Review: Home (Court Theatre)

       
    

Resonant and timely, yet still flawed

     
     

Kamal Angelo Bolden, Ashley Honore, and Tracey N Bonner in Home at Court Theatre

   
Court Theatre presents
   
Home
   
Written by Samm-Art Williams
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Dec 12  | 
tickets: $30-$60  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Three decades pass within the trajectory of Home, Samm-Art Williams three-character saga of a swath of American history viewed through the lens of an African-American man. The odyssey of Cephus Miles, from naïve, idealistic farm boy to destitute, drugged-out urbanite to prodigal son returned to the land is both uniquely specific and undeniably universal. It doesn’t matter what your race is: The struggle to put down roots can lead to the hellish instability of rocky soil long before a redemptive, fertile ground is found.

Final scene from HOME - Court Theatre - Kamal Angelo Bolden and Ashley HonoreThe piece is flawed, to be sure. Cephus (Kamal Angelo Bolden) seems to be no deeper than his outward actions – a character comprised of action but with little internal nuance. And by playing multiple roles as Cephus’ Job-like travels unfurl, Woman I (Ashley Honore) and Woman 2 (Tracey N. Bonner) provide character sketches that are more amusing than deep. Finally, the happily-ever-after ending that ensues after Cephus’ woeful odyssey of heartbreak, prison, and homelessness seems a bit pat. Williams dispenses with a wealth of endlessly complex societal woes – poverty, racism, and drug addiction among them – with a few deft swipes of the pen.

Wiliams’ text is musical, a rhythmic, lyrical pastiche of scenes that play like movements in a verbal sonata with words that literally sing at times. Hymns, spirituals, chants to make the toil of laboring in the tobacco fields endurable are interspersed through more traditional scenes of storytelling.

The yarns Cephus’ spins recalling his boyhood in Crossroads, North Carolina, are among the plays highlights: Working for the local moonshiner in a backwoods still where the occasional possum fell into the vat and made the brew all the more pungent; ditching church to play craps on Sunday out in the graveyard, escapades with colorful local characters – in the telling of these memories, Home shines brightest.

Cephus’ true love Patti May (Ashley Honore) figures predominantly in the story, with requisite rolls in the hayloft and vivid depictions of the explosive, pent-up sexuality of adolescence. But while there’s no questioning the sweet eroticism that exists between the couple, Patti May herself is all pleasant superficiality rather than uniquely layered character. She’s pretty, but that’s about it – Williams’ text provides little depth to the woman. When she makes a rather predictable final-act re-entry into Cephus’ life, her motivations for doing so seem more like a dramatic convenience (it wouldn’t do to leave poor Cephus stuck in a miserable, unhappy ending) than a genuine turn of events.

Ashley Honore and Kamal Angelo Bolden - Court Theatre Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner - Home - Court Theatre
Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner at Court Theatre - Home Kamal Angelo Bolden in winter scene in Samm-Art Williams Home - Court Theatre

Tracey N. Bonner has better luck playing multiple characters of marvelously funny and idiosyncratic quirks. As a coke-sniffing, loose-living big-city harlot, she’s a hoot, swanning about in a Scarlett-woman red feather boa like some kind of post-modern Jezebel. She’s equally memorable playing a snootily righteous welfare office caseworker who denigrates a homeless Cephus for being an embarrassment to his race.

This production is Ron OJ Parson’s third time at the helm of Home, having directed the piece for the Madison Repertory Company and New York’s Signature Theatre. He keeps the pace brisk, shaping scenes that are sometimes almost like small choreopoems. The opening scene is particularly effective as the two women hoe under a blazing sun, giving a harsh cadence to words so descriptively you can all but feel the sweat from relentless heat and ache from the back-breaking labor.
But while many of the individual scenes in Home resonate with powerful immediacy, the story as a whole just isn’t as effective – primarily because of that fairy tale, happily-ever-after ending. Williams brings plenty of relevancy to the stage: Cephus’ imprisonment after refusing to fight in Viet Nam is an issue that rings loud and clear as the war in Iraq plods bloodily on. His battles with heroin, homelessness and lost love are also vividly immediate. Unfortunately, his rapid redemption – financially, emotionally and geographically – are not. And his constant refrain throughout – that God is “on vacation in Miami” adds a jarring note to otherwise melodious dialogue.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

     
     

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REVIEW: Auctioning the Ainsleys (Dog & Pony Theatre)

     
     

‘Auctioning’ is a hard sell

     
      

Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley (standing) and Kate Kisner (seated) and Teeny Lamothe in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

   
Dog & Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Auctioning the Ainsleys
   
Written by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by
Dan Stermer
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through Dec 18  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Laura Schellhardt’s Auctioning the Ainsleys is painfully, blatantly, and delightfully quirky. Dog & Pony Theatre Company’s treatment of the play feels like it was lifted from the mind of Wes Anderson or Diablo Cody. There’re plenty of sweaters, vintage silverware, and arrested development, and the show – directed by Dan Stermer – is undeniably fun. Unfortunately, the only thing it’s really missing is dramatic heft.

Austin Talley and Kate Kisner in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building StageThe titular Ainsleys are a gaggle of childish adult siblings who live with their reclusive mother in a massive auction house. Each has some neurosis that makes them perfect for the estate-sales business the family runs. Annalee (Faith Noelle Hurley) is more than a tad OCD; therefore, she oversees accounting. Amelia (Teeny Lamothe) obsesses over matching—both objects and people—which makes her perfect for setting up the auction lots. Aiden (Matthew Sherbach) eschews all material things, so he takes care of all the polishing, cleaning, and refurbishing (or distressing if that’s what people are buying). Their world is turned upside down when their aging mother, Alice (Kate Kisner), decides to auction off the house and everything in it. The enormous sale recalls wayward daughter Avery (Rebekah Ward-Hays), whose caustic domineering ways upset the Ainsleys’ balance even more.

Schelhardt’s play is about people, but it is also very much about things. It riffs on what our objects say about us in a myriad of intriguing, charming ways. According to Avery, a smart auctioneer is not selling tangible items, but the stories behind those things. Alice has a trinket she uses to symbolize each one of her children (a teapot, a stapler, etc.). Her deceased slave-driver of a husband, a character never seen but who drives much of the action nevertheless, represented each one of his brood with a price tag.

Stermer’s production is beautifully designed. Every design aspect clicks wonderfully with every other. Tracy Otwell’s and Annalee Johnson’s playful envisioning of the Ainsley homestead stuffs the vast Building Stage space. Stermer uses it very well, carving out scenes on the various levels. Kevin O’Donnell’s amusing, jazz-inspired soundtrack is also of note, slathering on the vibraphone and woodwinds.

Schelhardt falls prey to a flaw that plagues many young writers and theatre companies in our age of indie films. The play flits along for the first act, introducing the wacky characters and their defining eccentricities. As the Ainsleys’ auctioning continues, though, there is a jarring push to explore dark family secrets (abuse, prejudice, long-lingering hatred). This is done to manufacture some stakes, but the heavy issues feel very artificial considering the first half of the play. Many of the revelations uncovered in the latter half come off as either unbelievable, a bit dumb, or insignificant. Avery harbors a deep-seated hatred for her tyrannical dad, but her reasoning seems tangled.

 

Austin Talley and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage (Left to right) Rebekah Ward-Hays, Austin Talley, Kate Kisner (seated), Teeny Lamothe and (standing, back row) Matthew Sherbach and Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage
Faith Noelle Hurley in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage Austin Talley and Matthew Sherbach in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys Nov. 12-Dec. 18 at The Building Stage

Stermer collected a talented cast that breathes life into Schelhardt’s whimsical world. Lamothe is mousy and hilarious. Sherbach is another standout, often responding with ridiculous physical responses when Aiden cannot come up with words. Both the script and the cast occasionally fall back on unmotivated character idiosyncrasies. This includes Hurley’s cartoony hand gestures or, once he finds out Alice’s auditor (Austin Talley) is a collector, Aiden’s annoying habit of calling him a synonym of “souvenir” (knickknack, brickenbrak, curio—something that would be funny if done, like, only five times instead of five times every conversation). The best scenes, both in terms of writing and acting, are the ones between Talley and Kisner. They are sweet but weighty, peculiar but relatable, and the most dramatically interesting sections of the production. These few scenes are what the rest of the play wants to be.

Through Auctioning the Ainsleys, Dog & Pony exudes plenty of charming hipster quirk that is certifiably enjoyable. However, Schelhardt obviously wants to make some sincere comment on the cult of materialism. The message is lost in the clutter.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Rebekah Ward-Hays (right, front) and cast in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere of Auctioning the Ainsleys

TICKET DEAL: Pay What You Can is available at the door every Thursday and Sunday provided the show is not sold out.

     
     

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REVIEW: Trans Form

   
  

At the heart of a hidden woman

     
     

Rebecca Kling - Trans Form - New Suit Theatre Company

   
New Suit Theatre presents
   
Trans Form
 
Written and Performed by Rebecca Kling
Directed by
Kate McGroarty and Kristin Idaszak
at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Dec 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgender people face the Herculean task of getting the world to perceive them as the gender they experience themselves to be when all physical characteristics say otherwise. If our culture simply allowed people to discover their gender expression, rather than expecting them to squeeze into one of two bifurcated gender molds, then gender would become just another aspect of personal expression and be allowed its evolution in the individual.

But we don’t live in that kind of world, do we?

Rebecca Kling’s one-woman show, Trans Form is decidedly, consciously intimate and low-key. It renders in minute detail the everyday ways in which transgender people can feel their personal authenticity subverted or denied. That Kling unsentimentally reflects on how she has denied herself in the past is one of the more intriguing and thoughtful elements of this one-act play, produced by New Suit Theatre and co-directed by Kristin Idaszak and Kate McGroarty.

Kling begins with childhood games in which she plays at being a girl but, essentially, her childhood and adolescence is lived as somebody else. Hair pulled back into a bun, in jeans and a dress shirt that covers but can’t conceal her breasts, Kling progresses to femininity as her tale unfolds across twenty years of living in a masculine body. Nothing other than a persistent desire to be a girl, a girl growing into womanhood, sustains her sense of self. But, terrifyingly, it’s a self that can just as easily desire to commit suicide, since what that self wants seems too impossible or too burdensome. Bound in the body of an adolescent boy, Rebecca emerges in Kling’s mind as an urgent, cajoling, even threatening alter ego.

So far as support from the outside is concerned, too much of it appears slight and ephemeral against the expectations that gender will eventually match the male body she was born into. Even basic sentences like, “I think I want to be a girl,” can give her parents too much hope, hope that their child will someday emerge “normal,” her gender non-conformity reduced to a harmless phase. Her therapists are either supportive but clueless or really clueless in subjecting her to arbitrary and meaningless tests. Dressing up for Halloween provides scant relief since, for all her efforts, she can’t even pass as female as well as her drag-attired gay college roommate.

Trans Form 4

Love provides Kling the impetus to change and take on the risks and difficulties of transitioning. Love from a woman, who accepts Kling’s identity as a woman, sparks her transformation. Here’s where Kling’s story becomes oddly truncated. In order to appeal to wider audiences and educate beyond the transgender community, Trans Form has to deliver some kind of basic “Transgender 101” talk. But it is the emotional process of transitioning that sustains audience interest. With Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design and Sarah Gilmore’s sound design, Kling dons a white doctor’s coat to handle this segment humorously, like the spoof on a black and white 1950’s Social Etiquette film. However, the segment also belies the trickiness of blending personal, lived experience with the medicalized constructions of transgender identity. We hear no further about the affair. It becomes sacrificed to the dry, wry and cerebral delivery of psychological definitions and medical jargon.

Likewise, this show still needs further development to sustain even theatricality in the telling of Kling’s story. Some moments are very effective—as when she demonstrates the unremitting requirement of daily hormone therapy. But other sections still require greater physicalization and translation into visual metaphor. Kling has enough emotional distance from her material to observe it with wry and reflective eye. That makes her point of view necessary on a subject that could easily degenerate into maudlin self-absorption. But the artist also needs to lay bare the heart with clarity and precision. An audience may be better informed about transgender experience at the end of Trans Form, but hitting all the emotional bull’s-eyes of transitioning will force them to feel it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Trans Form 3

      
     

Production Team:

Scenic Designer: Sally Weiss, Costume Designer: Kristen Ahern, Lighting Designer: Michael Warden, Sound Designer: Sarah Gilmore, Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Stage Mngr.: Lauren Lassus, Production Manager: Jordan Danz

     
     

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REVIEW: Course of Empire (Breakbone Dance Company)

  
  

A provacative and compelling empire

     
     

breakbonedance-dancecastexcavation-carlwiedemann3

   
Breakbone Dance Company presents
   
Course of Empire
  
Conceived and Directed by Atalee Judy
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Nov 20  |  tickets: $16  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Breakbone Dance Company claims to have been breaking the rules of contemporary dance for their thirteen years as a group. Breaking the rules is a subjective claim in these days of what I call artistic anarchy. The performance/concert Course of Empire is a thoroughly skilled and mellifluous take on society seen through architectural exploration but I’m not sure that it breaks the rules. The concert is a new work a year in the making, created under the direction of Breakbone Artistic Director Atalee Judy.

Breakbone Dance Company - aviatrixCourse of Empire combines industrial techno music and film projection with choreography. The Viaduct Theatre space is the perfect venue for such a production. It is situated literally under a viaduct on Western Avenue along a seemingly desolate street. The interior is sparse and painted black with chains, cinder blocks and scattered metal props. It has a very Teutonic feel that is amplified when the dancers appear. They are dressed like aviatrix explorers with goggles, close fitting helmets, and leather rucksacks. This production features Atalee Judy, Anita Fillmore, and Mindy Meyers. Founding member Suzanne Dado is featured in a video portion of the performance filmed by Carl Weidemann. The audience is led through four stages of building and destruction called excavations. That is the perfect description with the cinder blocks rolling and the dancers taking on the personas of building materials as well as the architect.

Judy, Fillmore, and Meyers expertly jumble their bodies through the growing pains of mankind’s early attempts at putting down foundations and building. They put miniature models of structures from history downstage as a mini focal point. The Roman Coliseum ruins, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, and an incomplete structure are given as visual motif. “Course of Empire is broken into five parts: On Building, Living Architecture, Manifest, Inevitable Destruction, and Rebuilding the Interior.

The descriptions of these parts is what left me wondering what rules were being broken. The choreography is exquisite. Atalee Judy has produced a lyrical blend of modern, jazz, hip-hop, and a surprising touch of spiritual gospel moves set against visuals of destruction. This is a beautiful commentary on society, and maybe the company’s endgame veers towards breaking the rules by documenting architectural destruction through dance. Carl Weidemann’s video accompaniment is a loving look at what was built in the last century that now lay in ruins. An abandoned train station and church in Gary, Indiana is especially poignant knowing how the city still lays abandoned, and a dead city by some media outlets. Course of Empire was inspired by paintings of the same name by Thomas Cole. The paintings show the course of cultural development from an agrarian state to industry and depletion. I found the subject matter especially wrenching because of my own love of 19th and 20th century architecture. (I find modern structures to be cold and void of feeling; new shiny things have no soul and eventually humankind will grow bored and destroy them for the next new thing. Thomas’s “Course of Empire” eloquently shows human nature and how structures have souls seen in the eye of the beholder.

 

Breakbone Dance Company 01 breakbonedance-dancecastexcavation-carlwiedemann2
Breakbone DanceCo Breakbone Dance Company 08

I was fortunate to attend on the night when Breakbone celebrated its’ 13th anniversary season. There was a guerilla film shown if Atalee Judy dancing through an abandoned rail tunnel in Rochester, New York. It’s a definite moment of rule breaking in film. No permits were granted for the film short that was done with Steadicam on the fly. Ms. Judy claims that such films are the direction that Breakbone is heading. This may be a means of wider recognition, but it would be a shame to not see this company live and in the flesh. Dance is a tangible discipline where one can hear the breath and see the sweat of exertion. Breakbone’s passion is inspiring, and I hope that they don’t go totally viral (ala YouTube) or center just on their video work. Keep it live – that in itself will be breaking the rules. It’s the same as paying homage to a beautiful structure or preserving a treasured building.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

 

More Breakbone videos here.

     
     

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