Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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REVIEW: The Earl (The Inconvenience)

  
  

Now extended through March 2nd!

Strange brotherly love in company’s inaugural production

 
 

The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Ryan Borque.

  
The Inconvenience i/a/w A Red Orchid Theatre presents
      
The Earl
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by
Duncan Riddell
at
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Feb 23 March 2  |  tickets: $15  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

Edward Bond’s miscreants have some competition for Theatre’s Most Twisted Youngsters in Brett Neveu’s grisly dark comedy, The Earl.

The Inconvenience’s revival marks the ensemble’s first professional production and the play’s third presentation, following an independent film adaptation by Jim Sikora four years ago and A Red Orchid’s original six-month run in 2006. From the looks of it, The Earl’s blood is still pumping strong.

Danny Goldring, now starring in 'The Earl' by The Inconvenience at A Red Orchid Theatre.  Photo credit Ryan Borque.Strong, or at least bountiful, gushing from the limbs and noses of its characters and streaming down the walls of its set.

The story is straightforward: three brothers reunite in an abandoned basement office for a high stakes game of physical abuse. Think bloody knuckles, but the Olympic version, with faces and knees substituting for knuckles and crowbars substituting for quarters.

Why? Probably for the same reason children in school yards voluntarily play “wall ball” (the innocent title doesn’t imply the notorious “no-block crotch-shots rule“, does it?), or the more presumptive “smear the queer.” Who knows. The rules of the brothers’ contest are never made quite clear–there’s a lot of counting and letters and special exceptions–but it’s not for us to know the details, is it? As Artistic Director Christopher Chmelik puts it in his program note, “[There’s] no judging panel or officials with the final say. The brothers wrote the rule book,” and that book remains a secret. Sick as it may be, the in’s-and-out’s of the unnamed game are honored with a special family bond not extended to outside ranks.

So, when famous action star Lawrence Stephens (played with a nice blend of kitsch and menace by Danny Goldring) is invited to join the brawl, assuming the role of an “Earl,” the game takes a brutal turn for the unexpected.

Like any good thriller, Neveu’s text layers its release of information slowly and unpredictably. Director and A Red Orchid Literary Manager Duncan Riddell paces the action carefully. I didn’t want to see too much, but I couldn’t look away. It’s a ballet of watching and wincing. When violence does erupt, Fight Choreographers Chuck Coyle and Ryan Bourque don’t disappoint. Theatre isn’t the greatest outlet for action (at least in the “wham-bam” sense), so fight choreography typically amounts to aggressive dancing. With the help of a collaborative young cast, Riddell overcomes the form’s limitations and uses the full visual and aural spectrum to create an exhilarating illusion.

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

It’s fair to say that The Earl has more balls than brains, but that’s not to say it‘s dumb. This is an impressive, quick-witted ensemble, and the young trio has built a fascinating, mostly unspoken family dynamic. Among the sadomasochistic clan is Ryan Borque (Kent), a gangly, giggly ball of tics. He’s the severest case of arrested development of the group, and brings an estranged, juvenile sense of joy to the chaos around him, even when injured. Bourque is captivating, remaining charismatic with a broken nose. Likewise, Walter Briggs (Peter) and Chris Chmelik (Rick) know their backgrounds and supply the given circumstances that raise the show above the level of wrestling match to bold work of theatre.

The Earl works as a one-act, but when the house lights came up for curtain call, I was hoping we were at intermission. The dramatic ground work and characterization are laid for a full-length play, and though the show is structurally complete, it did leave me wanting to see more story fleshed out. It originally ran as a late-night show, and likely works better with that mentality going in. But even at 8, it’s a thrilling little piece of pulp fiction. And for that, I’m game.

  
      
Rating: ★★★
         
     

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

        
        

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REVIEW: The New Electric Ballroom (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

The once-in-a-lifetime chance at pure love

  
  

Buddeke, Larson and Fitzgerald in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The New Electric Ballroom
  
Written by Enda Walsh
Directed by
Robin Witt
at
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

“Stamped by story, aren’t we Patsy?”

                                –Breda

To attend A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of The New Electric Ballroom is to feel Enda Walsh’s sea of language wash over you, wave upon wave, repetitive yet morphing into new constructions, building to exhilarating maximum impact, then receding to leave an inconspicuously altered shore. Here, within the borders of this abstract play, language is king. Words–“idle words, as if there could be anything idle about them,” says Breda—and stories continuously retold, mark and mold each character by repetition as constant as the monotonous, everyday routines that support and curtail daily life. Clara (Laurie Larson), Breda (Kate Buddeke), and Ada (Kirsten Fitzgerald) are like Three Sisters without a Moscow to which to escape or dream of escape. What they have are Clara and Breda’s stories, which Ada directs them to tell over and over again.

Guy VanSwearingen and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.If life in their coastal Irish town is bleak, then so, ultimately are Clara and Breda’s tales of young, hopeful love, crushed by betrayal and lost chances. Only Patsy (Guy Van Swearingen), the fisherman, disturbs their telling by his regular and comic fish deliveries. But Patsy himself is haunted by his dull, meaningless routine, imagining that even the seagulls inquire of him: “What is the purpose of you, Patsy?” Walsh owes an immense debt to Samuel Beckett, yet he manages to construct yet another level of existential drama onto Beckett’s cathedral.

Now all that director Robin Witt requires is an acting ensemble of steel to carry and drive the weight of Walsh’s language—and to have fun with it. She has that witty, mature, and polished ensemble in Buddeke, Fitzgerald, Larson and Swearingen. Won’t somebody please get them Superman T-shirts to commemorate their achievement? (Although, I’m quite sure getting yourself to the show would be reward enough.) The play’s beginning is bleak, sometimes so bleak it’s comic, but the action heats up when Patsy is finally allowed into the house, where he allows himself to be transformed into the kind of crooning performer who won Clara and Breda’s hearts years before at the New Electric. The strategic ease with which the play’s atmosphere swings from oppressive melancholy to exuberant, magical fantasy attests to Witt’s mastery of the material and the cast’s ability to submit completely to the theatricality of the work.

Walsh’s surreal and existential play may not be for everyone. However, as a meditation on life’s possibilities being just as overwhelming and personally threatening as its stultifying daily grind, few other works are its equal. Ada has a chance at first love with the transformed Patsy, only to watch that chance melt away because of Patsy’s own failure of nerve. That’s an everyday story–a story that marks and molds a lot of people. A Red Orchid delivers Walsh’s heightened version of that story consummately, professionally, and superlatively. Perhaps that is all we can demand of art.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Laurie Larson and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

Laurie Larson, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Kate Buddeke in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow. Guy VanSwearingen, Laurie Larson, Kate Buddeke and Kirsten Fitzgerald in A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The New Electric Ballroom". Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.
     

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

     
     

REVIEW: The Iliad (A Red Orchid)

   
  

Young women and the warrior code

 

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad

   
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
The Iliad
   
Adapted by Craig Wright
Directed by
Steve Wilson
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than a little sly feminism goes into A Red Orchid’s production The Iliad, a one-act play adapted for young female actors by award-winning playwright Craig Wright. The girls take on the masculine roles of this Bronze Age classic and staunchly play out its warrior codes of honor, duty, and submission to fate and/or the gods. The idea is to provide young female actors with roles that they wouldn’t usually get to play and introduce them to the classics. However, employing an all-girl cast pulls double, triple, even quadruple duty by implicitly interrogating the ancient gender roles of Mycenaean Greek culture, wherein dissent between the hero, Achilles (Jaiden Fallo-Sauter), and his king, Agamemnon (Najwa Joy Brown), begins with a dispute over who has claim to a woman they’ve won as spoils of war.

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad posterAs for the women’s roles, they are all played by dolls–dolls to be fought over, to possess, to be prized, to surrender, to be thrown around or to be ordered into submission. It’s this light bit of child’s play between the girls over dolls that brings home the more serious recognition that women were chattel back in the day, no matter how highly born. In the shadow of men at war, women and children could, at best, only hope that their side won–or that whomever won, the victors would be reasonably merciful. Even Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set design reminds one of children caught at play in the middle of violent upheavals in Bosnia or the Gaza Strip.

That’s quite harsh stuff for a very young cast to convey. But Steve Wilson’s direction unflaggingly keeps up the energy and humor in the show’s vivid confrontations between enemies who should be allies, between brothers Paris (Nicole Rudakova) and Hector (Aria Szalai-Raymond), and, oh yes, between the warring Greeks and Trojans. Sarah Fornace’s fight choreography packs a lot of good visual excitement. The final showdown between Achilles and Hector is all the more thrilling for the economy with which it’s executed. Finally, the strutting stuff in Wright’s script regarding male disputes over honor gets its comeuppance from the girls’ deadpan delivery–to even greater comic effect.

Wright cuts out much of the original Iliad for his adaptation and that, for the purposes of this production, is more than fine. If anyone had told me before now that this epic could be performed on stage in an hour, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I mourn the radical alteration of one scene—the final meeting between Priam (Melanie Neilan) and Achilles, when the aged king comes to beg from him the body of his slain son. It’s passing strange that, having come so far, Wright does not simply pull whole and darkly beautiful lines from the original text:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my son.

It is not as if Neilan couldn’t handle that kind of poetry. She, not to mention most of the cast, seems up to it and should be given the chance. If exposure to the classics is part of the actor’s journey in this production then not just gender roles, but also an exploration of the Ancient Greek concept of Ananke, or Harsh Necessity, is just as much part of the process of discovering this culture and these characters. A Red Orchid’s production succeeds with a certain cuteness factor—little girls playing big men’s roles. That works to great effect, especially when 5th grader Eden Strong delivers the lines of the mighty Ajax. But behind the play lies war’s devastation. I say, let the girls bring it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Production Personnel

Featuring Najwa Brown*, Jaiden Fallo-Sauter*, Katie Jordan*, Paola Lehman*, Marissa Meo, Isabella Mugliari, Melanie Neilan*, Madison Pullman, Nicole Rudakova, Kara Ryan*, Elenna Sindler*, Eden Strong and Aria Szalai-Raymond

The creative team includes Steve Wilson (Director), Erin Barlow (Assistant Director), Sarah Fornace (Fight and Movement Director), Michelle Lilly O’Brien (Scenic Design), Joanna Melville (Costume Design), Sean Mallary (Lighting Design), Nick Keenan (Sound Design), Kelli Moreno (Dramaturg) and Mary Ellen Rieck is the Stage Manager, Mackenzie Yeager the Company Manager and the Production Manager is Katherine Welham

*A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble Member

     
       

REVIEW: Louis Slotin Sonata (A Red Orchid Theatre)

Turning quantum physics into an educational sonata

louis slotin sonata poster louis slotin sonata poster - flip

 

A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
Louis Slotin Sonata
  
Written by Paul Mullin
Directed by
Karen Kessler
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through October 24th  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Tickling the dragon’s tale’ sounds like a fairytale requirement for rescuing the princess. It is not so enchanting! In fact, it’s the testing procedures for a plutonium bomb. A Red Orchid Theatre presents Louis Slotin Sonata, based on the death and times of a historical figure. In 1946, Dr. Louis Slotin has plans. Goodbye bombs! Hello biology! Louie’s bags are packed to leave the military zone and go university academic. Before his departure, he decides to give the dragon one more tickle. louis slotin sonata poster During the routine, Louis’ hand slips and the dragon bites. Everyone in the room is exposed to radiation. Louis Slotin Sonata focuses on the final nine days of a scientist. In a morphine induced haze, Louie tries to piece together his incident, existence and death. His Hebrew lessons and Nazi war criminal memories jumble producing hallucinatory action adventure and a choreographed Nagasaki shuffle. Louis Slotin Sonata is a concerto of science and religion with an underlying comedic rhythm.

Director Karen Kessler orchestrates a swift movement between the surreal and real. Louis’ final days are recollections of the past, present and future. His current state is spliced with future monologues from medical and military personnel reviewing the facts and delirious visits with historical figures. Steve Schine (Louis) portrays the scientist with apologetic arrogance. Former rogue and brilliant bomb maker, Schine transforms in humble vulnerability to a science geek fearful of being remembered for a blunder. The outstanding ensemble plays multiple roles with distinction. Guy Massey displays impressive range from soft-spoken scientist to abrupt military man to evangelizing religious fanatic. William Norris gives a heart-wrenching performance as a Jewish father losing his son to science. Anita Deely is the kind-hearted nurse struggling with anger over the avoidable tragedy. Adding to the laughs, Duncan Riddell haunts, Doug Vickers bumbles, Christopher Walsh deadpans, and Walter Briggs aka ‘Death’ calculates.

The entire ensemble shines around Schine in this dark comedy.

Louis Slotin wanted to fade into obscurity instead of being remembered for ‘dropping the big one’ or more accurately ‘poking the small one’. Playwright Paul Mullin has preserved Dr. Slotin in a playful but educational sonata. The show is an entertaining lesson in science, history and religion. The heavy-duty science instruction made me realize I would have done better in physics if my teacher had been one of the Louis Slotin Sonata ensemble.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

SHOW WARNING: I am cursed with A Red Orchid Theatre bad seat karma. In this production, there is only ONE seat obstructed with regularity. I sat in it! Don’t make my mistake! The theatre is split into three sections. In between, the left and middle section, don’t pick the sole seat on the second row without a chair in front of it. Kessler has chosen to place an actor’s back to the audience directly in front of that seat… in many scenes. The choice effectively blocks the action from view. On the positive side, if there was a real bomb, I would have been shielded from radiation exposure.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

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REVIEW: Abigail’s Party (A Red Orchid Theatre)

“Let’s get pissed!”

abigail

A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Abigail’s Party

by Mike Liegh
directed by Shade Murray
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Suburban popularity hinges on repressed emotions. Irritating neighbors are tolerated and marital woes are hidden all in the name of keeping up appearances, but what happens when the inhibitions that keep these feelings in check are removed? Hilarity ensues.

abigail_home The year is 1977 and Beverly (Kirsten Fitzgerald) is waiting for her husband Laurence (Larry Graham) to arrive with lagers before guests arrive for a cocktail party. Cheesy pineapple bites have been set, the fiber light has been switched on, and the hostess is grooving to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” while sipping a gin and tonic. A few houses down, punk rock teenager Abigail is throwing a party of her own, but the real action is about to begin in the Moss’s living room, the setting of Mike Leigh’s hilarious Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid Theatre, exquisitely directed by Shade Murray.

Angela (Mierka Girten ) and Tony (Danny McCarthy), newcomers to the neighborhood, arrive first, followed by Susan (Natalie West), the title character’s divorced mother. Drinks are poured as small talk begins, the men discuss cars, the women furniture, and all is pleasant and respectable. This picturesque gathering quickly develops cracks in its facade as drinks are topped up and people become looser with their tongues, revealing the problems that lie under the surface.

Leigh’s script was largely developed through actor improvisations, and the evidence is apparent in the dialogue. Characters check in with their listeners to make sure they are paying attention, and at one point two completely different conversations are happening at the same time, a rare occurrence on stage but something that can be heard at any party. The rhythm of the dialogue moves at a clipped pace that intensifies as drinks are poured, but the actors never become caricatures of inebriation.

Alcohol is the medium through which awkwardness flows in the play, and Fitzgerald’s Beverly is the main instigator. She jumps at the chance to criticize Angela’s makeup once the men are away, openly mocks her husband, and in the play’s most uncomfortable moment gets a little too intimate with Tony. “A little row adds sparkle to a relationship,” isn’t just something she says, but something she lives by, and her abhorrent behavior is a way to garner an emotional response from the lifeless Laurence. Beverly mirrors Abigail’s party, becoming more invasive in the lives of those around her as her neighbor’s punk rock grows louder, disrupting her perfect evening.

Fitzgerald may be the life of the party, but her supporting cast doesn’t play second fiddle. Graham’s Laurence may be a square, but he matches his wife’s aggression when threatened, and his intellectual nature serves as a great foil to Beverly’s vivacity. Girten is hilarious as wide-eyed doormat Angela and McCarthy is appropriately brutish in his mostly silent role. West essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent, and while primarily serving to drive the plot forward, Susan becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.

Rating: ★★★½

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Chicago Theater Openings and Closings this week

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Show Openings

The (edward) Hopper Project The Storefront Theatre

24 Hour Project Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

Annie Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Artist needs a Wife the side project

I Hate Hamlet Big Noise Theatre

Killer Joe Profiles Theatre

Kink Annoyance Theatre

Mamma Mia! Rosemont Theatre

Mary’s Wedding Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

The Original Improv Gladiators Corn Productions

Out of Order Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

The Prisoner of Second Avenue Citadel Theatre

Private Lives Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Sleeping Beauty Winnetka Theatre

Some Paradise Annoyance Theatre

Too Hot to Handel Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Wedding TUTA Theatre Chicago

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Show Closings 

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival Chicago SketchFest

Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre

It Came Upon a Midnight Queen Chemically Imbalanced Theater

A Look Through Our Eyes Gorilla Tango Theatre

Sketch and Sniff Gorilla Tango Theatre

Sublime Beauty of Hands and Klown Kantos Next Theatre and Theatre Zarko

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientolgy Pageant A Red Orchid Theatre