Laurie Larson and H.B. Ward in "Through the Leaves."

Laurie Larson and H.B. Ward in "Through the Leaves." (Scott Dray / January 15, 2014)

"Through the Leaves"

If you saw Marisa Wegrzyn's "The Butcher of Baraboo," your notions of how female butchers of a certain age hold their own in the world will get a partial comeuppance from the Side Project's "Through the Leaves," the first in the company's two-show repertory of pieces by contemporary German playwright F.X. (for "Franz Xavier") Kroetz that are rarely performed stateside. (Kroetz's "Request Concert" opens in previews at the Side Project on Monday.)

In place of fearsome cleaver-swinging swagger, Kroetz's Martha, as played by Laurie Larson, wavers between pride in her success in a male-dominated business and poignant longing for the company of loutish Otto (H.B. Ward), the laborer who is willing to enjoy the financial and sexual benefits of Martha's company while simultaneously insulting her perceived lack of feminine charms.

Director Andy Hager's staging and Carolyn Voss' set design cleverly open up the story to the street outside by using the theater's window on Jarvis Avenue as part of the setting. As viewed from the outside, one might be tempted to stop into Martha's store for a bite of sausage — only to be disappointed that, in business and love, Martha tends to cater to animalistic needs. (Her business focuses on "utility meats" — that is, food for pets and the vanishing circus trade.) Similarly, the spare but cozy room where Martha entertains Otto feels increasingly chilly as his unbending notions of gender roles freeze out her attempts to warm his heart.

The title can be taken to refer both to the "leaves" of the diary Martha keeps detailing their affair and the "leaves of absence" when Otto periodically takes off, usually returning from his time in parts unknown the worse for wear.

Episodic in structure and flatly realist in dialogue (translated by Roger Downey), Kroetz's hourlong piece doesn't offer huge climactic moments. But it skillfully sketches the anomie of its 1970s German setting — which, like the United States, was a period where working-class men first felt themselves squeezed out both by global economic forces they couldn't comprehend and the ambitions of working women whom they often saw as a threat to their masculinity.

In this way, Otto, though given less interiority than Martha (one can't imagine him writing a grocery list, much less a diary) resonates honestly, especially in Ward's contained but bristling performance.

An interlude when Martha and Otto play with "dancing" sausages provides a direct homage to Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and a hint of the life these two bruised souls could have together — if only the leaves had fallen open on a different set of circumstances.

Through Feb. 1, Side Project Theatre Company, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.; $20 at 773-340-0140 or thesideproject.net.

"Forgiveness"

 

By stark contrast with Kroetz's characters, the couple at the center of Julia Weiss' "Forgiveness" with Corn Productions embody the Peter Pan-like bruised-romantic hipsterdom made popular in films such as "Garden State" and "(500) Days of Summer." The premise — one night in a hellish Greyhound bus terminal (pardon the redundancy) — also offers a bargain-basement slant on Richard Linklater's movie "Before Sunrise," where a chance connection while traveling has life-changing consequences for two strangers.

It's a genre ripe for parody, Lord knows — but somewhere along the line Weiss and director Robert Bouwman forgot to add enough manic-pixie dust to this sendup of the manic-pixie dream girl. What would probably make for an eminently satisfying, if shaggy, 70-minute comedy turns into a decidedly sluggish two-act play with a supporting ensemble that is largely underused, except for a couple of dance interludes.

To her credit, Weiss doesn't stint on the ridiculous.

Her petulant antihero, Turk (Seth Wanta), was named Turkish Delight by his English professor parents as a nod to C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" — and, at least as he sees it, as a lifelong reminder that he is just like Lewis' sibling-betraying Edmund because he ate his own twin in the womb.

The title character is a teddy bear-clutching 28-year-old who, though she has never written a poem, plans to run away to Tallahassee, Fla., — "the land of poets" — and harbors resentment against her affection-withholding dad.

Weiss lards her script with some very funny faux-profundities from Erin Thorn's character, Forgiveness, such as "People stop being strangers when they learn each other's names." The second act really picks up when G.M. McCorry's Homeless Guy takes center stage with his own tales of woe, family disappointment and tortured poker metaphors.

Carrie Shemanski's sound design incorporates a wealth of indie-rock treats (and the idea that they can only be heard when Forgiveness dons her outsize headphones provides a cute running gag). But the show runs out of narrative gas before the buses finally arrive.

Through Feb. 15, Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln Ave.; $7-$15 at 773-650-1331 or cornservatory.org.

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