Review: Watership Down (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A hopping fantasy adventure

 
  

Hazel-rah (Paul S. Holmquist) and his warren - Watership Down

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
  
  
Watership Down   
   
  
Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by
Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $20-$35   |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Having not read Richard Adamscritically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea As told in legend, El-ahrairah (Paul S. Holmquist, right), Prince of Rabbits, and Rabscuttle (Scott T. Barsotti, left) enter the burrow of the Black Rabbit of Inlé on a quest to save their people; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Watership Down,” adapted by John Hildreth, directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth, based on the bestselling novel by Richard Adams. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.

Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.

Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).

The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).

Scott T. Barsotti as Fiver (left) and Paul S. Holmquist as Hazel (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down".  (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.

In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.

Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jesse Manson as Kehaar (left) and Christopher M. Walsh as Bigwig (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down". (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: Slaughter City (Jackalope Theatre)

  
  

Disciplined, persuasive production nobly delves into tough subjects

     
     

Ryan Heindl in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

  
Jackalope Theatre presents
   
  
Slaughter City
    
  
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kaiser Ahmed
at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Naomi Wallace is a committed playwright. She wants her audiences to be equally so, to meet her stories more than half way. Poetic vignettes that defy any consistent time frame, these two hours and twenty minutes of archetypal scenes focus on a packing house in a Brechtian-like factory called Slaughter City.

Ryan Heindl and Kristin Anderson in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope TheatreBut that’s as much focus as you get. Mostly the play offers glimpses of the ongoing struggle of the labor movement to be honored, as in fairly compensated, for the work that made America, not just plutocrats, prosper. Wisconsin is only the latest scene of a battle for the soul of America, which is the decency it shows its workers. Fittingly, Jackalope Theatre’s disciplined and persuasive production does it justice.

Wallace offers scenes and work songs of workers and some scabs agitating for a new contract in a slaughterhouse that gives them 20-minute breaks, scars from numerous cuts, premature arthritis, blood poisoning—and meager wages. Presiding over this most recent struggle are avatars from past ones: Cod is the androgynous Irish descendant of a woman who jumped to her death to avoid the flames in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers behind locked doors over a century ago. In a deal with the devil, namely, the symbolic Sausage Man, emblematic of management, Cod survived but now must engage in every labor conflict from 1910 to the present. (Alas, it’s too nebulous, quixotic and precious a concept to really strike home.)

The specific workers in this latest showdown matter more. They slice up imaginary meat as their boss, Mr. Baquin, practices sexual harassment, improbably insisting on cleanliness despite the abattoir’s appalling conditions. The kill-floor is a seething pit of racial tension, class conflicts, and clandestine romance. All the time these exploited toilers must decide between the kind of solidarity that Cod embodies or the way of death suggested by the Sausage Man.

Kaiser Ahmed’s painstaking (and pains-giving) staging delivers memorable performances—Ryan Heindl’s doomed dyslexic kid, Kristin Anderson’s feisty rebel, Warren Feagins as a guilt-ridden supervisor, Anne Sears as an innocent fire victim, John Milewski as the twisted owner, AJ Ware as conflicted Cod, and Jack McCabe as the sinister Sausage Man. (I’d add Katherine Swan to the list but, lacking any projection, her mush-mouthed Maggot dropped too many lines to register on the stage.)

Discursive and fragmentary, Slaughter City hardly invites its audience to any feast of reason. Like Brecht, Wallace means to keep us at a distance. It’s not clear why: The choice between Cod and the Sausage Man is too obvious for this kind of detachment. Notwithstanding the play’s confusing concepts, Jackalope’s commanding dedication to a difficult story and subject deserves accolades, particularly during hard times where yesterday’s advocacy damnably doesn’t seem to work.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Butchering the carcasses in "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

Slaughter City, by Naomi Wallace, continues at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 4th, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:30pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-340-2553) or online here.  For more information, visit www.jackalopetheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: The Last Saint on Sugar Hill (MPAACT)

     
     

A new modern tragedy classic is born

  
  

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

  
MPAACT presents
  
  
The Last Saint on Sugar Hill
   
Written by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Carla Stillwell
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It is a privilege to see new theater works from the outset. MPAACT’s production of The Last Saint on Sugar Hill is one of those rare privileged moments in time. This is destined to be a classic written by Keith Josef Adkins and directed by Carla Stillwell – Resident Director of MPAACT. Adkins opens the hot button issue of gentrification and those who profit from it for examination of motives and consequences.

The Pedigrew family lives a comfortable life in what remains of hardscrabble Harlem. The residence of former President Clinton, gourmet coffee, and wine shops threaten to change the landscape and remove the people who know no other home.

In a stunningly visceral performance, journeyman actor Trinity Murdock potrays the character of Napoleon Pedigrew, who presides over the last of the Harlem buildings gone to seed. I have seen Murdock in several roles on Chicago stages and he can be depended upon to play the neighborhood good guy or singing griot.

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. The role of Napoleon Pedigrew is rooted in ancient traditional tragedy and 20th Century social unrest. Playwright Adkins has carefully crafted a non-stereotypical role in Napoleon. I say that because it is an unflinching and honest look at what has been unspoken on the mainstream stage. Mr. Murdock presents a sociopath whose interests and wealth are literally ripped from the bodies and souls of those who are unfortunate enough to inhabit his buildings or contain his DNA.

The language is street raw and dismissive of political or societal correctness. There is no "N" word- it is nigger said with ferocity. At first, the rap that flows from Napoleon is pithy and comedic in the folksy style of that favorite or feared drunk relative. It is funny in the style of Richard Pryor performing for a Black audience. As the play barrels forward like a bullet, Napoleon Pedigrew’s words take on a frightening tilt. Here is a man who felt the spike of poverty and the chokehold of the underclass so keenly that his conscience snapped. Trinity Murdock plays this character laid bare and full of angry hubris. Napoleon brags of his knowledge from snippets of PBS to which he donates to give him the cache of current education. It is a bravura performance.

Napoleon Pedigrew’s sons are the vehicles for his parasitic real estate empire and the victims of his stranglehold on their memories. Mateo Smith plays the role of eldest son Dexter Pedigrew. Dexter was a promising med student who has been drawn into his father’s world of cracking heads for rent and unscrupulous methods to hide cheap or dangerous repairs. Mr. Smith gives a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a man who wants to please his father and somehow be of service to the neighborhood that is crumbling under his feet. Napoleon tells Dexter that he is a thug and it would be a waste of his talent to be a doctor.

Dexter’s childhood holds a traumatic event that pressed his humanity to the side at his father’s behest. Napoleon tells his son, "Thinking is for thinkers and you are a thug down to the bone." He pounds the thought into Dexter’s head that boxing is the greatest form of capitalism and one of the fringe benefits of his daddy’s sperm. Smith subtly recoils at each of the jabs from the father character. Each jolt builds in a slow and controlled simmer that is on an equally frightening steady boil at the climax of the play.

The youngest son Z is played by David Goodloe. At first Z seems to play into his father’s world of debauchery. He reduces women to asses, thighs, and panties. Mr. Goodloe is at first funny as the tail-chasing stud playing with his daddy’s money. His father has him under the control of the promise of being comfortable no matter what happens in the neighborhood. Z gleefully hits happy hour at the new fancy cigar bar to see how much sex he can rack up. It’s sad to know that his youth has been wasted on violence and sex as an education. Napoleon encourages the hedonism in misplaced elevation of how he can rule the world with money.

Goodloe’s performance evolves into a man discontented with what his life has become. His realization comes as a sudden jolt after the father is fully revealed as a monster. Goodloe fleshes out the Pedigrew dysfunction by playing an unwitting victim who was never taught to be a fully evolved and involved man. The cast is rounded out by Terry Francois and Sati Word in perfectly crafted motif roles that fill in the story. Mr. Francois plays a homeless man who becomes the living conscience for Dexter. It is a beautiful performance that never becomes maudlin. Sati Word is another MPAACT ensemble regular that I last saw in the highly-recommended Tad in the 5th City (my review). He plays medical resident Joseph who reminds Dexter of his potential and responsibility to himself and his community. He represents another facet of Dexter’s conscience. Mr. Word is an engaging presence that I would love to see in a showcased role.

It should be noted that opening night was full of local actors and friends of the cast. I found it unsettling that they kept laughing long after it became obvious that Napoleon Pedigrew believed all of his egotistical folksy ravings. He meant that he would cut the heads off of his children if it would get him what he wanted. I felt great sorrow when Napoleon stated," America is trying to kill us Black men. We are an endangered species scrambling for our own crumbs. The only way to stop the watchful eye of The Man is to sit on a throne of cash!" Like any great art, there is painful or recognizable truth contained in the words, notes, or brushstrokes. It seems as if they have not seen much of the life they portray on the stage and I felt that it was very disrespectful of their fellow actors.

This show is something that should be put on your viewing schedule. It is entertaining but also a telling social commentary about how business gets done in America. Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump are just the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Also, Trinity Murdock’s performance is not to be missed. Bravo!

     
    
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

MPAACT’s The Last Saint on Sugar Hill continues through June 12th at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Clark), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $23, and can be purchased from the MPAACT website.

  
  

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Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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