Review: The People’s Four Seasons (Quest Ensemble)

     
     

Quest joyously reminds us of warmer weather ahead

  
  

Quest Theatre - Four Seasons - Photo Credit: Jeremy Lawson

  
Quest Theatre Ensemble presents
  
The People’s Four Seasons
 
Written and Directed by Andrew Park
Music by
Scott Lamps
at
The Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: FREE  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The four seasons (in temperate parts of the world, anyway) have served as a muse ever since those first cavemen artists noticed that outside became cold, then hot, then cold again. The seasons inspired Vivaldi and they inspired Frankie Valli. Quest Ensemble, with their plethora of puppets, enlisted Scott Lamps to compose a musical dedicated to the cycle of nature.

Quest Theatre - Four Seasons - Production Image 3Written and directed by Andrew Park, Quest’s The People’s Four Seasons (which skews more towards early 20th Century operetta than modern musical) mostly rehashes commonly-espoused thoughts and beliefs. Spring brings babies and winter brings death. But with a spirited cast, ingenious design, and decent songwriting, The Four Seasons bursts with life. While in the final throes of winter, it is nice to be reminded that warmer times will come at some point, like they always do.

Park puts a sometimes-clunky frame on his celebration of nature. We watch the seasons change through the eyes of an old man. The stage is split into two areas; one of whimsy and one of stark reality. With his daughter’s assistance, the man is making the hard move from the house he grew up in to a retirement home. He is oft distracted by a tree just outside the window, which serves up plenty of pregnant memories. These music-laden memories are played out for the audience on another portion of the stage.

He remembers the tree from his spring birth—apparently he has one of the best memories in the world. We watch how the man’s life changes, just like the seasons do. A younger version of the man builds a house as we watch a massive spider spin a web. Though the narrative is a bit pedestrian, it still works. Quest hits a nice balance for the audience. There’s enough substance for adults to sink their teeth into and plenty of theatrics for children. Of course, there were plenty of children-at-heart with mouths agape.

I found myself wishing Scott Lamps’ score was vaster. We get a piano and a quartet of singers, a fuller arrangement could really make the show pop. The lyrics are straightforward (“I’m thankful/for you” repeats the autumn song) and fairly catchy.

However, it’s The Four Seasons simplicity that shines. Even though the story is nothing new, it still digs at your heart, inducing giggles and tears. Quest Ensemble has this secret nailed down. The brilliant puppetry, unafraid to show the strings, makes this show far more complex and fascinating than mere children’s theatre. The puppeteers bring bees, birds, and a myriad of other creatures to life. The tale is as much about the natural world as it is about the characters that ground it.

Quest Theatre Emsemble - The People's Four SeasonsThe singers acting out the man’s memories spout energy. The memories lean towards the sentimental, but who doesn’t remember their life with a little embellishment? Performers like Laura Deger, Jason Bowen and Kent Joseph dive into Parks’ style. Others, like Beth Allin, occasionally struggle to maintain presence and risk losing the audience during solo numbers. When several actors are on-stage, though, everything sails along merrily.

The most exciting aspect of Four Seasons is the joy it exudes. I left the theatre into the February cold with a renewed sense of hope. Quest is the self-branded “People’s Theatre” and therefore charge no admission. The Four Seasons fit right into their mission, telling a story common to us all. In less innovative hands, the play could easily be grade-school pageant quality. Yet, Park and Quest’s sense of wonder appears in the execution. They have created a celebration of life, one that envigors and consoles.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Quest Theatre Emsemble's 'The People's Four Seasons', by Andrew Park and music by Scott Lamps.

    
    

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Review: That Was Then (Seanachai Theatre)

     
     

A jilting dinner party with Seanachai

     
     

THAT WAS THEN PUBLICITY PHOTO

  
Seanachai Theatre presents
  
That Was Then
  
Written by Gerard Stembridge
Directed by
Carolyn Klein
at
The Irish American Heritage Center (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The style-smashing populist playwright Bertolt Brecht thought there should be more drama written about economics, the stuff that effects real people at all times—he pined to write a play about fluctuations in grain prices. Yet finding conflict and character in dollars and cents can mean pretty dry theatre. It seems audiences prefer more exciting fare—romance, tragedy, dysfunctional marriages. However, every so often, a play comes along that can masterfully blend people and their circumstances, making something striking and palatable. Gerard Stembridge’s That Was Then, enjoying its Midwest premier by Seanachai Theatre Company, takes on financial trends, nationalism, alcoholism, and love with stunning grace and humor.

On paper, the ideas behind That Was Then sound about as dramatic as stock market analysis. Stembridge focuses on the Celtic Tiger years of the ‘90s, when the Irish economy roared forward and Ireland went from being one of the most impoverished nations in Europe to one of its richest (…and now the country suffers from double-digit unemployment). We watch two dinner parties unfold simultaneously, one before the boom and one after. It’s a Byzantine structure, but Carolyn Klein’s steady direction keeps it from toppling over and the hugely talented cast leaps right into Stembridge’s complex world.

On one half of the stage is the home of Noel (Ira Amyx) and May (Molly Glynn), hard-working Dublinites. The other chunk of the stage belongs to Julian (Joseph Wycoff) and June (Sarah Wellington), a sleek English couple with a talent for, uh, unconventional finance. Noel invites the British couple over for dinner and to ask for a substantial loan. The invitation is returned five years later by Julian and June, who now need to ask the wealthy Noel for help. Drinks are poured, Irish-English tensions rise, and both couples find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

The lightening fast pacing is where That Was Then’s comedy is born. In an instant, we watch Noel transform from a drunk and crude brute to the upstanding sophisticate (one who invests in boy bands and buildings) he becomes. Julian and June go from haughty members of the upper class seeing how the other half lives to a couple on the brink of nervous breakdown. The leaps in time are surprisingly well-orchestrated—there were only a handful of moments where I was wondering whose party I was attending.

Every Seanachai show I’ve seen has been remarkably well-acted, and this one is no different. Amyx is hilarious as the brash Irishman and as the civil businessman. Wellington and Wycoff have a great chemistry playing and plotting off of each other. As the much-maligned May, Glynn possesses strength and humility. By the end, she becomes the most endearing character.

It’s fascinating to watch the difference between Julian’s and Noel’s marriages. Julian and June are on equal footing, even in running an unscrupulous business together. But Noel, even though he loves and cares for her, constantly harangues and belittles May, and refuses to let her know anything about his work. Seanachai bills Stembrudge’s play as a dark comedy, but it delves deeper than that. And if there is a victim in all this loaning, scheming, and spending, it is May.

For a story that plays on modern events that I’m not very familiar with, prejudices I don’t share, and countries I’ve never visited, I feel That Was Then is very relatable. I might not get the Michael Flatley jokes or completely understand the fiscal situation, but Stembridge writes universal themes and layered characters with wit and charm. The style is ingenious and captivating. Seanachai plucks drama out of global economics.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

Review: BWAAD: But What About Asian Dudes? (TheMASSIVE)

          
     

Pile-driving premiere fills stage with jubilant motion

     
     

BWADD-The-Massive

  
TheMASSIVE presents
  
BWAAD?
 
But What About Asian Dudes?: A Black Man’s Quest for Answers
  
Created and Directed by Kyle Vincent Terry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

More performance piece than play, this 65-minute inaugural offering by TheMASSIVE (whatever that means) is an impressive outpouring of mainly unprocessed energy and unearned emotion. Dancing up a tempest and emphatically earnest, the seven dancers in Kyle Terry’s debut show kinetically pursue a vaguely political credo of “movements through movement.” The result is some pretty contagious passion.

Their musical inspiration, pumped in as they pump up, comes from Kanye West, Selda, David Holmes, Sam Cooke, Keith Papworth, Mos Def, Flying Lotus and Gil Scott Heron. Between the driven dance pieces are snippets from interviews about racial identity and how much labels determine legitimacy in love and work. (Sometimes these unfounded and unsourced generalizations about Asian men and white women sound gratuitous and, worse, glib.) The overlapping sound makes the text occasionally hard to hear but the frenzy on stage is eloquence itself. “BWAAD?” is about true and false expectations based on skin and often anchored in ignorance or hope.

With the credo that “we steal from each other,” Terry and his troupe launch into a gleeful frenzy of inspired borrowing, illustrated by pull-down illustrations. Jarrett Kelly incarnates longing in his solo to Cooke’s “Laughin’ and Clownin,” while the ensemble spoof the vacuity of white folks with the vapid “Sunshowers” from Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Cavorting with back and front flips, some wizard aerobic movement, and some well-coordinated breakout jubilation, this company is combustible. They may not mean all that much but, if motion were argument, they’d win all sixteen of these dance dialogues.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
    
   

 

TheCAST

TheCREW

Kyle Vincent Terry - Director of BWAAD, by TheMASSIVE

Creator/Director Kyle Vincent Terry