REVIEW: 1001 (Collaboraction)

A breathtaking testament to the power of storytelling

 

 Pictured (left to right): Joel Gross (as Shahriyar) and Mouzam Makkar (as Scheherazade) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia

  
Collaboraction presents
  
1001
  
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by
Seth Bockley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through October 9  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Jason Grote’s 1001 uses the story of “The Arabian Nights” as the foundation for a centuries-spanning epic that examines the nature of stories and the ways in which they shape and define the world. After a nuclear blast starts the play, the One-Eyed Arab (H.B. Ward) begins to tell the familiar story of the murderous sultan Shahriyar (Joel Gross) and his crafty bride Scheherazade (Mouzam Makkar), who tells stories that never end to elude her death the next morning.

The Wedding Feast from Collaboraction's "1001" - Photo by Saverio Truglia From there, Grote presents amidst stories about Prince Yahya al-Husayni’s (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) lust for his twin sister and Sinbad’s (Ward) afternoon with Jorge Luis Borges (Antonio Brunetti), the narrative of two 21st-century Columbia students takes shape: Dahna (Makkar), an Arab, and Allen (Gross), a Jew. Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization. Under Seth Bockley’s clear and concise direction, the cast navigates the complex script with a momentum that never stops, playing multiple characters and switching between genres without ever skipping a beat.

As Shahriyar, Gross shows an amazing comedic talent, particularly in his handle of malapropisms (“ceviche” for “cesspool” is my favorite), which can cause more groans than laughs in the wrong hands. As a sultan that face palms his wives to shush them, Gross shows no sense of tact or restraint, which increases his comedic worth without diminishing his threat. In his first scene as Allen, Gross delivers a fantastic monologue of incredible difficulty, as the mentally fractured character recalls the events that have led to his residence in the underground tunnels of Manhattan.

Makkar has the least comedic parts of the show, but she helps ground the play by creating characters that feel more realistic than her funnier co-stars. As the primary storyteller, she has fantastic diction, and her voice commands attention when she speaks. The only other female of the cast, Carly Ciarrochi gets the brunt of the humor, and she handles it fantastically. Ciarrochi has a talent for goofy voices, but it is her comedic timing that makes her scenes so memorable, like her Act 1 hysterics as one of Shahriyar’s virgin brides about to be killed.

Pictured (left to right) Antonio Brunetti and Edgar Miguel Sanchez in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia. Pictured (back to front) Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mouzam Makkar in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia H.B. Ward in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.
Pictured (left to right): Carly Ciarrochi, Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Joel Gross in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia Pictured (left to right): Mouzam Makkar (as Dahna) and Joel Gross (as Alan) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.

The rest of the cast does admirable work playing a plethora of different characters, giving each one a distinct physicality and voice so that no clarity is lost. Ward’s Sinbad stands out for his complete lack of awe at the spectacular sights he encounters on his journey, with Ward underplaying each of the sailor’s memory for maximum comedic effect.

The brilliance of the script comes from the ways in which Grote uses the fantastic – and oftentimes comic – stories that Scheherazade tells to enrich Dahna and Allen’s relationship. Towards the end of the play, Scheherazade asks the audience, “What are any of us but a collection of stories?” In that moment the story within a story within a story structure of the play makes perfect sense, revealing the limitless potential in every person to imagine and create at any moment. Collaboraction’s 1001 is an inspiration, and with only a few more weeks before the end of the run I suggest you hurry to get your tickets.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

1001_photo by Saverio Truglia_7573

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REVIEW: Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite

 

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
Detroit
     
Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

at Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7   |   tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and  top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.

(left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian BarfordDetroit would be a complete non-starter.

The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates.  Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.

At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson).  On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.

 (counterclockwise from upper left) – Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and  functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that  they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And  they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta”  that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s  wonderful dialogue.

The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc.  We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches -  but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good.  Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy  who is a profoundly bad influence.

As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository  monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already.  There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

        
        

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Theater Thursday: The Sound of Yellow Flower

Thursday, September 23

The Sound of a Yellow Flower

Strangeloop Theatre  at Trap Door Theatre -1655 N. Cortland

yellowflowerJoin Strangeloop Theatre and event sponsor m.henry for this world-premiere production.  There will be a post-show discussion with the playwright and members of the cast and crew about the process of creating a new play for a small Chicago theatre company.  Come have a drink before the show and stick around afterwards for snacks from the popular Edgewater restaurant, which offers globally inspired, new American style cooking: chow for now.

Event begins at 7 p.m.    Show begins at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $25  -   For reservations visit www.strangelooptheatre.org

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