Review: Steel Magnolias (Saint Sebastian Players)

     
     

Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias

     
     

SteelMagnolias1byJohnOster

   
Saint Sebastian Players presents
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Something happens once one enters Saint Sebastian Players’ theater space at St. Bonaventure Church. First, there’s the sign over the stairs on the way down—“The best theatre in a basement in the universe.” Then, there’s the palpable hominess, the obvious, open responsiveness transmitted between audience and cast. Clearly, SSP is a theater company that has fostered a strong, grounded sense of community over its 30-year run. That they would choose to produce Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias fits their M.O. to a tee. Friendship and community that sees people through the rhythms of the years probably resonates more here in this space than any other in town and Chicago is simply full to the brim with small theaters that offer an intimate experience. But something about the gentle care Steven Walanka’s direction takes with each scene between the women of Truvy’s (Tricia Rogers) hair salon suggests the intimacy of family–or people who know and accept you better than family.

Steel Magnolias - Saint Sebastian Players 034Those ladies who show up to Truvy’s are legendary: Annelle (Kaitlyn Whitebread), nervous, naïve and on the run from her criminal husband; Clairee (Deborah Rodkin), widowed and searching for a life beyond being the mayor’s wife; Shelby (Margaret Scrantom), always pushing herself past the limitations of diabetes; M’Lynn (Jill Chukerman Test), her stoutly pragmatic mother; and Ouiser (Kate O’Connor), cantankerous, idiosyncratic and unstoppable. Saint Sebastian’s cast runs the risk of having every minute of their performance gauged against the 1989 movie. Yet, they succeed in creating a genuine world of their own.

Walanka’s direction starts each scene at a comfortable, neighborly pace, which allows his actors to dip into quiet, confidential moments with each other, before building to surprise or confrontation. For the most part, the cast follows the comedy’s natural rhythms organically. The testy, if loving, relationship between Shelby and her mother, M’lynn, stretches out over years of bright hope for Shelby’s future with her new husband to dire health consequences stemming from choosing to bear a child against the advice of doctors. In the meantime, Chairee and Ouiser gamely get on each other’s nerves and Annelle goes from scared runaway to party girl to born again Christian. It’s capable, sassy Truvy that provides the safe, gossipy space that is their home away from home.

     
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That’s not to say that SSP’s production is perfect. Opening night found a couple of actors starting cold and only warming to their parts by the second scene. Also, while a low-key approach to building relationships between these characters definitely has its pay-offs, there’s equally the danger of some scenes’ moments dragging. But, all in all, this cast projects the essence of camaraderie between women. Furthermore, Scrantom brings the right blend of independence and vulnerability distinctive to Shelby, while Chukerman Test brings her role as M’lynn home with simple and convincing interpretation of her frustration and rage over Shelby’s death, as well as her endurance. Overall, the production communicates the vitality of these characters and they communicate it to an audience that fully, wisely, appreciates its substance, as well as the laughter.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Photos by OCA Photography

        
       

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Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Review: Erratica (The American Demigods)

     
     

Sex and Shakespeare for the scholastically inclined

     
     

Erratica at America Demigods, by Reina Hardy

   
American Demigods present
  
Erratica
  
Written by Reina Hardy
Directed by Dan Foss
at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 14  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The American Demigods are working with one sharp and sassy script for their latest production at Second Stage Theatre. Dan Foss directs a taut, dynamically funny cast for Erratica, by Reina Hardy. An academic farce, Erratica brings brains and loins together with a typical dash of intellectual neurosis. Hardy, being the founder and Artistic Director of The Viola Project, which introduces young girls to Shakespeare, is eminently familiar with the academic field she spoofs. Her professorial protagonist, Dr. Samantha Stafford (Lisa Herceg), idolizes her subject, the Bard, to the rejection of all others. Yet she finds herself up to her eyeballs in moonstruck, mediocre student-poets, glib, scheming and mercenary publicists, and competitive colleagues who would also like to get into her pants. Even the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (David A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Wilhelm) desires her amorous, as well as academic, attention. But all the good doctor wants is love distilled to a purity of lived experience that matches Shakespeare’s sublime and ineffable lines.

Of course, no one can live up to that—but that doesn’t stop the puerile attempts of one of her students, Gregory, to woo her with his verse. We never get to see Gregory. But we do get a full on rant against Dr. Stafford from Elspeth (Victoria Bucknell), his defender, for rebuffing Gregory’s advances by savaging his poems. Though stuck on Gregory herself, Elspeth reviles the professor for reducing Gregory to cringing under the table at Commons “eating nothing but Triscuits and powdered Tang.” If Elspeth cannot have Gregory, she at least wants him to be happy in his own heart’s desire—something that absolutely dumbfounds the professor.

Against her wishes to be left alone, Stafford is pulled into an undertow of messy, hormonally-driven desire. Likewise, her desire for academic purity, such as the publication of her highly intellectual treatise on Shakespeare, meets with the mercenary side of publishing–represented by her leggy, fast-talking and devious publicist Lisa Milkmin (Kelly Yacono). Herceg charmingly delivers Stafford’s smart and sardonic exasperation down pat and, while Bucknell makes a classic comic foil with her character’s adolescent insecurity and Wilhelm bounces off her rebuffs of Marlowe with intelligent, roguish charm, nothing crackles as much as the showdown between professor and publicist. It’s style meets substance—and superficial style is definitely winning.

A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Lisa wants Stafford to shape her book into a “Shakespeare for the Cosmo girl.” But failing that, she pressures Stafford into translating the newly discovered “Quinberry Diaries,” a recent academic find of an Elizabethan trollop’s journals that has garnered intense notoriety and landed a career coup for the university’s head librarian, Dr. Hooper. “You’re pleading like an undergraduate,” Hooper smarmily quips once Stafford comes asking for the dairies, “that’s exciting.” If Hardy’s play has any flaws, it’s in the way her cerebral protagonist has to skirt sexual harassment moments like these to keep the whole play light and fluid. Foss’s direction simply drives the play forward and the mysterious theft of the Quinberry Diaries distracts from Hooper delivering even further unwanted sexual advances.

Likewise, for such a smart comedy, the play wraps up a little formulaically, with a character leaping from behind an arras to resolve the final entanglement or Stafford showing sudden sexual interest in Hooper where there was none before. All that can be said is that Hardy’s shrewd dialogue and Foss’s clean-cut direction takes the audience through the journey with zippy alacrity. So, savor the juicy conspiratorial scene between Elspeth and Lisa. Enjoy Stafford’s alcoholic binge breakdown, when she declares, “Vodka’s like black—it goes with everything.” Appreciate the quieter moments when Marlowe tries to get through to her. Life isn’t pure poetry. And that’s a good thing.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.

     

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Review: Maybe in a Moment (Thresholds Theatre Arts)

  
  

Simple poetry makes production profound and relevant

  
  

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Thresholds Theatre Arts Program presents
   
Maybe in a Moment
  
Directed by Marti Szalai-Raymond
at Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Every year Thresholds Theatre Art Program brings together Chicago theater professionals and individuals with mental illness to craft an original show that explores mental illness’s impact through song, poetry, movement, monologues and story theatre. Members of Thresholds’ programs enjoy a therapeutic and artistic outlet for their stories, to express what it is like to suffer mental illness and their audiences receive an education as to its tangible realities. However, under Artistic Director Marti Szalai-Raymond’s direction and development, Thresholds’ latest show, Maybe In a Moment doesn’t just have educational benefit for general audiences. It’s actually a substantial and poetic piece, quite reminiscent of 60’s experimental theater. The cast pulls together with teamwork and grace, putting across simply profound and revelatory moments.

If anything, Maybe In a Moment is about surviving and experiencing each day, no matter what the day might bring. Songs and poems tap into basic needs—to love and be loved, to feel connected to community, to be accepted and appreciated, to live without shame, secrecy, fear or stigma. Though their difficulties may be unique to their own individual lives, Thresholds members still serve up a heaping helping of the human condition. The production’s story theatre style allows most to have their moment to express an element essential to their personalities. “If you have a gift and you don’t share it, it’s no good,” declares one man. “I’d like to be remembered as somebody smarter than I am,” says another. “Today, I saw a new doctor,” says one man, expanding on his fear of the treatment he may face from a new and unfamiliar healthcare provider.

“We began development about 7 months ago,” says Szalai-Raymond, “Lots of writing exercises for people for whom writing is not their area of expertise—generating lots of story theater pieces.” Among them, we hear about one woman’s nervous breakdown over a lost chance at love; another woman’s journey of survival in a relationship with a Mafia thug; the sisterly relationship formed between two women rooming together with significantly different mental illnesses. Song and movement interspersed with each personal tale creates a convincing collage of experience, from strong a capella renditions of “I Did It My Way” to pop favorites, like “Stand By Me” and “There’s Always Gonna Be Another Mountain.”

“This year was our first time trying to bridge the hearing and deaf communities,” cites Szalai-Raymond. “Not all of our members are going to learn to sign in time for our opening. Some even have physical challenges for signing. So, it’s taken a lot of patience. Movement was a place where we could meet in the middle. Plus, this is our first time playing in Viaduct Theatre’s space. We didn’t even rehearse here before opening.” That’s not something that one could tell from the performance. If anything, the cast’s ensemble cohesiveness, in spite of an occasional mistake here and there, belies a family or community feeling of gentle respect.

Once Threshold’s production wraps up at Viaduct, it tours schools, churches, community centers, hospitals, national conferences and the like. Theirs is a message of hope, kindness and encouragement to heal any heart, challenged with mental illness or not.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Maybe in a Moment continues through May 8th at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave., with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. (fyi: the Friday, April 29th show will be performed at the Woodstock Opera House). Tickets are $20, and can be purchased by phone (773-296-6024) or online through ticketweb

     
     

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Review: Medea (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Medea casts its dark, irresistible spell

  
  

Anna Stephany as Medea, ensemble in background. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
Medea
  
Written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Stage Directed by James Durrah
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map)
thru May 1  |  tickets: $30-$120  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Visually stunning, musically sumptuous, Director James Durrah’s vision for Marc-Antione Charpentier’s Medea (Médée) unifies contemporary minimalism with the controlled, ritualistic stateliness of French Baroque opera. Every sleek and suggestive element of Chicago Opera Theater’s production not only buttresses the underlying power and deadly magnificence of its central character, Médée (Anna Stephany), the sorceress who’s been done wrong by her man, but also establishes the pernicious atmosphere at the court of mendacious royalty.

Anna Stephany, as Medea, stands with her 2 children. Photo by Liz Lauren. From modern dance movement to costuming (also Durrah), to the stark, bold set design of bent wood clashed against metal (François-Pierre Couture), to the lighting design’s color palette of sepia, gold, pale yellow, copper, dark blue and smoky black (Julian Pike), COT’s design elements load their production with chic sophistication that meshes easily with the lush and powerful elegance of Charpentier’s compositions. Such a well-integrated design not only pays off in building to and amplifying Médée’s mournful rages and witchy moments, but also frames and supports the intrigues carried out at the court of Corinth.

Jason (Colin Ainsworth), Médée and their sons have fled to Corinth in the wake of Médée’s murder of Thessaly’s King Pelias. While Jason sues for protection from King Creon (Evan Boyer), Médée already suspects that he has fallen in love with the king’s daughter Creuse (Micaëla Oeste). Stephany’s deeply psychological performance strikes the right tenuous balance, wavering over Médée’s love for Jason, for whom she has killed and sacrificed, and yielding to jealous suspicions that become confirmed with each hour. Once Jason arrives, Ainsworth and Stephany convincingly render the sensual tension between this troubled pair. Jason tries to persuade Médée that every favor he pursues with Creuse he does only to secure their refuge. Adding insult to injury, Jason persuades Médée to give her cloak to Creuse, since the princess has admired it and such a gift may help their plea.

The cloak is everything. Rich, velvety black with a glossy persimmon lining, the cloak sets Médée apart, particularly as she enters at the back of the stage, hand-in-hand with her two sons in their pajamas of blue white. It’s an otherworldly moment that contrasts potent, mysterious danger with unsuspecting innocence. Likewise, once Creuse dons the cloak in Act Four (already poisoned by Médée), she flaunts it like a spoiled rich girl who has usurped Medee’s power. Certainly much fun is had in interim scenes, wherein Médée calls upon the spirits of the underworld to poison the cloak for Creuse’s undoing. (Trust the Chorus to act out their zombie best!) But the more accessible power plays come through each woman’s possession and manipulation of the cloak.

Micaela Oeste as Creuse, background: Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Anna Stephany as Medea, Colin Ainsworth as Jason. Photo by Liz Lauren Paul LaRosa as Oronte, surrounded by Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Being baroque opera, manipulation and intrigue is key. King Creon lures Oronte (Paul LaRosa) to Corinth’s defense against the Thessalians with the promise of marriage to Creuse. But Creon really intends Creuse for Jason and makes every move to remove the threat of Médée’s presence by sending her into exile without her children. Fools–they should know not to mess with Médée. But often, more compelling than her carrying out her revenge are scenes in which characters are still sorting out everyone’s hidden agenda.

The cast is theatrically adept and vocally powerful. The Baroque Band, a Chicago-based ensemble since 2007, conducted by Christian Curnyn, provides rich, majestic and period-perfect musical underpinning to each character’s lies and deceptions. Under the veneer of civilization beats passionate hearts, just as driven to satisfy desire as Médée’s — they only lack the mojo to back it up.

Well, COT’s Medea has tons of mojo. More’s the pity that there are only three more performances before it closes–run, do not walk, to see them.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The ensemble of Chicago Opera Theater's 'Medea' surrounds Anna Stephany (Medea).  Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Medea continues at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater through May 1st, with performances April 27 and 29 at 7:30, and May 1 at 3pm.  Tickets are $30-$120, and can be purchased by phone (312-334-7777) or on the web (HarrisTheaterChicago.org).  For more info, visit the company’s website:  www.chicagooperatheater.org. Medea is sung in French, with English supertitles.

 

     

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Review: Birthright (eta Creative Arts)

  
  

Melodrama drowns out Birthright’s take on personal responsibility

  
  

Birthright by Jackie Alexander - eta Creative Arts

  
eta Creative Arts presents
 
Birthright
 
Written by Jackie Alexander
Directed by Vaun Monroe
at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago (map)
through May 14  |  tickets: $10-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Birthright is basically an African American melodrama, and Vaun Monroe makes the best choice in directing Jackie Alexander’s play with straightforward, almost elemental simplicity. Onstage at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, the play covers the mystery that surrounds a pastor’s checkered past and its connection to the family and friends he tries to counsel and comfort through their own relationship difficulties and economic hardships. Birthright conveys a distinctly Christian message but it relies on a melodramatic framework to make its points. While certainly an interesting vehicle to engage audiences on basic themes of personal responsibility, the play still yields to its melodramatic foundation and many of the show’s performances only serve to further flatten each character.

Etienne (Dion Strowhorn, Sr.) is an impassioned black pastor determined to make Scripture relevant and accessible to his modern flock. He, himself, works both day and night shifts at the factory and struggles with his enduring wife Juanita (Kona N. Burks) over whether they should mortgage their house to support their church. Etienne’s younger brother, Billy (Eric Walker), faces even tougher struggles over maintaining his dignity while suffering unemployment in post-Katrina Louisiana. When Billy attacks his girlfriend Monique (Toya Turner) during a fight over finances, Monique’s sister Michele (Christina Harper) pulls a gun on him and Etienne gets involved not just to set Billy right, but also look out for Michele’s welfare.

Etienne’s intense interest in Michele opens a whole can of worms concerning its appropriateness. Michele, having suffered sexual abuse from her and Monique’s father, Sonny, when they were girls, jumps to the conclusion that Etienne’s interest in her is sexual. Much as Harper strives to humanize Michele, she still comes across as the clichéd troubled bad girl of the plot, out to stir up more shit than she can handle. Her role, more than the others, seems to suffer the worst two-dimensionality. Other characters seem to get a reprieve from stereotype at least at some point in the play, but Michele goes down in the end without the power to redeem or broaden one facet of her troubled personality.

Overall, most conversations between characters come off flatly and give the whole production a community theater feeling. Certainly, it’s refreshing to see the patient and longsuffering Juanita get her licks in with Etienne upon learning he’s given Michele exorbitant amounts of money. The scene wherein the pastor reveals his secret also packs a punch, while Billy’s reconciliation with Monique comes off honestly and powerfully. Alexander definitely makes a Christian perspective on personal responsibility accessible and humanizing with this play. But greater emphasis on bringing out more emotionally nuanced exchanges between characters would enliven Birthright from start to finish, far beyond its melodramatic foundation. That would put the flesh on the show’s bones and bring its message across more vividly.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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