REVIEW: A Crowded House (State Theatre of Chicago)

   
   

Inside each room lies a literary genius gasping for breath

 

State Theatre - A Crowded House - Image

  
State Theatre presents
  
A Crowded House
   
Adapted from a collection of Virginia Woolf novels
Directed by Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher
at
Gunder Mansion, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

That Virginia Woolf created anything is a testament to her drive, razor-sharp intelligence and prolific, intense imagination. That her work emerged as a leading voice in Modernism, despite immense social and mental health obstacles, is nothing less than incredible. Being raised in an ultra-literate Victorian household certainly gave Woolf the educational foundation on which to succeed, but recurring nervous breakdowns and perennial depression plagued her from adolescence.

A bit of hallmark Victorian shame and silence, especially regarding mental illness, swathes and muffles the rough sketch of Virginia Woolf (Casey Searles) that is A Crowded House; but that tactic seems only appropriate. State Theatre selected the period perfect Gunder Mansion to present her life, through her work, en promenade. While I’ve seen other theater companies defeat themselves with that sort of set up, State Theatre fulfills their mission with great poetry. One is almost overwhelmed by the production’s impressionistic simplicity and also its meticulous attention to detail. Not one, but eight playwrights sculpt the miniature dramas that take place in each room and each room represents one of Woolf’s novels. But more than that, like Woolf’s novels, each room becomes a moment in time or a place in the mind, a A Crowded Room - State Theatre - posterthought or emotion that exists to be revisited. Mrs. Dalloway (Catherine Bullard) is our guide; Woolf’s perfect hostess, hosting the tour of her creator’s mind—another nice bit of turnabout.

Co-directors Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher succeed in truly breaking down barriers between audience and cast by establishing each character immediately. “The Voyage Out” by Lisa Siciliano throws the audience into the middle of a wedding party celebrating Virginia and Leonard’s nuptials, as well as the publication of Virginia’s novel by the same name. While a tactic like that can feel stagy, it’s surprising how quickly one acclimates to their eccentric, literary milieu. Outrageous Lytton Strachey (Zach Kropp) and Clive Bell (Caleb Probst) dominate the social scene–poor, sweet Leonard (Joe Zarrow) rendered quite meek and unadorned in their company.

But one quickly realizes, by inference, the critical if quiet role that Leonard plays in Virginia’s life and work. “Night and Day” by Rob Smith drives home the monstrous arrangement between Virginia and her half-brothers. George and Gerald Duckworth, who molested both Virginia and her sister Vanessa after their mother’s death, control the publication of her works—at least until Leonard sets up an independent press to produce them instead. Likewise, in “Mrs. Dalloway” by Greg Edwards, Leonard becomes protective of Virginia when the party celebrating the publication of her novel breaks down entirely. The frenzied self-absorption of their guests and the pressure to be all things—great writer, great hostess—finally gets to Virginia.

The perpetual fragility of Virginia’s mental state is the running thread behind each play—in ways large and small A Crowded House attempts to unravel the reasons behind Woolf’s eventual suicide. Indeed, one whole room is devoted to Virginia’s mentality. Even the erotic reverie that is “Orlando” by Lisa Siciliano, regarding Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West (Cara Olansky), centers on Virginia’s isolation from everyone—even the lover closest to her.

Obviously, this is not the whole Virginia Woolf. State Theatre runs the risk of portraying her as just another woman writer, fulfilling the “madwoman in the attic” stereotype. At the same time, Casey Searles is at her best in Virginia’s final act. All that the woman wanted to do was write, but mental illness was stripping that away from her. All that can be offered in reply is silence. The gorgeous shadow puppetry of Tim Speicher’s “Between the Acts” gives us that silence . . . and wonder . . . and beauty.

While one might wish for other, more diverse elements of Woolf’s life and work to be fleshed out, A Crowded House is one to see.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
        
   

 

REVIEW: The Water Engine: An American Fable (Theatre 7)

  
  

Suspenseful Mamet play recalls 1930s Chicago

 
 

Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven

   
Theatre Seven presents
 
The Water Engine: An American Fable
   
By David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $12–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Set in Chicago in 1934, David Mamet’s rarely mounted 1977 drama, The Water Engine: An American Fable, currently in a beautifully nuanced production by Theatre Seven, takes us back in time to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Charles Lang, a punch-press operator in a factory by day, dreamy inventor by night, has created an engine that runs on pure water. He dreams it will put an end to factories and bring him a peaceful life in the country with his unworldly sister.

Brett Lee in Water Engine - Theatre SevenChicago history buffs, alternate-history fans and anyone who enjoys great, intimate theater should take this show in. While it’s set too late to be steampunk, this arguably science-fictional play has a similar feel. Brenda Windstead’s 1930s costumes and John Wilson’s sound-stage set transport us to another time, one that almost-but-not-quite existed.

But "autres temps, autres moeurs" does not apply here. In fact, it’s business very much as usual. In his effort to patent his invention, Lang runs afoul of a scheming shyster who tries to sell him and his creation into nefarious corporate hands. I don’t doubt that many would-be world-shaking discoveries meet similar fates today.

Although the plot is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and Mamet brings in all sorts of fascinating sidelines, such as a recurring theme about a chain letter, period-style advertising and the world’s fair itself. The action cris-crosses Chicago, from the fairgrounds to still-extant spots such as the Aragon Ballroom and Bughouse Square.

Mamet originally wrote this short script, which runs about 80 minutes without intermission, as a radio play, and Director Brian Golden’s exciting staging effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways. His cast includes Theatre Seven company members Dan McArdle, Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and George Zerante, as well as Brett Lee, Lindsey Pearlman, Cody Proctor, Alina Tabor, Jessica Thigpen and Travis Williams.

Charles Lang in Water Engine - Theatre SevenEach cast member plays multiple roles in this play within a radio play. In fact, the 10 cast members portray over 40 parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the radio play and random Chicagoans in wonderful character sketches.

In the longest role, Proctor plays Lang with well-executed, nervous nerdiness. Zerante smarms as the crooked lawyer, and Williams menaces as the corporation muscle. Pearlman delightfully segues from refined actress to ranging street-corner orator to gruff storekeeper. Newcomer Tabor adds wide-eyed youthful charm.

The whole ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine.

 
   
Rating: ★★★★   
   
   

Cassy Sanders, Travis Williams, Jessica Thigpen, Brian Stojak, Lindsey Pearlman

All photos by Heather Stumpf

 

 

   
   

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REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)

   
   

A heartfelt lesson on facing the music

 

Next_Piano_Teacher_1 (2)

   
Next Theatre presents
 
The Piano Teacher
 
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

  
  

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