Review: Ghosts of Atwood (MPAACT)

     
     

Exorcising the past without reconciliation

 

  
     

  
MPAACT presents
  
Ghosts of Atwood
  
Written by Shepsu Aahku
Directed by
Andrea J. Dymond
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ghosts of Atwood has a fascinating and voyeuristic premise – a chance to see behind the walls of a midwestern boys military school. The fascination comes from the fact that the narrator is a still-traumatized Black man looking back thirty or so years. He comes from a past of being only one of the few allowed in the White world. It was supposed to be a privilege and an honor to assimilate and pave the way for others to follow.

As suspected, the grass is not green in the verdant woods of Wisconsin for toy soldier Quinn. MPAACT playwright-in-residence Shepsu Aahku is the author of Ghosts of Atwood.  His work is a memoir of his own time in military school back in the 1970’s and, according to Aahku, sometimes memory cannot be trusted. It turns out that this is a rationalization fed to impressionable children to mask the horrors inflicted upon them. What is the truth? Who is your brother when it hits the fan?

Quinn is dropped off at Atwood while his still loving mother gets her life in order. He comes from a supportive family that wants him to have a good life, the kind of life advertised in the Sunday supplement magazine.

Quinn is brutally hazed by cadet Moose and his posse on his first day at Atwood. Zack Shornick is brilliant as the abusive and abandoned Moose. He blends fear, anger, and atavism in an explosive performance.

Equally brilliant is Corey Spruill as cadet Whitehead – the only other black kid at Atwood. Spruill quiet performance simmers and then boils over in a seething climax that breaks the heart from the shame of recognition. Whitehead has been at Atwood for seven years and doesn’t classify himself as anything other than a soldier. The moment that he allows vulnerability, the shell breaks completely.

Aahku’s structure for  Ghosts of Atwood is pretty straightforward. But in an effort to distinguish this work from similar stories like “Lord of the Flies” or “Taps”, he adds an esoteric quality to the ‘ghosts’. Imaging horrific abuse as a monster under the bed drives the fact that the cadets are really children. 

   

The ghost causes one child, Bobby, to be a chronic bed wetter at the mercy of Moose and the other boys. Jack Miggins is heartbreaking as Bobby, who should be playing baseball but is Moose’s unfortunate ‘bitch’. His breakdown recalls the demise of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The grownups in Ghosts of Atwood are stock military characters. The role of Hammer (Dan Loftus) is a disciplinarian handing out demerits for dirty dress whites and a paddling for unruly behavior. Loftus projects a martial image of paternal firmness. Niall McGinty plays the jolly wilderness guide Major Taggert. His folksy Mayberry demeanor adds a jolt to his character being revealed as a malevolent force.

Wardell Julius Clark plays the lead role of cadet Quinn. His character is seen as a teenager and then as an adult decades later still haunted by Atwood. Clark’s performance comes off as strangely tight and stiff even in light of his character’s memories. It’s given that Quinn is well spoken and in a military milieu but it doesn’t jibe with the more naturalistic method of the rest of the cast.

Actors James Holbrook and Jack Moore give excellent performances as boys who’ have molded into military life. Mr. Moore is chilling and funny as the perfect Drill Captain whose uniform is full of braids and medals. Mr. Holbrook also fits the military image as well. His character Waddelow is the cadet who gets to log in the demerits and inflict abuse unpunished for the most part. He has mastered the smug sneer and is physically menacing, which is perfect for the role.

I would be remiss to not mention the glorious Trinity P. Murdock as Nesta the Rastafarian griot/singer. He is a sort of Greek Chorus underscoring the present day Quinn’s post- traumatic memories and the means by which Whitehead coped with Atwood in the past. Whitehead believes in the Rastafarian idea of justice and resistance through Jah and sacramental spliffs. It is lost on naïve Quinn but remains a constant song in his adult memory through Nesta.

Ghosts of Atwood is designed well. The imaging of the ghost as an undulating black mist gives one the chills and provides for an appropriate visual metaphor of a child’s nightmare memories. The sparse dormitory and wood footlockers give an authentic old boarding school feel to the set.

I give kudos to the cast and Drill Team Choreographer Demetria Thomas for precision worthy of competition. Also, a special mention is given to Kevin Douglas for excellent fight choreography. These scenes are brutal and have to be precise and authentic to have the intended impact.

This is a production that should be on your list of shows to see this month. Ghosts of Atwood is a chilling and authentic exploration of the truth that society is not willing to remember. With resident director Andrea J. Dymond doing an exemplary job shaping and pacing the show,  Ghosts is a powerful indictment of what authority is willing to ignore or deny under the guise of ivy-covered utopias at the expense of the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ghost of Atwood runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until February 27th. The Greenhouse Theatre Center is located 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-404-7336 for box office information or check out the website www.mpaact.org

   
  

REVIEW: Being Harold Pinter (Belarus Free Theatre)

  
  

Fiercely good.

  
  

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk of Belarus Free Theatre - 'Being Harold Pinter' at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Belarus Free Theatre presents
  
Being Harold Pinter
  
Adapted and Directed by Vladimir Scherban
at
Goodman / Chicago Shakes / Northwestern Univ
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $20  | 
more info

Performance Schedule

     

January 27-29
Goodman Theatre

Feb 4-6, 11-13
Northwestern University

Feb 17-20
Chicago Shakes Upstairs


Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Somehow, in the midst of bleak Chicago winter, a spirit of rebellion has startled the Chicago theater community from its near-hibernation complacency. Yet, I shouldn’t say “somehow.” The Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University have joined forces to shepherd that spirit of rebellion here from New York City’s Under the Radar Festival. But the originators, the guardians of that spirit, the theater company for whom political drama is very definitely NOT an intellectual exercise, the Belarus Free Theatre, has arrived and they have spiked a reawakening to the impact of art speaking truth to power.

'Being Harold Pinter', adapted and directed by Vladimir Scherban of the Belarus Free Theatre.Since BFT has only just eluded the iron grasp of the Belarusian government to come to these shores and, since its founding in 2005, nearly every one of the company has been subjected to imprisonment and/or police harassment due to their “peaceful political and theatrical activities,” they are sure to be the darlings for many Americans in a self-congratulatory mood about the blessings of our democracy and its First Amendment protections compared to Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko. To be sure, for the moment, the US is not quite in dire straits equal to the citizens of Belarus–but two years into Obama’s administration neither do we stand on the moral high ground we once occupied. Bradley Manning endures solitary confinement without trial or sentence; within Chicago and Minneapolis the FBI invaded the homes of anti-war activists.

Thus, what a thoughtful and delicate balancing act the Belarus Free Theatre performs for our delectation. It’s not enough to acknowledge how skillfully they interweave notable sections of Pinter’s plays with the direct, eyewitness accounts of the torture and political persecution of Belarus’ citizens. Rather, Being Harold Pinter sits first and foremost upon the foundation of Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech—a speech that excoriates the United States for its illegal invasion of Iraq, its maintenance of Gitmo and its Cold War manipulations in Central and South America.

But most of that is left out of director Vladimir Scherban’s adaptation. Perhaps it is because they are our guests but, more likely, Being Harold Pinter is neither crude agitprop nor is it a collage of Pinter’s words and selected scenes. Scherban takes very seriously Pinter’s view on the role of the artist and the role of the citizen, a discourse that frames every scene yet shift-shapes with each dramatic moment. Perhaps more powerfully than anything else, through Pinter’s own inquiries into the nature of truth, coupled with scenes of interrogation pulled from his plays Ashes to Ashes, Old Times, The Homecoming, One for the Road, The New World Order and Mountain Language, Sherban and his seeringly consummate cast unveil Pinter himself as a Grand Inquisitor in his own way.

     
Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren. Maryna Yurevich, Pavel Haradnitski and Aleh Sidorchyk in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren. Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As for execution, they are fiercely good. Using minimal props loaded with significance, the cast tosses off Pinter’s dialogue and glides through scenes I’ve witnessed actors in this town clod-hop their way through. That the Belarus Free Theatre would engage Pinter’s sadomasochistic power plays as a reflection on what they endure from their own prevailing KGB seems like a no-brainer. But what they also reveal is Pinter’s mind going through its own non-stop interrogation. That is the diamond to be found in the middle of all the suffering, degradation and carnage. What they depict of Pinter is a soul in unrelenting pursuit of what is true and the dangerous struggle to present that truth and render it in a way from which audiences cannot escape. Finally, they ground Pinter’s drama with real life accounts from the tortured of their country. The BFT plays for keeps and they should not be missed.

As for their future, the Belarus Free Theatre is still a band on the run. According to Roche Schulfer, The Goodman Theatre’s Executive Director, their visas were set to expire close to the end of the New York festival but so long as they could find more gigs to perform, they would not have to return to Belarus, where they would surely meet with more persecution. Their manager is currently in Washington D.C., consulting with the Secretary of State’s office about asylum. Meanwhile, they’ve booked more performances in Hong Kong and London after Chicago.

By the way, here’s another small Chicago connection: in 2005 the BFT produced a play by Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, which is currently enjoying a remount during Curious Theatre Branch’s 22nd Annual Rhinoceros Festival. Their production was banned in Belarus and they had to continue it underground.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
      
  

Scene from Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     
     

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