REVIEW: A True History of the Johnstown Flood (Goodman Theatre)

Design team is all that’s left above water

 

johnstown-flood_001 

 
Goodman Theatre presents
 
A True History of the Johnstown Flood
 
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Rebecca Gilman’s  latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.

johnstown-flood_007 Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets.  The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it  might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic  emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.

Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of  explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.

The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama.  But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.

Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first  Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster.  It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.

johnstown-flood_012The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing:  James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.

The worst instance of  this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful  climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall)  -  are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.

Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?)  the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.

Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.

Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.

johnstown-flood_009 johnstown-flood_010
johnstown-flood_011 johnstown-flood_013

Later comes a  potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation.  Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.

In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.”  Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.

 
Rating: ★½
 

johnstown-flood_002

 

        

REVIEW: Right as Rain (InnateVolution)

A tepid “Rain”

right-as-rain

 
InnateVolution Theater presents:
 
Right as Rain
 
by April Smallwood
directed by Toma Tavares Langston
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through April 24th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The publicity material for Right as Rain contains a quote from director Toma Tavares Langston declaring that this work by writer April Smallwood did not have a definitive answer or resolution. What actually commences is a predictable and stereotypical depiction of the angst of gay youth. This story has been told before, to better resolution, and there is nothing fresh or revealing in this tale of identity struggle and religious fundamentalism.

Right as Rain takes place at the home of Paul and Sara Stevens in present time rural Kentucky. The Stevens are a fundamentalist Christian couple with a teenaged son named Luke (Ethan Itzkow). Their son’s new friend Chance (Pavel Tabutov) has come by on a Sunday morning and witnesses the Stevens family’s living room church stained-glass-rainbow-cross service. Eileen Tull, as Sara Stevens, has a charming Middle America quality to her that fits the role of a compliant minister’s wife. She plays well opposite husband Paul (Arne Saupe), who does his best to interject life into the rigid Evangelical minister.  We soon learn that the Stevens family was run out of their last church because of a secret that resulted in shame – a shame of which no one is allowed to speak.

Itzkow plays the role of son Luke with puppy-like energy and naiveté. He is funny and heart rending as an innocent country boy who strictly obeys his parents and believes in his father’s sermons. In his acting debut, Pavel Tabutov is clearly challenged at every turn with his portrayal of Luke’s friend Chance. Stiff gesticulating and an inability to catch the beats of the dialogue hampers him from the start. At first, one might think Tabutov has difficulty with dialogue that’s florid and clumsily akin to old radio soap opera. And it soon becomes clear that the actor has an indiscernible accent and not of the southern type. If the role had been written for a foreign boy as a fish out of water in Kentucky it might have worked – just as it worked for James Baldwin in “Another Country” and “Giovanni’s Room” – two such examples of a naïve ultra-religious boy tormented and confused by his burgeoning sexuality.

In an attempt to shock or inject originality, playwright Smallwood transposed Baldwin’s themes into a Kentucky idyll. The unfortunate result is trite and predictable. The father keeps repeating “there is something about that boy” with narrowed eyes – killing any suspense of why the Stevens family had to leave Rushing Waters church in their last town. There is no shock that Paul had incited a hate crime that led to family disgrace and eventually Luke’s self- loathing and shame about his sexual identity.

The dynamic between the characters of Chance and Luke falls flat and unintentionally hilarious. For example: the parents go out of town and bad boy Chance shows up with vodka and porn. Luke gets hammered from slugging vodka like Sunny D, his defenses are down and Chance pounces as porn flickers on the television. It is already obvious that his life will be somehow ruined like the boy in “Reefer Madness” when he tokes on that fateful doobie.

There are other clumsy attempts to push the action to a fever pitch:

  • the eye-rolling dark-night-of-the-soul portrayal of Luke’s overwrought break-up scene
  • a seemingly campy take on Luke, as he cries at having forgotten the Lord’s Prayer – on his knees struggling to remember the familiar words
  • the odd hallucinagenic sequence where Luke’s friend Chance becomes a go-go dancer: the strobe-light flickers while Luke’s mother, wearing a jolly polka-dot dress, lilts around the disco club, dust mop in tow, all while father looms over the scene, bible in hand. (I realize that hallucinations are supposed to be absurd, but the staging of this scene is way over the top and the production is ill-equipped to handle it. The light and sound effects are badly-executed and should have been altered to fit the budget.)

Right as Rain is staged at North Lakeside Cultural Center, an early 20th-century mansion, a prohibitive space where care needs to be taken when staging a  production. northlakesideThe parlor is the main stage for the first 2 acts of Right as Rain, used as the setting for the Stevens kitchen and Luke’s bedroom. The seating arrangement in the parlor makes for poor sight lines, as audience members crane their necks to see the interaction between characters (not that it ultimately makes any difference).

The mansion’s front area is then used for the 3rd (and final) act, where the play’s climax occurs in the church being built by Paul in their home’s back yard. This scene is the best and most mercifully short of the production. Luke has taken a break from Chance and is helping his father. He breaks down and confesses to his father his homosexual encounters. The dialogue between Paul and Luke is fevered and skillfully delivered, the most honest and raw of the play. It also sets the stage for the rather stereotyped portrayal of gay self-loathing. The violent ending is meant to be shocking, but instead one feels hit over the head by the overplayed theme that one cannot run away from their sins.

Right as Rain is a world premiere that comes from InnateVolution’s previous “New Play Circle Series of Staged Readings”. There is much work to be done to take it from the present staged-reading feel into a professional production indicative of quality Chicago theatre. Though a more minimalistic production might possess some redeeming factors, the turgid writing makes minimalism impossible.

Rating: ★½

 

Right as Rain runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm. There are no performances March 27th or April 10th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 312-513-1415 or by visiting www.innatevolution.org.  Note: If attending, sit in the front row lest you miss any attempts at subtlety or reactionary glances.

      

Continue reading

REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

Continue reading