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.

  
  

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Review: The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (Remy Bumppo)

     
     

Albee tragedy hits all the notes, but not always in tune

     
     

Martin (Nick Sandys) stands helplessly by as wife Stevie (Annabel Armour) mourns the loss of their perfect marriage in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
    
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
      
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What an amazing season for Edward Albee fans, as three of his most groundbreaking and influential works have played at some of the city’s most esteemed theaters. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the classic about the lies a couple tells to keep their dying love – saw a brilliant revival at Steppenwolf, featuring a terrifyingly dominant George played with ferocity by Tracy Letts. The Charles Newell-directed Three Tall Women at Court gorgeously exposed the hopes and regrets of one woman’s life, and starred three stunning actress particularly skilled at capturing the musicality and poetry of Albee’s script. Now Remy Bumppo joins the fray with The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Albee’s tragedy about one man’s love for a goat and the cataclysmic damage it inflicts on his perfect marriage.

Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Lies, hopes, regrets, secrets – these are the universal ideas that Albee operates with, but his plays are genius because of their specificity in plot and style. The game George and Martha play in Woolf, the fluid, interwoven recollections of A, B, and C in Women, and the utter physical destruction of Sylvia are all precisely structured to maximize the impact of their themes. George and Martha’s lie deceives the audience, the memories of the tall women are mirrors of the human experience, and the ruins of Martin (Nick Sandys) and Stevie’s (Annabel Armour) living room represent the devastating effects sexual secrets have on a marriage, bestial or otherwise.

Albee has often compared writing to composing music, and his plays have a specific rhythm in the dialogue that sets the cadence for the action: Woolf tense and discordant like a Bernard Herrmann movie score, Women delicate and aching as a Beethoven sonata, and Sylvia an explosive Wagnerian epic. Dynamics and articulation change, themes are passed around characters like sections of an orchestra. This specificity requires exceptionally skilled actors to capture the complexity of the script, and while Remy Bumppo’s cast of actors plays with passion and commitment, sometimes they have trouble finding the beat.

The opening scene finds Martin preparing for an interview with his good friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) as Stevie tidies up the living room. The couple jokes about Martin’s failing memory, acts out a Noel Coward pastiche – the perfect picture of a happy marriage, except for the unsavory scent of barn in the air. The British Sandys speaks in an American dialect that occasionally wavers during the quiet moments, like the opening scene, but while distracting, it is not the main problem with the start of the show. There’s an ease to the dialogue that the actors haven’t quite found, and that ease helps cultivate a sense of familiarity and comfort between the husband and wife. Martin and Stevie are accustomed to the wordplay and good-humored jokes of their repartee, but Sandys and Armour have difficulty finding the scene’s relaxed pace. The quiet moments are the most difficult for the cast, but they become stronger as the actors begin to expound their energy in the later scenes, using the rare instances of calm to get a much needed breather.

     
Billy (Will Allan) and Stevie (Annabel Armour) struggle to accept the reality of Martin's betrayal in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.   Martin (Nick Sandys) tries to comfort troubled son Billy (Will Allan) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) confronts Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Martin struggles to get through his interview with Ross, showing little pride or enthusiasm for his architectural achievements and displaying a guarded detachment that forces Ross to probe into the source of his unease. When Ross learns about Martin’s affair with Sylvia, a goat, the play switches into a heightened emotional mode that the actors are most comfortable in. Mitchell’s combination of disgust and disbelief is spot on, while Sandys begins to show the tortured, conflicted soul of Martin’s character. And when Ross sends Stevie a letter detailing Martin’s affair, their lives are shattered beyond repair. All three of the mentioned plays have these breaking points, but they are never the climax of the play: Martha mentions their son, A/B/C disowns her son for being gay, and Ross sends Stevie the letter. After the breaking, the characters are vulnerable enough that Albee can strip them down and reveal their deepest wants and fears.

Annabel Armour shows remarkable depth as she navigates Stevie’s breakdown, portraying a woman whose defenses are slowly worn away as she realizes she isn’t strong enough to hold her marriage together. She finds herself in a situation she could never conceive, her husband now a sexually deviant stranger. Armour and Sandys find the show’s rhythm in the chaotic second scene, one of the best in contemporary theater, spanning the entire emotional spectrum and sparking intense, intellectual debate about sexuality, marriage, and love. Albee takes the extramarital affair to its extreme, and the characters’ honest, painful reactions resonate even stronger in the absurd circumstances. Armour’s deterioration is heartbreaking, recalling her marriage’s joyous past in the context of its sordid present, and lashing out violently as Martin elaborates on the history of his relationship with Sylvia.

Upturning furniture and smashing pottery, Stevie turns the living room into a physical representation of her marriage, as each new revelation from Martin is another dagger in her side. Going back to the music metaphor, when the characters have the melody, during those big moments when everyone is at a forte, the James Bohnen directed Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. production achieves greatness. Stevie has a series of powerful monologues that Armour performs flawlessly, culminating in a series of screams that will give audience members goosebumps. The main conflict succeeds because Martin truly loves both his wife and Sylvia, and Sandys is completely believable in his affections. He performs his monologues with conviction and truth, and it’s easy to see how Stevie could fall in love with such a passionate man. And then you realize he’s talking about sex with a goat.

After Stevie and Martin duke it out, their seventeen year old son Billy (Will Allan) suffers a breakdown of his own, as his parents’ collapsing marriage coincides with his own sexual crisis. There’s a tension in Allen’s physicality that may be a character choice, but is ultimately a distracting one as he occasionally appears uncomfortable and stiff. In light of his father’s attitude toward his homosexuality, Billy reacts to his father’s affair with an appropriate mix of fury and repulsion, but the disturbing shift in Billy and Martin’s relationship is natural because of Sandys and Allen’s chemistry. When Ross returns, Mitchell enters at a lower emotional level than his costars, but he is able to reach their level of intensity by the time Stevie reenters. The play’s final moments build to a stunning release of emotion, and the actors hit all the right notes for the tragic end. As the 100-minute long demolition of a family concludes, the audience is left with a slew of questions regarding the nature of human sexuality, which may be the best part of an Albee play. Long after the production has ended, it’s themes resonate and resurface when we least expect them, because of the powerful experience within the theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Martin (Nick Sandys) comforts son Billy (Will Allan) in a moment of turmoil while family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) looks on.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? continues through May 8th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, with performances Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30-$45, and can be purchased online, or by calling 773-404-7336. For more info, go to www.remybumppo.org.

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Review: Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland)

  
  

An intense, poignant examination of harsh reality of war

  
  

Stuart Martin (Nabsy) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland present
   
Black Watch
  
Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by John Tiffany
at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (map)
through April 10  | 
tickets: $38-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Theater and war are two of humanity’s oldest institutions, but rarely do the two come together with as much emotional force as playwright Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. In the gym of the Broadway Armory, the soldiers of Scotland’s senior infantry regiment Black Watch relive their time in Iraq as a writer interviews them about their experiences in the Middle East. Probing the emotional and mental effects of war on the soldiers, Burke’s script is a deeply powerful look at the history of the Scottish regiment, and captures all the tension, danger, and ennui of their recent campaign in Iraq. Enemy combat is rarely seen, with the play focusing on the conflicts amongst the troops and within the soldiers’ minds, creating a brutally honest portrayal of the horrors of war. Incorporating music, movement, and video, director John Tiffany creates a visceral, multi-sensory experience that will shake audience members to their core, and not just because of the booming sound system. Black Watch is the type of play that shows the transcendent, transformative power of theater, and kudos to Chicago Shakespeare for bringing this play to our city.

Scott Fletcher (Kenzie) and Jamie Quinn (Fraz) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.Black Watch begins with six soldiers awaiting the arrival of a female writer in a pub, disappointed to learn that they will be interviewed by a male writer (Paul Higgins), who becomes the target of their especially harsh brand of derogatory humor. Once the men settle down, they begin to share their memories, switching into their army fatigues and Tam o’Shanters with the characteristic red hackle as the play moves from the bar to the battlefield. Beyond showing the day-to-day trials of the division, Burke provides political and historical context throughout the play, and gives the play an epic scope that still retains a profoundly human element in the script.

The war in Iraq remains a hot-button issue in the U.S., and a press conference between two conflicting politicians is a familiar sight to anyone that watched the presidential debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections. Despite the Scottish dialects and setting, it is easy to relate to Burke’s script, and that connection is what makes Black Watch such a powerful production. The history of the Black Watch regiment is shown through a fantastic sequence where Private Cammy (Jack Lowden) is stripped down and outfitted in the various uniforms of the regiment as he describes their past. The flawless execution of the technically difficult scene is representative of the production as a whole. Lowden is flipped, twisted, and turned by his colleagues as they dress him in the black kilt of the original Black Watch, then continue to strip and redress him until he is wearing the contemporary uniform. Their precision and speed is impressive, and by the end of the scene Lowden has given the most visually dynamic history lesson I’ve ever had the experience of sitting through.

Black Watch doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure, but rather gives short, concentrated looks at the soldiers’ Iraq experiences that are broken up by abstract movement sequences that build on the thematic themes of the piece. The soldiers’ opinions of American soldiers, suicide terrorism, and the reasons they fight (porn and petrol, of course) are depicted with truth and humor, with Burke especially succeeding in bringing the latter to the war-heightened drama. This is a very funny play, and the comedy is often offensive and crude, but these are soldiers on the front lines in the Middle East. Any chance to see them smile is appreciated. The men tell jokes, fantasize about the take-out they’ll eat when they get home, and read half-paperbacks of “Laurence of Arabia”, all to make the desert bearable. The older men of the unit, Officer (Ian Pirie) and Sergeant (Higgins), don’t share their subordinates’ naïve ability to find joy in the bleak environment, and they serve as the catalysts for the production’s movement sequences, which reveal the emotional undercurrents of the daily routines.

Cameron Barnes (Macca) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the play’s most powerful moment, after Officer recites an e-mail sent to his wife, a soldier enters, sorting through a stack of envelopes, looking for the one addressed to him. As he opens the letter, he stops, and another soldier enters, takes the stack, and repeats. One by one each member of Black Watch finds the letter addressed to him, stops, reads, and then begins an intricate movement cycle that is full of delicate affection but teeming with a sad sense of longing. It must be seen to truly feel its emotional power, but the image of the ten men, built up as pillars of masculinity up to this point, engaging in a shared moment of tender unity is hauntingly beautiful, especially when some of them will never see the faces belonging to those letters again. Associate director of movement Steven Hoggett incorporates elements of modern dance to make this scene especially gentle, and he later combines dance with fight choreography to portray a set of emotions on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

When a fight breaks out between Private Granty (Richard Rankin) and new recruit Kenzie (Scott Fletcher) in the back of the wagon, Sergeant has the two settle their dispute in a ten second brawl. The clock counts down on the video screens, hitting Paul Higgins (Writer/Sergeant) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.zero but restarting as the fighting continues, spreading through the other soldiers of the regiment like a virus. The choreography is extremely physical and the actors perform impeccably, building in intensity until the clock finally strikes blood red, an ominous warning of tragedy to come. After this point the soldiers no longer wear street clothes when speaking to Writer, and their army uniforms blur the lines of past and present. These are the moments when the PTSD comes out, when the violent outbursts and crippling depression happen. These are the symptoms of the disease called war, and, as Officer says, “For some of us, it’s in the blood.”

Black Watch ends with the soldiers marching in a parade of regimental solidarity backed by thunderous drums and bagpipes, and with the intense echo of the Broadway Armory, the volume reaches rock concert levels. As the music grows louder they march across the stage, helping any fallen men back to their feet, always returning to two lines of five soldier arms-width apart,. Their exactness in formation makes physical the strong emotional bonds built over the course of the play, and the roar of the music vibrates through the floor and into the crowd. The pride of the troop is now the pride of an audience, a brotherhood of theatergoers united by one magnificent production.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

All photos by Manuel Harlan

        
        

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REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

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REVIEW: The Observatory (Viable Theatre Company)

     
    

Treading lightly on show’s darkest themes

     
    

 

The Observatory by Vincent Truman

 
Viable Theatre Company presents
   
The Observatory
  
Written/Directed by Vincent Truman
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton  (map)
through Dec 18   |  tickets: $12-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

As necessary a play as The Observatory is, far better to consider it a work in progress than an actual finished product. Viable Theatre Company has mounted it at the Charnel House where its very stark and simple surroundings reflect the writing exactly—a great idea in need of further in-depth development.

Playwright/Director Vincent Truman and assistant directly Angela Jo Strohm bring us the tale of David (Colin Fewell) and Sally (Kasey O’Brien), a young married couple renting out their attic for sorely needed extra cash. The thing is, they rent it out to the government in order to create an “observatory,” a place from which David is contracted to keep eye on a stranger held in detention as part of the War on Terror. Imprisoned in solitary The Observatory by Vincent Truman 2confinement at an unknown location, a 3-D hologram image of the detainee is to be beamed into their attic for David to watch and await a confession. CIA program director Victor (Vincent Truman) reassures David there will be no torture–but David is under contract to not disclose anything he has observed with anyone, including his wife. Also, Sally must never enter the attic when the hologram is being beamed in. Sally and David accept these conditions in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in return.

Sally already voices qualms about the ethics of David quitting his teaching job and becoming an observer but her consternation really begins once curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the new observatory when the hologram is on. There, she finds David watching a young and attractive female prisoner, Marissa (Kate Lane). From then on, their marriage deteriorates due to Sally’s jealousy and David’s inability to keep his stultifying job as an observer from overtaking his entire life. David’s sexual interest in Marissa grows and their relationship intensifies once he discovers that, from some technological snafu, they can actually communicate with each other.

Given that America has been sucked into a moral morass over torture and indefinite detention, a hellhole from which the Obama administration will not extricate us or even ameliorate, a play like The Observatory couldn’t be timelier. However, Truman’s writing focuses more on the sexual interest between David and Marissa rather than taking bigger risks and digging deeper into his dangerous material. Private Bradley Manning, currently held at Quantico, VA for delivering thousands of government documents to Wikileaks, now shows signs of mental deterioration due to the same solitary confinement conditions that Marissa endures during the play. Lane’s intensity in her portrayal of Marissa is laudable but lacks nuance, given the psychological stress solitary confinement works on the human mind.

Likewise, the play leaves the rest of its characters functioning at a 2-dimensional level and its resolution also strikes exceedingly simplistic moral chords. It’s almost as if the playwright had a failure of nerve, willing to open up torture’s sadistic can of worms but too scared to plunge in. The result is a light skate on top of The Observatory’s frozen surface, where we can still imagine ourselves distant and untouched by the ugliness beneath.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

  
 

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REVIEW: I Am My Own Wife (Boho Theatre)

Peter Robel shows grace & poise in this exquisite one-man show

my-own-wife

Boho Theatre presents:

I Am My Own Wife

 

By Doug Wright
Co-Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese
Thru February 13th (ticket info)

Review by Aggie Hewitt

Watching a one-man show is as terrifying as watching Philippe Petit walk on a high wire between the Twin Towers. At any moment he can come crashing down, flailing and unstoppable, leaving the audience with a bloody mess that they never asked for. When someone chooses that kind of undertaking, they make an oath to their audience. They say, “I promise not to fall. I promise you I can do this.” A one-man show is dangerous. Not in an artsy way, where it’s so provocative that it’s very existence is dangerous, it’s dangerous because it can be so embarrassing. The actor has nothing to hide behind. Even with a spectacularly written show, like Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is, no amount of great writing is going to stop an actor from becoming Tobias Funke if he derails mid-performance. Sometimes people go to the theater for a grown-up version of a rollercoaster: with every rise and fall of the actors ability one can feel their body tense with the fear of witnessing something truly shameful. That doesn’t happen at Boho Theatre, where Peter Robel, playing all the 35+ characters makes it all the way across the high wire, with such grace and poise that you will forget to be scared at all.

wife I Am My Own Wife was originally created by Doug Wright, with developmental help from Moises Kaufman and the actor Jefferson Mays. It explores the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as she survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and Doug Wright’s obsession with her. The play has that lovely, sad bookishness of a Moises Kaufman play, and his presence is felt in the narrative. The scenes taken from real transcripts of interviews between Doug and Charlotte have a documentary feel to them, a feeling that is almost academic. It’s Doug Wright’s love of learning about Charlotte, and not his love of Charlotte herself that makes this play an intellectual treat. The more you learn about Charlotte, the more you want to fact check yourself, to learn everything possible about this enigmatic character. When the lights come up at the end of the second act, the only thing you know for sure about Charlotte is that you want to learn more about her. What better way for a biographical piece to end?

All of this great writing would fall flat however if it were not being presented by a great actor. With something as audacious as a one-man show, the last thing you’d expect an actor to do is to take back seat to the story, but that is exactly what Peter Robel does in this performance. During the course of what must be an exhausting show, Peter Robel never once stops to let you see him working. His acting textbook pure; it’s as if Uta Hagen came down from heaven and instructed him in great storytelling. Since I assume she didn’t, a lot of credit probably goes to co-directors Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese.

The play works so well because even though Peter Robel’s performance is as amazing as watching a marathon runner pushing himself past normal human capacity for endurance, each choice that is made ultimately serves the play. The reason that this one-man show isn’t embarrassing is that it’s a great story, told by smart people. Every mind that went into this production, from Doug Wright to John Zuiker, who designed lovely and elegant set was focused on telling a simply and well-crafted story. This is a production that proves that when integrity is in the intentions, wonderful theater can be achieved.

Rating: ★★★★