REVIEW: Obscura (Red Tape Theatre)

 

A Nightmare of the Observed

 

Obscura at Chicago's Red Tape Theatre: (Left to right) Robert Oakes, Meghan Reardon, Lona Livingston, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

   
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Obscura: a voyeuristic love story
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I guess that I will call it synchronicity. Before I went to see Obscura at Red Tape Theatre, I read a story about Franz Kafka and the present day battle over his unpublished papers. Kafka has always been both fascinating and terrifying to me. Obscura: a voyeuristic love story delves into several layers of the bureaucracy that threatens to delete the remnants of humanity. It is darkly funny, emotional, and simmering below the surface is the threat that this can happen to you the observer. It haunted me like Kafka.

(Left to right) Lona Livingston, Meghan Reardon (legs), Nicholas Combs, Robert Oakes.  Photo by James PalmerWhen entering the theatre, you walk down a runway to your seat.  The runway is lit up and a part of the play’s set. The effect is that you feel like a trespasser in someone’s yard because upstage from the runway is the cutaway of a dreary apartment building. The actors are already on stage going through the motions of their characters. Meghan Reardon as Salvia is obsessively mixing brightly colored potions and doing an inventory of the ingredients. Lona Livingston as Mrs. Craw the landlady is cleaning and checking on repairs. Nicholas Combs as Ned is suffering over a typewriter in a tiny garret crowded with so many books that he sits on a stack of them. Robert L. Oakes as Rodney seems to be the most menacing character of all. Rodney sits in a spare and utilitarian room with only a calculator and a desk. He pores over data with the preciseness of an actuary.

All of the characters have something to hide and yet cannot keep it from the unseen bureaucracy. Rodney is spying on Salvia and sending her green letters that send her into a panic. Salvia hears Ned coughing all night along with the clacking of the typewriter and offers him a remedy from her collection of potions. The offer is a timid ruse to get to know another human being and yet she does not want to reveal herself. Ned is surprised when the girl he has been watching through the peephole speaks to him and quickly makes up a story about what he is writing. He cannot reveal that he has written nothing for all of his efforts and makes up an absurd circus story that enchants Salvia. Enter into this Mrs. Craw who breaks into the tenants apartments and burrows through their belongings on a regular basis.

These characters are at odds with each other while trying to connect at the same time. It makes for fantastic tension and sardonic humor. They are all in a hidden hell with the rules for escape being doled out in coded fragments. They barely seem human until the lustful sounds of wild sex emanates from a hidden apartment’s walls. A metaphoric mass orgasm breaks the fever under which they have suffered and the bureaucracy also goes berserk. Their humanity starts to emerge and they tentatively try to connect with each other.

Chicagoan Jennifer Barclay is the playwright for Obscura, and she spins quite the tale with some Brechtian influences as well. I acquired feelings of prewar decay from the characters, the set, and the dialog. Director Julianne Ehre has pulled off a feat reminiscent of Orson Welles, director for an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial”. This tale could have happened at any time in this century or the one we just left and that is what is so surreal. The apartments look as if there has been a war. Accordingly, we know that there is always a war somewhere on this planet, with certainly a domino affect tangentially leading right back to us.

It is funny and frightening when Rodney picks up his telephone to inquire about the green letter he has received. He has been the observer and finds himself on the other side of the pinhole with his life upside down. He is put on eternal hold by a robotic voice and is kept on tethers by an intermittent human who sends him to another extension. Music from “Oklahoma!” plays in the background. Hell is ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ on continuous loop.

(Left to right) Meghan Reardon, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

The character of Mrs. Craw – and her snooping – is the connection for everyone. She is seemingly trapped in her own painful past and justifies her intrusions by reasoning that she’s really caring for people. I found the denouement between her and the Stranger (played by Chris Carr) to be the one part that’s too neat and openly emotional. It is one layer too much for the irony of the rest of the writing. Mrs. Craw has survived a war; the connection between her and the Stranger should be more of a shock instead of the maudlin feel that comes across. Perhaps Ms. Barclay was attempting to humanize everyone to show that bureaucracy does not have to win.

In any case, that small flaw is no fault of the cast. They are all very good and did a brilliant job of pulling me into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Special kudos goes to scenic designer William Anderson. The visual of an urban apartment building is perfect down to the use of the concrete floor outside of Rodney’s sparse apartment.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Obscura –A Voyeuristic Love Story runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until October 23rd. There are additional shows on October 16th and 23rd. For more information go to www.redtapetheatre.org.

   
   

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REVIEW: Wuthering Heights (Lifeline Theatre)

 

Gothic gone ghostly

 

 Nelly (Cameron Feagin, right) comforts Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left), who suffers from tortured visions; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
   
Wuthering Heights
   
Adapted by Christina Calvit
From the novel by Emily Brontë
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through October 31   |  
tickets: $20–35  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In a sense, Emily Brontë’s classic romance is about an anguished love that endures beyond the grave. Despite many gothic elements, it is not, however, a ghost story.

Yet in Lifeline Theatre’s disappointing version of Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Leopold as Cathy Earnshaw, spends way too much time creeping about the stage in a white gown, grasping hands out claw-like, while the rest of the company stands around dismally making "woo-woo" sounds in the background. Where’s the Halloween candy?

Heathcliff (Gregory Isaac, right foreground) is haunted by the memory of his lost love Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left background); in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë Adaptor Christina Calvit dumps the eminently dispensable Mr. Lockwood, who frames the original story, and leaves all of the narration in the hands of Nelly Dean (the capable Cameron Feagin), who does most of it in the novel, anyway. But Lockwood’s nightmare about Cathy at the start of the book makes it clear that the dead Cathy’s influence is psychological, not supernatural, paving the way for the dying Heathcliff’s visions of her. Here we have a very solid Cathy pounding at the window to get in, over and over again.

Calvit also excises the pious Joseph, removing the whole theme of religious intolerance and hypocrisy that’s in the novel. Even at that, the production runs nearly 2½ hours.

We’re left with the everlasting triangle of the brooding and increasingly dangerous Heathcliff (darkly handsome Gregory Isaac), the highly strung, self-centered Cathy and the prissy Edgar Linton (nicely played by Robert Kauzlaric), and the second-generation repetition of Cathy’s daughter (a straightforward performance by Lucy Carapetyan), Healthcliff’s sickly and selfish son (Nick Vidal) and the degraded Hareton Earnshaw (Christopher Chmelik), here turned into a kind of cringing Gollum.

The deteriorating Hindley Earnshaw (John Henry Roberts), Cathy’s mean and profligate brother, and Healthcliff’s unfortunate wife (Sarah Goeden) get short shrift. The comparison between Earnshaw’s decline at the death of his beloved wife and Heathcliff’s reaction to Cathy’s marriage and subsequent demise is all but buried.

For all their scenes together, we never really see the sensual attraction that so haunts Heathcliff that he spends his life plotting revenge over his lost love, or Cathy to say that Heathcliff is her self. (Which, of course, makes it OK for her to marry another guy.)

WutheringHeights2Calvit juxtaposes the two generations fairly well, but she introduces each character in such a way that audiences are never left in any suspense about what’s going to happen and who’s going wind up with whom. So she tells us that Cathy marries Linton, not Heathcliff, and that her daughter ends up with Hareton well before the scenes that show us. Perhaps Calvit assumed that no one would go to see this play who wasn’t familiar with the novel. She might be right.

Certainly, no one who isn’t already a fan of the Brontë will become one as a result of this very screechy play, in which the characters are constantly yelling at one another. (To be fair, some of that is straight out of Emily Brontë melodrama — but it’s not comfortable to hear.)

Stylized. dancelike sequences add nothing to our understanding of the story and only take up time and slow the action. So much of the script and Elise Kauzlaric direction get in the way, that it’s hard to tell whether the cast does a good job or not.

Alan Donahue’s platform set captures little of the vastness of the Yorkshire moors and the up and down slide of the window and door become tiresome quickly.

If you’re an avid fan of the novel, you might want to see this. If not, skip it.

   
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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