REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

Strawdog and Brecht a wicked good combo

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

 
Strawdog Theatre presents
 
The Good Soul of Szechuan
 
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
David Harrower
Directed by
Shade Murray
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 29th  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Bertolt Brecht believed epic theatre would reveal society’s immorality and incite virtuous action in its viewer. The genre is formulaic by nature, and in the wrong hands, epic theatre is just tedious. The techniques intended to alienate the audience – actors playing multiple characters, unrealistic settings, costumes and props in plain sight, the occasional musical interlude – do just that, but have the potential to disinterest more than disaffect. It takes a skilled ensemble to find emotional resonance when a script intentionally creates a hurdle in the actor’s connection with the audience, but Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.comStrawdog Theatre’s cast and creative team use the conventions of epic theatre to enhance David Harrower’s gritty translation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The updated language pulls Szechuan into the present, turning the city into a modern industrial metropolis filled with selfish people that hate their lives as much as they each other. The dialogue should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been on the CTA, with the characters indulging in profanity-driven whining as prostitute protagonist Shen Te (Michaela Petro) tries her hardest to appease their demands. Modernizing the language has the potential to push the style into realism, but there is enough stage business and audience participation to keep the theatrical artifice at the forefront. As patrons are seated, a house band plays rousing folk-rock while actors warm up on stage and interact with unsuspecting members of the audience. Make no mistake, these are actors putting on a show, not actually the characters they portray. So it’s still epic.

From the orgasmic chants of “Shen-te, Shen-te, Shen-te!” that signal the main character’s entrances to the ethereal strings that soundtrack the Gods’ (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, Anita Chandwaney) scenes, music is used to quickly establish tone and give the actors added support. Intended as one of those pesky alienation techniques, the musical numbers have such energy and passion that it is difficult to not feel moved, especially when the entire ensemble raises their voices together. The actors double as the band, and their vocal quality is matched by clear and confident accompaniment that showcases the various instrumental talents of the cast. The only song that never really clicks is “The Song of Smoke,” a headbanger sung by Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts) that lingers a little too long and stretches the character’s fury past its breaking point.

Director Shade Murray is adept at tragicomedy, and he finds the humor in Harrower’s downtrodden Szechuan. When Shen Te can no longer handle the greed of those she aids, she creates Shui Ta, a brash male alter ego. Shui Ta’s tracksuit and gangster swagger are laughable, but when Petro puts on her ass-kicking boots she does not play around, especially when she pulls out a brick of heroin. The exaggeration of her costuming and behavior strike a comedic chord as her actions take her deeper into darkness, creating laughs that are tinged with uneasiness. Most of the humor comes from the characters acting despicably – the aggressive disrespect of Shen Te’s houseguests, the flippant bitchiness of her landlord Mrs. Shin (Shannon Hoag) – and each laugh is another reminder that this is a performance, forcing the audience to question what exactly is so funny.

In the end, it’s another Brecht show with another Brecht message: Capitalism makes people do bad things. The biggest problem with epic theatre is that after a while it’s just not fun to watch people struggling, but when a company is having as much fun as Strawdog does in The Good Soul of Szechuan, the dark corners of human depravity don’t seem that bad a place to be.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

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REVIEW: Stomp (Broadway in Chicago)

Who needs instruments when you got a trashcan?

Water

 
Broadway in Chicago presents
 
STOMP
 
Created/directed by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas
at
Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
Thru May 2nd | tickets: $17-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

JumpBrooms, garbage lids, paint cans: the makings for an award-winning show are in the garage. Broadway in Chicago presents STOMP, an entertaining spectacle about the percussionist potential of everyday items. In 1991, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas introduced STOMP at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre. Nearly twenty years  later, it has played in over 350 cities in 36 countries, won multiple awards, and spun off into films, commercials and other stage versions. The original smash hit, STOMP, is touring with the old favorites tweaked and two additional full-scale numbers. For the next several days, STOMP will be sweeping Chicago off their feet with their flawless synchronized rhythmic beat.

The show starts and ends with a guy and a broom sweeping up the stage. In between, a dozen performers use everything including the kitchen sink to produce a medley of sounds sans any musical instruments. Literally, kitchen sinks of water and suds are hanging from performers as they tap out a tune with drumsticks. STOMP connects mundane household items to a hip, urban movement. Even without the aid of any props or words, a performer interacts with the audience in a clapping stand-off to produce an impressive theatrical noise. The playful moments between the performers and audience makes the show feel spontaneous and fresh. The performers seem to be Red Drum enjoying the action as much as the audience. The whole theatre is applauding and clomping in mutual admiration and expression. The guy next to me is so enthralled in mimicking claps and stomps, it feels like he is auditioning. (Unfortunately, he shouldn’t expect a callback!)

It’s the audio AND the visual. It’s hearing AND seeing the stomp. In one number, the ensemble lines up with Zippo lighters for the click AND the flame. Fascinating! The physicality of the performers is remarkable in their dancer-musician duality. This is most notable in a routine where they are suspended in the air as they stick it to a wall of hubcaps for a tribal melody. Familiar items like paint cans and recycle bins create an audio-visual sensation that will inspire kids to grab a bucket and practice. The fast paced sequence of innovation makes STOMP perfect for kids and adults. It is the most fun you’ll ever have with a broom!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Group

 

Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: Mike Daisey – How Theater Failed America

A talented voice for the theater-cynic in all of us

mikedaisey2

 
Victory Gardens Theatre presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
At
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through May 2nd  |  Tickets: $25  |   more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

“You should not have come here,” begins Mike Daisey in his one-man tour de force of nature, How Theater Failed America.  For one thing, he continues, the title of the show sucks – ( “What is this, a fucking film strip?”)  For another, Daisey’s simultaneously bleak and brilliant autobiographical walk down the memory lane of his career will outrage the politically correct. It will also send those who view theater as a sacred, noble art spiraling and screaming down a wild rabbit hole of profane realty.  (Spoiler alert: Those who want to cling to the myth of  “community”  in theater should stay home and stick to their Twitter confabs.)  It’s fair to ask why anyone other than out-of-work actors (which is to say – more or less – actors) should give a whit about the death of theater or about Daisey’s scathing monologue.  Will the grid go dark if all of the world’s liberal arts grads collectively decide never to mount another revival of A View from the Bridge? Does the world’s well-being rest on an endless cycle of revisionist Ibsen? Of course not.  Yet this is where Daisey’s explosive and formidable talent becomes so gloriously apparent. Directed by Jean-Michele GregoryHow Theater Failed America will be powerfully entertaining even to those who could not care less about whether Becket and Brecht vanish from the face of the earth, washed away by the likes of “The Little Mermaid”.  As for those with a vested interest in the arts, they will find themselves repeatedly shocked and undeniably entertained by the galvanizing candor of Daisey’s observations.  The man articulates truths that just aren’t spoken aloud and in doing so, breaks what often feels like a conspiracy of silence among artists.  (Question the existence of “community” in local theatrical circles, and you’ll all but be accused of heresy.)

Weaving deeply personal stories into the context of the arts in the 21st century, Daisey  hits the audience with a barrage of blazing immediacy and devastating honesty. While it’s autobiographical,  Gregory’s direction excises the piece of all self-indulgence and paces it so well the two-hour run time feels like 15 minutes, This is a story about MIke Daisey’s life in the theater, but it is also a story about life in general in all its dazzling, manic absurdity and free-falling despair. How Theater Failed America is about how doing an ill-advised version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony with an albino, a dwarf, a mud pit and a perpetually drunk director can prove to be one’s redemption.  And if one achieves that redemption by being forced to masturbate before an audience that includes little children? Then surely there is hope for even the most depressed, hopeless and rudderless among us.

Long before Daisey segues into the suicidal segment of his career (his crystalline description of doing the Dead Man’s float night after night on an icy Maine lake is almost unbearably vivid), he offers a brief lesson in How Theater Works.  Anyone who has perused any given season at  the Goodman already knows about the “ freeze-dried” actors imported from New York on a regular basis. What perhaps isn’t so obvious:  That artistic directors are actually more like factory foremen, that board members are forever trying to run the machinery and that plays aren’t really plays so much as “slots” (as in the winter slot, the spring slot, the minority slot).

Daisey has no illusions about what  prompts the inclusion of his show in a season: that conversation never starts with an artistic director saying something like “I love your work and want to bring you to my stage.” It instead usually starts with a managing director saying something like “You probably heard we had to cancel our ‘Pericles.’ "  Theaters turn to him because he offers a show with no set demands and the smallest possible cast size.  Were it possible to stage a show with a cast of less than one, he’d be out of work, Daisey admits.

daisey 

His experience teaching is similarly forthright  and sentiment-free – which makes its emotional wallop all the more powerful . In a segment that could draw tears from a stone, Daisey recalls a season wherein he shaped a bunch of thuggish juvenile delinquents into an award-winning one-act company.  If you think this chapter merits a “Stand and Deliver” moment, expect to have your rosy romantic expectations dashed under a cold stone of reality.  After the win, Daisey describes his cold, bone-certain knowledge that his teenage star – a deeply troubled boy for whom theater became a lifeline and who dreamed of going to college and majoring in acting – was a loser whose aspirations would never become actualities.  There’s triumph of the human spirit, and then there’s the harsh, bitter reality that some people cannot escape the dead-ends of their own, sad, uncontrollable circumstances. 

Daisey’s youthful attempts at creating his own theater company in western Maine are similarly un-romantic and, often, riotously funny in the telling.  His story of living on rationed Raman noodles and putting on shows held together (literally, in the case of the light board) with duct tape is a misadventure that every 20something, self-appointed artistic director of an Off-Loop start-up would do well to heed.  That you can’t eat idealism (or even fashion an adequate sound design from it)  is the least of the perils faced by young, starry-eyed artists certain that their revival of Suburbia can change if not the world, than  at the very least, their community.

Yet for all Daisey’s clear-eyed vision , How Theater Failed America is hardly a cynical show.  That the actor survived masturbating to Genet is an ironclad testament to the fact that talent, in the end, can trump even the  most daunting of obstacles. Yes, audiences are getting smaller, older and disturbing the actors with their wheezing oxygen tanks. Daisey’s touring nonetheless. And with a cracking fine show. If he has succeeded among theater’s many failures, there’s hope for the arts yet .

 
Rating: ★★★
 

daisey2

Mike Daisey presents a second monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, May 5 – 9 at the Victory Gardens. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org

REVIEW: How Theater Failed America (Victory Gardens)

A talented monologist tells it like it is

 

daisey_portrait

 
Victory Gardens presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 2nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The stage is set like a Spaulding Gray performance – and that’s probably not an accident: empty save for a long, rectangular wooden desk in the center set with a glass of water and a few precisely stacked, torn out pages of ruled and written on yellow note paper. There are random collections of bric-a-brac piled high in the back, dimly lit like a proscenium made of old trunks and other junk, receded so far that it’s become a frame, a wall hanging. A stray lamp with no shade lingers brightly on one daisey_spadeaspadeside of the stage, and a single, lonely chair waits behind the desk. Enter, Mike Daisey, to applause. He takes his seat opposite the audience and sets off on a two hour explanation about How Theater Failed America.

The first thing Mike Daisey takes on in his rocket-fueled, sit-down invective monologue How Theater Failed America is the title of his own show. It’s a flimsy passive construction, he complains, as he slams his fist against the desk for emphasis and clarity. A small cloud of dust shoots out, dissipating in the light. Ridiculing himself even more, he shreds his own logic to set off on the right comedic foot and lighten the mood – perhaps people will stop thinking about the weight or potential boredom threatened by the show’s title.  He continues, asking – does the title suggest that there will be a powerpoint presentation? Is that what the ‘How’ is for? Is he trying to consciously drive people away with the show?

Once he’s done making fun of himself, he begins to bait the audience with guesses about their suspect motivations and beliefs about this angrily titled show. He laughs at the audience’s thirst to see someone or something crucified; then he recounts a conversation with an artistic director friend who told him that the show was great but the name was shit.

The monologue from the waist up told from behind a desk beneath stage lights without design flourishes or technical frills is stand-up comedy’s tragic relative – the uncle who embarrasses at a family function. The fun in stand-up comedy comes from watching a comedian wander from topic-to-topic, chasing laughs like a poacher on safari – hunting for that elusive combination of the hysterical and the everyday.  Conversely, the fun in watching Mike Daisey’s monologue comes from watching Daisey attempt to take on the institutions and corporations, the characters and personalities, the theories and practices of the American theater business like a surgeon turning a dull scalpel on his own body to cure actors and audience members suffering from a certain commercial or regional non-profit malaise.

daisey_brickwall_mixing

From behind his desk, Daisey delivers an exhaustingly good performance. Each word seems paired with an energetic gesture and the gesture accompanies each reuse of that word. It makes it very hard not to pay close attention to the only man glowing beneath the lights on stage, screeching every third minute. The audience begins to hear the story unfold in Daisey’s own desktop language of emphatic eyes, thirsty sips, brow-sweat wipes, and swinging limbs. The effect is hypnotic.

And then, of course, there is the monologue he delivers extemporaneously, occasionally glancing at notes, pulling anecdotes from experience, repeating angry assertions with comfort and ease. Daisey traverses a series of lyric meditations on his own past, memoir-like vignettes, describing bouts of paralytic depression or flirting with suicide in the icy October waves of a lake in Maine. He reminisces about starting a summer repertory company in Maine’s Western woods with a friend and his three ex-girlfriends. He tells the story of a stint as high school teacher where he stuck  76 high school kids on a stage in order to win a state daisey_proofcompetition. Woven throughout these memoir-like vignettes – the real gems of this show – Daisey tosses in snippets of conversation with a literary manager over here, a producer over there and a running series of interactions with a convivial drinking buddy and artistic director.

Daisey’s considerable accomplishment as an actor and a lucid storyteller aside, the show’s titular content is where it’s at its weakest. He paints a colorful but indistinct portrait of the American Theater as an aging, dying art form. It’s not that he doesn’t paint it well – he absolutely does. He talks chillingly of aging subscriber bases and listening to the hiss of oxygen tanks from the darkness beyond the stage; he expresses his deep fear that he is surfing through life on the last crest of American theater’s relevance, even going so far as to say that after him, "they’ll turn off the lights." He even includes a great bit about freeze-dried boxes of actors being dropped off from New York or “Law & Order” to work with a director who scrawled a drunk concept blueprint on a SoHo cocktail napkin before boarding a private jet to join the thawing actors for three weeks; that this is usually done with some specious connection to ‘community’ and how it would be entirely ludicrous if, say, professional sports worked like this.

The tone, when Daisey is railing against the American Theater establishment, is melodramatic and alarmist.  And it’s just this cynical topic that makes the show so engaging to experience. He is really mad; strong emotions are key to any sense of drama.  And a talented monologist trying to tackle these tough questions is a welcome change from what Daisey describes as all that "academic mist" about the dwindling audiences and commercialization and corporatism and the "end of theater". Unfortunately, How Theater Failed America‘s biggest hole is its almost total omission of alternatives.  If American Theater is so tied up in real estate or ailing or too corporate or failing, then what can be done to start bailing it out?  

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

daisey_thinkaboutit

      

REVIEW: Jason (Chicago Opera Theater)

Delightfully mixing witty vulgarity with keen refinement

 Jason Photo 9

 
Chicago Opera Theater presents
 
Jason
 
Composed by Francesco Cavalli
Libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (Millennium Park)
thru May 2nd  |  buy tickets  |  more info

Review by Mark D. Ball

Jason Photo 8 Even though human culture has changed since Apollonius wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, human nature has remained basically the same. Cavalli’s 17th-century opera Jason punctuates this simple truth. Whether we approach Jason as an ancient myth, a Baroque soap opera, or a hybrid of the two, Chicago Opera Theater’s current production keeps it meaningful to a 21st-century audience by distilling the drama and comedy from the story, along with the gravity and silliness of human life, the wisdom and folly, and the nobility and profligacy. And all this in a tidy 165-minute package that delights the ears and the eyes.

The single greatest strength of this production lies in the characterizations. Every singer defines his or her character sharply, and as a result the wonderful wit in this opera sparkles. Even while flirting with exaggeration, the cast had the good judgment to stop before becoming cardboard caricatures. Because the singers understand that Cavalli’s music usually parallels Cicognini’s text in the rhythms of speech, their singing was cogent and perceptive. This is especially merciful because recitativo can be a crushing bore in unimaginative or undiscerning musical hands. COT, however, vivified the score by infusing it alternately with verve, flair, delicacy, and warmth.

The connection between Jason and the story of Jason and the Argonauts is more or less nominal. Gone are the adventures. Jason is a married father of twins, and he’s cheating on his wife with Medea, who has also borne him a set of twins. And up until the happy ending, we’re treated to humor, scheming, deception, bawdiness, misapprehension, and attempted murder. But no little ones are killed.

Jason Photo 2 In the title role, Franco Fagioli gave us a believably selfish and hedonistic Jason, who seeks sexual conquest more than he does military glory. But his dormant conscience, which redeems him in the end, was always at the edge of detectability. Fagioli’s countertenor was as smooth as a river pebble, and it had an athletic quality with a refreshing clarity throughout his range.

Fagioli set the tone for the entire drama with Jason’s first aria, in which he captured the “hero’s” sizeable character weakness and underscored the fact that Jason hadn’t gotten where he is by means of a John-Wayne-style grit. Because of Fagioli’s success in this regard, transposing Jason into a 1960s James Bond was all the more clever in its sarcasm. Consequently, Jason’s redemption at the end was especially convincing as he came to recognize his appalling behavior.

Singing the role of Medea was Sasha Cooke. Her skillful mezzo soprano and the panache in her acting gave us one of the finest moments in the performance: her invocation of the powers of darkness to help Jason in his quest for the Fleece. The feeling she created wasn’t one of temporary madness, though her hinges did loosen. Rather, she capitalized on the changing meters and the repeating notes to create a driving energy that was rational and singularly focused on Medea’s purpose.

Julius Ahn brought forth the politically incorrect comedy relief as the servant Demo, the clubfooted, hunchbacked, stuttering dwarf. The unique coloratura of this role differs from that of traditional bel canto in that Cavalli’s music actually uses the peculiarities of stuttering for its structure and speed. Demo’s problem swells in his melismas but recedes in his arias. Aware of this device, Ahn sang the false starts and minced repetitions with apparent ease, while having his character display the expected, and sympathetic, frustration.

Jason Photo 7 Jason Photo 10
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In the role of the disgraced Isifile, Jason’s wife, Grazia Doronzio sang movingly. But the abandoned wife and mother showed more than just a soupçon of self-pity, and there were a few times when I found myself wishing that she’d stop wallowing in it. After all, she is a rich and powerful queen. Tyler Nelson’s portrayal of Delfa, Medea’s servant, was quite funny, albeit just one cigarette away from being a cliché. Vale Rideout made Egeo’s unhealthful obsession with Medea suitably disturbing until the end, when we forgave him for being a victim of love. Although his tone was deep and rich, his vibrato was so wide in the melismas that the pitch sometimes disappeared.

The flaws in this production, though noticeable, didn’t detract from the experience. But they do recommend some additional polishing. A few times the singers and their lights had to find each other on stage, and the stagehands were visible while moving set pieces during the action. Moreover, the movable scene dividers were a bit tacky, inasmuch as they looked like large boxes onto which gift-wrapping paper had been pasted, with creases and seams clearly visible.

Despite the passing of three and a half centuries, Jason hasn’t lost its relevance. The regret is there, alongside the grief and the spitefulness, all three of which burned right through this sizzling production. And what about the low humor? Maybe it’s cynical to say so, but even the cognoscenti feel less guilty about laughing at it when higher expectations are standing by. Like their predecessors, modern audiences do enjoy a witty mix of vulgarity and refinement, especially, as in this opera, when vice can bump up against virtue with a wink and a grin.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

 

Video Trailer of Cavalli’s Jason (Giasone) – First Rehearsal

 

ABOVE:  Director Justin Way and conductor Christian Curnyn talk about Chicago Opera Theater’s new production of Cavalli’s Jason (Giasone).

 

Extra Credit:

 

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Theater Thursday: The Body Snatchers (City Lit)

Thursday, April 29

 
The Body Snatchers
City Lit Theater
1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago (map)

bodysnatchersGuests will enter the reception area and be greeted by the soft sound of early 50s jazz music and be treated to a variety of decadent deserts and delicious coffee from event partners, Francesca’s Restaurant and Starbucks Coffee. After the reception guests will attend the production, which will then be followed by a talkback with the actors and adapter/director Paul Edwards. The Body Snatchers concerns a small-town doctor who discovers that the people around him are being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates. (our review★★★)

Event begins at 7 p.m.    Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $30

For reservations call 773-293.3682 or email boxoffice@citylit.org and mention"Theater Thursdays."

Click here for more upcoming Theater Thursday events.

Sunday Sondheim: Ah, But Underneath – from Follies

 

Dee Hoty takes off all of her clothes in concert version of Sondheim’s Follies.