REVIEW: Legion (Wildclaw Theatre)


Spooky special-effects; original music accent this horror-fest

Wildclaw Theatre presents:
adapted by Charley Sherman
directed by
Anne Adams
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 18th
(more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The story of Legion, the sequel to “The Exorcist”, has taken many forms: first as a 1983 novel by William Peter Blatty, then as a film (The Exorcist III) and now it is a play, adapted by Wildclaw’s Artistic Director Charley Sherman, and presented by WildClaw Theatre.

WildClaw’s favored subject matter is the frightening and supernatural. When horror is done right it’s one of the most fun and satisfying types of show to see – the audience feels like a unified place when everyone is afraid of the same boogeyman.  The boogeyman here is two-fold. The string of murders that start Legion off match the M.O. of the Gemini Killer, who was supposed to have been killed twelve years before the start of the play. And of course being the Exorcist sequel, it must feature the worst villain in the history of literature: Satan. So what exactly is going on? Who is committing the murders? I’ll never tell…

Legion takes it’s name from a biblical quote that Blatty uses at the beginning of the novel The Exorcist: “Now when [Jesus] stepped ashore, there met him a certain man who for a long time was possessed by a devil … And Jesus asked him, saying, ‘What is thy name?’ and he said, Legion … “ Given the references to Mafia murders, the Vietnam war and the Holocaust that Blatty references after, it makes one wonder what exactly this Legion is. Is it’s the darkness and rage of humanity that makes this Satanic literary duo so terrifying? It’s not simply the devil. In contemporary society of different beliefs, cultures and mindsets, a biblical tale of demonic possession is not enough to strike fear into a universal audience. But you don’t have to believe in the Christian bible to think Legion is scary.

The main character, Lt. Kinderman is Jewish. His consistent references to kibitzes and Matzo are enough to make one a Meshugina, but the incorporating of a religion other than Christianity reminds the audience that this is a story about man, not God. Len Bajenski’s very endearing yet, (there is no other way to say this) Colombo-esque performance as the detective is more familiar than derivative and is a nice counter-balance to the heavy, daunting subject matter.


Despite it’s serious side, Legion never forgets to be entertaining, especially with the over the top special effects skillfully done by Fraser Coffeen. The audience gets to witness the horrific crime scenes with Lt. Kinderman, bodies and all. Of course, the gore does not look real but there is a fun, campy theatricality to the poor victims in Mr. Blatty’s dark tale.

The adaptation takes great care to loyally mirror the book on stage, which can lead to information overload. Trying to cram the density of a novel into a two-act play is too much: too many characters, too many ideas, and too many subplots. Didactic speeches about the existence of God and the nature of man can be cut down substantially. The large cast still relies on double and triple casting of almost all of the actors, and the effect is confusing and overwhelming. Legion soars when it distances itself from the novel and finds its strength as an independent play. The best example of this is a comedia del arte inspired flashback to the childhood of the Gemini killer that is startling and extremely engaging.

The glue that holds this entire production together is the fantastic original music by Scott Tallarida. The screeching strings are reminiscent of the score from the movie Psycho. The music is both terrorizing and humorous, to a very entertaining end.

Director Anne Adams has made a creepy play. Her instincts about when to be campy and when to be down to earth are dead on. The staging of some of the larger group scenes are usually clean and precise, although some staging drifts into clutterdom. Not to give anything away, but Cheryl Roy is fantastically creepy in the ensemble and Scott T. Barsotti gives a performance that will make one jump in one’s seat – perhaps to one’s embarrassment.

Legion is a play that lives in the dark and the light: it’s political and scary and light and cinematic all at the same time. It’s unafraid to push the limits of on-stage horror to the maximum. While not a perfect production, this play hits all the right marks for a fun night out.

Rating: ★★½



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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Maly Drama Theatre at CST)


Hear the creative genius of Chekhov in his native tongue

vanya 1
Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg presents:
Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
directed by
Lev Dodin
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
performed in Russian with projected English translation
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a hard play for me to crack. The 1899 work is simply subtitled “Scenes from Village Life,” which holds a clue to the nature of the play. It isn’t a straight comedy or devastating tragedy—it has elements of both, of course, but Chekhov’s genius shows through the fact that the play more or less captures snapshots of a summer. I guess that’s why they call him one of the fathers of realism. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre brings a rare treat home this weekend, a chance to catch this masterpiece in the original Russian, performed by one of the greatest theatre companies in the world, the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. Although the whole run is pretty much sold out, it would be well worth it to do whatever possible to get your hands on some tickets.

arts-graphics-2005_1162161a There is another production of the play going on right now at Strawdog, directed by Kimberly Senior (our review, ★★★). That exceptional production is personal and well-acted. However, the Maly Production blows up the play to operatic scale, weighing the work so as to come off like a Dostoyevskian epic. For example, the production at Chicago Shakespeare is about an hour longer than the one at Strawdog even though the dialogue remain pretty close. Lauded director Lev Dodin and his cast sit and stew in Chekhov’s world; they aren’t concerned with pushing the pace to appease an audience. The company has worked on this production for years (there’s European theatre for you) and they know how to drain every drop of subtle emotion from the text. Still, at least for this American audience member, the show wears you down. A certain hyper-receptive mood is required to really appreciate what is happening on-stage, which is different than what we’re used to here in Chicago. Without an open-mind, this production can feel draggy and tiresome. Once you allow yourself to get sucked in, however, Maly’s brilliance jolts the intellect and gut.

The main tension in Vanya, and in most Chekhov’s pieces (and, maybe, in most plays in general), is between talk and action. Doctor Astrov (Igor Chernevich) “does,” the listless housewife Elena (Ksenia Rappoport) mostly complains. Uncle Vanya (Sergei Kurishev) “does” some things—he runs a freakin’ farm—but not the things he believes he should be doing. Nearly all of the characters complain about boredom and mourn their “wasted” lives.

These actors obviously have an intimate knowledge of Chekhov’s language. They truly live in the world, and much of this production’s comedy comes from unscripted physical moments. Watching them move around is like a master-class in how to stage a play. Lev Dodin’s staging is like a chess game played out on the giant hardwood floor supplied by set designer David Borovsky. Every move is meticulous, calculated, yet digs to the root of Chekhov’s characters and themes.

vanya 2All of the actors stand out, even Alexander Zavialov as the rarely-seen Waffles. Kurishev’s Vanya is melancholy and self-effacing, funny and sad at the same time. Rappoport is complicated and sexy as the lusted-over Elena; it is very clear how so many men could be caught in her web of charm. Elena Kalinina gives a marvelous performance as Vanya’s passed-over neice Sonia. Her final speech is positively heartbreaking. It floods the giant theatre like an ocean.

Maly Theatre is renowned as one of the greatest theatres in the world (it is one of three named ‘Theatre of Europe’ by the Union of European Theatres), and they clearly have a profound understanding of drama. By doing a play by their countryman, they add a clarity not often seen in the States. Anton Chekhov is already known as an insightful writer, but these Russians can swim in his genius—Chicago Shakespeare presents an once-in-a-lifetime experience here that should not be missed.

Rating: ★★★★

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REVIEW: Just An Ordinary Man (Steppenwolf Theatre)

More like extra-ordinary

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:
Just an Ordinary Man
written and performed by Joe Frank
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
performed March 13th
(more info)
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

On March 13, Santa Monica-based NPR broadcaster and monologist Joe Frank took his peculiar sense of humor to the stage at Steppenwolf for a very special one-night event. The night was organized by ensemble member Terry Kinney, and sold out three days in advance, according to Mr. Frank’s facebook page. His large Chicago fan base stems from his Sunday night radio show on WBEZ. His work is dreamlike, surreal and very, very funny. For his performance Saturday night, Mr. Frank read a piece from 2008 “Just An Ordinary Man.” He sat behind a desk, with at trashcan to his left and a glass of whiskey to his right and read aloud his 90-minute surreal monologue, without even taking one sip of water. On the opposite end of the stage, his musical accompanist James Harrah wailed on electric guitar at all the right moments. The only other set piece was a large movie screen, on which a short film was projected about halfway through the evening.

Joe Frank’s work is hilarious and profound. He has an uncanny ability to create a world of darkness, and then crack the tension with highly absurd comedy. Yet this alone does not encompass his writing style. It’s unhinged yet poignant. Often, the tales will lead to a metaphorical ending. For example, one story in the program is about a man who owns the largest telescope in the world, a dreamlike and abstract notion, and ends with the haunting, real world revelation, “You can’t see the entire universe in the daytime.” This particular show focuses on the passing of time, the loss of love and art, among many, many other things. It is very loosely framed by love letters from “Just An Ordinary Man” to the woman he is clearly stalking, but whom he considers to be his first love. His stories morph into one another, and are often separated by a guitar solo that leads into Mr. Frank picking up anew.

At one point on Saturday night, Joe Frank riffed on the word “meaning” as it relates to art. Meaning is important, he conjectured, but if there is too much meaning, then the thing loses all it’s meaning. His exhausting repetition of the word “meaning” rendered the word, (you guessed it) meaningless, transforming the word into the antithesis of its definition. This kind of insightful sculpting of words is more than a parlor trick: it is a profound and carefully orchestrated exploration of the English language and the boundaries of communication. Through the seemingly pointless speech, Mr. Frank made a clear point about intention and honesty in art. Finding this, the purest kind of communication, should always be the most rudimentary goal of theatre, although that intention is often overshadowed, perhaps in the quest of that little thing Mr. Frank finds so fascinating: meaning. Mr. Frank’s work forgets to be consumed with political or social import and instead explores the human mind.

The silent short film directed by Paul Rachman and featuring Linda Carol and Joe Frank bisected the evening. The film was projected behind Mr. Frank as he read aloud the narration. It was a clever and charming piece that flowed with the performance nicely, especially because of how in sync Frank’s reading was with the film behind him. The visual component was a refreshing addition to what was otherwise an evening of watching Mr. Frank read. The words were intended to be the stars of the evening, and the performance perfectly matched the radio show in tone, although a stronger visual component would have been nice.

Unfortunately. Mr. Frank has no scheduled dates to return to Chicago, but there are still opportunities to hear his work. His radio show airs in syndication every Sunday night at 11 PM on WBEZ and archives of his radio show are available on his website


Rating:  ★★★½