Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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Review: Volpone (City Lit Theater)

     
     

17th-century satire is sly like a fox

     
     

Don Bender and Eric Damon Smith in Volpone - City Lit Theater.  Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Volpone
   
Written by Ben Jonson
Music composed by Kingsley Day
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Volpone, or The Fox, was written by Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century in just five weeks. It was first performed by the King’s Men at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606. City Lit Theater’s production is the company’s fourth production of their 31st season.

Volpone tells the story of an old miser, Volpone (Don Bender) who, with his servant Mosca (Eric Damon Smith), fakes a deathly illness in order to convince a handful of wealthy men to shower him with expensive gifts after promising each that they are his sole heir. Bender fits into the part of Volpone like a glove. From his voice to his body language, Bender owns the part as well as the stage. Bender’s Volpone is slimy, greedy and everything you would hope to see from such a character. Likewise, Smith’s Mosca is simply entertaining as Volpone’s faithful servant. He plays up the character and is quite funny as he help to Don Bender as Volpone by Ben Jonson - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.work over the wealthy men as they arrive to pay tribute to the “dying” Volpone. Smith, like Bender, understands just want is required of the character, and Smith is both charming and persuasive as Mosca, like a good salesman who could convince anyone man to buy anything he was selling.

Written in the 1600s, Volpone is written in Early Modern English, but the cast does a wonderful job of making the script accessible to the audience. That being said, the script’s dense at times, and while the energy continues to run high through the performance, the action can seem to drag at times.

Occasionally, Volpone calls on his fool (Ben Chang), Castrone (David Fink) and Androgyno (Chris Pomeroy) to entertain him. Equipped with musical instruments, these three sing and play and are a joy. They never fail to get the audience laughing with the lightness and humor of their performances. They are not the best singers but that fact is pushed aside because they’re so enjoyable to watch on stage.

The men whom Volpone tricks are Corvino (Alex Shotts), Corbaccio (Larry Baldacci) and Voltore (Clay Sanderson). These three men deliver exact portrayals of rich and greedy men who think themselves quite clever when, in fact, there are gullible and easily duped. All three men do a fine job, but Shotts in particular as Corvino takes his character over-the-top, not in an obnoxious way, but in a way that works for a satire. He’s very funny in his characterization and his body language.

For the most part the staging is fine-tuned, although Laura Korn, who plays Corvino’s wife Celia, is stiff in her movements and does not completely commit to her actions.

The set, designed by William Anderson, is simple in its style and coloring. With an art deco style set in the 1920s, the palate is of muted colors like brown, beige, blue and black, and there’s not a lot of flair. The simplicity of the set design offers a nice backdrop for the crazy antics of the show and does not detract from the performance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
       

Patti Roeder and Don Bender in Volpone - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight. Eric Damon Smith (left) as Mosca and Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

Volpone plays at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, through February 27. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 773-293-3682 or visiting citylit.org.

All photos by Johnny Knight

  
  

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Review: El Stories – Red Line (Waltzing Mechanics)

     
     

Passionate passengers tell their stories

     
    

CTA red line belmont stop

  
Waltzing Mechanics present
  
El Stories: Red Line
   
Adapted and Directed by Thomas Murray
at
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 23  | 
tickets: $10  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

As it crosses the city, the Red Line delivers its own cross-section within every car on each train. This inexhaustible supply of “war stories”–from bemused or outraged commuters and less than passive passengers–supplies the oral histories in Waltzing Mechanics’ hour-long trove of an urban travelogue.

waltzing mechanics - el storiesAs fluid as their material, the ten young performers, smoothly blocked by adaptor Thomas Murray, keep their imaginary el ride real. There’s a story for almost every stop from Jackson to Howard, with the action as random and revealing as accidental encounters and unintended intimacies deliver. Happily, given the Mechanics’ tough-loving sympathy for life’s underdogs, there’s little condescension in these vignettes.

So, not only do we hear about the homeless guy who took a dump on the Jackson stop’s platform, we also learn how in his crazy way he tried to warn his fellow travelers not to look before, well, nature took its course.

Imagine the craziest Red line trip you could take from downtown through Uptown to Rogers Park, with close encounters that are sometimes, well, too close for comfort. Along the wild way you meet a loud huckster who creates fake gospel songs to promote her incoherent promotions. A bicyclist who’s also a serial abuser of books from the CPL carefully wraps up evidence of his neglect. A cute blue-eyed stranger reluctantly reveals why he’s heading west–by showing the needle marks on his arms that he hopes will gradually fade away.

     
el train interior CTA red line wilson stop

A screamer discharges his mania at the station and suddenly silences himself on the train. Between naps, a drunk eats the world’s largest sub sandwich. News of Patrick Swayze’s death spreads like wildfire throughout a car. There’s a caped crusader, two very inept flash-mob “twins,” a diva who cleans her eyeliner brush on the seat, out-of-control kids, an imbecile who thinks the Union Jack is the Nazi swastika, a hand that goes up the wrong butt during a tight trip, a group of guys whose sexist rap is spread all over the car, a jerk who confuses a brush with a push, and all those who just don’t want to get involved, even when someone needs help.

All that the CTA provides so generously for only $2.25 is even more concentrated in this wacky assemblage (which at $10 is a bargain as well). Judging from the title, it’s far from finished, not when there’s still blue, brown, pink, purple and green lines left to expose.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
   

cta subway train

El Stories continues through February 23rd, with 8pm performances Monday-Wednesday @ City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr.  $10 general admission at door; advanced tickets available here.  More info: waltzingmechanics.org/EL_Stories.html 


Artists

 

Adapted from original interviews and directed by Thomas Murray

Featuring Bryan Campbell, Nick Chandler, Zack Florent, Lance Hill, Keely Leonard, Eric Loughlin, Adrienne Matzen, Eleni Pappageorge, Shariba Rivers, and Margaret Scrantom.

Stage managed by Tina Frey

  
  

REVIEW: The Wind in the Willows (City Lit Theater)

 
 

Another triumph in Toad Hall

 
 

Wind in the Willows - City Lit Theater

  
City Lit Theater presents
   
  
The Wind in the Willows
  
Written by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted and Composed by
Douglas Post
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You can never weary of a good old friend. This is the latest of many times that The Wind in the WillowsDouglas Post‘s delightful musical play based on Kenneth Grahame’s beloved animal fantasy – has trod the boards (its first, 1983 version was called “Toad of Toad Hall”). City Lit’s last revival was only last year.

With each mounting, it’s increasingly obvious how faithful Post’s supple score and rollicking "story theater" script remain to the strengths of Grahame’s beloved tale, particularly the author’s delight in the English countryside and its evergreen changes of season. The animals are perfect British stereotypes, especially Toad’s upper-class twit, as is the class consciousness that pits the underclass of the Wild Wood (weasels, stoats, and ferrets) against the more civilized creatures of the riverbank and underground.

The story, you might recall, concerns the much tested friendship of the plucky Water Rat, gentle Mole, and gruff Badger for Grahame’s most whimsical creation, the self-inflated Mr. Toad (a very spoiled animal who grew up scarcely changed). A creature of unbridled appetite and nettled by a boundless ego, Toad is always hot after some new obsession, particularly motorcars, which he loves to steal and wreck. His loyal if frustrated friends break their brains trying to save him from himself, even when it means an intervention right out of A&E. They must rescue his elegant Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets who infest it when Toadie is incarcerated. Only after his friends’ concerted effort does Mr. Toad learn some late humility. (But how long until the next obsession?)

Ranging from honest Sondheim ”homage” (the Wildwooders’ "Down with the Toad") to the tenderness of the "My Home" ballad sung by a homesick Rat and Mole, Post’s score (nicely sung against a recorded accompaniment) supports its story splendidly. Terry McCabe

 serves it equally well as director of a revival that spins its tale with inexhaustible grace and charm (though the scene containing the mystical "Song of the Piper," however rich with Grahame’s love of nature, doesn’t fit the story). But the lovely “Christmas Carol, sung by the field mice, hedgehogs, mole, rat and otter, is a perfect holiday touch.

Alan Donahue’s set is redolent of giant cattails sewn together with patches of an earth-colored quilt, and with the British accents accurately in place, Post’s recipe loses none of its flavor. Tom Weber delivers sturdy work as the water-loving Rat who’s plucky, resourceful and the ultimate friend in need. An enchanting portrayal, Catherine Gillespie‘s Mole is full of wonderment at the great world above ground. Though lacking the critter’s usual Scottish accent, Edward Kuffert‘s Badger well conveys the elder animal’s irascible dignity, tough love and no-nonsense common sense, and Sean Knight is a funny and spirited duffer as good old Otter.

But the ongoing pleasure remains Mr. Toad, and in this revival Ed Rutherford , his rubber face conveying all the devious intensity of this paragon of pomposity, has made the role all his own. Children love his hammy selfishness and adults will see in Toad no small amount of human

”déjà vu”. Mr. Toad is forever.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Citi-Lit Theater logo

Production Artists

 

Ensemble

Kate Andrulis, Sarah Bright, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Catherine Gillespie, Sean Knight, Edward Kuffert, Aaron Lawson, Brian LeTraunik, Lauren Noelle Morgan, Shawn Quinlan, Lauren Romano, Ed Rutherford, and Tom Weber

Wild In The Willows logoProduction Team

The musical arrangements are by Kevin O’Donnell with additional vocal arrangements by Andra Veils Simon, musical direction by Nick Sula, and choreography by Andrew Waters

The designers are Matthew Cummings (props), Alan Donahue (set), Sarah Hughey (lighting), and Ricky Lurie (costumes).

REVIEW: Kennedy’s Children (Promethean Ensemble)

  
  

Kennedy’s Children, all grown up

 

 scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath

       
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
   
Kennedy’s Children
   
Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Dec. 5   |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In a theatre world where children of the ‘60s are being edged out by Millennials, Robert Patrick’s 1974 eulogy for the Kennedy era, Kennedy’s Children, seems a tad dusty. It touches on over-exploited “what did the flower children really achieve” themes, but can keep its freshness more often than not. Although the play—more of a series of monologues, really—could easily fall into becoming another diatribe bemoaning the 1960’s, Patrick’s skilled use of language and narrative saves us from that fate. Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, directed by Terry McCabe, sees a link between the disillusionment of the 70’s and the disillusionment of post-“Yes We Can” America. The connection is there, although the relevance is clouded by the history lessons. Promethean’s production never escapes being a period piece, but it’s one that still resonates.

Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2 McCabe and his team don’t mess with Patrick’s script at all, refusing to deconstruct, overanalyze, update – or whatever the kids are doing this season. Instead, they opt for a straightforward production that presents the play much like it might have been seen in the tiny off-off-Broadway venues Patrick loved so much. On a dreary night in 1974, Valentine’s Day (an absurdly specific choice that is not utilized enough as it should be by the text), five world-weary souls take over a dive bar in a dingy section of New York (pretty much any part during the ‘70s).

Taking turns, the quintet orate their tales, thoughts, and philosophies straight to the audience, never acknowledging the others on-stage (apart from hailing down the silent bartender, of course). There’s the Marilyn Monroe-fixated Carla (Devon Candura), a starlet who never made it and never will, even though she’s slept with enough producers. Then there’s Mark (Nick Lake), a drug-addled, slightly insane Vietnam veteran who reads letters to his mother and entries in his diary. Of course, Patrick includes a hippie past her prime, Rona (Anne Korajczyk). The most autobiographical character is Sparger (Tom Weber), a gay performer who’s worked in just about every back room, church basement, and community center. The play is rounded out by Wanda (Shawna Tucker), an aging schoolteacher with a Kennedy obsession.

As you probably guessed, this isn’t a very uplifting experience.   Kennedy’s Children is sort of about Kennedy, but it’s really about a collective consciousness, one that’s been battered and bruised into depression. It’s not surprising that the play dabbles in over-the-top disenchantment and cynicism. Maybe when Kennedy, King, and Hendrix were recently buried Patrick’s tribute tapped into unspoken ideas, but by now a lot of the ground has been covered multiple times. That’s not to say this play should be tossed in the garbage. The first half is clunky and exposition-heavy, but the stories heat up in the second act, causing the whole production to suck in the audience.

 

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 5 Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 4

This play needs outstanding performances to survive, and McCabe’s cast is up to the challenging, direct-address style piece. Tucker is the highlight of the production, lending her portrayal of Wanda some skittish neurosis and just a dab of blind hope. If any character is constructive, it’s Wanda, who went out to teach children, inspired by the memory of the fallen president. Weber and Candura are also engrossing; they’re prone to tragedy and histrionics, but so are their characters. Korajczyk and Lake are weaker performers. Korajczyk revels in Rona’s cynicism too much, and Lake pushes the crazy too hard.

In the end, McCabe’s search for relevance is successful. I’m not a child of Kennedy, but Patrick’s sad stories still struck a nerve. The bar patrons’ mopeyness teeters on self-indulgent, but the disappointment rings true.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2

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REVIEW: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (City Lit Theater)

 

The Bodiless Head That Wasn’t Dead

 

 Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

    
City Lit Theatre presents
   
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
   
Written by Stephen F. Murray and Brian Pastor
Based on
novel by Washington Irving
Directed by
Stephen Murray
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Halloween and harvest seem to go together. It’s as if, when the crops are in, the ghouls are out. The land lies fallow and that vacuum is filled by supernatural interlopers, encouraged by the lengthening nights and the coming cold. One of the most infamous is the Headless Horseman, a former Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannon ball, now gallops furiously at midnight, hurling it at unwary travelers and taking them back with him to the bowels of hell.

He’s the main menace in Washington Irving’s delightful fable, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” though a minor one is the thuggish Brom Bones, a bully who recalls the equally intimidating Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.” The story’s victim, of course, is the itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, an awkward booby and suspicious as the one scholar in this hamlet of Sleepy Hollow just outside Tarrytown. Poor gangly Ichabod seems even more ridiculous when he falls for the heiress Katrina Van Tussel, only to fall victim to both Bones and his horse Daredevil, as well as the fearsome Horseman. His undoing follows an ill-fated fall quilting bee that goes terribly wrong when Ichabod clumsily courts the cold Katrina (a name to reckon with). Riding his not so trusty speed Gunpowder, Ichabod is launched into a race from hell or to it, it isn’t quite clear.

This is the engaging plot of a Halloween classic that in a mere hour City Lit brings to full life with an impassioned solo performance by co-adaptor Brian Pastor. His accuracy in portraying these Dutch caricatures from New Amsterdam is matched by his ability to paint stirring word pictures of the haunted glens and ponds, especially as feared by the locals.

Matthew Bivins’ original folk score and the live Foley sound effects (as if for a radio broadcast) by Shawn Goudie add considerable texture to Pastor’s talespinning prowess. Props count a lot here, like a bowling ball suggesting the cannon ball that shortened the Hessian wraith, a doll house to suggest the Van Tussel’s gentry status, and percussive instruments to suggest the trotting, then galloping steeds.

It all makes for some potent storytelling: Pastor’s “pliable and persevering” Ichabod is a sad martyr, punished, it seems, for daring to marry above his station. If only he hadn’t closed to school early to go to this harvest dance and the horrors that happened…

The one problem with the text is that the adaptation declares that this is Irving’s most important story. Not true: That distinction clearly belongs to “Rip Van Winkle.”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

REVIEW: Lovers (City Lit Theater)

Half winner, half loser

 

City Lit Theater - Lovers

    
City Lit Theater presents
  
Lovers
  
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Brian Friel’s Lovers is divided into two stories, “Winners” and “Losers.” The former shows a day in the life of two teenagers preparing to be wed, the latter recounts the history of a middle-aged married couple. United by their Irish setting and a common thread of underlying sorrow, the two stories reveal how the fantasies people associate with love are crushed by the circumstances of the real world. Bleak. But the poster is two withering roses, so don’t say City Lit Theater didn’t warn you.

Ironically, Winners is the weaker of the two, suffering from a lack of clarity that makes the monologue-heavy script drag. The main action shows teenaged lovers Mag (Catherine Gillespie) and Joe (Joey deBettencourt) studying for their last set of exams, not allowed to return to school due to Mag’s unplanned pregnancy. As they expose their hopes and fears for married life, two narrators (Walter Brody and Maggie Cain) describe the events that lead up to and occur after the study session, City Lit Theater - Lovers2 emphasizing the moment’s significance for the lovers. There isn’t much action in the script, with characters spending most of their time recounting past experiences or ruminating about the future, so the actors have to work even harder to keep the audience’s attention.

Gillespie and DeBettencourt succeed in capturing the innocence of their characters – with moments like an Old West style shootout between the two and an imaginary gang of their enemies – but they struggle at giving weight to their new adult problems. Much of this is due to the pace of Mag’s early monologues, rushed to the point where emotional shifts are lost and the Irish dialect is compromised. As Mag and Joe’s fate is revealed by the narrators, dramatic irony keeps the proceedings moderately interesting, but “Winners” never regains the momentum it loses at the start.

“Losers” is the saving grace of the evening, with Brody and Cain retuning to the stage as Andy and Hannah, a middle aged couple saddled with the burden of Hannah’s pious mother (Kay Schmitt). Forced to join the matriarch for nightly prayers and devotions to Saint Philomena, Andy learns the hard way that “the family that prays together, stays togethers.” The actors get an immediate hand up on the earlier scene by getting a script where things actually happen, but they also are much more adept at capturing the melancholy that runs underneath the humor. Director Terry McCabe provides plenty of slapstick physical comedy as the lovers try to find ways to fool around without disturbing Mrs. Wilson, and Brody is able to make the transition from youthful exuberance to seasoned seriousness that are lost on the young actors in “Winners.”

Lovers concludes on a cynical note, with the characters’ failures overweighing their triumphs. City Lit’s production is able to escape that fate, with a second act that overcomes the missteps of the first to create an ultimately enjoyable evening of theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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