REVIEW: Mud (Village Players)

An update on Tobacco Road

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Village Players presents
 
Mud
 
by Maria Irene Fornes
directed by Lawrence Keller
at
Village Players Theatre, 1101 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
thru April 25th |  tickets: $15-$20 |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The opening action of  Mud features the character of Mae (Stephanie Ganacoplos), a woman burdened by the weight of the laundry that she carries and by the harsh conditions in which she lives. When Lloyd (Nick Bonges) enters, his role is uncertain – is he her husband, another relative, a boarder?  Bonges plays the role of Lloyd with an atavistic ferocity as bounds into the scene and stares at Mae while she irons. The scene – spare on dialogue, save for a terse exchange of expletives – crackles with a dangerous sexuality.

It is eventually discovered that Mae’s father brought Lloyd to the home as a child. He was supposed to be company for Mae and in some fashion a future spouse. However, the father died and the children were left to raise themselves in poverty and illiteracy. Mae is the first to step out and try to learn arithmetic, leaving Lloyd to animal husbandry with the pigs. What follows is an excellent exploration of servitude, poverty, and the struggle for power in domesticity.

mud Having matured without adult guidance, Mae and Lloyd are accustomed to running on instinct. Mae’s sexuality is ripening and unrequited, as Lloyd has found sexual release in bestiality. The excellent timing and nuance of the actors temper the shocking revelation that Lloyd is having relations with a pig, and we’re not meaning a female slob. When it comes to human relations, Lloyd is impotent and an unfortunate venereal prostate disease has given him a constant fever.

Mae recruits a classmate from her arithmetic class, Henry (Dennis Schnell), to read the pamphlet on venereal disease to Lloyd, which hopefully will convince Lloyd to get some medicine. Schnell’s first scene is quite funny as he portrays Henry as a pompous stiff who can read big words. Henry believes that pronouncing the words will make people believe he knows what they mean. This sequence sets up the dynamic between the three of them, making Lloyd continuously suspicious and on guard. He is more worried that his portion of food will be compromised. Mae is enthralled by Henry’s knowledge of words and they begin a sexual relationship.

Lloyd is told that he can make a pallet on the floor from newspaper. It is similar to what he does for his swine. Mae has already compared him to pigs and wished that he would die and rot in the mud. Her frustration and desire lead her to believe that Henry will free her from the dirt. Lloyd shows himself to be more astute that believed when Henry has a stroke. He has the upper hand and Henry’s care is delegated to him but both men are shown to be dependent and ignorant. They tether Mae to the house, the marital bed, and the mud.

Mud is written by Maria Irene Fornes and is featured as part of the Village Players Theatre “Women on the Cutting Edge” series. The dialogue is beautifully written and lends itself to varying degrees of interpretation. My theatre companion for the evening was disappointed the actors did not have country accents, though it could be said that the scenes prove to be much more visceral without accent – this dire situation could surely take place in urban America just as much as the boondocks. Affecting ‘country’ accents would have put too much Erskine Caldwell in the mix.  Though the action seems to take place in the 1930’s, it could be in present time as well. How often are we supposedly shocked at tales of lurid sex and unusual relationships on the evening news? Or worse, inured to tabloid adventures of the local citizenry (especially if they’re famous!).

Kudos to Annalee Johnson for her set design and props – both superb. The props look authentic down to the washing bowl made of distressed zinc. I cringed every time the character of Lloyd would soak a rag in the water and suck on it to cool his fever. Though counterintuitive, it takes talent to create a palpable feeling of dust, sweltering heat, and despair in the set design.

Applause is due to director Lawrence Keller for excellent staging and pacing of what could have been melodramatic or overwrought. This series is dedicated to showcasing women writers or women characters with an edgy sensibility. Mae is a woman on the edge and punching her way out of an untenable situation. The ending left me shaken even though I knew what was coming. The actors created a fever pitch unsullied by self-awareness. All three actors were amazing and completely consumed by the characters. The surprise was that they could shake off the characters to smile when they took their bows.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

“Mud” plays through April 25th at Village Players Theater 1010 Madison Street in Oak Park. Call the box office at 866-764-1010 or go to www.village-players.org for ticket information. The theater is easy to reach by public transportation or Metra. It is worth the field trip to the suburbs.

"Mud" stars Nick Bonges, Stephanie Ganacoplos, and Dennis Schnell. Designers include Annalee Johnson (set/props) and Emma Weber (costumes). Kelly Herz is stage managing.

REVIEW: Days of Late (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

The quandaries of modern love

 

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SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
 
Days of Late
 
Written/directed by Braden LuBell
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed  by K.D. Hopkins

SiNNERMAN Ensemble has produced a quirky and intense expose of life and love among the twenty to thirty-something generation. Days of Late lays bare the labyrinth that relationships have become in the electronic age. Written and directed by Braden LuBell, Days of Late features a remarkable ensemble.

DaysOfLate4 Navigating the path to relationship has become an inorganic process post-millennium. Text messages, instant messages, tweeting, g-talk, dating sites, and anonymity have taken the place of meeting a girl or a guy at school, church or even the local pub in “days of late”. Everyone is longing for intimacy but the means of attaining it are anything but intimate.

LuBell’s script is a series of well-staged scenarios between a group of friends and their assorted associates. The minimalist set is similar to Lucid (our review ★★½)also directed by LuBell but it works much better with his own writing. The actors move the simple pieces of furniture about in between scenes like puzzle pieces, and then sit on the sides of the stage as observers in the shadows. This allows the actors to be the focus of attention but calls to mind how love is manipulated and discarded like so much furniture.

Some of the cast members really stood out. Shane Kenyon as Arthur and Sue Redman as Avery represent the most authentic journey of all the relationships. Mr. Kenyon’s comedic timing is perfect and in a second he breaks your heart projecting the frustration of trying to be honest in a world that thrives on game playing. Ms. Redman is the perfect accompaniment as Avery. Her character’s explanation of having to look great to attract the right guy while repelling the wrong guy at the same time was hilarious in its honesty. The performances by Ebony Wimbs and Doug Tyler are interesting in that they are portraying characters that have been emotionally stunted from childhood. Ms. Wimbs plays Nina – a woman who has made her way into the world of high art and her model for love is more like a business plan. She finds Max (Tyler) online, who has just ended a two-year relationship with a man. Max wants to have the American family ideal. ‘Someone to grow old with and have kids’ is on his agenda and he decides that it should be a woman. There is a contrived nature to their relationship, seemingly constructed with directions from advice columns and magazine articles on identity and poly-amory. The performances of Ms. Wimbs and Mr. Tyler have a fine balance in portraying this situation. They are nuanced and open hearted even when it all comes to an unexpected conclusion.

Brian Kavanaugh (as Dale) makes the perfect sinister attorney on the down low who orders anonymous sex online to be delivered to his office. Dale is a jerk to everyone and cannot seem to come to terms with his sexual longings. Arianne Ellison has a funny and poignant turn as Dale’s emotionally abused wife Chrissy. One can not help but flinch as Dale berates her for not appreciating how hard he worked to get them to an upper echelon of society. The New Year’s Eve scene with Chrissy and Avery is beautifully acted and literally shows what happened to the cheerleader who had it all.

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Christine Lin, as Miyoko the gallery curator, and Bret Lee as Sascha, the gay starving artist, fill out the cast, do a fine job with roles that feel contrived and stereotypical. Ms. Lin is the Asian woman who rebels against the stereotype of submissiveness by being the polar opposite. She is revolted when she has her first orgasm delivered with great comic and sexy flair by Mr. Kenyon. She is used to rough and anonymous sodomy with Dale the doltish attorney and hates that she loses control. Mr. Lee spends most of the play as the walking wounded. He doesn’t get any of the snappy repartee or double entendre but manages to turn in a fine performance free of snark or self-pity.

The performances in Days of Late owe a lot to a fluid script. Some of the terms that could be a challenge are made clear by the writing and smooth direction. I am glad to be a generation before the one portrayed in this production. The world is an emotional minefield and the roadmap is mostly a mélange of instant gratification. This generation has been raised in an era of permissiveness and experimentation under the guise of personal freedom. Self-control and letting things unfold naturally still turn out to be the winning ticket. Days of Late is a definite winner. It is funny, warm, and potentially shocking in its frankness. Not for kids unless you want to do some hard explaining.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

“Days of Late” runs through May 22nd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western in Chicago. The times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are available by calling 773-296-6024 or www.viaducttheatre.com. Read more about this talented ensemble at http://www.sinnermanensemble.org.

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REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare)

Framed ‘Shrew’ no improvement

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
 
The Taming of the Shrew
 
By William Shakespeare with new induction scenes by Neil LaBute
Directed by Josie Rourke
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
Through June 6  |  tickets: $44-$75 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fog spews out over the stage almost ceaselessly throughout Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new version of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is set in sunny Italy, so why all this London-style mist? It’s emblematic of the hazy thinking that clearly CST_SHREW_IMAGE_1prevailed throughout the creation of this deeply flawed production.

In enlisting Neil LaBute to write a new frame for this broadly humorous but troublesomely sexist play, Director Josie Rourke said her goal was to "create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew [and] make the play more relevant to us now…. What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now."

So to reconfigure a play offensive to feminist sensibilities, Rourke hires a man. And his idea of bringing a relevant, contemporary viewpoint to this story about a strong, if bitchy, woman browbeaten into subservient docility by her husband is to introduce a catfight between shrilly vituperative lesbians.

In the frame, which echoes the play-within-a-play format of Shakespeare’s original, we get an unhappy sexual triangle of the Director (a cool performance by Mary Beth Fisher); her long-term partner, the actress playing Katherina (Bianca Amato, turbulent and a little muddy in both roles); and the latter’s latest fling, the ingenue playing sister Bianca (Katherine Cunningham, whose sly performance barely changes from part to part). The Director confronts her partner with infidelity; the actress accuses the Director of trying to control her by casting her in this submissive role.

Just about everything about this production is annoying, from the interminable noisy vacuuming that sets the stage for the frame to the ridiculous conclusion. The lumbering frame promotes the age-old, wrongheaded notions that women have no professionalism or moral fiber, that they’re unreliable and prone to hysterics, and that they’ll do anything for love. Moreover, the new scenes intrude unpleasantly and disruptively into the main show, not least by making it difficult to separate the inner play’s Katherina from the outer play’s actress character.

Having heard the actress in a man-hating tirade against the actor playing her husband and his weakly whimpering response — for all that Ian Bedford does delicious job as Petruchio — it becomes difficult to imagine any sexual tension between the couple. And hot sex is one of the few plausible reasons for Kate’s giving way to her spouse’s abuse.

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The huge, waggish codpieces worn by the actors are absurd and amusing in themselves, but added to the frame’s stereotyped intimations that many of these men are gay, they start to present a somewhat ugly picture.

No show at Chicago Shakespeare is ever wholly without merit, however. Rourke has a nice hand with staging. Even my seat far around to stage right had good views of the action throughout, although in a few spots it seemed unnatural, with characters facing away from the people they were speaking to.

It’s always a pleasure to see Mike Nussbaum, and he’s in fine, funny form as Bianca’s rich and wizened old suitor. Other highlights include Sean Fortunato’s wry Hortensio, another suitor; Larry Yando’s aggravated Baptista, the sisters’ father; and Stephen Ouimette and Alex Goodrich as comic servants.

And then there’s the rich language of The Bard — no matter how wrongheaded his plots, his words resonate.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Extra Credit

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Sunday Sondheim: West Side Story was a national sensation in Portugal in 2009

This is final bows of the final night of West Side Story in Portugal, presented by Teatro Politeama.  Watch the dance/bow sequences running through 3:40 – this is literally the most elaborate final bows I’ve ever seen. It really drives home the reach of Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim‘s work (and going even further back, William Shakespeare).. Looking at all of the YouTube videos surrounding this specific production, it seems that this was a national sensation, with the cast performing on the talk shows, morning shows, on late-night, etc.. Really amazing. Besides the final bows (just up to 3:40, as the rest is a speech by, I’m assuming, the director, Filipe La Féria), I have added what looks like an evening show’s performance of "America", the promo for the actual production, and a few other PR performances of the show.  By the way, isn’t that an absolutely amazing set??!!!

 

Portuguese "West Side Story" promos below

 

Teatro Politeama presents West Side Story, directed and produced by Filipe La Féria, starring Ricardo Soler as Tony, Cátia Tavares as Maria, and Lúcia Moniz as Anita.

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit (Steel Beam Theatre)

A spirited show in the suburbs

 

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Steel Beam Theatre presents
 
Blithe Spirit
 
By Noël Coward
Directed by Terry Domschke
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles(map)
Through May 2 tickets: $23-$25  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Theaters may be fewer and farther between than in Chicago, but such companies as Steel Beam Theatre, Writers’ Theatre and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre continue to show that there’s culture in the suburbs. As airy as an unseen specter, Steel Beam’s Blithe Spirit is a frightfully good time.

blithe%20daily%20herald%20text700_rightTerry Domschke directs a delightful production, full of deft touches. Everything from the carefully arranged period drawing-room set to the clever costumes shows a fine attention to detail. Produced in three acts with two intermissions, just as it would have been in at its 1941 London opening, it makes you understand why the original ran for 1,997 performances amid World War II. The timing could be a trifle more brisk, but that’s quibbling.

Noël Coward’s keen and cutting wit shines in this delectable play. The plot centers on novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, a flippant and debonair couple who invite the local psychic for dinner and a seance. They, and their other guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, are skeptics: The evening is merely a ruse to provide background for Condomine’s upcoming book.

But the medium, Madame Arcati, turns out to be the real thing. She accidentally conjures up Condomine’s deceased first wife, Elvira, who refuses to go away again — turning the Condomine household into an otherworldly menage a trois.

Orange-haired, behatted and draped in necklaces, Donna Steele’s marvelous Madame Arcati galumphs around the stage, jingling, in colorful costumes and comic triumph — at turns fussy old woman and majestic mystic — emanating palpable glee at each spiritual manifestation.

R. Aaron Thomann is ever so urbane as Charles, stirring up martinis and placating his live and ghostly wives with wonderful expressiveness. At first convinced he’s going mad, he selfishly comes to appreciate having his first wife’s witty shade on the premises … at least until the dead woman’s real purpose for reanimating becomes apparent.

steel-banner Elvira isn’t the kind of ghost who clanks about in chains and a sheet. She’s ethereally lovely and sharp as knives. Although only Charles can see her, the ghostly lady still manages to infuriate the priggish Ruth, who becomes bent on exorcizing her spirited rival.

Jocelyn Mills plays an effervescent Elvira, glittering with ectoplasmic makeup and always ready with a riposte. Katherine Bettinghaus provides counterpoint as a fuming, but elegant, Ruth, although her emotional scenes sometimes seem a little forced. Meredith Koch offers some fine comic turns as the inept maid Edith, hurrying and scurrying, while Thom Reed and Nancy Kolton fill out the cast as the stolid Bradmans.

Blithe Spirit may be Coward’s frothiest comedy, an ethereal confection of a play. While it’s become something of a period piece, there’s life in the old ghost yet — as Steel Beam Theatre’s hilarious production shows.

 

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale (Lookingglass)

A stunning display of physical artistry

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Lookingglass Theatre and Silverguy Entertainment presents
 
Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale
 
Adapted from the Greek myth by Tony Hernandez
Directed by
Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman
at the
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through May 23rd  tickets: $25-$70  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Move over Billy Elliot. There’s a new kid in town, and he’s flying – without wires or harnesses – just a few blocks west of where the famed coal miner’s son is hoofing the light fantastic. ‘Tis the season, apparently, for jaw-droppingly talented pre-pubescent boys. In Hephaestus, a Greek Mythology Circus Tale, ninth-generation 39-iris7 circus performer Fabio Anastasini plays a show-stopping role as the Lookingglass/Silver Guy telling of the Greek myth biography of the God of the Forge unfurls. Flipping and flying so fast he’s a centrifugal blur while his partner (and older brother) flings him skyward on the soles of his feet, Fabio is a dazzling highlight in a series of dazzlers that comprise Hephaestus’ 90 breathtaking minutes.

Imagine the very best acts of Cirque du Soleil, played out in a space so small you could reach out and grab the acrobats as they fly by. (Don’t even think about it.) Oh – and there’s no net. Also – nobody is wearing a harness or any sort of other safety rigging. When a seven-person human pyramid makes its way across the high wire during the show’s climactic finale, it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the Goodman’s tiny Owen Theatre. You can feel the audience collectively holding its breath. Cell phone rings aren’t just an aggravation during this show – they pose a very real danger. Knock wood – were any of the aerialists to lose their concentration during Hephaestus, the results could be deadly.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Tony Hernandez’ version of myth is enacted by the world’s elite circus performers, Flying Wallendas among them. These aren’t part-time buskers on summer break. They’re the best wire-walkers, acrobats, contortionists and stunt men and women on the planet. They’d be thrilling to watch 001731 under any circumstances. But in the intimate space of the Owen, they’re simply staggering. Get a seat in the third level of the courtyard space, and you’ll find yourself going eyeball-to-eyeball with that mind-blowing pyramid that ends the show. And prior to that, with Ares (Almas Miermanov) the God of War, as played by an impossibly chiseled gymnast doing his routine several stories up on the ends of furls of silk.

Since Hernandez (who also plays the title role with great emotional impact) debuted Hephaestus in 2005, he has tweaked it slightly. Aphrodite has lost her gleaming hula hoops and turned into a toe-dancing contortionist. A two-man hand-balancing act is now a single, silvery, spooky machine-man pulled by Hephaestus from the fires of his desert island forge. Then there’s the addition of the Anastasini brothers, who also start life as liquid metal beings formed by Hephaestus from molten metal. They’re a thrilling improvement.

The show’s primary flaw remains its narrative. The adaptation of Hephaestus’ myth is a flimsy coathanger draped in circus garments so richly spectacular you tend to first forgive and then forget that the myth even matters. Still, the individual acts could be put into the service of any story, and don’t feel especially integral to the story of Hephaestus.

Even so, there are moments when the story resonates powerfully. When his mother hurls Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, the fall is a gasp-inducing triumph of stagecraft and stuntwork. It’s a signature Lookingglass moment – the sort of indelible physical storytelling that nobody does better. The towering (Literally towering. There are drummers all the way up to the theater’s scaffolding) , immersive percussion makes you feel as if you are in a grand canyon echoing with drums, surrounded by an urgent, primal beat that drowns everything else out but the pure, raw, power of rhythm.

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As Hephaestus’ mother Hera, Lijana Wallenda Hernandez is an ethereal stunner, spinning high above the audience in a silver hoop. When Hephaestus falls to the bottom of an enchanted sea, the theater turns into a murky green eden of nymphs and bubbles hovering with liquid grace everywhere you turn. It’s an underwater paradise almost enough to make you weep at its watery, calming beauty.

And lest you discount that 7-person pyramid as just another circus stunt: Wallenda and Hernandez were among the artists who pioneered the act, and got it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. In other words, it’s a form of dangerous beauty that they actually invented. It was largely considered impossible before they did it. Watching Hephaestus, much of it seems impossible. The artistry is just that stunning.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

NOTE: Many of these pictures were taken from previous years’ performances.

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