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: ««

The First Look 2009 Playwrights

 

Laura Eason is the author of more than 15 plays, both original works and adaptations.  Previous productions at Steppenwolf include When the Messenger is Hot (also at 59E59, NYC), A Tale of Two Cities and Huck Finn.  Her plays have been produced and developed in New York at New York Theatre Workshop, WET, New Georges, MCC, Andhow and Vital Theatre and produced regionally at Lookingglass Theatre, Walkabout, Two River Theater and Theatre Schmeater.  Laura is an Affiliated Artist of New Georges and a playwright member of the Women’s Project Lab in New York and an Ensemble Member and the former Artistic Director of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago .

Laura Jacqmin is the winner of the 2008 Wasserstein Prize, a $25,000 award for emerging female playwrights. Her plays have been produced and developed with Ars Nova, 2econd Stage Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, Victory Gardens Theatre and The 24 Hour Plays Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater.  Jacqmin will be the artist-in-residence at the Center on Age and Community in Milwaukee this fall and is an adjunct faculty member at Carthage College.

 

Eric Simonson, a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1993, recently completed a documentary on the late Studs Terkel for HBO.  He received a Tony® nomination for his direction of Steppenwolf’s The Song of Jacob Zulu with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and directed an Oscar®-nominated documentary about the acclaimed South African singing group.  Simonson received an Oscar® for Best Documentary Short for his film A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin in 2006.  Other directing credits at Steppenwolf include Carter’s Way (also playwright), Slaughterhouse-Five (also adaptor) and Nomathemba (Hope). His new play Fake will be presented during Steppenwolf’s 2009-2010 Season.

The designers for First Look 2009 are: Kevin Depinet (sets), Myron Elliott (costumes), J.R. Lederle (lights) and Joseph Fosco (sound).  Jonathan Templeton is the Lead Stage Manager, Jonathan Nook and Lauren Hickman are the Stage Managers,  Kimberly Senior and Ed Sobel are the Program Directors and Whitney Dibo is the Program Assistant.

The First Look Repertory of New Work also includes First Look 101, a unique three-month experience that takes enrolled participants on a backstage journey through all aspects of the new play development process – from the first rehearsal to the final performance.  The program is limited to 101 members and is open to anyone interested in, and wanting to know more about, creating new plays.  First Look 101 runs June 1, 2009 – August 9, 2009.  This year’s First Look 101 is SOLD OUT.

 

First Look Repertory of New Work is a developmental process that culminates in performance before an audience, rather than in a staged reading or workshop presentation.  Scripts undergo significant revision during the workshop/rehearsal process and may be revised even after being publicly presented during First Look.  They are presented with full, if minimal, design support because in Steppenwolf’s view, the design process is an integral aspect of play development.  The intent is to prime the plays for future production at other theaters across the country.

First Look has gained both local and national recognition since its inception in 2005.  Seven of the twelve plays presented during First Look’s first four seasons have enjoyed subsequent world premieres at other theaters, including: Jason Wells’ Perfect Mendacity produced at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida; Wells’ Men of Tortuga also at Asolo (followed by a second production at Profiles Theater in Chicago); Butcher of Baraboo by Marisa Wegrzyn produced by 2econd Stage Theatre in New York; 100 Saints You Should Know by Kate Fodor produced by Playwrights Horizons in New York; Spare Change by Mia McCullough produced by Stage Left Theatre in Chicago; Gary by Melinda Lopez produced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in Massachusetts; and When The Messenger is Hot by Laura Eason produced by 59E59 Theaters in New York.




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