Review: Steppenwolf’s 5th-Annual First Look Repertory of New Works

You Have Never Seen These Before

For the past five years, Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work has given Chicago audiences the unique opportunity to view works in progress for the very first time in the intimate setting of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater. All three plays in this year’s First Look series are still in development, and are likely to undergo changes before being produced again.

09 First Look PlaywrightsFirst Look Playwrights: (left to right) Ensemble member Eric Simonson with Laura Jacqmin and Laura EasonPhoto by Elizabeth Fraiberg. 


Honest

Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Honest, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, is the tragic story of best-selling memoirist Guy (Erik Hellman), a man whose past is much stranger than his novel’s fiction. When the factuality of his memoir is challenged by a reporter (Martin McClendon), a Mametian game of deception and blackmail unfolds, with both men’s futures hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Guy’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that shaped the pathological liar seen at the start of the show.

The actors are faced with the unenviable task of bringing to life Simonson’s very dark world, and they due so magnificently. Hellman specifically must play the same character in four different time periods with four extremely different circumstances, and he manages to capture the fear and pain of a tormented soul with the charisma of a man who has been lying and getting away with it for years. Kelly O’Sullivan is heartbreaking as Guy’s cousin Casey, and when the two actors share the stage together the production truly shines.

Where the play falters a bit is in the opening and closing scenes between Guy and Martin, the reporter. Martin seems overly eager to share personal information with a complete stranger, and while it can be justified as forward movement for the plot, it simply did not ring true to the general conduct between an interviewer and his subject. Beyond that quibble, Honest is an engrossing examination of one man’s attempt to hide from his past, and the cruel truth that no matter where he goes, it always finds him.

Rating: «««

 



Sex with Strangers

Written by Laura Eason
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Thirty-something struggling writer Olivia’s (Amy J. Carle) world is turned upside down when she finds herself romantically involved with self-proclaimed asshole blogger Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) in Sex With Strangers, the standout production of this year’s First Look series. Laura Eason’s script seamlessly balances romantic comedy with conflict as Olivia and Ethan’s honeymoon affair begins to feel the pressure of his very public sexual past, and director Jessica Thebus, along with an extremely gifted cast and creative team, has created a production that could easily be transferred to any theater as is.

From the first kiss to the last betrayal, Carle and Grush have the kind of chemistry that makes stage magic. Carle has proven herself an actress of immense depth and talent in the past, but her portrayal of Olivia is one of the most fully realized characters to grace the Chicago stage this season. Her relationship to Ethan is completely believable, in large part due to her male costar’s wonderfully charming characterization.

The two actors handle the rapid-fire banter of Laura Eason’s script with ease, further cementing the realism of the play, and it is real. Sex With Strangers is one of the most honest portraits of love in a world where privacy barely exists and sex is just another bodily function, and it is a must see for Chicago audiences.

Rating: ««««

 



Ski Dubai

Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Lisa Portes
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Rachel (Hillary Clemons) is an Environmental Friendliness Consultant relocated to Dubai with the daunting task of helping her company’s man-made island achieve "green" certification in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin. Still reeling from a construction accident that left her New York City apartment on the sidewalk 15 stories below, Rachel must juggle living with randy roommate/colleague Perrin (Cliff Chamberlain), his insane wife Amanda (Sadieh Rifai), and a slew of other quirky characters while trying to establish a home for herself in a foreign world.

Clemons does an admirable job balancing Rachel’s naïveté with her growing apathy for not only the project to which she was assigned, but the modern ideology of "new is better than authentic," but the trauma of losing her New York home never seems as bad as she makes it out to be. The supporting actors seem to have been directed to take their characters so over the top that they lose dimension, and the actors get lost in showing the audience how wild they are without finding the motivation behind the action. Rifai stands out as Amanda, infusing her character with genuine anger at a world that never stops letting her down, and Jennifer Coombs is absolutely hilarious as the tactless Doctor that hates Dubai and everyone in it.

Jacqmin’s script struggles to find a balance between cartoonish hijinx and political commentary, and the end result is two-dimensional characters that never seem to have a voice of their own. Of the three plays, Ski Dubai is the one that could use the most retooling before being produced again, but when it is funny, like when Coombs traverses the space wearing invisible skis, it is hilarious.

Rating: ««

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Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “Six Degrees of Separation”

 Relationships Have Their Limits 

 L-R: Paul (Michael Pogue) describes his stolen thesis paper to Ouisa (Karen Yates), Flan (Eric Leonard) and Geoffrey (John Milewski) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott.

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Six Degrees of Separation
by John Guare 
directed by Steve Scott
thru August 30 (Buy tickets online)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

WHAT IS THE POINT of being related to everyone else on the planet, if the daily connections between those one is closest to are thin, shallow, and brittle to the point of snapping? That is the central theme of John Guare’s most famous play, Six Degrees of Separation, produced by Eclipse Theatre at The Greenhouse Theatre upstairs studio. Sadly, as proficient, or even inspired, as individual performances may be, a startling lack of contrast between what is and what could be in the relationships between various characters reduces this production to a flat, if interesting exercise.

L-R: Flan (Eric Leonard) receives a gift from Paul while Larkin (Joe Mack), Ouisa (Karen Yates) and Kitty (Rebecca Prescott) try to find Paul's father, in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. Perhaps this particular studio space simply cannot allow for enough varying levels of play. In scenes which require most of the cast, Steve Scott’s direction clumps half to one side and half to the other, forcing an almost two-dimensional interaction, and reducing the actors to bodies onstage. Also, this ensemble play still lacks strong ensemble feeling. Characters may be distant from each other, but actors should not be; this play demands that the history between most characters be inferred from just a few lines.

Having said that, there’s no denying the excellence of individual performances. Michael Pogues’ portrayal of Paul, the young black man who dupes the upper echelons of New York society into believing that he is the son of Sidney Poitier , is subtle, knowing, and the high point of the production. Pogue is as much a dream weaver as his character and his performance is a joy to watch.

Ouisa’s (Karen Yates) progress under Paul’s inspiring, if illusory, influence is driven, engaging, and realistic. Ouisa may never be a Zen master, but she does move from shallow, materialistic social climber to a woman intrigued by the potential for expansive, more meaningful relatedness. The rapid-fire exchanges between Ouisa and her husband, Flan (Eric Leonard), whether about art deals, social machinations, or Paul’s transgressions, are fun displays of technical virtuosity.

Ousia (Karen Yates) dreams about Paul (Michael Pogue) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. What a pleasure to see Guy Massey (Dr. Fine) and John Milewski (Geoffrey) well-cast and exemplifying the complete embodiment of small roles. Michael Gonring also does a solid turn as the awkward, closeted young college student that Paul seduces to extract information on the upper classes he seeks to infiltrate.

However, at this particular moment, Six Degrees of Separation may demand more from younger cast members than the adults. Sadly, our palates have been jaded (if not utterly revolted) by a steady stream of obnoxious rich kids in dramas, reality TV shows, and as vapid celebrities in their own right. As of 2009, we suffer from over-exposure to the bad behavior of the celebrity rich. The greatest challenge, through acting and direction, is to humanize the parent-child relationships of the play and to individualize each young person’s role, regardless of how few lines or how spoiled the characters are. Otherwise, the danger is that the audience will tune out and not care.

It matters because this is the background against which Ouisa evolves her relationship—or fantasy of a relationship—with Paul. The rapport that she and Paul creaL-R: Rick (Nick Horst), Elizabeth (Laura Coover) and Paul (Michael Pogue) celebrate exciting news in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. te during his desperate phone call to her, before his arrest, needs greater contrast with the connections, or lack of them, that Ouisa has with her own children and husband. Likewise, a stronger sense of history between her and Flan would lend body and contrast to the overall production. Every relationship, no matter how simpatico with regard to interests, has its irritations, its compromises, and its resignations. Ouisa’s exposure to Paul magnifies what little Ouisa has settled for while she pursued having it all. Now, will she go on settling or will something have to give?

Rating: «««

All photos by Scott Cooper.