Review: Absurdist and Delightfully Off-Kilter—Hamburgers and Disappointment by Barrie Cole

I find it strange that much is written about parameters and boundaries in relationships. Of course, there should be boundaries, but who decides what those are? How many people live with a pack mentality of following the rules and where a book lands in the New York Times top ten? Playwright Barrie Cole takes a skewer to convention and cracks open relationships that cannot be defined or categorized. Cole has written a four-play series titled Hamburgers and Disappointment about conventions through a funhouse mirror, and how relationships are beyond definition. The series is produced by Swertback Productions. Most of the cast members are part of Curious Theatre Branch and therefore steeped in life outside the "normal" parameters.

First up is Fruit Tree Backpack directed by Jayita Bhattacharya. Anna (Julia Williams) and Ceil (Kristy Lockhart) wrestle with the restrictions of needing definition for everything, even an orange wrapped in packing tape. Anna is a character who ponders every situation and action with intention. Ceil wants to be a part of Anna's life as a person who can anticipate meaning and in a relationship where the two finish each other's sentences.

Williams is great as a person who always seems to be in the ether with her thoughts. Lockhart is fantastic as the lusty Ceil. The dialog and plot are what I consider the definition of Absurdist. It is funny, non sequitur, with offbeat pacing, and random bursting into song about what kind of couple they are. Bhattacharya's deft direction fills in the beats using facial expressions and touch between the characters. Fruit Tree Backpack runs 40 minutes and it went by quickly. I was engrossed in trying to define what was undefinable.

Kristy Lockhart and Julia Williams. Photo by Jeffrey Bivens.

The second play of Hamburgers and Disappointment is called I Love You Permanently. In this play, Cole's writing seems to define a relationship in more conventional terms. That theory was blown out of the water as I was introduced to Jay (Jeffrey Bivens) and Lee (Vicki Walden). They are two people in love with conditions applied and entrenched. Bivens is fantastic as a neurotic and conflicted hot mess and Walden is also great as a woman who makes a change based on her heart versus hemming her desire in lesbian parameters.

Jay is in a horrible relationship with a psychotic abusive woman but he also wants to be with Lee who wants exclusivity. Lee identifies as a lesbian and is going out on a limb to ask Jay to commit to her. The dialogue in I Love You Permanently is fast-paced, sometimes hilarious, and had all the knots that complicated their relationship. Jay wants to leave things as they are, even if there is no sex with Lee. Lee wants the whole package and for Jay to leave his abusive situation.

There are sweet parts when Jay sings from The Music Man and an outrageous dance that Lee "gifts" to Jay. Walden goes all in and demands what she wants. There is no rhyme or reason for their attraction. Director Jen Moniz keeps the action and dialogue tight. I liked the choreography of making snow angels as a substitute for sex. The chemistry between Bivens and Walden works beautifully in pulling that off. There is a pointed lesson in that we love who we love. Experts cannot explain the attraction, but people will push beyond their limits to prove it. I Love You Permanently runs about 1 hour.

The second set of plays in the series explores more platonic relationships. In Capacity, a playwright named Shelby (Kelly Anchors) works on a new play with Vivian (KellyAnn). It is unclear if Vivian is a co-writer, sounding board, or muse. Director Cheryl Snodgrass keeps that mystery throughout the action. Shelby and Vivian speak simultaneously and channel some outrageous space power vibes. The dialogue is written as two people having out loud thoughts. Playwright Cole inserts a touch of Surrealism with the dialogue for Capacity. It works well in the series' shortest play at 35 minutes.

Jeffrey Bivens and Vicki Walden. Photo by Jeffrey Bivens.

The finale of Hamburgers and Disappointment is Meaning Is Tricky, featuring Diana Slickman as Clare and David Isaacson as her roommate Mark. This last performance was a more straight-ahead comedy with laugh-out-loud dialogue. Clare has made a date online and tells Mark that her date is a married man in an open marriage. Director Jayita Bhattacharya returns to the helm for Meaning is Tricky. Bhattacharya shows her chops with plays at both ends of the spectrum. Fruit Tree Backpack was a display of sparse dialog with elongated pauses. It was more visual and in an experimental vein. Meaning is Tricky is a slam dunk of wackiness and dark comedy.

Slickman and Isaacson alternate between the pacing of a farce and bizarre melodrama. Clare's character is performed as a woman who is tightly wrapped and the least likely to agree to be in a polyamorous relationship. Of course, that is the point of all four plays, where judgment is suspended on what a person will do for love no matter the definition. Clare thrives on the fact that she does not have to carry the emotional burden of a relationship. Mark is dubious about Clare not wanting to be more involved.

Isaacson shines as the manic and out-on-a-limb Mark. I don't think that I can ever feel the same way about hippos again. Meaning is Tricky goes full shebang with Isaacson's physicality and by contrast Clare's muted expressions. She seems almost too conservative to be a part of something so unconventional. Think of the weirdest neighbors you have had and the weird things they did and you have Meaning is Tricky. It is the perfect ending for the exploration and expansion of consciousness on relationships. You never really know what goes on behind closed doors even when it spills out into the street, or when you learn that a group of hippos is called a bloat or a pod. Meaning is Tricky runs 50 minutes and is a perfect denouement.

I must comment on the design, sound, and lighting for Hamburgers and Disappointment. The furniture is covered in corrugated cardboard and gives off a '70s corduroy vibe. It could be either the stuff in your parents' rumpus room or an SRO hotel indicating the non-permanence of relationships. Pam Parker designed the set out of cardboard with splashes of color made moody or bright by the lighting design of Stefan Brun. Paul Brennan's sound design was great giving an exaggerated sound to texting and a phone's ringtone. The production takes place in a storefront space called the Labyrinth Club. All of the cast and production people work with the Curious Theatre Branch, a company that is the Big Daddy of experimental theater in Chicago with its annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival (Rhino Fest 2024). I recommend that you check out Hamburgers and Disappointment for an interesting and fun take on relationships.

Sweetback Productions' Hamburgers and Disappointment runs for one more weekend, May 18 and 19. The Labyrinth Club is located at 3658 N. Pulaski in the Albany Park/Mayfair neighborhood. Both nights were packed when I went so I suggest that you go to SweetBackProductions.com and reserve your tickets ASAP. Seating is tight but in a very cool space.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.