REVIEW: Our Lady of the Underpass (16th Street Theater, with Teatro Vista)

A compelling story, no matter what you see

 

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16th Street Theater (with Teatro Vista) presents
 
Our Lady of the Underpass
 
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Sandra Marquez

at 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th Street, Berwyn
(map)
through May 1 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan

Roughly mid-way through Our Lady of the Underpass, a disgruntled jogger played by Chris Cantelmi goes off on the “retards”  fucking up  his Fullerton Avenue running route as they gather to pray at the titular image.

“These Catholics,” he snarls, adjusting his scrotum through his expensive running gear, “They’re like, ‘Look at my grilled cheese! It’s Jesus! Call a press conference!”

If there’s a more authentic archetype of urban assholery on stage this month, we’d be surprised. With a wad of chewing gum and the ugly air of entitlement peculiar to 20something boys with a full head of hair and a Gold’s Gym physique, Cantalemi captures in full the egoism and the cluelessness of  fellow that’s all too recognizable.

Juan Gabriel Ruiz (photo credit: Art Carillo) He’s but one in the vivid, vibrant parade of characters that people Tanya Saracho’s docudrama centering on the image Obdulia Delgado discovered on the Fullerton Avenue underpass five years ago this month. Directed by Sandra Marquez (who helmed the same cast in last year’s world-premiere of Our Ladyat Victory Gardens), this joint Teatro Vista16th Street production offers an alternately tragic, comic, and provocative examination of faith and skepticism in Chicago.

Saracho spent months, tape-recorder in hand, at the underpass many claimed was a sacred spot after an image of the Virgin Mary (or was it a salt stain?) appeared. As the candles, flowers and petitions accrued, she interviewed the pilgrims who flocked to visit the manifestation of the Virgin Mary -  as well as those who insisted it was a bad patch job.  Our Lady captures the depth and breadth of both the spiritual and the cynical in six, captivating monologues. The disparate (and often desperate) stories are so wholly compelling, it becomes easy to overlook Saracho’s formidable powers as a reporter. At the underpass, complete strangers unburdened  their darkest secrets to her – hopes, hurts and emotions that, in many cases, they had never uttered aloud. If the playwriting thing doesn’t work out for Saracho, she’s surely got a career as an investigative journalist.

In contrast to Cantelmi’s masterstroke as the quintessential tool, Our Lady presents Suzette Mayobre as a Huppie (an upwardly mobile Latina) inexplicably shuddering through a complete breakdown in pink monkey pajamas and Uggs. Her story of a fairy tale relationship (“It was like we were trapped in an ad for a cruise”) that suddenly, literally turns to shit is as hilarious as it is upsetting. If doesn’t matter if you can’t directly relate to the plight of a woman whose perfect boyfriend takes an unforeseen  scatological swerve. Anyone who has ever  been forced to deal with the unthinkable  – and gone a little crazy trying to do so – will recognize themselves in this  moving, tragically funny portrait.

Equally compelling is Gabriel Juan Ruiz as Tony, Elgin resident, aspiring deacon and self-appointed guardian of the Underpass.  Ruiz creates a marvelous trajectory from soft-spoken reason to feral, screaming misogyny  in the space of a single monologue. Women are god’s creatures, Tony rhapsodizes with the gentle, doe-eyed wonder of a lamb -  until (and here, Ruiz captures the distilled essence of bug-eyed mania) they turn into the “beast of the Revelation.”  With Tony’s parting words, Ruiz’ unleashes a neediness that’s downright scary: “I’ve been on television four times!” He yells, and in that frenzied distress, one gets the sense of a desperation that’s almost sociopathic.

underpass1 On the other end of the spectrum is Charin Alvarez, as La Tia, the aunt of a severely disabled boy who is the love of her life. Her story unfolds in the self-effacing tones of a woman who has always put herself a far distant second behind anyone else she might encounter, from immediate family to factory co-workers. Recalling a  transnational Monterrey-to-Chicago love story, the family reunion that upended her life and her abiding devotion to a child not apt to live past one more birthday, Alvarez speaks with a melodious, near-hypnotic tone that is both her artistic signature and the voice of a unique character. It’s a sad, lovely and powerful story.

The one piece in Our Lady that does not work quite so well this time around is the nurse’s tale, the narrative of a Polish-American RN whose bitter recollections of growing up the daughter of a cleaning lady have shaped her angry world outlook. Amanda Powell – the sole newcomer to the cast since it’s premiere last year – leans too hard on the trash-talking vitriol, giving the piece an unvarying rage that doesn’t allow for an emotional arc.

That, however, is largely a quibble –  our sense is that the nurse’s mono-rancor will settle into more varying depths as the run continues.

Between the monologues, Saracho places brief choruses of prayer to Our Lady of the Underpass, of The Botanica that Also Sells Phone Cards, of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, of Affordable Duplexes and all the other causes the Virgin takes on as Fullerton Avenue becomes a shrine. The scenes play out on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s startlingly accurate replication of the underpass and the image on it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of flickering candles, graffiti and shimmering auras instill the piece with both a sense of mysticism and the harsh urban reality of disfigured concrete. No matter what you see as you gaze on the Underpass, Saracho’s story of its power is compelling.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

     

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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

by Paige Listerud

It seems like only yesterday we started The Arthur Miller Project. Back in November, TimeLine Theatre was finishing up with All My Sons and Raven Theatre had extended its hit production of Death of a Salesman. I still marveled at the line-up of Arthur Miller works being produced through the 2009-2010 season. To the best of my knowledge, an opportunity like this–to grasp the breadth of Miller’s drama, live, in a single season–is unprecedented, even for a world-class theater city like Chicago. You don’t have to be a theater geek to appreciate what a break it is to see an American master like Miller done comprehensively, and done well, in the course of a year.

Plus, it happened this way without anyone planning it. No theater company coordinated with any other to produce seven Miller plays across the city. They are still not coordinating with each other, not even for advertising purposes–unlike TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court Theatre’s promotional collaboration, Fugard Chicago 2010. In fact, Infamous Commonwealth, TimeLine, and Raven Theatre bid against each other for the rights to produce All My Sons–much to the bewilderment of Miller’s estate, according to Eclipse Theatre’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift.

Well, for some reason Arthur Miller is in the Chicago theater community’s headlights this year. Companies needed and wanted to dig into Miller’s canon. When they couldn’t get All My Sons they moved on, not to another playwright but to another Miller play.

So April is here, Easter is upon us; the spring Chicago theater season is about to burst into full glory. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre opened The Crucible last week (see our review) and Eclipse Theatre started its previews of Resurrection Blues on March 25. You can see our interview with Infamous Commonwealth’s Chris Maher and Craig Thompson below. Video of Eclipse Theatre’s theater artists and events are to come.

We hope you’ve warmed up nicely from seeing TimeLine and Raven Theatre’s productions last fall—find our interviews with their directors below.

Covering everything Eclipse Theatre has planned for its Arthur Miller season could be a project in and of itself. But then its mission, unique in the Midwest, is to concentrate upon one playwright per season, supplementing fully mounted plays with further explorations of the playwright’s work in a series of intimate readings and discussions. Eclipse selected Miller’s lesser-done plays Resurrection Blues, After the Fall and A Memory of Two Mondays for full-scale production. As in previous seasons, Eclipse will also employ directors, actors, scholars and dramaturges to enhance their subscribers’ introduction to other Arthur Miller works. It’s all part of the subscription–although, for a suggested donation, non-subscribers can also join in the journey to the heart of Arthur Miller.

If sneak peaks are any indication, that journey will be substantial.

arthur-miller2 First up in Eclipse’s Playwright Scholar Series is a staged reading of Miller’s first full-length play written in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Held Saturday, April 10, at 2 pm at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the play has the kind of protagonist who reads like the photographic negative of Willy Loman. David Beeves acquires success in every area of his personal and professional life, regardless of the obstacles. “But his good fortune merely serves to reveal the tragedies of those around him in greater relief, offering evidence of a capricious god or, worse, a godless, arbitrary universe.” I guess there are two kinds of tragedies in life: one is never getting what you want and the other is getting it. While we are familiar with the former in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a work like The Man Who Had All the Luck explicitly shows the playwright delving into the latter.

Swift, who also directs Resurrection Blues this season, particularly looks forward to discussing the theme of “being liked”—the proverbial American need to be liked—running through both plays.

Other Arthur Miller treats:

The Homely Girl, A Life—Eclipse has been contemplating a workshop on a stage adaptation of this Miller novella. At last notice, acquiring rights from the estate were still a little sticky. Stay tuned.

Enemy of the People—discussion will compare Miller’s adaptation to Ibsen’s original work. Hopefully, discussion will resonate with Eclipse’s upcoming production of After the Fall in July and Infamous Commonwealth’s The Crucible going on right now. All three have to do with Miller going before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

A View from the Bridge—readings from the original one-act version and songs from the opera version. Just this January, Gregory Mosher, once head of the Goodman Theatre, revived this little Miller classic on Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. In a thousand ways, this tense tale of incest and domestic violence just keeps turning up. Its blue-collar atmosphere may enhance Eclipse’s last play of the season, A Memory of Two Mondays.

arthur-miller-marilyn-monroe The Misfits—a reading of the screenplay and discussion of Miller’s life and writing. Marilyn Monroe was with Miller all through HUAC and starred in this, her last completed film, screenplay written by Miller. The shooting of the film was the site of their marriage’s demise. Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, depicts the making of The Misfits.

Swift doesn’t mind not getting All My Sons for Eclipse’s season. While a famous Miller blockbuster definitely would bring in more revenue, focusing on lesser-known Arthur Miller works better fits their mission to cover the full arc of a playwright’s career. “Our focus is largely dramaturgical,” says Swift, “to ask how these works resonate–especially now. Not to compete with other companies.” Other companies covering Arthur Miller simply give more context to what Eclipse is doing.

Chuck Spencer blew me away,” says Swift, regarding Raven Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. “I’m looking forward to seeing Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre. A bunch of people are thrown into the same room and it builds terrifyingly with the realization of how bad it’s going to get.”

I’m anticipating how good it’s all going to get, show by show, event by event. Please join us, here and at the theater.


For all YouTube interviews, click on “Read more”


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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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