Review: Griffin Theatre’s “The Hostage”

Ballast Needed Along With the Blarney

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Griffin Theatre presents:

The Hostage

by Brendan Behan
directed by Jonathan Berry
thru November 1st (tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is a great, hairy monster of a play. Behan wrote this tragi-comedy, with quasi-musical styling, based of his own experience as a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army. While pro-Irish Englishmen and English imperialist pomposity receive heaping helpings of satirical treatment, it’s the IRA Behan savages the most with his robust and agile wit.

hostage2 “I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence,” says Pat (Eamonn McDonagh) about own his service in the IRA. His character comes autobiographically closest to Behan. So, Griffin Theater’s production is a huge, messy meditation on the killing paradoxes of war and patriotism.

An Irish Republican, just 18 years old, is to be executed for killing a policeman, so an equally young and inexperienced British soldier is kidnapped by the IRA and brought to Pat’s teaming bawdy house to be slain in retaliation, should the execution go through. The young British soldier, Leslie (Rob Fenton), becomes a celebrity guest of the household; he is treated to beer by Pat and his mate, Meg (Donna McGough) and pursued by the prostitutes. He even falls in love with the fresh-faced housemaid, Teresa (Nora Fiffer). The whorehouse, filled with various Johns and transgender–as well as female–prostitutes, breaks into song and dance, commenting on the action and breaking the unresolved tensions involved in trying to sort out who is truly friend or truly foe.

hostage3 While humor is the mainstay of this play, much dramatic tension is lost when vital moments within it are not treated seriously enough. The IRA Officer (Kevin Gladish) and Volunteer (Ryan Borque) who bring Leslie in are suppose to be ridiculous, yet they are played a little too close to caricature to add the necessary gravity to take Leslie’s fate seriously. Besides, dedicated assholes like this really exist. Satire allows for characters to hostage4be realistic enough to be recognizable, so that their resemblance jars us to the absurdity of well-worn, politically correct presumptions.

Rom Barkhordar’s interpretation of his role, Monsewer, comes closer to a balance between realism and caricature, perhaps because it is so close to caricature already. Monsewer, an Englishman who fancies himself a patriot to the Irish cause, pretentiously throws around his knowledge of Gaelic and plays the bagpipes badly. Heaven only knows what he is rebelling against, but his show of Republicanism is more a means to an end, than an end in itself, and it is hilarious.

The show benefits mightily from McDonagh, McGough, and Fiffer’s graceful yet rock solid performances. However, Fenton’s portrayal of the endangered British soldier is strangely flat. It’s also not clear whether his Leslie is a Cockney or a recent graduate of Eton. Given Behan’s own allegiance to the working class, such lack of consistency in dialect is a grave mischaracterization.

The cast commits itself completely to the song and dance numbers interwoven into the scenes. Still, I can’t help wondering if the Theater Building space that Griffin Theatre is using doesn’t defeat Jonathan Berry’s direction. Theater in the round might help the fourth-wall removal this play was based on, but dialogue is lost when actors have to turn and direct their address to other sides of the stage. Likewise, sightlines block action from one side of the audience, while the other side may see just fine. The result is a muddled depiction of dramatic action, not necessarily something that brings cast and audience closer.

hostage5 Behan was not interested in dramatically presenting Ireland’s Troubles in a neat and tidy package. War is messy, life is messy, and the ascertainment of who is on your side, who isn’t, and what ought to be done about is fraught with all kinds of doubts, misgivings, and just plain mistakenness. The whorehouse tenants are as loyal to Ireland’s liberty as any, yet they attempt to help Leslie get away. The police raid the bawdy house in order to save Leslie, but get him killed in the crossfire instead.

But if there is a line to be drawn in the sand here, it’s between the intended messiness of the play itself, and the messiness that results when tragic moments are not allowed to be tragic and all necessary contrast is lost. The humor of this play, its jovial ruckus of song and dance, are meant to be temporary relief to the wasteful death and mourning that surrounds these characters’ daily existence. To treat them like simple entertainment, such as we know in a night out to the theater, is to miss why The Hostage was written at all.

 

Rating: ««

 

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Review: Goodman’s “Stoop Stories”

Story-telling as an art form

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Goodman Theatre present:

Stoop Stories
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Jo Bonney
thru October 11th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

stoop1 Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories is poetically written and powerfully performed. The smooth sounding sentences of Orlandersmith’s speech also tell us direct stories. Stoop Stories is not a poetry reading, it is a collection of memories shared to us by over ten different characters played by the author herself, Dael Orlandersmith.

Orlandersmith goes back to her home in Harlem, on a stoop where so many lives have passed. Through different characters of various races, ages and sexes she uses stories told around the stoop to talk about the place in New York where she grew up. There is not much individual character development, but Stoop Stories is not about the specific individuals or the individual narratives that are being told. It is about her and the neighborhood she grew up in as a whole. Orlandersmith brings the audience back to the old days of Harlem with characters such as a heart-broken 81-year old Holocaust survivor who tells a story about when he shared a moment with Billie Holiday (the 2nd best scene), and up through stoop2 the years to the time when she was a girl fighting to escape the stoops in Spanish Harlem. In telling her own story, Orlandersmith also tells stories of other peers she grew up with who had similar aspirations but their lives don’t all share in the same happy ending she acquired.

The best part about this play is the writing; the sensual arrangement of words. The performance by Orlandersmith lives up to the script’s high standards, although the storyteller was dwarfed by the overwhelming size of the set. Orlandersmith is alone on a large stage and the backdrop is a huge oversized stoop with the authentically plain concrete exterior of a home in Harlem. The backdrop is wonderfully done and striking to look at, but it takes away from the storyteller where the attention should be focused. Orlandersmith can hold her own on stage without such a bold set. She is the type of performer that thrives when all eyes are only on her and grabs our attention through her words and the places they take us.

The stoop is where the stories are being told between characters in the memories of Orlandersmith’s mind, but Orlandersmith steps away from the set to tell her stories to us so that she can take the audience to the places within her words. The stage has a dream-like setting created by lighting designer Keith Parham that gives one the feeling that someone larger than life is coming out at dusk to share tales directly to us. The atmosphere singles out the speaker in the beginning of the play as a storyteller, and along with the purposefully chosen music, helps create smooth transitions as Orlandersmith changes into different characters for a new point of view on Harlem. The direction of Jo Bonney moves this performance along rhythmically blending the compilation of narratives together to tell a larger story.

 

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Dael Orlandersmith’s speech is musical; a powerful dramatic spoken song. It had me rocking ‘n’ rolling to her sensual stories of the mixed-bag of lives that passed by the streets of Harlem. Stoop Stories is a deeply personal story, and Orlandersmith lets us see the emotional side of her past and how she made choices to escape the trappings of the stoops in Harlem. This is a performance most people can identify with in their own way. Everyone has “Stoop Stories,” whether they are shared around a stoop in the west side of Chicago, the backyard in the suburbs or on stage at the Goodman Theatre.

Rating: «««½

 

Stoop Stories is playing at the Goodman Theatre (Owen stage,) 160 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through October 11th

Wednesday wordplay

Quotes of Note

My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.
            — Indira Gandhi

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
            — Ralph Waldo Emerson, (attributed)

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
            — Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

 

Urban Dictionary

Keep f*cking that chicken

Keep up the good work.
Coined by television anchor Ernie Anastos during a live broadcast of the Fox 5 New York local news.

News anchor to weatherman: "Great forecast. Keep f*cking that chicken."