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Theater Tue Nov 16 2010
There are people whose sense of identity is validated by their possessions. Most of us, actually, are defined by them to a certain extent. That's what display cases and bumper stickers are for. In times of uncertainty we can be comforted by our collections. Conversely, it can be very upsetting to lose them.
This concept is what Dog and Pony Theatre Company's newest production, Auctioning the Ainsleys, is all about.
The play opens with a statuesque redheaded woman (Avery, played by Rebekah Ward-Hays) boisterously auctioning off a man's suit-- hat, shoes and all. "He couldn't have gotten too far without his shoes," she proclaims. Soon thereafter we learn that the suit belongs to Avery's late father, and that she killed him, left town, and left the rest of her family behind to pick up the pieces.
The next scene opens with Alice (Kate Kisner), a mother of four grown children, of whom Avery is the eldest. She is describing each of the three younger siblings to Arthur (Austin Talley), a man she has hired to record her life and her family's affairs for her, as she's swiftly losing her memory and her health. And this is no ordinary family. Each of the siblings is acutely eccentric and at least a little bit insane. The three left behind, for example, still live on Alice's property (two in the basement) but haven't seen her in 15 years. Instead, they communicate with her through an intercom system.
The Ainsley family runs an auction house in a small, unnamed Midwestern town, and although the internal family dynamic is utterly dysfunctional, each of the three children who have stayed at home serves a specific, necessary function in the family business.
First, we meet Annalee (Faith Noelle Hurley), the neurotic, OCD-plagued "ugly duckling" who keeps track of the paperwork, utilizing an eccentric system of organization that only she understands in an effort to assert that she is necessary. She is seeing a therapist who has taught her a slew of hilarious coping mechanisms, like tucking her problems (i.e. people) away in invisible jars, and her acting these mechanisms out serves as some of the most delightful scenes in the play.
Next, we meet sweet little Amelia, played by Teeny Lamothe, who is also completely insane, but in an adorable, romantic kind of way. She is the family matchmaker. Amelia believes that everything-- from people to dishes-- cannot stand alone, and is only complete when paired with its perfect match. She believes that a teacup should never be sold without its saucer, and that the sum of the set is far greater than the sum of the individual components combined. So, naturally, she is in charge of organizing the merchandise being sold at the auctions, assigning worth to them, and convincing potential buyers that it is their stories that makes objects valuable.
Last, we meet Aiden (Matthew Sherbach), the only son, who hates clutter and has severe disdain for sentimentality. Aiden's bad attitude and his quirky habit of expressing disgust with hand gestures rather than words quickly seems to make him an audience favorite. A major factor contributing to his unpleasant demeanor at the opening of the play is that his boyfriend has just broken up with him and left behind a vase-- the ultimate insult on top of injury, considering that leaving a vase behind at Aiden's house is like leaving bedbugs behind at a normal person's house. Aiden, of the three children at home, seems to have the most tangible grip on reality, so his job is to maintain the family's good reputation in their small town community.
The conflict in Auctioning the Ainsleys swiftly rears its head in the form of an invitation, dictated by Alice, the mother, and sent out to all four children. It is an invitation to the auctioning of their house, and everything inside it. Avery is given the weighty responsibility of doing the auctioning, so she hesitantly returns home and the five family members are forced to be in a room together again to sort through the mess after 15 years of avoidance.
Auctioning the Ainsleys, although very funny at times, is a powerful play. Tense moments are punctuated by spooky sound and lighting effects, creating a mysterious, dark mood, in typical Dog and Pony fashion. As so often happens in life, the funny parts are funny in a perverse kind of way, and the dramatic parts are touching in an awkward, human kind of way. The world is a confusing and often difficult place to live. Navigating our lives can be very difficult and painful, and mistakes are often made. Very few things are either black or white-- most are a muddy brown color-- and Auctioning the Ainsleys acknowledges all of these things in a smart, thought-provoking way.
The play, like the characters in it, is not without its flaws-- it tends to drag a bit from time to time, a budding romance is thrown in for reasons that are beyond me, and comic relief is injected liberally, sometimes to the point of inducing eye rolling-- but it is overall a strong work of art that deserves an open, engaged audience. Auctioning the Ainsleys elicits an undeniable emotional response, bouts of introspection, and a healthy dose of humanity. Audiences may experience a curious, warming effect-- much needed in these chilly, early winter weeks.
Auctioning the Ainsleys is playing through Dec. 18 at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St.; Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. There is no performance on Thanksgiving Thursday, Nov. 25. There is an added performance Saturday, Dec. 18 at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours; Tickets: $20 at 312-491-1369 or www.dogandponychicago.org.