REVIEW: On Golden Pond (Lincoln Square Theatre)

Everything but the romance on this ‘Pond’

 OGPpress3

 
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
 
On Golden Pond
 
by Ernest Thompson
directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

OGPpress4There’s much to admire about Lincoln Square Theatre’s tranquil, spare, and subtle rendering of Ernest Thompson’s 1978 breakout play On Golden Pond. For one, the pace of the entire production furnishes this American classic with an atmosphere of profound country quiet and ease, which colors all the interactions between its characters with a gentility long forgotten, except by the most devoted rural inhabitants.  Secondly, subtle changes in casting create a more humanizing tale of love and care between generations than one witnesses either in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie, with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, or the 2001 live television broadcast, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Director Kristina Schramm’s direction seems determined to provide the audience with quiet emotional moments that run deep, like the soothing waters of Golden Pond itself.

Sadly, critically, what goes missing is the chemistry between its principle characters, Norman (Mark Shallow) and Ethel (Marie Goodkin) Thayer. On Golden Pond’s bedrock foundation is the life-long romance between these two contrary personalities. Norman is witty, morbid, irascible, and mischievous; Ethel is positive, energetic and outgoing–utterly stalwart in her love for Norman and embattled in her attempts to maintain his relationship between him and their daughter, Chelsea (Laura MacGregor). But, unfortunately, in Shallow and Goodkin’s hands, so much goes into expressing the differences between this rugged pair, the vital connections that keep them together almost vanish into airy nothingness.

That is a terrible misstep. For his part, Shallow shows adept grace in bringing out Norman’s most vulnerable moments. Whether in coming to terms with his progressively deteriorating memory in front of Ethel or possibly facing his last moments on earth, Shallow gives us a Norman who won’t make much ado about going into that good night. Nevertheless, he brings us to profound emotional depths with the tentativeness of Norman’s existence. Goodkin, as Ethel, could do more to bring out the nuances of living and loving a difficult creature like Norman. Her greater strength seems to be establishing Ethel’s strong emotional bonds with Chelsea or soothing the feelings of Charlie (Robert Dean), Golden Pond’s local mailman, who still carries a torch for her daughter.

OGPpress2Casting Laura MacGregor as a plump and successful Chelsea is a delightful touch—particularly when more famous productions of this play have typically chosen slender actresses for this role. Norman’s “little fat girl” is usually depicted as a woman redeemed by diets and/or exercise; but MacGregor’s Chelsea is as ample as she is—still angered by Norman’s frozen judgments of her, but capable of having love in her life all the same. MacGregor’s Chelsea is wry and self-defeating; sure of herself away from Norman, but still unsteady under his gaze. Chelsea’s new beau, Bill (Jeff Brown), is affable, direct, and credible in his ability to handle Norman’s mind games.

But perhaps the nicest touch of all is the choice of Charlie Bazzell for the role of Billy—Bill’s son by a former marriage. Other productions project Billy as a troubled kid, in need of Ethel and Norman’s redeeming care while Bill and Chelsea go off to Europe for the summer. But, thankfully, Bazzell’s Billy is just a kid being himself–without being any threat to anyone—someone with whom Norman really can have one (last?) Tom Sawyer summer. I don’t know if that makes this On Golden Pond more Norman Rockwell for most audiences—I only know that it feels much more like my own childhood growing up in rural Montana.

Much about Lincoln Square’s production is soft, sweet, and gently humanizing. If only the romance between Ethel and Norman were there, flickering with wit, beset by the scary challenges of aging—but enduring and irreproachable. The last essential scene between Ethel and Norman is genuinely effective and moving. It’s not inconceivable that this crucial element could develop and expand in the course of the run. That would not just be icing on the cake–that would be the cake that could hold everything other sweet and salty thing in it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

OGPpress1 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Crisis – A Musical Game Show (Neo-Futurists)

A tour de force of originality, wisdom and LOL’s

 

CRISIS horiz 3

 
Neo-Futurists present
 
Crisis (A Musical Game Show)
 
Created by John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei
at Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 5th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

Is life rigged? Are we trapped in a massive capitalist game show in which the halfwits and the shrewd end up at the top with all the money while the intelligent and thoughtful are relegated to loser? In the Neo-Futurists’ brilliant original musical, Crisis – A Musical Game Show, you are left to trust or not, at a most pivotal time in US history, in what you see, what you read, what you hear, and what you think.

CRISIS vert In the grand tradition of true Neo-Futurist theater, which never seeks to suspend disbelief, we must question whether this outrageously well performed set up is truly as advertised. Are those audience members taking scantron tests before the show truly scoring well on the quiz, and thus asked to participate? Is it a lottery? Are the participants pre-chosen? Are you simply relegated to loser by default of the process? Are you feeling so powerless over so many crises in the world that you hand your money over to organizations simply because they promise to find the cure, the solution, to right the wrong? Is capitalism really just a system in which blind faith is a given because so many have been trained to trust authority and never ask questions? A system in which the truly blind are preyed upon by the self-proclaimed altruist  as well as the openly greedy? Trusting others is trusting yourself, Crisis sings to us. Can you be trusted? 

Crisis is a tour de force of originality, energy, skill, timing, and intelligence.  One must follow along at a pace or be left behind, duped into the fast flashing ‘rules’ of a game show setting.  The beauty of this genre is that the performers never condescend. They are in this with you, even as they never let up for two hours of rapid fire intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. There is a simple humility that is natural to this form of theater, and it shines in this cast. After all, the creators of Crisis have lived the American experience and take no outward pride in having figured it out while showing the audience just how willingly we continue to believe the fantasy of the seemingly altruistic money giver, maker and taker,  all in one, brought to us by the television culture that feeds it.

In the deep center of this piece, the three hosts and creators of Crisis  – John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei – tell the truth. They tell the truth through the wild energy they harness and give to the audience. This is not the staid phone-it-in performance set. They are present, engaged, and true to themselves as artists.  If you believe in nothing about our current system by the end of this show, you will believe in gift. You will believe there is theatre in Chicago worth seeing and being a part of. You will get far more than you pay for.  And you will laugh. When is the last time you went to the theater and laughed for two hours?

The hosts, although running the show, are still deeply embedded in the ensemble, sending their force through it. One gets the feeling there is nothing these three can’t catch, save, or recover from.  The rest of the ensemble is tight, on time, connected and hilarious, using an impressive range of skill in commedia dell’arte. The commercials throughout the show from local businesses bring the reality of our current economic state right through the doors in real time with style and wit. The live band is fully a part of the ensemble, highly skilled, funny, and plain cool.

CRISIS horiz 2

To win  at this game is simple. Pretend to be annoyed with and above the game. Be very adept at unlocking cabinets, finding the money inside, and shredding documents. Admit in a moment of ‘raw honesty’ to purposely leading your own sibling to physical injury while still saying he isn‘t very bright, and then cover it all over with a high paying job that makes you seem as if you are helping others.  Misrepresent your job as research in the beginning in an attempt to sound as if it carries a scientific basis, then conveniently pull the heartstrings of your audience by bringing attention to a cause or illness for which there is no cure or solution, and for which you have done no actual research, and you just won yourself lots of money. Unfortunately, this describes the directors of too many non-profits to numerate, and makes the openly greedy Wall Street CEO look honest by comparison.

As this is a review of neo-futurist theatre, I am required by participation to disclose the whole truth about my experience Saturday night, and so I will. The Neo-Futurists are a national treasure, supported in part by National Endowment and The Illinois Arts Council. The truth is, it has been a very long time since I have seen one of our true jewel boxes of the arts in this country. These are tax and patronage dollars being spent the way I want them spent: an incredibly high self-motivated standard of performance in an all at once humble and elegant space, where truth through creative expression still wins.

  
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

CRISIS horiz 1

Cast and Crew

The Hosts: John Pierson, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Clifton Frei

The Musicians: John Szymanski, Curtis Williams, John Bliss

The Question Designers: Evan Hanover, Bilal Dardai

The Commercial Writing Staff: Megan Mercier, Steve Heisler

  
  

REVIEW: The Ghost Sonata (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle’s ‘Ghost Sonata’ doesn’t sing

 

ghost_sonata_press_1_resized

 
Oracle Theatre presents
 
The Ghost Sonata
 
by August Strindberg
directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata is a tough play to crack open. Written over a century ago, the masterpiece is considered a wonder of Modernist drama. Therefore, it has plenty of bizarre twists and characterizations (vampires and ghosts, anyone?).  Especially now, when we’re used to straightforward stories force-fed through movies and television, the piece is hard to navigate. Oracle Theatre and director Max Truax certainly take up this challenge with their heavily-expressionistic version. Even though they engage Strindberg with honesty and compassion, the end product leaves us bewildered and groping for answers.

ghost_sonata_press_2_resizeYou may want to read a translation of the play before setting out for this production. Truax and his driven cast seem very concerned with conveying mood and themes, but to the detriment of plot and clarity. I had the feeling that everyone onstage knew what was going on but I wasn’t completely welcome. It was like looking through a very dusty window. After a few scenes, it is possible to piece together the general story, but this production doesn’t help much in terms of leading the audience through Strindberg’s dense text.

Truax and his design team create a bizarrely fascinating world, conquering the sometimes awkward Oracle space. There were some amazing stage pictures formed by Truax (doubling as set designer), who whipped up some awesome forced perspective. Although the video projections sometimes confuse the storyline, Michael Janicki’s work fits the twisted world well, with vaguely Victorian black-and-white images appearing in a frame above the action.

The audience enters to Rich Logan looking all comatose in a wheelchair. As the elderly Jacob Hummel, he pushes and manipulates the play forward, imparting plenty of creepiness to the already dark script. Strindberg’s text revolves around a Student (Federico Rodriguez), who meets a cast of wacky characters, including the scheming Hummel, a mummy (Ann Sonneville), a ghostly maid (Lily Emerson), and a dead guy (John Arthur Lewis). Again, even though each of the actors understands and brings life to their characters, the gothic world is not very well explained. Rodriguez carries the show, although sometimes he doesn’t recognize the close relationship he has to the audience. Stephanie Polt fits well into the oppressive world as the object of the Student’s affection, but Sean Ewert as her father, the Colonel, doesn’t match the others. Justin Warren can also fall out of the production’s universe, but he brings some much needed comic relief.

While the performances usually deeply connect to the text, they don’t fit into the space. Truax and his actors seem unaware of how to utilize Oracle’s intimate stage. When emotions run high, the actors often resort to screaming. The audience gets irritated and interest flags. In such an enclosed and small theatre, overplaying can be disastrous. This Ghost Sonata isn’t ruined by yelling, but some over-the-top moments knock down the impact of the play.

Besides clarity, the biggest issue afflicting Truax’s production is a lack of humor. Yes, this is a dark, turn-of-the-century, proto-Expressionistic script, but there has to be some releases—Strindberg, being a master dramatist, pens them in. Avoiding the humor can make the play feel highly melodramatic and uninteresting. There are some nuggets of humor, but most of it is swept away to make way for dreariness.

Truax’s production is very conceptual and looks pretty cool, but fails to respect Strindberg’s text. The focus is too much on theme and not enough on story. The talent is obviously there; with a few exceptions, it seemed like the whole cast was on-board and clicking with each other. The design makes some very innovative choices that you might not expect from a storefront. Oracle’s Achilles’ Heal here is storytelling; Truax finds great skin but uses a weak skeleton.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Lady X (Hell in a Handbag Productions)

This ‘Lady’ is the cat’s meow!

 

Lady X Production photo #7 by David as Joan

 
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
 
Lady X
 
Written by David Cerda
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

‘These are laugh lines.’ ‘Must have been one hell of a joke!’ Hell in a Handbag Productions presents Lady X, a world premiere spoof on melodrama films from the 1930’s and 40’s. It’s like this, sister! Lady X Publicity Photo #1 by David as JoanA bunch of dames are hoofers looking for a pushover to be the darb for a swill of gin or a night of whoopee. The new big cheese  is a woman. And she is one tough broad sizing up their gams to turn the joint into the cat’s meow. But see, this hard boiled doll ain’t on the level and is giving everybody the heebie-jeebies. A stoolie gets bumped off. A tough cookie pinched. A flim-flam floozy takes it on the kisser. Horsefeathers! Lady X celebrates the zinger genre with a campy salute to Bette Davis’ lines.

After three years of comical reruns, David Cerda puts out an original Hell in a Handbag production. Cerda is the triple threat as producer, co-author and star in Lady X. Along with director Derek Czaplewski, Cheryl Snodgrass and Adrienne Smith, Cerda has brilliantly concocted a hilarious parody on Bette Davis’ movie, “Marked Woman.” The dialogue is a riotous string of zingers. Under Czaplewski’s influence, the banter is rapid-fire deadpan brilliance. Leading the impudent charge, Annie Gloyn (Mary Dwight) is dramedy heightened. Cerda says, ‘You’re a smart girl. What’s the capital of Montana?’ Gloyn responds with, ‘It’s Helena and the state bird is Western Meadowlark.’ Gloyn escalates the dramatic cadence to explode the comedic potential. Elizabeth Lesinski (Emmy Lou Higgins) is hysterical as the dim-witted dame in the gaggle of gals. Libby Lane (Gabby Marvin) is a snorting Judy Garland incarnate. Every time Handbag’s Ed Jones (Estelle Porter) steps on stage in a dress the laugh track goes off in my head. This time in a peach flowing ball gown and munching on nachos, Jones defines funny. As always, Cerda (Scarlet Fontanelli) is delicious as a diabolical ‘bitch in heels.’

Lady X 109 by David as Joan Lady X Production Photo #9 by David as Joan Lady X Production photo #3 by David as Joan
Lady X production photo #6 by David as Joan Lady X Production photo #8 by David as Joan

‘Clothes are the sugar that make the flies come down.’ Costume designer John Nasca has put together some sweet numbers. The task can’t be easy for Nasca with Jones and Cerda hitting the 6 foot mark. Nasca is up to the task and adorns the women AND men in dresses that would be the envy of Today’s hooker. The wigs (Robert Hilliard) top off the 40’s look with platinum blonde oomph. Lady X is a flashback to the days of elegantly dressed whores with coiffed hair. A time in movie history where the leading lady was brazen with one liners. ‘If I thought this was going to be a trip down memory lane, I’d brought my scrapbook.’ Hell in a Handbag Production takes the nostalgia, adds the humor, shakes it like a bad girl and serves it up like an Atlantic Hot Pocket. Be warned: laugh lines are a side affect! Applesauce!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 

Running Time: 105 minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission


Lady X Cast/Characters

Libby Lane (Gabby Marvin), Ed Jones (Estelle Porter), Elizabeth Lesinski (Emmy Lou Higgins), Annie Gloyn (Mary Dwight), Chad (Val, Surprise Witness, Casey), David Cerda (Scarlett Fontanelli), Michael Hampton (Ape), Michael S. Miller (Ralph Crawford, Radio Announcer)Joanna P. Lind (Betty Dwight), Megan Keach (Frank Graham), David Besky (Sheldon, Crandall, Louis, Man #1, Judge)

Continue reading