REVIEW: Resurrection Blues (Eclipse Theatre)

Beyond the crucifixion

 

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Eclipse Theatre presents
 
Resurrection Blues
 
by Arthur Miller 
directed by Nathaniel Swift
Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 9th
(more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

A little miracle is taking place at the Greenhouse Theatre CenterEclipse Theatre is brilliantly executing a late and oft misunderstood play by Arthur Miller . Don’t be deceived by the primitive set, the rather flat proscenium space or relatively low production values. Director Nathaniel Swift’s vision for Miller’s only satire works around all these shortcomings. Even the monochromatic set design (Steph Charaska ), whose cheesy faux rocks look like they came off the set of the original Star Trek, become imbued with a kind of poetry, as do the silent, dancing Cuentistas (Jazmin Corona, N. K. Gutierrez, and Lizbeth Silva) who pull double-duty pushing the set pieces between scenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With the exception of Jesus geeks, so much about Resurrection Blues could be lost upon the audience—as its 2006 premier in London demonstrates, review after review. By all accounts its unveiling at the Old Vic, under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey and its director, Robert Altman, was an epic fail. What a difference a great or even good production makes for a play’s reception. Michael Billington, critic at The Guardian, who had seen a 2002 production in Minneapolis, calls Resurrection Blues “sparky and neo-Shavian,” sighting predominant problems with Altman’s direction.

However, Paul Taylor of The Independent, upon seeing the same production, surmises that “Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire;” Kate Bassett, in an earlier Independent review calls Miller’s satire “embarrassingly feeble;” and Jeremy Austin of The Stage calls Resurrection Blues a “lumbering, rambling half-finished effort,” speculating that the man problems of one character represents “Miller’s own impotence in the final years of his life.”

Well, they can all sit down to a big plate of crow. Impotent? Feeble? Lumbering? No. This is an American master at the top of his game. Of course, it is not The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 50 years before; he didn’t need to write another. Resurrection Blues is a satire that shares similar themes on religious zealotry, the political or social desperation that leads to either scapegoating or revolution or suicide. Mixed with a soupcon of rampant, hypocritical commercialism; magnified exponentially by reality-show culture; put on steroids; shaken, not stirred–that’s’ precisely how Swift and his cast play it.

Indeed, there were moments when I questioned whether I could keep up with Miller’s tenaciously mercurial wit or Eclipse’s exactingly fast pace. For those feeling up to it, this show will make them feel the burn—and maybe just a little glow afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA No review could possibly do all the performances justice. Let’s just say Nina O’Keefe as Jeanine, the wheelchair-bound, disillusioned Marxist, starts everyone off with an incredible warm-up. “I failed as a revolutionary and as a dope addict,” she says. She also fails at suicide–although that actually turns out to be a good thing. If fact, maybe even her attempt at suicide wasn’t such a bad thing either—especially since, after leaping from her window, Jeanine starts living each passing moment with passionate intensity. At the pavement she meets with the mysterious healing stranger at the heart of Resurrection Blues. He is nothing less than a spiritual revolutionary, whose mystical powers generate more political upset than any Uzi-packing militia.

Attempted suicide as religious experience—that’s only the beginning of Miller’s tasty treats. O’Keefe knows very well the poetic power of Miller’s dialogue. Her concentration never relents.

Want another little taste? There’s Henri Schulz (Ron Butts), Jeanine’s philosopher father, a Hamlet-like intellectual if ever there was. Butts plays a man too overeducated for his poor country’s good . . . or his family’s good . . . or his own good. He portrays Schulz with just the right balance of pompous erudition and guilty, compromised, liberal befuddlement. Especially in his homeland, an anonymous third world country, all he can be is compromised. His extreme privilege, philosophical bent, and vacillating social consciousness reduce him to being the ultimate fish out of water. He returns home only to repair his relationship with his daughter, the suicidal revolutionary. So he tells his cousin, the country’s frenetic dictator, General Felix Barriaux (Matt Welton)—the character with the man problem.

As for impotence, it’s not just in generalissimo’s dick, but also in his administration. Nothing much can be done, not even ruthlessly, in an impossible country, where even good plans go to rot with corruption, betrayal and backwardness far before their completion. Welton plays Barriaux with all the manic chagrin and desperation of a tyrant who will bring order by any means necessary, even when he admits it probably won’t stop their downward slide in the face of globalization.

But he still has one small trick up his sleeve: the capture and crucifixion of Jeanine’s mysteriously powerful and dangerously inspiring stranger. And he has sold the exclusive television rights to it to an American network. Millions can be gained, for sorely needed development, at the cost of one spiritually endowed freak. For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

Here’s where the “Miller-can’t-do-satire” thing gets exposed for what it is. Miller guides a character down one road; the character turns tail and runs down another. Just when you think you’ve got the play figured out, it turns into another sort of play. It may all be too much to keep up with, but you’d better keep up or you’ll miss the laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the best laughs occur at the expense of the facile and fecklessness Americans who arrive to shoot the crucifixion. Chief among savaged American prototypes is Skip Cheeseboro (Joe McCauley), the TV producer. His business school mentality can’t be bothered with Schulz’s philosophical quandaries over going through with it. Yet, he’s sharp enough to wield every ounce of industry doublespeak and faux multicultural appreciation in the service of securing the gruesome spectacle for his network. “But, realistically,” says Skip to his startled director, Emily Shapiro (Rebecca Prescott), who presumes that she came to shoot a commercial, “who am I to be disgusted?” McCauley’s cold and slippery performance make us doubt that he ever could be.

At least there’s lots of warmth and play in Prescott’s slightly ditzy director, Emily, whose distaste for the crucifixion gamely leads her to attempt seduction of the smitten General Barriaux. JP Pierson shows us some good, old, hippy practicality in his portrayal of Stanley. Stanley’s interrogation by General Barriaux shapes up to being an odd couple encounter of the oddest kind.

Stanley’s the BFF of the present-day Messiah, a miraculous, sensitive misfit who goes by the name of Ralph or Charlie or whatever he’s feeling that day. In fact Pierson’s performance holds a critical center in the last 15 minutes of the last scene of the play. On the industry night when I saw Resurrection Blues, this was the moment when the cast’s prodigious pace, maintained with accuracy and aplomb throughout, began to drag and lose momentum. It’s a bear of a closing scene, in which each character reveals the hypocrisy or authenticity of their motives for wanting Ralph, or Charlie, to stay and be crucified or to freely go. It has to be artificial enough to maintain the even feel of Miller’s satire, but also natural enough to evoke the spontaneity with which each character addresses their uncertain savior. Such things can be worked out in the middle of production, yet still exact crucial tests on a cast’s concentration.

Miller’s morality tale gets to have it all–worldly cynicism and the possibility of real love, truth told to power and power confessing its own grasping frailties, rage unleashed against stupefying oppression and holy relief from desiccating anger, overwhelming doubt and unyielding faith, and miracles, miracles in the most impossible places–especially in the most impossible places. Would that Miller had lived 50 years more to write comedies of this quality for every tragedy he gave us. We need him now more than ever.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Circle Theatre)

One small BIG thrill

 The Men of BLWIT

 
Circle Theatre presents
 
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
 
Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson
Music/Lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie
Music Direction and new arrangements by Josh Walker
Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Thru June 20th (more info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Whores, hookers, ladies of the evening, oh my! – prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and perhaps the most misunderstood. Circle Theatre presents The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical exposing the softer side of the sex trade industry. Based on a true story, a Texas amusement institution has provided adult entertainment over the centuries. During the depression era, pleasure seekers paid for thrills with poultry which led to the nickname, “chicken ranch.” The kind-hearted Michael Gravame and the boys madam, Miss Mona, operates a clean business focused on guest satisfaction. Her well-known establishment has the endorsement and protection of the local sheriff. All that changes, when a television reporter crusades to shut it down. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t your street corner hooker production, however. It’s your high class call girl with impressive moves and a revolving wardrobe ensuring your fantasy investment reaps multiple benefits.

This show is all about the show. Twenty-five cast members with multiple costume and wig changes dress up this non-stop energetic production. Under the direction and choreography of Kevin Bellie, musical numbers are a visual spectacle. Bellie chooses to make The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas a love affair instead of a “quickie.”  Hookers to TV back-up singers to cheerleaders to reporters, Bellie uses a large number of the chorus in every scene. This choice adds dimensionality to the depth of the songs and dances. Going “Texas-style big” aids a few sound issues. For some of the solo singing moments, it’s hard to hear the lines. During “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,” there is an awkward duet between Miss Mona and a guy in the band. Cue the chorus! When the whores chime in, the harmony is ecstasy. Whether it’s singing or dancing, the ensemble uses its size to go deeper. The synchronization of the large number of dancers on a small stage kicks it up to the “wow” factor. “The Aggie Song”, in particular, is sexy country-line dancing with an athletic vigor. It’s Dirty Dancing taken to a whole new level!

Anita Hoffman and Noah Sullivan Kirk Swenk, Gregory Payne and the ladies
Sheana Tobey, Snita Hoffman, Sydney genco and Toni Lynice Fountain Noah Sullivan, Christopher Boyd and Jen Bludgen

Along with the huge and talented chorus, principal players add to the entertainment value. Every hooker should be lucky to have a boss like Miss Mona (Anita Hoffman). Balancing maternal urges in a cheeky business, Hoffman commands the stage with a combo of sexy playfulness and compassionate wisdom. Not quite meshing into the frothy ensemble, Toni Lynice Fountain (Jewel) shines with a soulful rendition of the song “24 Hours of Lovin”.  Noah Sullivan (Sheriff Earl Dodd) delivers his irreverent lines with hilarious force. ‘If that three foot man comes back, I’m going to flatten him so he has to roll down his socks to shit.’ Michael A. Gravame (Melvin P. Thorpe) is a smarmy dolt mugging the comedic moment. The issue side-stepping politician, Kirk Swenk (Governor) makes a small part memorably funny. The entire cast whores itself out for the audience’s pleasure.

The extraordinary spectrum of costumes (Jesus Perez) and wigs (Michael Buonincontro) are a 70’s flashback of afro, peasant blouses, and Frederick’s of Hollywood fun. Costumes, cast, choreography; all the lubricated participants make this group orgy a love fest!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Showtimes: Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 pm, Sundays @ 3:00 pm (buy tickets).  Group Rates for 10 or More Available.  Call 708-771-0700 for more info.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

 The cast of BLWIT

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REVIEW: A Gulag Mouse (Babes with Blades)

Old-fashioned thrills, new-fashioned heroines

Repin Wolf JK 6401

 
Babes with Blades presents
 
A Gulag Mouse
 
by Arthur M. Jolly
directed by
Brian Plocharczyk
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about A Gulag Mouse feels like an old-fashioned, post-World War II thriller. Showing now at Trap Door Theatre, this award-winning original play by Arthur M. Jolly is densely packed with dark suspense, non-stop tension, well-timed action scenes, Spence Humiston JK 6252and black humor precisely placed and played for all its grim power by the cast. Only . . . only . . .

Only – its story is set in the Soviet Union after WW II–perhaps not a plotline chosen for development in Hollywood during those dangerous post-war years. Only – it has an all-women cast, trained by the intrepid Babes With Blades, the production company that “showcases the strength, vitality, and proficiency of women in the art of stage combat.” Yet another reason why this story would not have come out of Hollywood after the Second World War. With the war over and men coming home, media moguls in America quickly shifted film and television iconography from Rosie the Riveter, and other powerful women’s roles, into the docile, domestic goddesses of the 1950s–something to think about, as you gaze at the Russian versions of Rosie smiling from the period Soviet posters integrated into the set design (Jeff Lisse).

Playwright Arthur M. Jolly won the Joining Sword and Pen 2009-2010 competition for this work, an award sponsored by Babes With Blades to generate good, solid playwriting for fighting women actors. BWB also workshops with its playwrights to achieve the right balance of drama with action and Managing Director Amy Harmon, who plays the role of Masha, informs me that playwriting quality has definitely gone up since they first held the competition in 2005-2006.

The playwriting shows real quality. It’s still a dark, noir-ish thriller, but it’s a thriller with a brain, showing historical and cultural sophistication. Its language leans toward the melodramatic side, but so does a lot of that old thriller stuff, and the cast, wisely, does not over play it.

The young, beautiful, terrified Anastasia (Gillian Humiston) waits on a Moscow street for her husband Evgeny (Dustin Spence) to return from his service at the Eastern Front after the war. We soon learn the reason for her terror. Evgeny’s sadistic nature and abusive relationship with his young wife quickly reveals itself–exacerbated, undoubtedly, by the horrors he has had to survive. Svetlana kills Evgeny with the knife she has brought with her, but that simply propels her into the Siberian Gulag, where she faces greater dangers from her fellow female inmates.

The story shifts back and forth from mental to physical fights for survival between the women prisoners. But this is no Co-ed Soviet Prison Sluts. Both playwright and production take their subject very seriously, although there’s still honest fun to be had watching women battle each other. Overall, there’s an artistic cohesiveness to the storytelling that seemed lacking in the last Babes With Blades production I critiqued.  Director Brian Plocharcyk keeps a sharp pace with the cast, so there’s never a dull moment from dramatic scenes to fight scenes. Blocking alone informs so much of the characterization here, whether an inmate strolls arrogantly to the center of the stage or cringes defensively in a bunk.

Ford Wolf Repin JK 6339 Humiston Harmon JK 6627
Harmon Humiston JK 6748 Spence Humiston 2 JK 6510 Wolf Harmon JK 6288

Fight choreography (David Woolley and Libby Beyreis) also serves to inform the audience about a character, crafted to exhibit a woman prisoner’s willingness or reluctance to engage her opponents. Woolley and Beyreis do a lot with the limitations of Trap Door Theatre’s space—they go almost unnoticed in the course of the storytelling. Lighting (Leigh Barrett) and sound design (Adam Smith) add tension to the story and reveal its poignancy.

Babes With Blades is close, so close, to having it all come together perfectly. There’s still some unevenness in the casting and a bit of woodenness in the acting. All these fierce women actors need is just a little more technique to sharpen the spontaneity of their performances and they would have a devastating production on their hands. Powerful women actors in powerful roles doing physically powerful things on stage—it’s almost all there. And what is there, while not perfect, is definitely worth seeing. So whether you want to support the Babes in their endeavors or you’re just looking for a smart, thrilling ride, A Gulag Mouse will not disappoint.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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