REVIEW: Effie (The Neapolitans)

When ‘Gossip Girl’ meets Orwell’s 1984

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The Neapolitans present
 
Effie
 
by Cory Tamler
directed by Brea Hayes
at EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru May 9th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

So many things go wrong with The Neapolitans’ production of Effie. Written by Cory Tamler and directed by Brea Hayes, they attempt a modern retelling of EuripidesIphigenia, wherein Agamemnon is President of the United States, Clytemnestra, or Clyta (Anna Carini) is First Lady, Achillles (Andrew Burden Swanson) is their daughter’s fiancé, and Iphigenia, or Effie (Hilary Williams), is the sacrificial victim. On stage at EP Theatre, it’s a premise we are all meant to take seriously—no comedy, satire or irony here. The play is meant to have modern political and social import because, in this dystopian fantasy of America, the bombings of the Twin Towers on 9/11 were not the end. Instead, in Effie, terrorists have hit city after city, reducing America to an unstable wreck of a security-compromised nation.

effie-poster How like Iraq. A couple of years ago, I read an essay by an Iraqi journalist about the trials and tribulations of trying to drive to work in the morning in Baghdad. Just getting from point A to point B meant driving through a gauntlet of checkpoints at which terrorist attacks could take place at any moment. In fact, being stopped at a checkpoint made one more vulnerable to attack. He wrote of his daily experience that the moment of attack would be unknown, the type of attack was unknown, the group behind the attack was unknown, and the reasons for the attack were unknown.

The stiff and drawn-out exposition at the beginning of Effie attempts, but fails, to establish the tone of danger and uncertainty in the state of the nation. Plus, such striking similarities between this play’s dystopian USA and recent daily life in Iraq go completely unacknowledged, leaving it utterly untapped for dramatic resonance.

On with the premise: as a last ditch effort to save America from the terrorists, Agamemnon calls on his daughter to become the first suicide bomber—a lovely symbolic gesture that the government hopes will inspire other Americans, perhaps especially young Americans, to become suicide bombers. Near the end of the play, crowds gather to urge Effie on to her glorious, patriotic fate. In the end, just as in Euripides’ classic, Effie willingly submits herself with some protestation, some tears, but not too much ado.

This story has been told many times before and in much better ways. In fact, this version makes me tremble in terror—not that our country could end up like this—but that the playwright and the producers themselves seem so blindly obsessed with romancing the jihad – Christian style. Without irony it asks what would get people to commit the ultimate sacrifice for their country—as if there aren’t Americans already sacrificing for their country now. Well, mostly poor and working class Americans are, but let’s come back to that later.

This play depicts NO dissent, raised in any coherent or consistent manner, against the suicide bomber notion. NO characters provide decent counterpoint as to whether suicide bombing is needed. More importantly, no character asks whether suicide bombing will actually stop terrorist attack. NOTHING politically aware or militarily feasible penetrates the bubble around this tawdry melodrama about an elite family. (I mean, the military has developed drones for attack. Why turn to live suicide bombers?) Yet the audience is called upon to take their melodrama and its political possibilities seriously. Finally, the work is rife with all the self-absorption of “Gossip Girl” — again without a scintilla of irony or a hint of fun.

Tragically, the Neapolitans are in way over their heads with this retelling—but are they even aware how far and how deeply they have stepped in it? At one point, Achilles, Effie’s fiancé, lectures her on the value of knowing history. Then he proceeds to say that nothing happened during the Cold War, it was all a stalemate. There is no counterpoint to this statement; again, nothing indicates that the audience should take it ironically. Everything points to giving Achilles’ dialogue credibility.

Really? Nothing happened during the Cold War? A little thing called Vietnam happened during the Cold War–it happened because of the Cold War. Furthermore, America’s active participation with troops in Vietnam began with a little thing called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On August 4, 1964, President Johnson went before the American people and pronounced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice fired on an American destroyer in an unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a lie. It was a lie that the American media then ran with. It was a lie that started Vietnam for real for Americans and ended up sacrificing 50,000 American lives–most of them averaging 18 years of age.

Young people are always being asked to sacrifice their lives by older people who start and maintain wars–conventional wars or the War On Terror. It’s just that privileged young people usually get exempted from having to make that sacrifice. Is that what makes Effie’s sacrifice special?–that she’s a rich, privileged, sheltered and self-absorbed teenager being called to a sacrifice that’s de rigueur for poor and working class kids during times of war? If Effie’s being called to sacrifice, is it because all the drones have failed and all the poor and working class kids have already died in the war and now the country must use her to rally the youth of the upper classes–if they haven’t escaped to Canada already?

Have The Neapolitans really thought this thing through?

Let us kindly rename this play a work in progress, not a “world premiere,” as touted in the press release. If there is one scene worth salvaging for further development, it’s the one in which Effie realizes, “I don’t get to be a person . . . I’m such a pawn, I might as well be made of plastic.” That moment is golden.

Hilary Williams pulls out the stops to play Effie sympathetically, without denying her character’s total self-absorption. Anna Carini makes one tough, stylish, dangerous, and maternally flawed Clytemnestra. The Chorus (Brandon Thompson and Danielle Maihoffer) takes a while to warm up. Awkward exposition provides many speed bumps for them through the beginning of the play. But the cleverness of their presence in the piece eventually reveals itself; their final sections are also worth saving. As Achilles, Swanson is given the burden of pronouncing that ridiculous dialogue about knowing your history. The scene between Achilles and Clyta also bogs down under maudlin melodramatic weight. It is truly difficult to tell if the fault is in the dialogue or the acting.

Stefin Stebert’s production design provides some style in costuming and a decidedly stylish upper class apartment for the set. Alas, good style cannot save Effie in its current incarnation.

What if peace could be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life? What if the life were yours?” Such is the statement printed in bold graphics on the cover of the play’s program. I think The Neapolitans are being deeply sincere in asking that question.

Well, if peace really and truly can be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life—as The Neapolitans suggest it can–then that life is not going to be mine. If an unaware, apolitical, 16-year-old girl from a twisted political family will take my place, so much the better. If she is so plastic, she allows herself to be led to the slaughter even when the alternative lies right at her elbow, well then bon voyage. If she is so ignorant of history, she can’t even detect the ignorance of her fiancé while he lectures her about being ignorant of history, then perhaps she was too sheltered or stupid to survive in this world anyway. Daddy is sacrificing you; Mom is sleeping with your boyfriend; and your pontificating boyfriend has been fucking you and your mother at the same time. Maybe it is time to die.

That death may indeed be tragic, but you can’t make me care about the life that is being sacrificed. Not when real people’s lives are being sacrificed to the two wars we are currently in and with an economic crisis brought on our heads by financial elites playing with our future.

 
 
Rating:  ★½
 
 

 

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REVIEW: Songs for a Future Generation (Lights Out Theatre)

Dancing to its own tune!

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Lights Out Theatre presents

Songs for a Future Generation

 

Written by Joe Tracz
Directed by Mary Rose O’Connor
At EP Theatre, 1820 S. Halsted

Thru March 13th  (more info)

By Katy Walsh

What does the future hold? The good news is dance parties! The bad news is no lobster! Lights Out Theatre Company presents Songs for a Future Generation. Set in the future, in a galaxy far, far away, Songs for a Future Generation imagines the SFAFG1continued challenges of hosting successful theme parties, searching for ‘the one’, and saving the… rock lobster. It is present day themes with science fiction twists. The party hosts are clones. The love seeker is a time traveler. The seafood advocate is an  intergalactic fugitive. Songs for a Future Generation is multiple stories unfolding during a series of dance parties. Watching the show is like being a wallflower, you are delighted by the rocking bash but uncertain how to engage in what’s happening.

The cast rockets with pure octane energy. The best moments are the choreographed (Anna Lucero) dance sequences involving the whole cast. The ensemble is perfectly in-sync in the dance. They bop with such enthusiasm, it feels like you are gawkers at the cool kids’ party rather than an audience at a play. As Marika clones, Andrea DeCamp, Hailey Wineland and Annie Lydia Litchfield do a wonderful job being unique while being in unison. Jaclyn Keough (The Kid), looking like an androgynous “It’s James Dean,” was fascinating to watch in her antics to rescue the rock lobster. Jonathan Matteson (Error) is the lovestruck time traveler bringing old school charm to a hedonistic generation. The costumes (Bradley Burgess-Donaleski) and hairstyles are a fun, sexy, hot mess.

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For any dance party to be successful, certain elements must be present. For Songs for a Future Generation, there is definitely the right music, dance and energy. The buzz killer is often straddling the party balance between “too much” and “not enough.” In the dance numbers, keeping the large cast in step together is impressive. In scenes, where the action is low and the cast is hugging the walls, the stage’s emptiness is “nobody came to my party” awkward. The script also becomes party victim to “too much” or “not enough.” Although there are multiple storylines to follow, the content is light and frothy. The plotlines are basic and predictable. The rave is definitely the boogie. Life is a collection of celebrations. Every festivity doesn’t have to be legendary. Treat Songs for a Future Generation like the eye candy at a party, he’s pretty to look at but a strong connection isn’t necessarily present. It’s a fun hour without any emotional or intellectual commitment. Sometimes, it is just about dancing!

Rating: ★★★

Running Time: One hour and twenty-five minutes (no intermission, 10 minute delayed start).

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Review: EP Theatre’s “Baal”

EP’s “Baal” Far from Ballsy

 

EP Theatre presents:

Baal
by Bertolt Brecht
co-directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy
1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru October 3rd (tickets)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Because it is the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most important theatre theorist of the 20th Century, Baal is a fascinating work. The sprawling drama was written in 1918, before Brecht nailed down the Epic theatre style which would become his trademark. Glimmers of Brecht’s later techniques can still be found, though, such as the use of song and direct address. EP Theatre’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music baalaccompaniment by the band The Loneliest Monk. Although the production values of this Baal can be pretty ingenious, it lacks clarity and comes across as sloppy and confusing.

There is a lot of love for Brecht’s first work right now, with not one but two full productions happening this season (TUTA is also producing the play next May). Now Baal is an interesting little play for studying the writer’s development, but Brecht’s later masterpieces totally overshadow his debut in terms of quality. I wondered why any company would select it over his later works, but I was reminded how devastating and resonant the story can be. Drawing on Romantic period themes, the play follows a young, self-destructive poet with an insatiable appetite for liquor, sex, and verse. Desensitized to the world, Baal leaves shattered hearts and lives in his wake.

Co-directors AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s production is so muddled; however, the full potential impact of the play is lost. Most of the locations or spans of time are never defined. This makes the action of story and relationships of the characters hard to piece together. There’s also a diverse collection of tertiary characters that are double-cast, but these are also ill-defined. The narrative in general in jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect are disordered.

EP-theater-logo Even though Baal was written before the Brechtian style became the Brechtian style, there are still opportunities to use his powerful methods. Brecht himself retooled the play in 1926 to more closely fit his tastes. I was perplexed by the fact that EP’s production seems to shy away from embracing Brechtian techniques when they can be such a fun challenge for a smaller company. The live musicians are a start, especially when they occasionally interact with the actors. But there isn’t much of an attempt to play around with the audience; it feels like we’re watching a realistic play with some poetry tossed into the dialogue.

The performances might be to blame here, many being way more moody than cynically detached. Craig Cunningham was able to encapsulate the moroseness and aloofness of Baal, along with some of the humor (like when he’s playing with a fresh corpse). Shawn Pfautsch’s Ekart, Baal’s slightly more aware best friend, refreshingly punched up the poetry of the script. However, I’m pretty sure Pfautsch and Cunningham were secretly competing for wobbliest walk and seeing who could get closest to the other. The best performance in the production, hands down, is Gus Menary as Johannes. The part is tiny, but Menary’s portrayal was disturbingly underplayed, in particular when he describes how the body of his dead sister must look after years of floating in a river.

David Beaupre’s drab set design allowed the actors to explore different levels and could be transformed into a myriad of locales. With all of the possibilities the set opened up, it feels as if the set wasn’t fully utilized by the directors. The lighting was possibly the worst lighting design I’ve ever seen, sometimes highlighting pointless sections of wall and other times not providing enough visibility to see the actors. The Loneliest Monk is a saving grace of this production, though, providing complex and haunting ambiance.

The live music along with the actors’ obvious respect for Brecht’s evocative poetry makes the production acceptable. With more attention to story and technique, though, EP’s “biggest production to date” could’ve been destructive.

Rating: ««

Review: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Going On a Tear With Bertolt Brecht

 

EP Theater presents:

Baal
by Bertolt Brecht
directed by A.J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy
through October 3rd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

One thing you can say about EP Theater’s production of Baalthey do nothing by halves. They flounder and flop like a fish out of water in the first act, only to snap into riveting concentration and power with the second.

Written in 1918, when Bertolt Brecht was twenty years young, snapping a whip against his thigh as he accosted women in the streets, Baal clearly shows Decadent and Aesthetic movement influences—the dark side of 19th century Romanticism. Its action is raw and scandalous; its language is thickly poetic – so thickly poetic that character motives can be obscured. So if the actor hasn’t made clear choices about what the words mean, there’s no way the audience will ever deduce it. It’s a production you can both love and hate, kind of like the eponymous character himself.

But, in the final analysis, what’s not to love about two bad-boy artists tearing through women, booze, money, towns, and finally each other–violating every convention, assaulting morality to the last breath? It’s been quite while since I’ve witnessed dramatic characters with this much absolute thinking and vehement passion. That’s what makes it so groovy. The addition of The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago rock-art duo, playing a live original score, creates the perfect unifying and satisfying bohemian touch.

What’s not so groovy is the monstrously amateurish first act. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked the writing to get it to the point it is now,” says Executive Director, Jason Ewers. “There were scene sections we just didn’t know what to do with. But what attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was.”

Perhaps then, that obnoxious term, work-in-progress, still applies here. The actors still have to gain better mastery of Brecht’s language. Some actors do not have the heft and projection to deliver it, while others attempt to build dramatic tension by shouting lines. The ensemble cast is cohesive and meaningfully responsive to each other, but work on clarifying and personalizing the subtext to all that heavy-duty poetry remains the bulk of unfinished work for the first act.

Thank goodness the difference between first and second acts is like night and day. Thank goodness A. J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s direction brings on full-bore pansexuality, as well as the physical and emotional devastations of amoral excess. Baal and Ekart are a fabulously doomed couple, even if Baal is the more fabulously doomed of the two.

Finally, it needs some nudity. Seriously. That’s not a prurient suggestion. Okay, it is. But is it in keeping with the spirit of Decadence.

One can shake ones’ head in astonishment at the way this particular show swings from depths to great heights, but no one can deny EP Theater’s ability to take risks. Its capacity for daring and risk wins it respect, even with this significantly flawed and unfinished production.

Rating: ««