REVIEW: The Living Canvas – Demons (National Pastime)

Across space and time in the Autistic Mind



National Pastime Theater presents
The Living Canvas – Demons
Developed by Peter Guither
Directed by Lisa Adams
Written by Lisa Adams and Don Alsafi
National Pastime Theater, address (map)
through July 31st  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

livingcanvas5The Living Canvas is a perennial performance art piece that has been commandeered by photographer Peter Guither since 2001. Each year Guither works with a cast of actors and dancers to develop a story or theme using music, dance and movement under a collection of images and designs that are projected onto their  naked bodies. Far from being art for the prurient, The Living Canvas provokes a dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state for the theatergoer. Naked bodies of all shapes and sizes take on the moods and meanings invoked by the images that are projected upon them—even to the point of questioning whether these are human forms at all.

So, naturally, this year’s theme, produced by National Pastime Theater as part of its Naked July Series, fits like a glove. The Living Canvas – Demons is a pretty telling impression of the creatures that captivate and propel this year’s storyline, which involves taking a journey into the mind of a mentally handicapped young woman. Young Lilly sees figures that only become apparent to her sister once some sort of mind-meld takes place between them, drawing her from the so-called real world into the world that Lilly sees. Lilly’s world may indeed be filled with capricious, mischievous, and dangerous demons. However, it might be better to call them daemons, the ancient Greek term from which “demons” is derived. For the ancient Greeks, daemons were simply spirits–and those spirits can be either bad or good; their motives are not always certain or obvious.

livingcanvas6 livingcanvas7

That concept for the beings in Lilly’s inner world fits far better than our Judeo-Christian construct of evil, otherworldly creatures. Lilly’s sister must try to determine whether Lilly’s daemons mean her harm or good; whether they draw her into maddening misery or whether they open her up to fresh perspectives; destroy her connection to reality or give her alternatives to reality that truly liberate. It’s a journey filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is also conceptually broadening and emotionally inspiring. It’s a dreamscape that Lilly may be unwilling to leave and, frankly, the audience may not want to leave it either.

livingcanvas9What is truly fascinating for me is that The Living Canvas – Demons seems to take the audience on a journey, not just through Lilly’s mind, but also through time and art in Western Civilization. The naked vulnerability of Lilly’s body, coupled with the appearance of the daemons when they seem truly demonic, brings to mind medieval imagery—in particular, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Likewise, the psychedelic floral images projected onto the cast bring a strong flavor of 1960s Flower Power, but they can also evoke Bosch’s happier imagery in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

It’s clear now that The Living Canvas is not just a performance piece but also a Chicago performance tradition. The community formed by the performers and  audience around each new story or theme evokes a “happening” in the style of the 60s. At the end of the show, performers talk about their personal evolution in body consciousness after performing under Guither’s projections in the nude and then audience members are invited onstage to partake of the experience. It’s nice to see so many in the audience take up the invitation and allow their human bodies to have a greater range of expression than most art usually permits.

Rating: ★★★½

livingcanvas3 All photos by Peter Guither

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REVIEW: Herbert III and Contribution (eta Creative Arts)

A very pleasant flashback


eta Creative Arts presents
Herbert III and Contribution
Written by Ted Shine
Directed by
Phyllis E. Griffin
eta Creative Arts, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Whenever I attend a revival of any sort I go in with apprehension and in some cases outright dread. When I saw that eta Creative Arts Foundation was doing a revival of Ted Shine’s work on civil rights issues from the 1960”s I was intrigued. With any revival there is the danger of being not only outdated but characters becoming caricatures, and there is danger of any humor being unintended.

Phyllis E. Griffin is the director of the eta revival of Ted Shine’s Herbert III and Contribution. Ms. Griffin has managed to put a modern perspective on these classic works of African American theatre. These works call for a subtle buildup to the climax but with an economy of time.

Herbert III

In Herbert III, the action takes place in Herbert Jr. and his wife Margarette’s bedroom. Margarette (Tiffany Griffin) wakes up late in the night and discovers that Herbert III has yet to come home. Tiffany Griffin is quite funny as the passive aggressive mother known to every ethnicity. She wants the world for her baby and yet blames Herbert Jr. for making it impossible. She makes panicked calls to the police, hospital, and the morgue. After each call she is grateful to Jesus and breaks into gospel hymns lauding the heavens. Griffin’s body language is perfectly reminiscent of the ‘amen corner’ sisters in churches where getting the spirit involves shouting, dancing, and sometimes passing out.

Antoine Pierre Whitfield plays the role of Herbert Jr. as the embodiment of the middle class everyman. He trusts that his son is okay and out bowling with friends. He wants either peaceful sleep or frisky sex – neither of which is forthcoming. The characters are childhood sweethearts from the 1950’s who got married after a hotel assignation produces the first of three children. Mr. Shine’s comedy reflects the social changes that erupted in the early to mid-sixties, especially in the urban centers of America. Herbert and Margarette’s first- born son fell under the spell of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael’s call to arms for Black men. He is serving a life sentence for killing a bigoted police officer. Their second son is a draft dodger living in Canada for which Herbert Jr. is proud, much to Margarette’s chagrin. Herbert Jr. recalls his tenure in Korea with distaste while his wife calls it an American duty.

Herbert III is what Margarette clings to as her last hope for being a proud mother and saving face for the family. She chides Herbert Jr. for his failures of not making more money and being doomed to manual labor. Believe it or not, it is a comedy.

Their banter is tense and charged with naughtiness. Herbert III is a good warm up for the second one act of the evening – Contribution.


Felisha McNeal is the comic centerpiece of Contribution. She dazzles as the foul-mouthed beer-swilling granny who finds a way to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. The action opens on the day that Mrs. Grace Love’s (McNeal) grandson Eugene is going to be a part of integrating a lunch counter in the South. Jerod Haynes plays Eugene with seriousness and uptight anger, taking his duty of integration as serious business. He doesn’t understand how his grandmother could work for White folks while her people are being beaten and in some cases killed. Ms. McNeal segues seamlessly from comedy to deep anger and grief over lynching and having watched her husband die in an alley after being refused treatment by a doctor that she worked for as a cook. The doctor would later ask ‘Auntie” Grace to comfort him as he laid dying while in horrific pain. Ms. McNeal reflects a wondrous faraway look as she recounts the incident and then on a dime her eyes reflect a devilish glint as she reveals her role in the old doctor’s demise.

Tiffany Griffin also appears in Contribution as a domestic named Katy who is terrified of the White rage simmering at the lunch counter. Ms. Griffin gives a nuanced performance that is a counter to Margarette in Herbert III. Throughout the play Grace is the trickster unbeknownst to her employers and family. The trickster is a central character in African American literature whose lineage goes back to slavery and African deities. The trickster always gets the best of the other characters through use of wit and wiles in spite of being seen as a simpleton or otherwise inferior.

Contribution is one of Ted Shine’s better-known plays and has been given a wonderful revival by eta Creative Arts Foundation. In a discussion after the show, director Phyllis Griffin spoke of the need for these stories to be produced as a reminder of how far we as a society still have to go. The worries of the characters are the same and in some cases the struggles are the same in spite of progress. I would recommend a trip to this little traveled corner of Chicago’s South Side to check out the production.

Rating: ★★★½

eta-creative-arts Herbert III and Contribution run Thursday through Sundays until August 22, 2010 at eta Creative Arts Foundation located at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. Call 773-752-3955 or for ticket info. Parking is available at the theatre. (Unfortunately, public transportation and Metra are not easily accessible so try to get a carpool going.)