REVIEW: Itsoseng (Chicago Shakespeare)

Waiting for the change that never comes

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
  
Itsoseng
   
Written and performed by Omphile Molusi
Directed by
Tina Johnson
at
Chicago Shakespeare, Navy Pier (map)
through June 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

At the end of apartheid, the South African township of Itsoseng found itself without a shopping center. The center had become the economic hub of the town, but having been built by a corrupt leader, was looted then burnt to the ground in an act of revolt. Surely the new government would reward their brave action? Ten years later, poverty and crime have skyrocketed, and there is still no shopping center. In his one man show Itsoseng, Omphile Molusi exposes how bureaucracy and politics have come to  stand in the way of aid to struggling South African villages. Molusi weaves a story of desperation and loss that transcends the continent gap as he chronicles the lives of ITSO_1those struggling to survive, taking the audience on a heartbreaking journey through a walking graveyard.

At its core, Itsoseng is a play about desperation. What a town desperate for change will do to join the revolution, the dark places people without hope will go to find sustenance. With only a garbage littered set and a trunk, Molusi creates his dreary village through skilled impressions, song, dance, and various languages, successfully constructing the illusion by his lonesome. Molusi never drops his energy throughout the 75-minute production, and what he lacks in clarity he makes up for in emotional intensity and dedication to his characters.

The early scenes are a bit difficult to follow as Molusi captures the unrestrained energy of youth with a little too much fervor, but as his character matures so does the storytelling. The narrative begins to take shape as Molusi discovers more social problems and political barriers, finally taking action himself to enact change. He is driven by the struggles of his neighbors, his childhood sweetheart that whores herself in taverns, the ex-revolutionary that sits stoned on the sidewalk, cursing his government. And while it all sounds quite dreary, Molusi is a charismatic performer with a natural humor that keeps the piece from being too heavy. The language of the play is a mix of blunt observation and poetic embellishment that shows Molusi is a talented playwright that can tow the line between fantastic escapism and gritty realism.

Itsoseng was a village that once had pride and hope in a future. The future is a fantasy unless the South African government takes active steps to repair the townships that it forgot in favor of the economically prosperous urban territories. In the aftermath of apartheid, South Africa has taken major steps towards improving the lives of its citizens, but Itsoseng shows just how far there is left to go.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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REVIEW: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

Multi-talented performers struggle to find show’s unique voice

 

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Bootstraps Comedy Theater, in association with Silent Theatre presents
   
 
The Better Doctor
  
written and directed by Matt Lyle
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Silent Theater Company’s gimmick is what it sounds like: theatre in the style of old silent movies. It opens the door for some awesome physical performances and it even creates a template by which to tell topical stories in a universal way. Such is the case with The Better Doctor, Matt Lyle’s new play about sick, broke kids and the heroic tramp Velma (Kim Lyle), who is dedicated to finding them healthcare.

better-doctor-3 The show begins when the musicians take the stage.  Eric Loughlin on piano and Chris Jett on percussion sit on either side of the stage, bookending the action. The show does not lack energy, or innovation. Matt Lyle, who also directs, comes up with authentic and entertaining bits. Old-fashioned showmanship takes over as the performers charm the audience with sleight of hand tricks and big, blown-out characters.

The plot is simple, campy and a direct throwback to the simplistic storylines that showcased the comedic genius of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but with a new, political twist. There are ways in which the live-action adaptation of the stylized, antiquated form of silent movie performance works very well. The exaggerated physicality is extremely theatrical, and evokes the feeling of a classic mime routine. The performers take on the athletic challenge with aplomb and grace. Heather Forsythe, who is well utilized for a supporting player demonstrates a knack for physical comedy, and graces the stage with a youthful sass. Her performance, while presentational as her fellow actors, betrays the hint of grounded humanity that made Buster Keaton a true comedic master. The same can be said for lead actor Samuel Zelitch, who’s bumbling medical intern character is straight from the classics.

Kim Lyle’s performance is plucky and confident, and it’s nice to see a woman hero in this context. As Velma, she uses her brawn and wit to find medical care for the three sick little scamps, joining forces with a Buster Keaton-ish intern. The trap and the stone-face team up to fight the powers that be, in this case the wicked Chief of Medicine, played by actor/improviser Mike Brunlieb. The play unfolds in an episodic manor, similar to the silent films that inspired it. Although the scenes progress to create a fluid piece, this is better-doctor-5secondary; each scene’s primary purpose is to open the door for comedy bits.

Around three quarters of the way through, The Better Doctor begins to lag.  During the big chase scene, which gets off to a funny, if precious, start, ends up spiraling down a dark road. As the chase dissolves into a keystone cops parody, the The Better Doctor becomes a show that relies too heavily on a clever premise, without taking ownership of itself. The Better Doctor, while paying faithful homage to the silent greats, has too weak a grasp on its own voice. A silent play that is too stylistically referential, The Better Doctor is to be cutesy at times, and gimmicky at it’s worst.  Bootstraps Comedy Theater needs to revisit this play, and cultivate what is universally true about this show. A little more honesty, and The Better Doctor could be a four star show.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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