Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)


Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’


Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

About Face Theatre presents
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

Rating: ★★½

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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Review: Woyzeck (The Hypocrites)


True to form, Sean Graney creates another ‘beautiful murder’


Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in Woyzeck at The Hypocrites

The Hypocrites present
Written by Georg Büchner
Directed by Sean Graney
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

When Georg Büchner dropped dead in 1837, he left behind a work-in-progress that has since been a powerful draw for artists and academics…and an even bigger pain in the neck for editors. The original script for Woyzeck–that’s an assumed title, by the way; Büchner never had the chance to choose one himself–was a scribbled hodgepodge of fragments and scenes chronicling a layman’s transformation into a killer written on unnumbered pages.

Lindsey Gavel (Marie, foreground) and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann, background) in The Hypocrites production of WOYZECK By Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Photo by Ryan Bourque.Performing the text as-is is not an option, at least not a compelling one. Producing this soldier story takes a heavy-hand, a willingness to make a directorial mark, and some serious cojones.

Enter Sean Graney.

The Hypocrites artistic director has developed a knack for bold theatre and ranks among the most exciting directors working in Chicago. Graney possesses the ability to unearth the hearts of classic texts and translate them to contemporary audiences by employing an arsenal of visceral elements. In this Woyzeck, he plays maestro–soundscapes, a dumb show, and music by Kevin O’Donnell help forward the plot and give body to heady expressionist ideas. His adaptation streamlines what Büchner left meandering. His rewrites, rearrangements, and omissions are always with clear purpose and are always for the better.

The title tragic hero, played by Geoff Button, is given the full Job treatment from his country, his colleagues and his wife. Subjected to inhumane medical experiments, degrading work conditions and an ungrateful spendthrift spouse, Woyzeck descends into desperation. His misery is amplified by the production’s wry, cruelly detached sense of humor–his child is literally presented as dead weight: a rock.

Visually, it’s captivating. Tom Burch’s set design juxtaposes nature with biohazard plastics in a vast and functional playing space. Dangerous elements get the richest, most appealing colors–appropriate for a show whose characters find beauty in destruction.

The Hyprocrites allow us to pity the tormented protagonist while alienating us just enough to objectively consider the morality of his and our resentment toward his adulteress wife (Lindsey Gavel). Added repetition in dialogue and gestures conveys the soldier’s ability to endure anguish for the people he loves, and suggests a breaking point may be the only solution for escaping the hellish loop of giving-without-return; suggests, but doesn’t dictate. The specific tragic end Graney chooses for his doomed young man leaves some questions open-ended. Unlike in Büchner’s text, they’re the right kind.

Rating: ★★★½

Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck).

All photos by Ryan Bourque

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Review: Maybe in a Moment (Thresholds Theatre Arts)


Simple poetry makes production profound and relevant



Thresholds Theatre Arts Program presents
Maybe in a Moment
Directed by Marti Szalai-Raymond
at Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Every year Thresholds Theatre Art Program brings together Chicago theater professionals and individuals with mental illness to craft an original show that explores mental illness’s impact through song, poetry, movement, monologues and story theatre. Members of Thresholds’ programs enjoy a therapeutic and artistic outlet for their stories, to express what it is like to suffer mental illness and their audiences receive an education as to its tangible realities. However, under Artistic Director Marti Szalai-Raymond’s direction and development, Thresholds’ latest show, Maybe In a Moment doesn’t just have educational benefit for general audiences. It’s actually a substantial and poetic piece, quite reminiscent of 60’s experimental theater. The cast pulls together with teamwork and grace, putting across simply profound and revelatory moments.

If anything, Maybe In a Moment is about surviving and experiencing each day, no matter what the day might bring. Songs and poems tap into basic needs—to love and be loved, to feel connected to community, to be accepted and appreciated, to live without shame, secrecy, fear or stigma. Though their difficulties may be unique to their own individual lives, Thresholds members still serve up a heaping helping of the human condition. The production’s story theatre style allows most to have their moment to express an element essential to their personalities. “If you have a gift and you don’t share it, it’s no good,” declares one man. “I’d like to be remembered as somebody smarter than I am,” says another. “Today, I saw a new doctor,” says one man, expanding on his fear of the treatment he may face from a new and unfamiliar healthcare provider.

“We began development about 7 months ago,” says Szalai-Raymond, “Lots of writing exercises for people for whom writing is not their area of expertise—generating lots of story theater pieces.” Among them, we hear about one woman’s nervous breakdown over a lost chance at love; another woman’s journey of survival in a relationship with a Mafia thug; the sisterly relationship formed between two women rooming together with significantly different mental illnesses. Song and movement interspersed with each personal tale creates a convincing collage of experience, from strong a capella renditions of “I Did It My Way” to pop favorites, like “Stand By Me” and “There’s Always Gonna Be Another Mountain.”

“This year was our first time trying to bridge the hearing and deaf communities,” cites Szalai-Raymond. “Not all of our members are going to learn to sign in time for our opening. Some even have physical challenges for signing. So, it’s taken a lot of patience. Movement was a place where we could meet in the middle. Plus, this is our first time playing in Viaduct Theatre’s space. We didn’t even rehearse here before opening.” That’s not something that one could tell from the performance. If anything, the cast’s ensemble cohesiveness, in spite of an occasional mistake here and there, belies a family or community feeling of gentle respect.

Once Threshold’s production wraps up at Viaduct, it tours schools, churches, community centers, hospitals, national conferences and the like. Theirs is a message of hope, kindness and encouragement to heal any heart, challenged with mental illness or not.

Rating: ★★★

Maybe in a Moment continues through May 8th at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave., with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. (fyi: the Friday, April 29th show will be performed at the Woodstock Opera House). Tickets are $20, and can be purchased by phone (773-296-6024) or online through ticketweb


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