Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

Continue reading

Review: HE/SHE (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

A stark stage filled with robust emotion

  
  
Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren. Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.
  
  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
HE/SHE
  
Music by Robert Schuman and Leos Janáček
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $25-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Act One

  

Act Two

        
     Frauenliebe und Leben     The Diary of One Who Disappeared
            by Robert Schuman                             by Leos Janáček
         

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

She loves him.  He loves her.  A woman and man express the spectrum of emotions for loving the wrong person.  Chicago Opera Theater concludes its 2011 Spring Season with HE/SHE, a operatic tribute to obsessive loveDeviating from a traditional show, Chicago Opera Theater presents a concert experience.  In the first half, a mezzo-soprano sings in German Frauenliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann.  Following the intermission, a tenor sings in Czech The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leos Janáček.  The combination proves an intriguing and entertaining gender sing-off. It’s not just another he-sang/she-sang side of the same Jennifer Johnson Cano in story.  The pieces are totally separate but connected through the misery of mutual unrequited love.  HE/SHE passionately sings his/her heart out for the love of her/him.  

After the stunning spectacles of Death and the Powers (our review ★★★) and Medea (review ★★★★); the simplicity of the HE/SHE set-up startles initially: a piano; he or she.  There is no elaborate scenery, costumes or chorus.  The orchestra pit is empty.  It has a no-thrills send-off feel.  When the music starts, the stark stage fills up with robust emotion.  Jennifer Johnson Cano sings exquisitely the story of her man.  Cano shares the relational joys and pain with a controlled ‘this must be a dream’ desperation.  Cano poignantly sings about ‘staring into an empty world.‘  Her sadness permeates the audience with lingering despair.  It’s a powerful contrast to Joseph Kaiser.  Kaiser commandingly sings with a fury of intensity. An animated Kaiser thunders about the bewitching powers of a gypsy.  His emotional rant engages through to a climatic finale.  Brandy Lynn Hawkins (gypsy) and the off-stage voices of Lelia Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams aid the storytelling with sweet, haunting melodies.

For both segments, the back of the stage turns into a full-length movie screen.  Traditionally, supertitles are projected in snippets above the stage.  For HE/SHE, the supertitles become illustrations of the emotion.  For Frauenliebe und Leben, the supertitles are romantic, handwritten script.  They gradually appear and disappear in a montage of old fashion photographs.  The black and white photos beautifully Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.chronicle a woman’s life from childhood to marriage to death.  The Diary of One Who Disappeared  uses a chaotic, bold font.  The words are spliced onto lush, vibrant images of nature.  Within the abstract artistry, a ghostly woman sporadically appears.  Projection designer Hillary Leben effectively gives the audience snapshots of what’s going on inside the heads of the tormented lovers.

The entire show is accompanied by a solo pianist Craig Terry.  The uncomplicated choice continues to draw focus to the complex emotional singing.  In theory, the decision is simple and strong.  In reality, the Harris Theater’s concrete facade is an echo chamber.  Without an orchestra to provide a sound buffer, every cough, whisper, dropped program is an audible distraction.  Despite that unwanted soundtrack, HE/SHE boldly finishes off Chicago Opera Theater’s innovative season with a return to the basics: spectacular operatic singing!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
     

Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.

HE/SHE is sung in German with English supertitle and in Czech with English supertitles. Run Time: 90 minutes including one intermission

All photos by Liz Lauren 

   

Continue reading