REVIEW: The Elephant Man (Boho Theatre)

  
  

Boho fills stage with profound, meticulous performances

  
  

Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Laura Rook, Stephanie Sullivan, and Jill Connolly as the Pinheads. Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
     
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by
June Eubanks
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 6  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Just what is the price for belonging and acceptance? What if one can never fulfill the requirements for being part of the society of the human race, no matter how gentle, law-abiding and meritorious one is, no matter what efforts others make to provide some integration? Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is unique in that it takes these issues to absolute extremes and forces us to see ourselves through its funhouse mirror. Boho Theatre has mounted an elegant, stately and psychologically mature production at Theatre Wit. June Eubanks’ direction adheres to the minimalist aesthetic and self-consciousness theatricality the play was born in, crystallizing Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs.poetically profound moments that elevate language much in the same way that John Merrick (Mike Tepeli) describes the effect of the uplifting architecture of St. Philip’s church.

John Merrick, dubbed the ‘Elephant Man’, and his place in late Victorian society, is uplifted for our gaze. He is a man who can never stop being a spectacle; his life, trapped in outrageous physical deformity, is constantly at the mercy of what the rest of his fellow humans see and suppose of him. I can praise the excellence with which Tepeli assumes Merrick’s form, virtually pretzel-twisting himself into character at the beginning of each scene, but more excellent is the way he captures Merrick’s childlike, innocent acceptance of himself, of those around him and his lot in life. Just as powerful are Merrick’s moments questioning, from his bath, Treves’ notions of established order or the rush of intense emotion upon Merrick once he shakes Mrs. Kendall’s (Cameron Feagin) hand for the first time–or loosing her, on Treves’ orders. Tepeli has completely mastered his role, with assurance the audience can relax into watching how others respond to him.

Likewise, Steve O’Connell’s Treves has all smooth and put-together bearing of a clueless do-gooder just beginning to realize how dubious his mercy towards Merrick is and how little he can do to alter the inequities between them. His relationship with Merrick seamlessly sets into motion Treves’ re-examination of his culture’s social inequality. When he begins to crack under unbearable conundrums about his real value, as a respected member of the British Empire or as a human being, O’Connell sculpts Treves’ emotional downfall with intricate care–his breakdown in the arms of Bishop How (Thad Azur) is every bit the epiphany it is supposed to be.

     
Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall. Photo by Peter Coombs. Zach Bloomfield as Ross and Mike Tepeli as John Merrick. Photo by Peter Coombs.

The same meticulous care can be witnessed in every aspect of Boho’s production—one of the more scintillating aspects being that the rest of the cast take on multiple roles and carve a unique, distinctive character with each role. Cameron Feagin indelibly etches both the horrified missionary Nurse Sandwich and the charmingly controlled and worldly actress Mrs. Kendall. Zach Bloomfield’s Ross is devastating, particularly when he comes begging to Merrick in the hospital for another crack at being his handler—Bloomfield and Tepeli could conduct an acting masterclass based on that scene study alone. Michael Kingston’s turn as Carr Gomm brings the right note of complacency to his foil for Treves—an administrator quite content to oversee Merrick’s care, so long as his freakish presence keeps the money rolling in to the hospital in donations from the upper classes.

Indeed, the only flaws of the production may be its still awkward scene changes. Jill Vanc’s projection of scene titles and their announcement at each scene purposely heighten The Elephant Man’s theatricality. But upon opening the show still suffered some clumsiness in actors getting on and off through the transition—a problem that could be worked out in the course of the run.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs

Photo (left to right): Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O’Connell as Frederick Treves. (photo by Peter Coombs / Boho)

     
     

REVIEW: Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch (Lifeline Theatre)

    
  

The importance of being loved and loving others

  
  

Scene from Somebody Loves You Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - photo by Suzanne Plunkett

    
Lifeline Theatre presents
    
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch
   
Adapted by Frances Limoncelli
Based on book by
Eileen Spinelli
Music by
George Howe
Directed by
Ann Boyd
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Every day for lunch, Mr. Hatch has a cheese and mustard sandwich with a prune for dessert. He’s predictable and dull. Every day, his neighbors greet him with ‘Hello, good neighbor!’ Mr. Hatch ignores them, isolating himself from the daily goings on of his pleasant community. Unexpectedly, he receives a Valentine’s Day package with a note saying ‘somebody loves you.’ Who is his secret admirer? Not knowing the culprit, Mr. Hatch befriends everyone. Feeling loved turns him into a brownie-baking, see-sawing, harmonica-playing, good neighbor. When the postman delivers more news about the package, Mr. Hatch returns to ‘normal.’ What’s a neighborhood to do? Lifeline Theatre’s Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch proves to be an upbeat, engaging, heart-warming ‘Love Thy Neighbor 101’.

Michael T. Downey as Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - Photo by Suzanne PlunkettUnder the rambunctious direction of Ann Boyd, the talented cast IS the bright and cheerful neighborhood. To build the community spirit, two rows of audience are on the stage, each made cozy with blankets. Some of the play’s action takes place in Row D of the audience. The effect allows the quartet of actors to interact with guests to play catch, answer questions and teach a new song. In the lead, Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch) is so glum and downtrodden initially that his makeover is like a caterpillar to butterfly effervescent explosion. The magical fragility adds to the heart-tugging, misty moment when Downy re-cocoons. The rest of the cast play a variety of parts with delightful amusement. In lively animation, Sara Sevigny is jovial as Mrs. Weed, Mr. AND Mrs. Dunwoody, co-worker and a dog. Sevigny looks so surprised every time her puppet barks that she fooled me into seeing a dog. Micah J.L. Kronlokken energetically meets and greets the kids in the audience with a play by play expectation for the performance. He’s a kid-friendly narrator and mailman. Wearing different hats, Tuckie White goes back and forth from teen to lady to kid with active enthusiasm.

Based on the literary work of Eileen Spinelli, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch has been adapted for the Lifeline stage by Frances Limoncelli. Accompanied with songs composed by George Howe, the story teaches life lessons on kindness and isolation. Along with the familiar treat-people-like-you-want-to-be-treated message, Lifeline goes the extra block to say an individual is responsible for his own happiness. At one point, Mr. Hatch profoundly declares, “I’ve wasted too much time being lonely.” Ultimately, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch illustrates the importance of being loved and loving others. It’s a show for all ages. The kids will giggle. The adults may tear up. And everybody will want to live the greeting, “Hello, good neighbor!”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Running Time: Sixty minutes with no intermission. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

 

CAST: Guest artists Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch), Micah J.L. Kronlokken (Mr. Goober), Sara Sevigny (Mrs. Weed), and Tuckie White (Tina Finn). With understudies Timothy Cahill and Victoria Abram-Copenhaver.

CREW: Lifeline Theatre ensemble members Frances Limoncelli (Adaptor); with guest artists Ann Boyd (Director), George Howe (Composer/Lyricist), Jessica Kuehnau (Costume Designer), Aileen McGroddy (Assistant Director), Shayna Petit (Stage Manager), Rick Sims (Sound Designer), Brandon Wardell (Lighting Designer), Chelsea Warren (Scenic & Props Designer).

  
  

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REVIEW: Trickster (Halcyon Theatre)

  
  

Epic tale propelled by audacious scope; uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Riso Straley and Scott Allen Luke--Photo byTom McGrath

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Trickster
  
Written and Directed by Tony Adams
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 30  | 
tickets: $18 – $20 |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

With Trickster, Halcyon Theatre takes on a wildly ambitious epic of ancient Native American lore woven into a contemporary story of survival in apocalyptic world. Written and directed by Halcyon Theatre’s Artistic Director Tony Adams, the piece’s challenging, provocative sprawl of interlocking tales doesn’t always form the most coherent narrative. But what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in sheer audacious scope and an uncompromising artistic vision.

Arch Harmon as Fox--Photo byTom McGrathWithin the animal world, the earth’s four-legged creatures battle a dark fate overseen by a cruel Wolf Master. At the same time, a rag-tag group of humans try to stay alive in a burned out landscape where water and food are scarce and marauding soldiers are everywhere. Think ‘The Road’ merged with a highly sexualized take on Aesop’s Fables merged with the intricate Native American belief system of Spirit Animals and you’ve got a good idea as to the ruling aesthetic that governs Trickster.

Adams’ wild ride begins with a slam poet cry to a muse, and a violently worded harbinger of what’s to come. From there, the audience lurches to a fever-dream of a sex scene where in two dimly lit bestial creatures are making the beast with two backs. The illicit union of Swan (Christine Lin) and Coyote (Scott Allen Luke) leads to Coyote being chased to river, where he jumps in and assumes the shape of a stone. Flash-forward 500 years: Coyote has emerged from the river and been restored to his regular shape, only to find a world in ruins.

Competing storylines ensue as the animals attempt to redeem a world that’s a burnt-out husk and the humans try to keep from starving or death or being gang-raped by soldiers. The primary trouble with Trickster lies in the editing process: plots and sub-plots branch out from each other like an endless root system continually stretching out, increasingly tiny branches moving ever farther from the primary trunk. The result is that Trickster becomes compartmentalized – defined by many different storylines that don’t always add up to an emotionally resonant, authentically connected whole. The piece would benefit from some judicious pruning. At almost three hours, Trickster sometimes rambles despite the truly streamlined pacing.

As for Adams’ epic-sized cast of 19, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. This is the rare ensemble that truly reflects Chicago. Despite the best of intentions, the vast majority of theater companies simply don’t look like the city they spring from: Color blind casting doesn’t happen with any degree of regularity in Chicago. Halcyon is fiercely committed to it and with ensembles such as the one in Trickster, offers proof that diversity and excellence are hardly mutually-exclusive concepts. Halcyon is leading towards the time when multi-ethnic casting is the norm and doesn’t even warrant a mention.

There are several beguiling performances within Trickster’s ranks – Yadira Correa is delicious as a predatory owl intent on eating children. Riso Straley absolutely gets the combination of vulnerability borne of irrecoverable heartbreak and untouchable toughness borne of surviving in a battle-hardened world.

Scott Allen Luke, Arch Harmon and Rafael Franco--Photo byTom McGrath (R to L) Riso Straley, Derrick York and Rudy Galvan in Trickster--Photo byTom McGrath

Others don’t fare quite so consistently well: It’s difficult to understand much of the dialogue that springs from Fox (Arch Harmon) – his words are muffled, his diction muddy. And despite the cast’s size, there’s some distracting double/triple casting going on: As the final scenes wore on, it felt like the same three or so characters kept getting killed. When an actor gets his throat cut, shows up a few scenes later to have his neck broken, and shows up still later to suffer a fatal gunshot wound, well, the impact of the violence is diminished.

The production benefits greatly from costume designer Izumi Inaba’s work, which is a playful, furry example of creativity triumphing the constraints of a small budget. Her canine creations are the strongest, wild and wooly headpieces that emulate the spirit of the animals the actors are depicting, if not their literal appearance. Adam’ spare, burnt orange scenic design evokes the blistering heat of the great southwest, as well as the ancient art of the cultures who lived there millennia before the white folks showed up.

Halcyon Theatre demands a lot of its audiences. This isn’t the theater of effortless escapism. Instead, Adams takes you down a dark and difficult path, demands that you pay attention and leaves you with a brain overloaded with questions of morality, philosophy and the intricate nature of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Helen Young and Jennifer Adams in Trickster-- Photo byTom McGrath

Featuring: Jenn Adams, Yadira Correa, Delicia Dunham, Rafael Franco, Rudy Galvan, Johnny Garcia, Kamal Hans, Arch Harmon, Arvin Jalandoon, Christine Lin, Scott Allen Luke, Goli Rahimi, Johanna Middleton, Julie Mitre, Ruth Schilling, Riso Straley, Helen Young and Derrick York. (Cast & Production Team bios after the jump)

 

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