By Bryson David Hoff
When Jamie Shriner’s one-woman show received its Chicago premier last year at Prop Thtr, it was met with a wave of critical and audience enthusiasm. Now, after a year on the road, it has returned in an expanded format and with an even more expanded budget.
Transitioning from a solo performance to a more traditional form can be tricky to negotiate, however the new version of Wife Material on stage at Underscore Theatre Company’s Understudy space, proves just as whip-smart and irreverent as ever.
The autobiographical piece follows Shriner’s sexual/romantic history from her adolescence in rural Indiana through her college years and finally marriage. Along the way, the piece explores issues of sexual identity, fidelity, consent, social attitudes towards female sexuality, and innumerable others.
The strength of the piece is its accessibility. Shriner’s candidness regarding her own history allows her to touch upon the most common issues and topics within the contemporary discourse regarding sexuality, meaning that it’s pretty unavoidable that some joke or anecdote will resonate with the viewer. Even if not, the pacing and breeziness with which the leading lady infuses the proceedings keeps the self-examination from bogging the piece down in navel-gazing. The impression given is that Shriner has plumbed her depths enough to be able to acknowledge her flaws without wallowing in them.
One of the biggest changes from Wife Material’s Chicago premiere last year is the addition of Caitlin Dobbins and Natalie Rae, who are in turn Greek chorus, back-up dancers and scene partners to Shriner. It’s a risk, taking what had been a successful one-woman show and adding an ensemble, but to director Dana Anderson’s credit, the staging artfully incorporates Dobbins and Rae and uses their presence to enhance the acerbic wit of the script’s comedic scenes.
Without giving anything away, certain jokes whose text hasn’t changed from the one-handed version drew bigger reactions by virtue of having an additional body appear from nowhere to deliver the punch line. Likewise, some of the play’s more serious moments, for instance a scene in a hotel between Shriner and her non-binary former lover Stevie, are made weightier by allowing both performers the space to fully embody one character.
The other major improvement from the Prop Thtr production is the replacement of the pre-recorded backing tracks with a live band, led by music director Kyra Leigh, who has clearly put in the work to make sure that the musical numbers flow organically from the story not just in content but also tone, since the musicians are able to adapt to the energy on stage in a way that even the best recording just can’t.
If there is one place where the improved budget hurts Wife Material, it is in the use of lavaliere mics as amplification. This is a constant issue in Chicago’s smaller theatres and it cannot be denied that the live musicians necessitate some kind of amplification, but the mix here is very tinny and often the mics are too hot for the size of the house. Hopefully these issues can be ironed out over the course of the run, but as it is, it seems as though cutting the lavalieres and using handhelds for the songs would be stylistically consistent with the aesthetic (handhelds are used intermittently as-is) and keep sound issues from detracting from what otherwise is a very strong production.
The news media has been quick to label 2018 as a second “Year of the Woman.” And as trite as that description may be, it’s hard to argue that public discourse regarding gender issues hasn’t evolved rapidly over the past couple of years and, with the recent round of elections yielding more female victors in House races than ever in American history, it feels like some kind of corner is being turned in terms of equality and female voices being heard.
Though not much about Wife Material is explicitly political, it seems very timely when looked at in that context. If nothing else, the fact that a high-profile non-Equity company in Chicago has thrown its support behind a production with an all-female cast, with a female director, a female music director and a majority-female production staff is unusual and commendable. The fact that the production is so entertaining means that there’s no reason why this should continue to be an unusual occurrence in the Chicago theatre circuit.
Underscore Theatre Company presents “Wife Material” through December 9 at The Understudy, 4609 N Clark St, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.