REVIEW: Living Newspapers Festival (Jackalope Theatre)

A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie

 Living Newspapers - John Milewshi - phot by Ryan Bourque

Jackalope Theatre and Silent Theatre Company presents:

Living Newspapers Festival

Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Living Newspapers - AJ Ware - photo by Ryan Bourque So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.

Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.

Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.

The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.

There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.

Living Newspapers - Eric Prather - photo by Ryan Bourque The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.

The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.

 

Rating: ★★★

living-newspaper-poster

REVIEW: 24th Annual Young Playwrights Festival

The voices of the future are here.

 

YPF24 (2010)

January 7-31, 2010

Fridays and Saturdays @ 8:00 p.m.

Sundays @ 3:00 p.m.

special first preview performance on Thursday, January 7 @ 8:00 p.m.

Click here to purchase tickets

(All seats just $15 each)

 

review by Oliver Sava

The three works that comprise Pegasus Players‘ 24th Annual Young Playwrights Festival offer unique views on youth, mortality, and abuse, and were all written by high school students. Aided by professional writing mentors, the playwrights are given the opportunity to see their ideas take shape under the guidance of some of the city’s top directing, acting, and design talent. The results are positive across the board, but like any group of adolescents, maturity varies from script to script.

 


nowhere-people

The Nowhere People

Gabriella Bonamici‘s heartbreaking drama about widower Ernie (Benjamin Sprunger) and his mission to communicate with his dead wife, Ann, is the highlight of the evening, expertly directed by Kimberly Senior, who has steadily created a career around her ability to capture grief on stage (see: Timeline Theatre’s All My Sons and Next Theatre’s The Overwhelming). Luckily, Ernie’s neighbor Danny (Alice Wedoff) has a ghost of her own, and she’s been building a ghost-machine to open a portal to the spirit world and send it back. Bonamici’s script moves with fluidity and ease, filled with humor while never losing the gravity of the loss of a loved one on the human spirit. The script also handles exposition beautifully, gradually revealing essential information about the characters as the dramatic tension builds, and each discovery adds a new layer to the conflict. As landlord Sid (Michael Gonring) becomes increasingly concerned with Danny’s mental health and the ghost-machine’s uncanny ability to knock out the building’s power, Ernie has to decide between his own life and the answers he so desperately seeks. Sprunger and Wedoff have great chemistry, bonding through their joint experiences of loss and their common goal of reaching into the afterlife, and both actors are fully committed to the slightly far-fetched circumstances. The actors shine because of the script, a subtle yet powerful examination of the ghosts that haunt us all, and the extraordinary measures people go to escape the past.

 

Rating: ★★★½


 

 Roller Coaster

roller-coastTrapped atop a roller coaster, Effie (Rinska Carrasco) and Milo (Gonring) discover the unexpected connections they share while learning a bit about themselves. Gixiang Lee‘s hilarious script balances high school dramedy with a hefty load of cultural references that actually serve to flesh out the characters rather than simply give the piece an air of relevance. Effie enthusiastically singing Salt N’ Pepa’s "Push It" as they are elevated to the top of the coaster while Milo clings for dear life, terrified at what awaits below. Total opposites, but you know what they say about opposites. Lee’s script isn’t realistic, the Effie and Milo’s relationship is almost completely based on coincidence, but it is her fearlessness with the comedy that makes the piece so memorable. Milo’s list of fears, ranging from heights to large rabbits to "the small but ever present threat of death from falling out of bed," is brilliant, and the T.P. Employee (Sprunger) that comes to their non-rescue is played with a ridiculousness that borders on caricature but works in the context of the play. The humor might not be the most sophisticated, but Lee creates sympathetic characters that are easy to root for, making Roller Coaster an excellent comedic piece with real heart.

 

Rating: ★★★


deliver-me

deliver me from evil

 

In therapy after being hospitalized for attempted suicide, Magdelina (Wedoff) reveals a history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted by her mother (Gilmary Doyle) in Kat Blackburn‘s deliver me from evil.The strain of past trauma begins to weigh on Magdelina’s relationship with girlfriend Soda (Caren Blackmore), and she must confront her demons in order to salvage the only loving relationship she has ever known. Petra (Carrasco), Edward (Gonring), and Jenny (Mildred Marie Langford) represent the childish, masculine, and feminine aspects of Magdelina’s tortured psyche, giving form to the poetry in her journal. These sequences, combinations of interpretive movement with symbolic imagery, have varying degrees of success. One particularly chilling entry features the four teens cutting together, the act taking on a communal nature reminiscent of ritual sacrifice, but at times the poetic sections feel a little too much like they were ripped from a teenager’s journal – angstful , angry, and lacking in maturity. The actor’s do a fine job with the material, but deliver feels the most like a play written by a high school student of the three.

Rating: ★★½

Theater Thursday: Review: Sketchbook Reincarnate (Collaboraction)

Honeybuns_2        
       

Sketchbook Reincarnate
 

Flat Iron Arts Bldg., 1579 N. Milwaukee (map)
thru July 15  |  tickets: $10-$20   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
        Read entire review
     

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Review: Oak Park Theatre Festival’s “Fifth of July”

The sequel to Wilson's acclaimed Talley's Folly, which was produced by Festival Theatre in 2007. Set in rural Missouri in 1977, it revolves around the Talley family and their friends, and focuses on the disillusionment with America in the wake of an unpopular war. At once poignent and marvelously funny, Fifth of July is a compassionate portrait of a generation trying to decide whether to abandon their past or find the courage to cope with it and to begin anew. In 1978 Fifth of July was nominated for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play and the Tony Award for Best Play. For 35 years, the Oak Park Theatre Festival has used its outdoor location to give their productions an authentic vibe and to allow their audiences to enjoy the summer weather while enjoying theatre. This works particularly well for staging Shakespearean works, which, after all, were originally produced in an open-air setting. In more recent years they have staged more modern plays in their slice of Austin Gardens’ park, carefully selecting plays that already have an outdoor setting, like William Inge’s “Picnic.” Set in the front rooms and yard of an old Missouri home, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July is a perfect fit for the festival’s aesthetic. Considering the production runs through June and July, it also helps that the play takes place on Independence Day and the morning following. The play is perfectly suited for a staging in a park, but the story and themes are muddled in their current production by some indecisive approaches to the play.

Fifth of July is part of a trilogy documenting the American experience of the Talley family living in Lebanon, Missouri, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, Talley’s Follies. The play takes place in 1977 and showcases the disillusionment of that era. The protagonist, Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Stef Tovar), is a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His sister, June Talley (Lydia Berger), was a former hippie and now is struggling as a single mom. Both of them find little to celebrate on Independence Day. They have a big gathering of family and friends, including their Aunt Sally (Kate Kisner) and married friends John and Gwen (Brandon Dahlquist and Rebekah Ward-Hays). The holiday festivities quickly sour when friends and family start bickering about jobs, custody, and the price of the Talley household.

5th of July - poster Pamela Maurer and Alexis Vejar’s set, basically a house with select cuts made in a few of the walls, makes great use of the surroundings. The setting allows for some great stage pictures; conversations could be happening in one area of the house while other characters can be chilling out on the porch or lawn, lighting up the entire space instead of just one corner.

While director Michael Weber succeeds at balancing the stage, he fails at telling a truly cohesive story. It was difficult for me to follow any particular narrative. Important plot points weren’t really served up in any way, voiding the production of an accessible story. Instead of juggling the multiple subplots while supporting Ken’s main story (a decision of whether or not to return to teaching at his old high school), all of the stories were muddled together and none of them came out fully formed. Most of the performances were decent, although some were too over-the-top. A problem that a couple of actors had, which also contributed to the garbled narrative, was synthesizing high emotional distress almost without warning. Instead of building the tension, characters would be chatting to one another and then one would be shouting or crying all of a sudden, which doesn’t work with Lanford’s script. A technical issue that might have added to this was that the set was littered with floor mics, which I suppose helped the actors’ voices compete with passing planes and cicadas, but they also amplified every step and door slam to a distracting level. It might be a necessary evil in order for the dialogue to be heard, but it also took a toll on the overall storytelling.

Still, the Oak Park Theatre Festival is a good time, and is especially suited to summer in Chicago. One thing I learned from the locals, though, is that you should bring plenty of wine, food, and bug spray. Enjoying theatre al fresco, even if it’s not of the highest caliber, is still its own fun experience.

Rating: ««½

 
Cast and Crew
Lydia Berger (June)
Danny Bernardo (Jed)
Brandon Dahlquist* (John)
Charles Gardner (Wes)
Glynis Gilio (Shirley)
Rebekah Ward-Hays (Gwen)
Kate Kisner (Sally)
Stef Tovar* (Ken)
Kieran Welsh-Phillips (u/s Gwen & June)
Director: Michael Weber*
Stage Manager: Robert W Behr*
Costume: Ricky Lurie
Lights: Jeremy Getz
Sound: Kyle Irwin
Set: El Fish
House Manager: Jeff Weisman
Box Office: Mary Liming
* denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

Stages 2009 – Calling all Musical Theatre devotees!!!

THEATRE BUILDING CHICAGO PRESENTS

STAGES 2009

 

the 16TH ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSICALS IN PROGRESS
Presented by Theatre Building Chicago
AUGUST 21-23, 2009

Especially for musical theatre junkies (and their friends) – Theatre Building Chicago presents STAGES 2009, a festival of 5 new musicals in progress, a new topical revue and 2 panel discussions Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, August 21-23, 2009.

The three-day musical extravaganza performs each new work twice in concert readings and studio presentations. Now in its 16th season, STAGES focuses on the development of new works of musical theatre.  The new works, in staged-reading format, include:

» SONGS IN THE KEY OF TODAY

  A new topical review of songs written specifically for STAGES. Works include numbers by Martin Charnin, George Stiles & Anthony Drew, Wally Harper and Sherman Yellen, Owen Kalt and Elizabeth Doyle and many other writers. Friday 7:30pm, Sunday 4pm (a pre-show reception at 6:30pm will be held before Friday’s performance)

» GIRL DETECTIVE

  Murder is hard. Adolescence is harder. Casey Ames, a teenager
transplanted from New York City to a small town in Pennsylvania, is
obsessed with becoming a detective. This musical explores the full
spectrum of teenage angst.  (Saturday 1pm, Sunday 4pm)

» HUNGER

  This American drama reveals the true history of intrepid settlers
who head west to fulfill their dreams but encounter a nightmare
of challenges that test their faith, spirit and their very souls.

» ON THE BRINK

  When an aging grandfather is confronted by Death in the form of Mr. Brink, he thwarts Mr. Brink’s plans by trapping him up a tree. With Mr. Brink unable to do his duty, no one can die. Mr. Brink works through the grandfather’s family and friends to try and convince the old man to free him and to restore the natural order.

» OPENING DAY

  A troubled Vietnam vet living with his sister is visited by an army buddy who dredges up the memories of a mutual comrade lost in a battle they both survived. This moving drama explores the themes of guilt, forgiveness, love and how we survive our own personal histories. (Saturday 1pm, Sunday 4pm)

» SONG POEMS WANTED! THE MUSICAL

  Song poems are the vanity publishing side of the music  recording industry. The musical features dozens of actual song poems (such as Aliens Stole My Dog) and tells the stories of a song poem composer and the everyday people who submit
their poetry for “consideration”. (Saturday 4pm, Sunday 7pm)

Panel discussions (available to all ticket-holders)

Writing Theatre for Young Audiences – Saturday August 22nd 10:00 AM
Learn what elements make imaginative and engaging theatre for children. What are the special considerations and specific responsibilities in writing material for young audiences? Writers and producers who specialize in this audience share their experiences, trade secrets and vision for the craft.

Understanding Intellectual Property Rights – Sunday August 23 – 10:00 AM
Experts in the field will speak on the intricacies and legal  issues regarding adaptations, obtaining rights, paying for  the underlying rights and what is a reasonable fee. What is public domain?  Privacy laws regarding what you can and cannot use regarding real people and events in new works.

STAGES 2009 tickets are now on sale at the box office: 773-327-5252
and Ticketmaster 1-800-982-2787 (www.ticketmaster. com)

For more info, including personnel and performer’s names, ticket pricing, performance location, transportation, and interview possibilities for the press, click on “Read more”

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