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
  
         
         

REVIEW: Jacob and Jack (Victory Gardens)

Fun and witty, with a shmeer of the absurd

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Victory Gardens presents
 
Jacob and Jack
 
Written by James Sherman
Directed by
Dennis Zacek
at
Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$48   |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Jacob-and-Jack06‘You must be a good actor. You’re not good-looking enough to make it in L.A. unless you were a good actor.’ Victory Gardens presents the world premiere of Jacob and Jack.  A successful commercial actor returns to Chicago for a Yiddish theatre tribute to his grandfather. Thinking it’s only a staged reading for his mother’s ladies club, Jack has not rehearsed. Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the  ingénue and the theatre sells out.  In a parallel dimension set in 1935, Jacob is preparing for his theatrical moment.  Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the ingénue and the theatre does not sell out. Seventy-five years apart, Jacob and Jack are challenged with a stage actor’s pay, ego and libido. Jacob and Jack is a comedy transcending time. The humor is beautifully showcased in the similarities and differences between past and present theatre. It’s witty with a shmeer of the absurd.

The stage at Victory Gardens has been transformed into three connecting dressing rooms. Mary Griswold (Scenic Designer) has created a backstage peek at the actors’ preparation quarters. They are sparse and dingy and sadly imaginable as exactly the same in 1935 or 2010. Griswold also gives flashes of theatre excitement with partial views of the recognizable marquees for Chicago, Palace and Merle Reskin hovering over the non-glamorous backstage onstage. There are five doors that are used to transition the scene from past to present. Since three of the actors change character but not costume, the doors help the conversion. Director Dennis Zacek uses the opening and shutting doors to add a slapstick element to the amusing chaos.

Photo by Liz Lauren Photo by Liz Lauren
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Zacek assembled six phenomenal actors to play twelve different parts. The actor’s duality is recognized in physical and vocal distinctions. In the title role, Craig Spidle (Jack/Jacob) plays up the schmuck as Jack and chutzpah as Jacob. ‘I work in television so I don’t have to rehearse,’ versus ‘I am upstage and you are down, down downstage.’ Either role, he is hilarious, whether cowering under the table or beating his breast in arrogance. His wife in both worlds, Janet Ulrich Brooks (Lisa/Leah) reacts to the philandering with sarcastic jabs of vulnerable disgust as Lisa and solid resignation as Leah. Her funniest moments are perfectly timed bursts of surprising reaction. Laura Scheinbaum (Robin/Rachel) is delightful as both the contemporary confident MFA actor and the anxious deli discovery destined for the stage. Roslyn Alexander (Esther/Hannah) charms as the no-nonsense mother of Jack and the suspicious, protective mother of Rachel. When she breaks out into song, she is everybody’s bubeleh. With the broadest ranges between Jewish immigrant and American stereotype, Daniel Cantor (Ted/Abe) and Andrew Keltz (Don/Moishe) deliver rich versions of both their roles.

Oy, a mecheieh, chochemas! Playwright James Sherman and Director Dennis Zacek have devised a comedic shtick with hilarious results. Sherman has delivered a farce honoring not only the Yiddish theatre but also highlighting the struggles of contemporary theatre. It’s a wonderful reminder that an actor struggles to deliver his ‘gift to you!’ Mazel tov! May you enjoy success from your kishkes! Ahf mir gezogt!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

Photo by Liz Lauren

 

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