Review: This Bitter Earth (About Face Theatre)

| November 9, 2018

Daniel Desmarais and Sheldon Brown star as Neil and Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 2    

  

  

This Bitter Earth

Written by Harrison David Rivers
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru Dec 8  |  tix: $20-$38  |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets    
     


    
  

Compassionate and devastating Chicago premiere

  

Daniel Desmarais and Sheldon Brown star as Neil and Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 2

    
About Face Theatre presents
    
This Bitter Earth

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

Mikael Burke is a director to watch.

With the startlingly funny Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies at Den Theatre and now This Bitter Earth at Theater Wit, Burke offers stunning and fast-paced work throughout the city. The latter is the Chicago premiere of Harrison David Rivers’ two-hander, equal parts searing and touching, gut-wrenching and romantic. Burke and Rivers are a dream Daniel Desmarais and Sheldon Brown star as Neil and Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 4team of truth: this story of an interracial couple navigating America’s divisive, violent political environment could have been a plethora of well-worn clichés. Instead, This Bitter Earth challenges the complacency of even the most supposedly “woke” of audience members. 

Playwright Rivers operates on a nonlinear timeline to tell the love story of Jesse (Sheldon Burke) and Neil (Daniel Desmarais), from their hopeful beginnings in New York to their devastating end in Minnesota. Jesse, the black son of a Southern Baptist preacher from Kansas, is a graduate student and playwright, working on a script about the queer black poet Essex Hemphill. Neil, a white Brooklyn brownstone-raised trust fund baby, is a former investment banker searching for more meaningful ways to spend his time. Their relationship is fulfilling but also challenging, dealing with everything from nasty looks from older white women on the subway to the frequent police brutality of young black men.

Ideally, no one should have to ask how an interracial gay couple can survive today. Key word: ideally. Rivers thoughtfully brings to light both truth and consequence of narratives like Jesse and Neil’s. When Neil experiences a political awakening and becomes heavily involved in Black Lives Matter, Jesse at first accuses him of being a guilty white person. Which of course, Neil is, and he realizes that – but only up to a point. Neil challenges Jesse: why is Jesse, a black man himself, apathetic in the face of the stories he should care about more than anything? The answers are never easy, and both Rivers’ empathetic writing and Burke’s athletic yet intimate staging show both men in a sympathetic light, and their relationship’s ups and downs as realistic and true.

Daniel Desmarais and Sheldon Brown star as Neil and Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face TheatreSheldon Brown and Daniel Desmarais star as Jesse and Neil in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 4 Daniel Desmarais and Sheldon Brown star as Neil and Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 3Sheldon Brown and Daniel Desmarais star as Jesse and Neil in This Bitter Earth, About Face TheatreSheldon Brown stars as Jesse in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre

Set designer Joe Schermoly does gorgeous work: the play’s rough wood proscenium evokes a picture frame of Jesse and Neil’s high- and lowlights, and every well-placed object, from bed to barstools, recreates everything from a gay bar to an uneven sidewalk, to the couple’s various abodes. John Kelly’s lighting design is incredibly strong and symbolic, conjuring comedy and tragedy, romance and destruction. Sound design and music courtesy of Eric Backus has a cinematic quality that fits the play beautifully, from preshow Earth, Wind & Fire to Dinah Washington’s stirring dirge that gives the play its title. Stage manager Helen Lattyak keeps transitions smooth and action moving, so the audience can stay fully in Jesse and Neil’s world.

Both Brown and Desmarais are perfectly cast, bringing Rivers’ words to life. For white liberals, Desmarais is all of us: the cluelessness as we slowly realize our privilege and our powerlessness when we don’t know, exactly, what to do. Brown, who survived a shooting in Uptown last April, returns to the stage triumphant, his Jesse fully authentic from beginning to end. Their chemistry is strong, their story at once deeply personal and tragically universal. This Bitter Earth is a must-see in 2018, never shying away from the tough stuff while never losing sight of its love story.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  

This Bitter Earth continues through December 8th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$38, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at AboutFaceTheatre.com(Running time: 90 minutes without intermission)

Sheldon Brown and Daniel Desmarais star as Jesse and Neil in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 2

Photos by Liz Lauren 


  

artists

cast

Sheldon Brown (Jesse), Daniel Desmarais (Neil)

Understudies: Dwayne Everett (Jesse), Nick Trengove (Neil)

behind the scenes

Mikael Burke (director), Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Bob Kuhn (costume design), John Kelly (lighting design), Eric Backus (sound design), Emma Cullimore (props design), Sasha Smith (intimacy design), Catherine Allen (production manager), Helen Colleen Lattyak (stage manager), Andrea Enger (assistant stage manager), Jacob Janssen (associate director), AJ Schwartz (dramaturg), Alon Stotter (master electrician), Natalie Santoro (scenic painter), Keira Fromm, Stephen Schellhardt (casting), Liz Lauren (photos)

Sheldon Brown and Daniel Desmarais star as Jesse and Neil in This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre 3

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Category: 2018 Reviews, About Face Theatre, Lauren Emily Whalen, Theater Wit

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