best – exists in almost total silence, and is more brutal than any of Ester and Amy’s quarrels. Directors are often wary of staging silence, afraid that the audience will lose interest, but Gordon’s careful articulation portrays the powerful and upsetting sequence impeccably.

It’s almost impossible to discuss women and women’s issues without dipping into the political realm. Rivendell’s production handles this exchange superbly, handling the political nature of abortion without being preachy or annoying about it in a world that cannot stop talking about the issue – with or without the proper authority. The importance of enduring female friendship and a woman’s right to choose how to live her life on every level is conveyed not by shouting, but by seeping into the skin and the very marrow of the audience. This delicacy is a crucial skill to have in a time where there is so much shouting and overstimulation, often by the very men who work every day to deny women like Amy and Ester the right to make choices about their life’s direction.

When: Through May 28
Where: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (5779 N. Ridge Avenue in Chicago’s Edgewater Neighborhood)
Runtime: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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