REVIEW: Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Court Theatre)

What defines identity, your name or your soul?

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Court Theatre presents
  
Sizwe Banzi is Dead
 
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jon OJ Parsons
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets:  $35-$56  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The grand, although accidental, Athol Fugard Chicago experiment ends this season with Court’s production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, one of the South African writer’s lesser-produced works. Like The Island (which closed at Remy Bumppo in March – our review ★★½), Sizwe was co-written by the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who ended up with Tony Awards for both plays.

sizwe-banzi-is-dead008 Court Theatre’s production is anchored by two masterful actors as well, Chike Johnson and Allen Gilmore. It’s a powerful, if slow, exploration on what makes us human beings. Director Ron OJ Parsons’ steady hand keeps the course of the verbose piece, which could easily be upset by weak performances. Johnson and Gilmore mire themselves in Fugard’s semi-absurdist world, though, and make the gritty political play shine and resonate.

One of the most striking features of Fugard’s drama is the lack of action. Instead, it works as a dissertation on the sins of apartheid, as well as linking into some bigger issues like identity and freedom. The play starts with a half-hour monologue from Johnson as Styles, who used to work at a New Brighton Ford plant but now owns a photography studio. He opens his door to the next customer, the weathered Sizwe Banzi (Gilmore), who needs a picture to send to his wife. We then see the taciturn visitor’s backstory, revealing how Banzi’s ID booklet expired, which makes him an illegal resident of the city. While out with his friend Buntu (Johnson again), the two come across a dead body. Things get really complicated when they discover the body has a booklet stamped with the work permit Sizwe needs to stay. Buntu hatches up a plan to steal the identity, and Sizwe must decide if he wants to kill off his old self.

The play is marked by discourse and meditation on identity and what and who defines it. Athol Fugard questions the importance of a name. According to Gilmore and Sizwe, the decision to envelop someone else’s humanity is a tough choice, a struggle of the soul. Buntu, always the pragmatist, sees it as a simple issue of survival. Pride, he attests, isn’t for those who have to support a family.

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The play definitely sits in the world, trudging towards Sizwe’s final decision. The pacing of the production is right for the play, which is a slow-burning piece. If not very exciting, it is very powerful. But it helps to be prepared. Compared to Fugard’s more based-in-reality Master Harold…and the boys (put on TimeLine Theatre, the first of the Fugard Chicago productions – our review ★★★½), Sizwe drags us through the muck. The payoff is worth it, but it can be a tough journey.

Gilmore and Johnson have brilliant chemistry between them. Gilmore’s Sizwe is awkward and a bit slow, but he has a puppy-dog quality about him. Johnson is sharp and brimming with charisma as Styles and Buntu—he is the one who really forces the play forward. There is a great scene in the middle of the play where the two enter the audience and share their excitement of being treated like human beings at a bar, adding some theatrical spice to the mix.

The two actors carry the burden of this production on their shoulders, as well as the audience. They do it in grand fashion. The only glaring issue with the production stems from the play itself, which can lull rather than incite. Considering you are now forewarned, you can prepare yourself to see a moving theatrical dissection of the politics of racism, which brings to mind events taking place over in Arizona. Does our identity boil down to what’s on our birth certificate? Or does our humanity burn somewhere deeper in our conscious?

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   

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REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Sun, Stand Thou Still (Ka-Tet Theatre)

Buy a ticket, take the ride.

 

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Ka-Tet Theatre presents
  
Sun, Stand Thou Still
 
by Steven Gridley
directed by David Fehr
at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield  (map)
through June 5th  tickets: $10-$20  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

Cosmic road trip! Everyone climb into the beat up truck of the human condition for the drive everyone dreams of, but are too afraid to take. The drive wherein souls are lost and found, fate and choice crash – where you can go back and do it again, throwing yourself against the idea that you cannot change outcomes. Or that fate will have its way no matter what, so throw the dice, and make your own way. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Sun, Stand Thou Still, written by Steven Gridley, is a dreamlike adventure across timeless roads to places we’ve been. We visit the destinations made of real life nightmares, and those we consider to be the most joyous of human experiences.

Love and death.

But, what if the sun stood still and we were caught in that singular place; one where love and life are synonymous with death? When the sun began moving again, would we make a different choice.? Take it all back? Do it all again because the moments of good we received were worth the pain we endured? On this road trip, with seven characters in search of internal freedom, the highway is rough and uncertain, sweet, and driven by struggle.

In Sun, Stand Thou Still, these most essential of human events happen simultaneously in a time-order only the cosmos know. This is not linear time, nor time measured by a clock, but time as we know it flows through the spheres, and cannot fully comprehend.

Ka-Tet Theatre’s production is full of energetic and committed performances that drive into this work and remain true to it. The play includes five characters: Officer Peters, The Driver, The Hitchhiker, The Apple Woman, and The Man. The use of kuroko, traditional to Kabuki Theatre as stage hands who move silently on the stage during the performance to manage set and prop changes, are always wonderful to see. Kevin Lambert and Kyle Youngblut perform these roles to perfection. A good kuroko brings a prayerful quality to a production and these two do just that.

Jeremy Clark, as the Driver, elicits a fierce performance that stands as lead, even within such a close ensemble. This is an actor who is very at home in his skin. Zany, with compromised eyesight, The Driver pulls out every stop on what would be deemed appropriate on the ground, but on this ride, pushes every envelope right into true love and death and back again. Part Zen master and part madman, this character cries out to be fully realized in word and deed. Clark throws this role off the cuff with a magical deftness. He does not strive, but owns his performance. It has been awhile since I have seen an actor so in character that nothing breaks his focus.

Emily Waecker designed the costumes for the play, and they are very important to this piece. From The Apple Woman to The Driver, The Man, and The Hitchhiker, the costumes convey the accident of time placement that has occurred. Is The Apple Woman a misplaced renaissance maiden, traveling this lone road in space and time? The Man, a crazed cowboy riding through from another period in search of his bride? The Hitchhiker, lost in the stars in the 1950’s, coming to earth now in this time and place? Meanwhile, the Driver is synonymous with everyman, you and me, dressed for the right now. The costume choices are gorgeous in their simplicity and daring. They stand on their own, making statements about context and providing grounding.

Scenic designer Isabella Ng sets this scene, creating automobiles from suitcases, giving the beautifully strong visual command that we are all travelers, carrying what we have, even into collisions of will and destiny. The set theme carries the idea that one cannot escape their experiences, but bring them along for the ride, even into the place where one moment, one action, changes everything. Again, we are treated to an element from Kabuki Theatre, Hiki Dogu; set pieces designed to move the actors on and off the stage. This use of an 18th-century set conception gives the piece an added mystery and fluidity.

David Fehr directed the production with a very loose hand. It’s difficult, when working with an ensemble that is so well connected, to know when to push and when to stand back. Unfortunately Fehr too often chose the latter, even in those places when his reign was needed to bring the piece into a swifter pace. There is depth and wisdom here that hasn’t entirely grown yet, but would flourish with the right director expanding creative boundaries and letting the ensemble thrive while keeping the fine art of control amongst an enormously talented cast. With a little stronger hand from a staid director, Sun, Stand Thou Still would surely swirl and fly around us gloriously.

The script is, for the most part, exemplary, but given the deep concept of time it presents, more should have been brought from the writer himself. There is something that isn’t being said, but held onto, unexplored. I offer this in the spirit of passion for theatre and excellent work, which this is. In the linguistic sense, this piece left me longing for a greater depth of description of the emotional time and space we were a part of.

Overall, the Ka-Tet Theatre Company, comprising the ensemble of Brian Hurst, Jeremy Clark, Dan Meisner, Kathryn Bartholomew, Mark Pracht, Kevin Lambert, and Kyle Youngblut, work incredibly well together, bringing a reverence to this piece that’s a joy to watch.  Sun, Stand Thou Still strips away place and time and brings our most haunting, frightening, and magnificent human truths tumbling on top of one another.  This piece has so much to offer in terms of bold new theater by Ka-Tet, a relatively new theatre ensemble, that it would be well worth your time to venture out to Lakeview to give the show a look-see.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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REVIEW: Baal (TUTA Theatre)

   

It’s Bros before Ho’s, Brechtian Style

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TUTA Theatre presents
  
Baal
  

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
Peter Tegel 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps no one could accuse Bertolt Brecht of being a feminist. But TUTA Theatre’s production of his first play, now at Chopin Studio Theatre, easily lends itself to feminist critique of its patriarchal constructions of rebellion and artistry. Whether or not that was the playwright’s original intention, Zeljko Djukic’s compelling direction opens up examination of all the impulses and beliefs that drive its protagonist, particularly regarding gender construction. Baal (Ian Westerfer) may be the ultimate artistic outcast and iconoclast. All the same, he does not rebel against the codes of masculinity that allow him to abuse women and murder his best friend at the suggestion of homoeroticism.

TUTA BAAL - #2 But first, a critique of the production: the show is brilliant. If you haven’t yet heard that Baal is Jeff recommended, then you heard it here first. That accolade that will be seconded by every critic that has eyes to see and ears to hear. Djukic has developed cohesiveness in his ensemble that would be the envy of many other productions; their unity reveals itself with each fluid moment and inspired scene change. Dramatic transformations carry emotional weight from scene to scene, until the entire wicked fabric of the play unfolds in a rich, decadent tapestry that, nevertheless, maintains its Brechtian distance. For all the cunning by which that effect is wrought, this is a production to run to.

As for the eponymous lead, I really don’t like using the word “star” in Chicago theater. But Westerfer, as Baal, is a star–a man on fire. He is both the Poet as subversive pop idol and a sly Brechtian parody of that very notion. He is an actor who goes the fullest limit of his outrageous role yet never overreaches or looses control. Lucky him, he gets the lushest language of the play; his use of it never disappoints. Peter Oyloe pairs Westerfer accurately and admirably as Ekart, Baal’s bohemian partner in crime, but clearly, the show is Baal’s. Every effort done by the rest of the cast, especially mastery of Brecht’s language, sets Baal at the epicenter and supports him completely—like water that buoys the floating arrow in a compass pointing north.

The centering of Baal within each environment he’s placed is the quintessential dynamic in this clear and sterling translation by Peter Tegel. Whether in the company of posh German elites, ready to publish Baal’s works in order to boost their own image—or singing before rough crowds at a low-end dive—or in the presence of women who show up for furtive sex at his attic flat—or on the road with Ekart–at an insane asylum—dying before of the sort of merciless men he’s known all his life—Baal’s reactions to all these environments reveal his strongly held beliefs and excessive character. Baal acts out, a perpetual motion machine of absolute contrarianism, but his acting out alone would be meaningless a vacuum. The image of the German Expressionist artist in his pre-Nazi environment awakens Brecht’s dramatic interrogation as to the value of such an artist.

TUTA’s production never forgets that delicate balance between the outsider artist and the cynical society through which he passes. What looks like bawdy roughness and uninhibited abandon is really action constructed and choreographed with military precision. That the cast makes it look so friggin’ effortless is the knee-slapping wonder of this show.

Now, on to the feminism: Baal’s serial abuse of his women lovers forms the main action onstage. But his attitudes toward women and sexuality are not simply born of his defiance of the cramped, hypocritical, bourgeois conventions of his time. They spring equally from his culture’s conceptions of masculinity and the outlaw artist. In fact, besides the warrior or the criminal, the rebel male artist may be the uber-masculine figure of Western Civilization, one that repeats itself interminably to the present day. “Bros before ho’s” is a sentiment far more ancient than its current hip-hop expression and Baal is certainly not its first or only representative, in art or in life.

The wonderful paradox about a figure like Baal is that he can rebel on one level, yet conform to age-old gender constructions that allow for the abuse of women. Baal spurns the middle class sycophants who offer his art patronage. His open insult to their offer is fabulously defiant, a theatrical delight. His rejection of middle class mores regarding sex and gentility toward women gives him access of women’s bodies without all that ridiculous, sentimental love stuff. Whether the middle class males Baal mocks have more respect for women as persons than he remains an open question. But Baal’s extreme adherence to working-class masculinity allows him to abuse women as he feels they deserve.

“This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens”–so writes TUTA’s dramaturg, Jacob Juntunen, in the program notes. No kidding. Among the principles Baal is drunk on are those regarding his uber-masculine artistic revolt. To drink heavily is masculine, so Baal drinks by the bucketful. To beat one’s woman is masculine, so of course he slaps his bitches around. To fuck women without attachment is masculine, so he fucks the whores and throws them to the other guys. To get them pregnant and abandon them is really masculine, so he knocks them up and runs from the stupid cows—they’re only trying to trap him anyway.

To top it all off, once they’ve thrown themselves into the river because they’ve been fucked, abandoned, and (maybe) knocked up, he sings about their floating, rotting corpses. That’s not just masculine, it’s deeply profound and poetic. Genius–genius that allows a male artist to get away with it.

I’ve rubbed your faces in it, but so does Brecht. The real genius of his play is that overweening masculinity is not just a principle that Baal is drunk on. Everyone around him is drunk on it, too—both men and women. Women keep offering themselves to Baal, no matter how extreme the abuse. Here, women have bought into the concept of the outlaw artist as totally as the men. In such a culture, Baal gets all the tail he wants, is as abusive as he pleases, and never has to be accountable to anyone about it. As for their consent to all his unprincipled sadomasochism, some women are more consenting than others, not that it makes any difference to our hero.

It’s here, however, that Djukic’s direction exhibits one truly mystifying flaw. In some ways, the fact that everything else flows so smoothly contributes to it showing up like a sore thumb. Toward the end of the play and Baal’s friendship with Ekart, out of jealousy Baal rapes a young woman who is Ekart’s lover. The rape is portrayed in truncated symbolic form. Why? What is the point of pulling that punch–too violent? A previous scene shows Baal tormenting his pregnant lover, who accepts his beatings and begs for his blows instead of abandonment. In a following scene, Baal knifes Ekart in the back for suggesting, in front of their old boozy gang, that Baal is a homo. Would the realistic depiction of a rape be too much, sandwiched as it is between these brutal scenes? The choice to minimize that violence is bizarre and bewildering. If the idea is to prevent Baal from seeming too unsympathetic, then that choice is really bizarre.

Oh well, in terms of this play’s historical place, the Third Reich is just around the corner. Very soon, it will be “Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche” for the women of Germany. Perhaps worse, more hypocritical men than Baal will be enforcing those policies–but only perhaps.

      
       
Rating: ★★★½
  

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REVIEW: The Odd Couple (Raven Theatre)

   

Oddly Uninspiring

 

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Raven Theatre presents
 
The Odd Couple
 
written by Neil Simon
directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through July 18th  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Oscar is messy. Felix is tidy. Oscar is brash. Felix is meek. Oscar likes gambling and cigars. Felix likes cooking and vacuuming. They’re both divorcees. They live together. They’re not gay.

If you pitched this as a show concept to a modern-day television executive, he’d either laugh you out of his office or option it as the next banal reality TV show. Either way, the idea would be seen as too simplistic and naïve for a contemporary television Ladleaudience. And that’s saying a lot, considering this is the same audience that demanded 11 seasons of “7th Heaven”.

But back in 1965, this is exactly what constituted good theatre. That’s when Neil Simon’s acclaimed The Odd Couple—featuring the slovenly Oscar and the uptight Felix–premiered on Broadway, garnering that year’s Tony for Best Play. In fact, it was such a hit that it ran for 966 performances, took a leap to the big screen in 1968, jumped to the small screen in 1970, went animated in 1975 and was revived for television once more in 1982. Now, the Raven Theatre Company, known for taking cracks at classics, is doing its own production.

The Raven’s version is utter slapstick. Characters speak with Ralph Kramden growls and nasal newsreel voices. Their movements and reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. When a scene calls for the emotion of surprise, the actors look as if they’re trying to pop their eyes out of their sockets. At one point, a character actually runs face first into a door when trying to stop a despondent Felix from going into the bathroom alone.

I assume it was director Michael Menendian’s vision to do a live-action cartoon version of The Odd Couple, and unfortunately, the outcome is a terrible miscalculation. The play–which already struggles to connect with an audience who are more surprised to see a marriage last rather than end in divorce—comes off as vapid, void of any real meaning whatsoever. It’s like the tragedy that has befallen Felix (Jon Steinhagen) is one big joke. And we get no sense of Oscar’s (Eric Roach) own unresolved marital issues except for his messy condo, which is a parallel for his messy life. Instead, Menendian has reduced the story to a one-joke pony that keeps begging to be laughed at. Sure, at first it deserves a chuckle, but by the end it’s just kind of desperate.

To their credit the cast is spectacular in their respective roles, even if the final outcome is damaged by misguided direction. Roach toes the line with Oscar, portraying him as a slob but a fun slob. This is a guy who’s a borderline hoarder, but he’s also a wild and crazy guy.

Steinhagen’s portrayal of Felix is a good balance to Oscar’s party-animal stereotype. He’s reserved, slightly effeminate and deeply emotional–or at least an emotional wreck, which is more than can be said about Oscar who takes a much more cavalier approach to his failed marriage.

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In the end, Raven Theatre lost an opportunity to give a fresh take on this well-worn classic. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Menendian take up the task of providing this fairly hollow play with some real emotional depth. Rather than take the easy slapstick route, why not venture on that high road and make the actors bring some realism to their roles? Let’s see The Odd Couple as a dark comedy for once. After all, is this not a play about two men whose marriages have fallen apart, whose families have been torn from them due to their own negligence? If it truly is a funny show, the humor should still shine through despite a graver tone.

Still, there will always be an audience for schlock like this. Some people just don’t want to see something thought provoking or culturally relevant. Some people just want a show with uncomplicated laughs and a simple plot with characters as three-dimensional as a piece of construction paper. For those people, The Odd Couple will work just fine.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 

Performances continue through July 18: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm (No show July 4)

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Cast: Greg Caldwell, Larry Carani, Brigitte Ditmars, Liz Fletcher, Greg Kolack, Eric Roach, Jon Steinhagen, Anthony Tournis

Creative Team:   Michael Menendian (Director), Amy Lee (Light Design), Katherine M. Chavez (Sound Design), Ray Toler (Set Design),  JoAnn Montemurro (Costume Design), Cathy Bowren (Stage Manager), Dean LaPrairie (Photographer)

   
   

REVIEW: Fuerza Bruta: Look Up (Broadway in Chicago)

    

Immerse yourself into the under-world of Fuerza Bruta

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Broadway in Chicago and Ozono Producciones presents
 
Fuerza Bruta: Look Up
 
Created by Diqui James
Music composed by
Gaby Kerpel
at
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $47-$77  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Dance music blaring, strobe lights flashing, neon straws glowing… and that’s preshow in the theatre lobby. Broadway in Chicago and Ozono Producciones presents Fuerza Bruta: Look Up, the Argentina-born performance art phenomenon. The experience starts in the lobby at the Auditorium Theatre. Converted to a nightclub lounge, the lobby, equipped with Fuerza Bruta 2a bar, couches and empanadas, opens an hour before show time to (literally) build up the buzz for the main event. Ten minutes before curtain, security staff usher guests into the theatre and on to the stage. According to promoters, the capacity for the show is 800 guests standing comfortably with personal space. That calculation seems ideally inflated by about 200. With the successful opening night crowd, it’s like rush hour on the Red Line but with everybody gawking out the windows at the view. The scenery is visual stimulations of the fast-paced mundane of the world and the whimsical enchantment of the sea kicked up with some Argentina sass. Fuerza Bruta: Look Up is a body rubbing, neck straining, pulsating emersion into a visual spectacle!

By air, water and tread mill, the movement dances through, around and above the crowd. Pictures can’t capture it. Words can’t describe it. Comprehension lies in the experience. Here’s a where-to-look guide to aid in the enjoyment:

  1. Center – hot guy running on treadmill
  2. West Side – women aerial dancing horizontally
  3. West Side – scaffold dancing with snow globe effect
  4. Throughout crowd – performers dancing with audience (watch out for Styrofoam attacks)
  5. Above – flying over-size Reynolds wrap (duck!)
  6. East-North Corner – D.J. mists the crowd
  7. Above – Reynolds wrap covers the crowd
  8. Below – squat down (I cheated on this one… bad knee!)
  9. East-North Corner – More mist!
  10. East –South Corner – scaffold dancing with audience members –more Styrofoam
  11. Above – It’s the whimsy! Looks like sea nymphs. Sounds like hail on the roof.
  12. Above – SPLAT!
  13. Above – More whimsy! Walking on water enchantment.
  14. Above – Slip-n-slide
  15. West Side – hot guy running on treadmill with two others
  16. Throughout crowd – more misting and dancing

Fuerza Bruta 3

I need to see it again because I’m sure I didn’t capture it all. A little more insight, it may be a club scene but the attire should be casual and comfortable! It’s close quarters and crowd shuffling occurs. If you have claustrophobia, stasiphobia or fear of Styrofoam (styrophobia?), this probably isn’t your show. If you enjoy sensory overload and hanging with 799 potential friends, Fuerza Bruta is definitely for you. The performers are smoking hot. The action is riveting. The experience is unique. This is the true actualization of theatre in the round… and above. And when you’re exiting, look out… at the grandeur of being onstage at the historic Auditorium Theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

Running Time: Sixty-five minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

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Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½