REVIEW: The Body Snatchers (City Lit Theater)

Pod people take over City Lit Theater!

 

CityLit-BodySnatchers_web 

 
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Body Snatchers
 
Adapted and directed by Paul Edwards
From the novel by
Jack Finney
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
[ Thru May 9 | tickets: $25 | more info ]

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

If the late-night creature feature is your idea of fun, you’ll love City Lit Theater’s clever and nostalgic version of The Body Snatchers.

Bringing science fiction to the stage often requires surmounting difficult problems of special effects. Creating futuristic worlds and horrifying aliens is a lot easier for moviemakers than it is for theater directors. Yet in this lively world-premiere staging, the horrors are all conveyed — wonderfully — by the actors, while the special effects evoke not the future, but the past.

bodysnatchers Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, which was in turn the basis for the seminal 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and remakes and sequels in 1978, 1993 and 2007, the production effectively uses video displays of the 1950s – the Atomic Age – to create mood, reminding us of the era, paying homage to the films and sometimes standing in for sets on the small and minimally furnished stage.

The original novel and the film were set in the 1950s simply because they were created in the ’50s. In 2010, however, that timing conveys a sense of solid normality, of a time of innocence and placidity against which the invasion of the emotionless vegetable people seems even more unspeakably alien than it would be amid the turmoil of our war-torn and politically weird 21st century. (Oddly, however, the adaptation dismisses the 1950s’ own political peculiarity, to which the original’s theme of infiltration partly alludes.)

In case you’ve somehow managed to miss all the versions of this eerie story, the plot follows the residents of a small Marin County, CA town who are gradually replaced by identical but impassive beings that grow in giant pods.

Brian Pastor plays Miles, the protagonist and narrator. A doctor, lately divorced, Miles is among the first to hear of the trouble when his old flame, the seductive Becky (Sheila Willis), also newly divorced, comes to him with her concerns over her cousin (Susie Griffith), who’s become convinced that their uncle isn’t really their uncle. Then more and more townspeople report such convictions about their relatives. Meanwhile, romance rekindles between Miles and Becky, though both are gun-shy.

CityLit-BodySnatchers_webAfter Miles’ frightened friends Jack and Theodora (Thad Anzur and Shawna Tucker) reveal a startling find in their basement, the foursome begins to tumble to the bizarre and terrifying truth, despite the glib efforts of Mannie (Jerry Bloom), a psychologist, to dismiss it all as mass hysteria, like the Mattoon Mania. No one’s immune, not even the police (Andrew Jorczak).

City Lit has loads of fun with this show, injecting humorous touches at every level, from the fake newspapers on the video screens to the twitching pod people to unexpected reactions on Miles’ asides to the audience. Pastor, with a keen sense of comic timing, takes the focus of the show, but fine performances feature throughout. The supporting characters — especially Bloom’s urbane Mannie, Kingsley Day’s creepy Uncle Ira and June Eubanks’ sly takes on two female roles — add subtlety and interest.

The whole cast follows ably along with Paul Edwards’ somewhat uneven script, lurching from the pure camp and shrill thrills of the B-movies to the novel’s reflective commentary on suburban married life — the point, of course, being that horrors don’t all come from outer space.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

REVIEW: End Game (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Beckett’s got game

Endgame-1

 
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
 
Endgame
 
by Samuel Beckett 
directed by
Frank Galati
in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through June 6th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was an emblematic play of the 20th-century, it very well could be Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The play captures defining aspects of the past hundred years: the unspeakable horror, the monotony, the inclination towards self-reference. The human crisis is all there, presented as a 75-minute nihilistic chess game (sort of). Steppenwolf throws some of their best talent at Beckett for their production of Endgame. Frank Galati directs, and the play features Ian Barford, William Petersen, Martha Lavey, and Francis Guinan. Steppenwolf concocts a recipe for on-stage brilliance—great theatre artists working with one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The existentialism sure can get depressing, but the talent involved here is a marvel.

Endgame-3 Beckett’s earlier Waiting for Godot is far more accessible and probably more inherently funny. I would put forth, though, that Endgame is the better play. It’s more primal, more desperate. Complete despair looms just out of reach. The world is dense and merely getting through each day seems the ultimate goal for everybody. This is still pretty hard—one guy can’t stand, one guy can’t sit, and two folks are amputees living in garbage cans.

Galati doesn’t throw any crazy tricks at the play; there is nothing here that would invite legal action from the Beckett estate. Hamm (William Petersen), the protagonist as Beckett points out in his character description, sits blind and regal in a throne/DIY wheelchair. His parents, Nell (Martha Lavey) and Nagg (Francis Guinan), live in non-descript trashcans. They’re all serviced by the only mobile inhabitant, Clov (Ian Barford). In typical Beckett fashion, Sammy has constantly denied that the play is post-nuclear apocalypse. James Schuette’s drab set tiptoes around this fact, however, and places the play in an underground room that looks a lot like a fallout shelter. The set works wonders for the play; Schuette doesn’t distract from Beckett’s language but still throws in his own thematic two cents (the dingy room also looks uncannily like the inside of a face).

Petersen and Barford conquer the stage with their intricate chemistry. The relationship between Hamm and Clov is one of the most complex and layered ever penned for the stage. Seen through the chess-metaphor lens, Hamm is a losing king, commanding around the only pawn he has left. But Hamm also suggests ‘hammer,’ and Clov is often linked to the Latin word for ‘nail’ (clavus, for the Latin nerds out there—Nag and Nell’s names also connect to various European terms for nail). And no one can deny the father-son dynamic between the two.

Endgame-2 Endgame-3

For the past few year, Petersen seems set on proving that he’s not just a television actor by treating Chicago to wonderful performances in Dublin Carol (our review ★★★½) and the considerably twisted Blackbird (our review ★★★½) at Victory Gardens. Even though he is stationary and clad in sunglasses, Petersen glides through Beckett’s world as the lonely king. It’s a delight watching him play off Barford, who makes an infinitely relatable Clov. Stuck in a metal drum, Guinan commands our attention whenever he pops open his lid. He’s an ancient relic yet as helpless as a child. For the short bit she’s in, Lavey does good work feeding on Guinan’s vulnerability and hot temper.

Galati clearly knows this game. However, the production seems to favor the philosopher Beckett instead of the clown. While this forces us to contemplate our own mortality (isn’t this everyone’s ideal Friday night plan?), everything gets a little too mired in the existential muck. As bleak as it is, though, there is a ton of genius at work over at the Steppenwolf right now. It is well worth a glimpse, even if you also have to stare at your own imminent demise.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Extra Credit

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Continue reading