Review: Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet (Shattered Globe)

  
  

Who will play your Romeo? Who will be your Juliet?

  
  

Dion Rice (Romeo) and Alice Pacyga (the Nurse) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues.  (Photo: Kevin Viol)

   
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
  
  
Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet
   
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Roger Smart
at various Chicago locations (see below)
through July 17  |  tickets: $18   |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Where art thou Romeo?’  Well, Juliet, last time I saw him, he was on the 94th floor of the Hancock….

Shattered Globe Theatre presents Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet.  Shakespeare’s greatest love story ever told is being told in various locales around the city.  The Montagues and Capulets hate each other.  Their family feud is the town’s gang problem.  For fun, the Montagues crash the Capulets’ house party. It’s just a silly prank until Romeo falls hard for the host’s daughter.  But he’s not alone in enemy territory, Juliet is equally smitten.  Their forbidden love unites them in fatal ecstasy.  Christina Gorman (Lady Capulet) and Angie Shriner (Juliet) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues.  (Photo: Kevin Viol)The story is familiar.  The surroundings may not be.  Shattered Globe takes Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ to heart and hits the road.  Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet is a classic to go!

The unique experience starts upon arrival.  At check-in, the audience must pick a side.  Each guest is literally labeled Montague or Capulet.  A cheat sheet of Shakespearian insults is issued to help the discord mood.  Guests are encouraged to concoct personalized abuse from piecing together four columns of choices.  My favorite is ‘grow unsightly warts thou puking maggot-pie.’  It’s all a part of a build-your-own-adventure theme.  Before the show starts, actors are introduced with their potential parts.  By applause and cheers, the audience decides on the starting line-up.  Roles are assigned and the action starts immediately.  There’s no curtain, stage or fourth wall separating the drama from reality.  The story unfolds in between tables.  Because they are wearing street clothes, it’s impossible to tell the actors from the audience. At the Capulet’s dance party, it’s a blur of family enemies and non-acting revelry.  The interactive experience is a surreal engagement. 

Under the direction of Roger Smart, the show is tightly paced professionalism. It’s an impressive surprise. The informality around the show, before it starts and during intermission, seems to indicate a more loose affair.  The charades-in-the-living-room comfy vibe is sidelined as the first line cues up the polished acting.  The Shakespearean prose is delivered with conversational passion. On the night I attended, the doomed lovers were Behzad Dabu (Romeo) and Melissa Nedell (Juliet). Dabu and Nedell have all the youthful innocence of love at first sight: charming, lusty, slightly clumsy flirtation. Their sweet synergy produces a hopeful optimism for a possible different story outcome. The entire cast fights, dances, dies with zesty commitment. Despite the obvious rehearsed mastery, there is still an improv twist.  An actor will interface with an audience member as in conversation or just by stealing a sip of beer.  During my performance, a young girl was coughing during Lord Capulet’s (Brad Woodward) monologue.  With a perfectly uttered ‘we are all dying’ line, Woodward cracks the house up.  Alice Pacyga (Nurse) is hilarious delivering some sass while chomping down at the refreshment table.

Dion Rice (Romeo) interacts with audience member (Balthasar) in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues. (Photo: Kevin Viol)The Hancock provided incomparable scenery to the Shakespearean tragedy. The sunset magnificently filled the room with a vibrant glow. Although missing its earlier line cue, the moon did finally rise beautifully over the lake. In the background, the city shimmered into its evening wear adding an urban enchantment. It looks stunning but it sounds not so attractive. The only issue with the Hancock locale is the noise level. The show utilizes the Observatory’s café for the production. It’s not closed to the non-theatre public. Unfortunately, the chatter is most distracting at very tender moments when the actors use softer voices. Because the tale is legendary, the issue doesn’t poison the overall effect. It just annoyingly stabs it… several times. Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet is an entertaining one-of-a-kind theatrical experience…every show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
    
   

Performance Times and Locations (more to come)

        
Monday, May 16th, 7:30pm
Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan
Tickets only $3 
Buy Tickets
  Thursday, May 19th, 7:00 PM
The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway
Tickets: $18 
Buy Tickets
            
Sunday, May 22nd, 7:30pm 
Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan  
Tickets: $18
Buy Tickets
  Tuesday, May 24th, 7:00pm
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets $18
Buy tickets
       
Sunday, May 29th, 7:00pm
Justins, 3358 N. Southport  
Tickets: $18
Buy Tickets
   July 17th, 24th and 31st
Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
Times and Tickets: TBA

Angie Shriner (Juliet) and Dion Rice (Romeo) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues. (Photo: Kevin Viol)Running Time:  Two hours and fifteen minutes includes an intermission

  
  

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Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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Review: Eurydice (Filament Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Beautifully poetic, yet occasionally off key

     
     

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

 

Filament Theatre Ensemble Presents

 
Eurydice
 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Julie Ritchey
Original music by Peter Oyloe and Shannon Bengford
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport (map)
thru May 29  |  tickets: $10-$35 sponsorship |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Sarah Ruhl’s work can be seen all over Chicago this year, from The Court’s Orlando—to The Goodman’s premiere of Stage Kiss opening in May. All the while, she is not only being staged in our big name venues, but also in the fringe with Filament Theatre Ensemble’s remount of her 2003 play, Eurydice (in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate). And rest assured, the Pilsen space of the Lacuna Lofts is pure fringe with its unfinished, exposed and vacant expanse. It’s the type of building that’d be perfect for hide-n-seek, or the filming location for the next movie in the Hostel series. In this instance, director Julie Ritchey’s production, and Ruhl’s text, has something in common with the space, in that it is visually interesting, ignites curiosity, but in the end, it’s mostly empty.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, you’ll not be out of the loop, as Ruhl extracts the more romantic and sentimental aspects, expounding on them in a contemporary fashion. The play opens with Orpheus (Peter Oyloe) and Eurydice (Carolyn Faye Kramer) in 1950’s swimsuits (costumed pitch-perfect by Mieka van der Ploeg). His love is so boundless that he offers her the world, literally, by giving her the sea, the sky and the stars. The only two thoughts ever on his mind are Eurydice and music, for Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world. After some lovely staging by Ritchey in the opening scene, Orpheus ties a string around Eurydice’s finger to which she responds amusingly, “That’s a very particular finger.” And so, the worry-free couple is to be wed.

Eurydice’s father (played with great heart by Patrick Blashill), is dead, yet he successfully manages to get a letter sent to Eurydice from the underworld. In a chain of events related to the letter, and ‘A Nasty Interesting Man’ (Nathan Pease), she takes a tumble to her death. And thus, she is transferred to the underworld, by way of a raining elevator version of the River Styx. Here we meet our chorus of three stones (played with dedicated physicality by Ted Evans, Brandon Cloyd and Ashley Alvarez), who unfortunately come off more annoying in their childishness than anything else.

The rest of the narrative plays out much the same as any version of the myth, as Orpheus gains entry to the underworld in search of Eurydice. However, in Ruhl’s imagining, there is a certain “through the rabbit hole” element to the underworld. Nothing is as it seems, everyday objects have lost their meaning, and it is a world void of emotion. Ruhl also takes her time to languish in stripping meaning from words like “father” and “love.” She writes a wonderfully lyrical monologue in a letter from Orpheus to Eurydice in which he ponders, “Eurydice is dead….who is Eurydice?…what are people?”

The direction and acting in Ritchey’s production is decidedly set in the two-dimensional, which in part works well with the Greek morality tradition. While it highlights Ruhl’s wit and verse, it sacrifices some of the heart and what’s at stake for each of these characters. Still, Carolyn Faye Kramer’s performance is smart and uninhibited. Nathan Pease’s turn as an “interesting” man is creepy yet intriguing, however as the Lord of the Underworld, Ritchey may have steered Pease’s character too far in the obvious direction with Ruhl’s childlike depiction. The doe-eyed Oyloe has wonderful focus with Orpheus’ unconditional loyalty to love and music. His naïve ambitions are committed to fully.

The overall mise-en-scène is starkly beautiful with the interplay between the cold industrial aesthetic of the space and the warm whimsical poetry in the costume, light and scenic design. Joe Schermoly uses minimal elements within the barren space, such as white tree branches, that are intriguing yet not fully transformative. The freight elevator serves as the perfect mode of transportation to the underworld. Sitting in silence, listening to the clanking of the approaching elevator—waiting—provides for a few of the more exhilarating moments of the night.

One fatal flaw in this production is the recorded music. Too often, it sounds more like the background music in an informational video for a time-share. The composition and design come off as unoriginal (I swear I heard the theme from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast quoted at one point on the piano), and falsely produced—the overly computerized MIDI sound to every note played on the strings takes away the possibility for any emotional response to the music or authenticity. It also underscores a bit loudly during key monologues and scenes. While this may seem a minor point, in a play that relies upon one of the main character’s abilities to create the most beautiful music in the world, it unfortunately takes the wind out of the sails of Orpheus’ journey. When Oyloe is alone on stage conducting a computerized orchestra, we do not believe he has tugged at the heart strings of any person or creature. Oyloe’s live acoustic guitar playing is far more effective than any of his and Shannon Bengford’s arrangements.

Ultimately, Filament may not have the resources to meet the necessities of Ruhl’s play. The lyricism of the dialogue can only sustain the story so far. The light playfulness of the text requires a higher level of theatricality and spectacle to maintain interest, and to achieve the intended emotional effect, and create a separation of the two worlds to flesh out Eurydice’s journey. The play wants to float along in a dream world in which anything can occur, time and language are rendered meaningless, and the desires of the characters are unbridled. In this fanciful, yet uneven production, I was woken up, and taken out of this dreamlike place a few too many times to consider the journey refreshing and worthwhile.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Peter Oyloe as Orpheus and Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is directed by Filament’s Artistic Director, Julie Ritchey. It will run Friday through Sunday April 22 through May 29th in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. All performances are at 7:30pm. Tickets are a $10 – $35 sponsorship. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.


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Review: Arms and the Man (ShawChicago)

     
     

A well-acted, comedic pretend!

     
     

Arms and the Man - poster

  
ShawChicago presents
  
Arms and the Man
  
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
at DCA Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $10-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A young girl is enchanted by war.  Her plan for survival is to close her eyes and cover her ears.  When the enemy advances through her window, she must rethink her strategy.  ShawChicago presents Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.  In a Bulgarian village, the Petkoffs are treated like royalty.  They have wealth, servants and a library.  Their pampered lives have them glossing over the bad stuff… even war!  The arrival of a tattered soldier into their home changes everything.  At first, the armed man is a harbored rebel.  When he returns to the house, he’s a dark, secret indiscretion for mother and daughter and an honored guest to father and fiance.  Who is the chocolate cream soldier really?  Arms and the Man is a witty make-love-not-war farce.

As is the ShawChicago tradition, Arms and the Man is billed technically as a staged reading.  A staged reading has no costumes, no sets and no physical movement.  And actors read from the script and don’t interact with each other. As often is the case at ShawChicago, Arms and the Man falls closer to ‘play‘ than ‘staged reading.‘  Under the direction of Robert Scogin, the talented ensemble use vocal stylings, facial expressions and limited gestures for powerful impact.  With ‘noble attitude and thrilling voice,‘ both Jhenai Mootz (Raina) and Ian Novak (Sergius) are hysterical exaggerated versions of the upper-crust.  Shiny-eyed optimist, Mootz charms with her amusing grandiosity.  Staying within his small designated space, Novak throws s a magnificent red-faced, body convulsing tantrum.  Kate Young (Catherine) is animated with elegant sophistication and natural animosity.  When her husband muses that ‘Raina always happens at the right moment,‘ Young zings the one liner with a droll ‘yes, she listens for it.’  Christian Gray (Bluntschli) ends the show in tears.  Gray is beautifully swept up in the romantic moment and weeps.

It’s Gray’s and the others’ level of character interpretation that pushes Arms and the Man away from ‘staged reading’ and up the spectrum to ‘play.‘  The entire cast performs magic.  Sure, in the beginning, it’s a bare stage with music stands holding scripts.  But as the actors connect on an in-depth level with the audience, theatrical imagination produces the window, the bed, the chocolate creams.  The charade constructs the majestic house on the hill.  You see it because the actors feel it.  Arms and the Man is well-acted, comedic pretend!   

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

George Bernard Shaw writing

ShawChicago’s Arms and the Man continues at the DCA Studio Theatre, 77 E. Washington, through May 15th, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm; Mondays at 7pm.  Running Time:  One hour and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are $10-$22, and can be purchased online or at the door.

  
  

Review: The Madness of George III (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

The real King Lear

  
  

King George III (Harry Groener) and the royal family greet their subjects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
The Madness of George III
   
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropulos
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 12  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Talk about life imitating art. Like the fictional King Lear of Shakespeare’s harshest imagination, in the late 18th century King George III of the troubled House of Hanover descended into madness, then briefly emerged from it as he realized that a king is mortal and that others have suffered as much as he. He too had vicious offspring: two sons – the fat and foolish Prince of Wales, later George IV, and the foppish Duke of York – were every bit as ungrateful as Goneril and Regan (and he had no Cordelia to redeem the curse). George was temporarily “cured” by a tough-love regimen: A monarch who had never been contradicted in his life was restrained by strait-jackets and strapped to a chair like a thief in a pillory. If not worse, the treatment was as vicious as the malady.

Harry Groener as the ailing King George III and Ora Jones as his devoted Queen Charlotte in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. Photo by Peter Bosy.If Lear’s story is tragic, George’s is pathetic, so great is the gulf between his real illness (porphiria, a medical and not a mental degenerative disease) and the neo-medieval physicians who think the solution is just a question of bloodletting, poultices, and a daily inspection of the chamberpot. It’s too easy to say that George was unhinged by the ingratitude of his American subjects in daring to revolt—or that his peace of mind was subverted by parliamentary plots hatched by his enemies the Whigs (under the unscrupulous Charles Fox). (The government’s Tories, under William Pitt, were not above exploiting the addlepated king as he forfeited control over almost all his functions and functionaries.) His was a classic case of hubris: The body’s conditional state betrayed the monarch’s absolute power.

Alan Bennett’s much-praised 1991 dramatization of this unpleasantness (made into Nicholas Hytner’s superb 1994 film with Nigel Hawthorne as the humbled king) recalls Thomas Hogarth’s most vicious caricatures: It conjures up a dysfunctional dynasty as fraught with friction as any family and a political circus in which Whigs and Tories behave just as badly as our bad boys do in 2011, not 1785.

Penny Metropulos’ all-engrossing staging is a marvel of perpetual motion. Its energy is coiled and concentrated in Tony-nominee Harry Groener’s piledriving performance in the dual title role (the madness as much as the king). In this awesome fall from grace we watch the symbol of the then-world’s greatest empire lose authority as he does his bowels, brain and locomotion. The well-named Groener makes us feel his pain in each particular (and Bennett is nothing if not graphic in his depiction of a body breaking down).

The king’s sole help comes from Ora Jones’ magnificent Queen Charlotte, George’s fearlessly loyal, unjustly neglected wife, his faithful equerries (Kevin Gudahl and Erik Hellman), and his principled and frustrated prime minister (Nathan Hosner). All do legion work above and beyond every theatrical expectation.

     
King George III (Harry Groener) celebrates his recovery with his devoted Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. King George III (Harry Groener, center) handles government affairs with Prime Minister William Pitt (Nathan Hosner, far left) as Fortnum (Mark D. Hines) awaits orders, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.
King George III (Harry Groener) embraces his straitjacket as he struggles to regain control of his mind in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) warns her ailing husband, King George III (Harry Groener), of his government's impending plan to revoke his political powers, as Captain Fitzroy (Kevin Gudahl, center) and Captain Greville (Erik Hellman, left) look on, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As devious as the disease that wracks the king, Richard Baird plays his heir with odious opportunism, matched by Alex Weisman as his corrupt and corpulent younger brother. David Lively’s Lord Chancellor is amusingly caught in the crossfire between both factions, while the four doctors (Brad Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) display a cornucopia of ignorance that Moliere would envy.

The near-three hours fly by as pell-mell conflicts ebb and seethe under William Bloodgood’s immense Palladian portico. Its most telling moment is when a recovering George experiences the only good treatment he received: He plays a dying King Lear, suddenly realizing that another man wrote about and an imaginary one felt his plight. That, of course, was to know how powerless you are when fate toys with you and your own body turns on you worse than any enemies could imagine. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this scatological and scandalous story unfold, but you can’t take your eyes away for an instant.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Suspecting a plot to dethrone him, King George III (Harry Groener) attacks his son, the Prince of Wales (Richard Baird), attended by Dr. Richard Warren (Patrick Clear, left), as Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones, right) rushes to quell him and the Duke of York (Alex Weisman) tumbles to escape the fray, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

All photos by Liz Lauren and Peter Bosy.

     

 

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Review: The Voodoo Chalk Circle (State Theatre Chicago)

  
  

Brecht adaptation successfully unearths New Orleans of old

  
  

Sarah Addison Ely, Ellenkate Finley, Alexis Randolph, Genevieve Lally-Knuth in a scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'

   
State Theatre presents
  
The Voodoo Chalk Circle
  
Adapted by Chelsea Marcantel
Based on the original play by
Bertolt Brecht
Music by
Chris Gingrich and Henry Riggs
Directed by Tim Speicher
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There was a unique and fascinating collaboration that occurred between two small theatre companies this year. The “Full Circle Festival” may have unfortunately fallen off the radar for many theatergoers; however, it began with Theatre Mir’s powerfully resonant production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (our review ★★★★). Now, the State Theatre has given us the wonderful opportunity to revisit this story in a new light with Chelsea Marcantel’s New Orleans set adaptation, The Voodoo Chalk Circle. Marcantel has been an up and coming playwright in Chicago for a few years, and this may be her most ambitious and successful endeavor to date. Tim Speicher’s intelligent and creative direction creates a captivating visual and aural experience that is heavy on theatrics and light on political Brechtian alienation. After experiencing Theatre Mir’s substantial production, this abridged retelling is a fresh and exciting compliment.

A scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'Before the play begins, the multi-talented Nick Demeris warms up the crowd as a street performer, similar to those that frequented the tourist areas of pre-Katrina New Orleans. We are then catapulted into a pre-hurricane New Orleans by our narrator, Josh Hambrock. He introduces us to Grusha (Ellenkate Finley) on her 21st birthday, which is being celebrated at a downtown nightclub on the eve of an encroaching hurricane. As opposed to Brecht’s Grusha, who is the servant to a governor, Marcantel perfectly casts her as the servant to the mayor of New Orleans’ wife, Nathalie (a strong performance by Jodi Kingsley). Playing her opposite is Simon (Caleb Probst), who proposes marriage on that evening. After her night out, Grusha returns to the boarded up mansion where she resumes her duties as the surrogate mother to the infant son, Michael, of the neglectful mayor’s wife.

And then there’s the storm. Speicher and music director, Chris Gingrich create an ingenious cacophony of sound, utilizing the evocative Sound Chorus. Combining crashing sheets of metal, jugs of water, wind vocalizations and drumming, the sense of calamity is created magnificently. During the post-storm, Grusha, along with Nathalie’s forgotten baby, flee for the suburbs of the North Shore seeking refuge with her sister. Instead, she finds what is essentially a Voodoo commune living in the ruins. They have rendered rebuilding pointless and have embraced the ways of “the old.” Their leader is the morally ambiguous Baron Samedi (played by Mark Viafranco with remarkable physicality and dexterity). Her sister does finally appear, now reborn into this ancient religion as Erzulie (Cara Olansky). Olansky is compelling in her performance as a woman who has lost everything and has turned, as often people do after traumatic events, to religion. However, Olansky gives us glimpses of loss and grief behind the stone face of a religion that celebrates the eternal, rather than mourns death.

Although engaged to Simon, Grusha agrees to be wed for security reasons to Zeke (Zachary Kropp), a man who appears to have been crippled from a roof collapse. Kropp gives a somewhat unconvincing performance, and the true motives of the character remains vague. However, for utilitarian purposes, the character serves the plot well during Simon’s discovery of Grusha living a life he had not expected to find her in. The final chalk circle scene remains faithful to Brecht’s original text, yet is modified just enough to allow for the ending to carry a certain element of surprise.

While there is strong acting and talent throughout, the casting could benefit from more diversity in ethnicity and age to truly provide the authenticity of New Orleans. Overall, the cast plays slightly on the younger side for a play focused on old traditions. Nevertheless, formidable performances are given by Finley and Probst. Hambrock is engaging as part Our Town Stage Manager: floating in and out of the world of the play, omnipresent, setting scenes and introducing characters—and part Orson Welles in The Third Man: revealing his true function as the judge of morality only in the final act, playing Brecht’s “walking contradiction”, Azdak.

Marcantel’s script is entirely worthy of this fine production. She has found an appropriate contemporary setting for this story and carries the action briskly with high stakes. She perhaps misses an opportunity to connect to Brecht’s original play further due to the fact that she treats the hurricane solely as a natural disaster without examining the political catastrophe in the city more in depth. Whereas Brecht’s war of rebellion was more concerned with the manmade cycle of oppression and corruption, the hurricane in Marcantel’s adaptation is rather “Oz-ian”, a dramatic tool in the form of a catastrophe turning the world upside down. I was also left wondering why Marcantel goes to great authentic lengths in setting this story richly in New Orleans, yet never quite goes as far as referencing New Orleans, Katrina or any other specifics directly. It’s possible some immediacy was lost with this decision. Her dialogue is best in the earlier sections of the story discussing class struggles and Voodoo practices, but falls slightly flat in the oversentimentality of the Grusha and Simon love story.

In the end, it is Speicher’s concept, the emergence of the past from the ruins of modernity, which makes this play a must-see. He truly understands the ritualistic nature of Marcantel’s setting. Gingrich and Riggs’ music is a driving force of nature throughout the play. The Sound Chorus serves as the spiritual voice and heartbeat of old traditions made anew. Shaun Renfro’s set design condenses the action to an intimate section of the barn-like Viaduct space by the use of hundreds of cardboard boxes, reminiscent of essentials that were airdropped to Katrina survivors. In addition, Renfro creates an ingenious playground of set pieces that allow for interaction with the actors. Taylor Bibat’s shadow puppetry represents the concept perfectly by providing an ancient theatrical tradition as opposed to video projections.

The final monologue Marcantel writes for Azdak is poetic and resonant stating, “It’s hard to see how everything comes together, until everything falls apart.” While this production soars, I am left hoping that Marcantel may continue to develop the script into a full adaptation finding more parallels and urgency in the injustice that occurs in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is of high compliment that I wished to spend even more time with these characters and in this world Marcantel has transplanted them to—nevertheless, it is immediately an important piece of theatre this season that should not be overlooked.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Voodoo Chalk Circle presented by State Theatre Chicago

The Voodoo Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through May 8th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:15pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10-$20, and can either be purchased online or by calling (773) 296-6024.  For more information, visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.

The Voodoo Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with Theatre Mir to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre closes the festival following Theatre Mir’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Jonathan Berry.

 

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