Smudge at Ka-Tet Theatre | Theater review
A mother resents her heavily deformed newborn in Rachel Axler's unsettling play, but Ka-Tet's production can't nurture any real emotion.
“Women Eating Cake While Crying About Babies” might sound like an SNL sketch, but in recent weeks Chicago's seen multiple dramas about magical, sick newborns and women who flee from their problems by turning to baked goods. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s The Electric Baby and Ka-Tet Theatre Company’s Smudge both operate in a space somewhere between fantasy and reality, using supernatural infants to reveal the hopes and fears of their parents. In The Electric Baby, a white glow symbolizes the power contained within a sick child, but Smudge’s newborn is a far more malevolent presence. It’s also the focal point of a substandard production filled with shallow characterizations, static staging and haphazard design elements.
Rachel Axler’s writing credits include The Daily Show, Parks and Recreation and New Girl, but she distances herself from her comedic television work with Smudge. The 2010 play tackles the serious subject matter of two parents learning to accept their new child, who's born with one eye and no limbs or sex organs. While the father, Nick (Scott Allen Luke), tries to ignore the baby’s deformities and treat it like the daughter they wanted, the mother, Colby (Stevie Chaddock Lambert), immediately rejects it and calls it a “smudge.” As Colby taunts the baby with a stuffed animal made of limbs and cheesecake it can’t eat, she starts to develop an unusual bond that leads to the show’s few rare moments of genuine emotion.
Axler's written a difficult play that requires a heightened level of desperation from the actors. Yet Ka-Tet's ensemble hasn’t gone far enough to make these characters believably human. Allison Shoemaker’s bland staging creates repetitive pictures that lock the actors in place rather than allowing them to explore the space, keeping them restrained when they should be furiously attacking the script. A sluggish pace makes this 90-minute show feel much longer.
Superficial problems such as a tossed-off set and improperly aligned projector can be forgiven, but the big issue here is the characterizations. The script's personalities intensify over the course of the play as the baby begins to have a deeper effect on the mental state of those around it, but Shoemaker’s cast gives in to exaggeration rather than keeping the characters grounded. There’s a strange, haunting play at the heart of Smudge, but Ka-Tet’s production needs to sharpen the focus before developing the picture.