Review: The Metal Children (Next Theatre Company)

     
     

A fiery display of uncompromising conflict

     
     

Laura T Fisher, Caitlin Collins, Sean Cooper in 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

   

Next Theatre Company presents

 
The Metal Children
 

Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $25 – $40  |  more info  

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The inspiration for Adam Rapp’s 2010 play, The Metal Children, now having its Midwest premiere with Next Theatre Company directed powerfully by Joanie Schultz, stems from Rapp’s own personal experience with the subject matter. Rapp’s 1997 real-life young adult novel, “Buffalo Tree”, deals with very different topics than the heated novel his fictional character, Tobin Falmouth (Sean Cooper), has written with The Metal Children. “Buffalo Tree” was a fictional account of a 12-year old boy in a juvenile detention center (something Rapp is also familiar with), while Falmouth’s The Metal Children is a novel revolving around teenage pregnancy and abortion. However, both were banned from the school curriculum lead by an opposition of the Christian right. In Rapp’s play, this sets the stage for a fierce debate between art and religion, modern feminism and the purpose of education.

Bradley Mott and Laura T Fisher in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael BrosilowBack to Rapp’s real-life novel, in 2005, “The Buffalo Tree” was banned from the school curriculum of a Middle American high school, causing a heated debate involving students, teachers and parents. The school board meeting was attended by Rapp and was covered by the New York Times. This was the incident causing Rapp to write The Metal Children, which brings his fictional author into the same scenario—only in many ways the similarities between Rapp’s life and his play end there. The journey he takes us on is both unpredictable and disturbing, as any fan of Rapp’s plays has come to expect from the playwright of such unflinching plays as Red Light Winter.

The play is set in the fictional town of Midlothia. While there are no specifics other than “Middle America” on the exact location, it could be assumed as Pennsylvania due to the moderate distance to New York implied, references to hills and the fact that Muhlenberg, PA was the actual site of Rapp’s 2005 controversy. Tobin Falmouth begins the play filming a video address for the school board debate addressing his controversial book, using a camcorder belonging to his agent, Bruno (Marc Grapey). Tobin is the picture of self deprecation: living in filth, receiving visits from his drug dealer and slutty neighbor, drugs, drinking and clinging onto any scrap of hope his ex-wife will return to him.

Bruno eventually persuades Tobin to make the trek to Midlothia and personally appear at the debate. He is largely convinced by an impassioned letter from a progressive English teacher, Stacey, defending his book. His first remarks after hearing Bruno read the letter are, “She sounds hot. Do you think she’s hot?” Well, flash-forward to a motel room in the middle of nowhere and we learn that Stacey (Paul Fagen) is not the attractive woman Tobin had in mind, but rather a gay man in his thirties who appears very on edge.

As events unfold, Midlothia begins to seem more like a Steven King setting with spray painted cryptic warnings, gold painted teenage girls, driving rain, phone calls with vacuum cleaners on the other end, means of escape destroyed and one creepy looking pig-masked man with nunchucks. Tobin meets his devotees in Edith (strongly played by veteran actor Meg Thalken), who runs the motel, and her daughter, Vera (a defiantly complex Caroline Neff). Our hero continues to test our expectations, however Rapp excels in creating empathy for unspeakable actions.

The school board debate arrives after an evening of unbelievable occurrences. It is led by a civil and church leader, Otto (Bradley Mott). Shultz and her design team create the most perfect atmosphere for this scene. (There were several moments where I felt the urge to raise my hand, shout out and participate in the debate.) Caitlin Collins, as Tami, the conservative Christian student opposed to the book, is terrifyingly fascinating in her accusations that “Tobin Falmouth is attempting to glorify teen pregnancy.” Vera’s rebuttal is determined exclaiming, “To remove art from a culture, is to name that culture dead!” Laura T. Fisher is yet another standout in the debate as Roberta Cupp, the conservative community leader. When Tobin finally speaks, he clearly is less passionate than anyone about his book; he instead tells the heartbreaking story of what compelled him to write The Metal Children. The brilliance of Rapp lies in that the more we learn of the content of this book and its consequences, the more that even the most progressive audience members find it difficult to choose which side is “right.” What is clear is that each side is far too invested in their own cause to ever understand the other.

Shultz’s direction is masterful in her gradual unraveling of these strange events. Scenic designer, Chelsea Warren, creates efficient use of the space using tracked blinds to frame each scene. Shultz’s cast is also of the highest caliber. Cooper is decidedly subtle in his soft-spoken, yet versatile performance as Tobin. A conversation he has with a certain voicemail is devastating. In addition, Cooper has a strong resemblance to Rapp in this somewhat autobiographical role.

Rapp’s plays rarely take place in a realistic world. There are numerous events in his plays that defy society’s logic. However, Rapp is also one of the gustiest playwrights today and embraces fiction without reservation. His plays are decidedly “messy” with open questions, plot points left unsettled and mixed visceral emotions. The Metal Children is no exception, and with this intelligent, emotional and honestly executed production, the boundaries are tested of what contemporary realism can achieve on the stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Sean Cooper and Marc Grapey in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Next Theatre Company’s Midwest Premiere of Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children continues through May 8th at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston. The performance schedule is: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Saturdays, April 23 and 30 and May 7 have an added 4 p.m. matinee. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 – $40, and can be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

  
  

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REVIEW: Madagascar (Next Theatre)

     
     

Flight and fright in a Roman hotel

     
     

Mick Weber and Carmen Roman in a scene from 'Madagascar' by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston

  
Next Theatre presents
  
Madagascar
  
Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by
Kimberly Senior
at
Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Now in an absorbing but ultimately frustrating Midwest premiere, J.T. Rogers’ 2004 puzzle play employs three characters who deliver concurrent confessions in the same stripped-down hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. They speak from different times and the subject of their unmotivated outpourings gradually becomes the strange vanishing of Gideon. A scion of wealth and privilege, this attractive young man went to Madagascar on a mission that may have ended in disappearance or death.

Nick Weber, Carmen Roman and Cora Vander Broek in a scene from "Madagascar" by J.T. Rogers - Next Theatre, EvanstonThe testimony is supplied by Lilllian (Carmen Roman), Gideon’s wealthy and detached mother; Gideon’s sister June (Cora Vander Broek), now working as a tour guide for the ancient ruins, and Lillian’s adulterous lover Nathan (Mark Weber), who is also an economist like the boy’s now-dead dad.

As they give themselves away, they provide clues about Gideon, an enigmatic beauty who seems to have been altogether too sensitive to the world’s wrongs; especially his mother’s coldness to him and warmth to Nathan.

Gideon’s discovery that his life was built on a lie (about his mother’s fidelity, his sister’s affection, Nathan’s loyalty to his father, or some schoolgirls recently raped in Africa?) seems to unhinge him and sets in motion a train of tragedies. Why is he so upset? “Because people just can’t be trusted!” and his mother is “selfish” and “grotesque.” Gideon sounds like a poor man’s Hamlet.

Sean Mallary’s lighting changes and the choreographed confessions blocked in Kimberly Senior’s staging keep the clue-mongering fluid and forceful. The play repeatedly raises the fascinating question of why some driven people all but will themselves to be missing persons. Do we have the right to disappear? Or do we owe it to others to keep our identity intact, however wrong it feels within?

Still, there’s too much deliberate or perverse mystery-mangling in this torturous witness to an escape that remains maddeningly evasive. There are too many blanks for the audience to fill in without finally feeling that the playwright hasn’t played fair with the facts.

Roman brings magisterial command to this ultimately devastated mother. Vander Broek’s questing sister, Gideon’s fraternal twin, gives us a refracted portrait of her brother. Weber’s Nathan supplies metaphors from micro-economics that shed a little light on the motivations or mentality of the missing Gideon.

If only this complex kid had appeared, we’d get some closure or at least an illusion of completion. But if you like to spend two hours not solving a missing person’s case, Madagascar is your ticket to nowhere.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  
Mick Weber and Carmen Roman in a scene from 'Madagascar' by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston Scene from Madagascar by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston 5

Scene from Madagascar by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston 7

 

   
   

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REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)

   
   

A heartfelt lesson on facing the music

 

Next_Piano_Teacher_1 (2)

   
Next Theatre presents
 
The Piano Teacher
 
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Next_Piano_Teacher_3 (2)

The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

  
  

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REVIEW: Unveiled (Next Theatre)

When Clothing Makes, or Unmakes, the Woman

 

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

  
Next Theatre presents
 
Unveiled
  
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through September 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Rohina Malik’s one-act play, Unveiled, could not have come at a more crucial moment. Hate crimes against Muslims are up, Muslims are denied opportunities to build places of worship all over the US (including Chicago), established mosques face vandalism and arson, and a self-righteous nut case in Florida threatened to burn the Koran to get national attention. Meanwhile, it’s an election year and job recovery crawls at a snail’s pace. Too many people are out of work and too many people still think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Directed by Kevin Heckman at Next Theatre, five Muslim women, each from a different culture, share two things in common: they all wear the veil, or hijab, and they all live in the West. What must it be like to be so visibly different from other women and be rendered a moving target by American uncertainty, fear and rage over 9/11? Malik unveils a Muslim womanhood that meets this challenge with strength, outspokenness, clarity, poetry, humor and faith.

These hardly seem like women cloistered behind a wall of restrictive and repressive tradition. They are very aware of the world they live in and its ongoing melding of East and West. They fiercely and graciously adhere to their principles of hospitality. They speak up for themselves, drawing from a deep well of cultural riches.

The first woman designs wedding dresses from her small shop on Devon Avenue. Yet she is no mere seamstress. In every way she is an artist. “You’re not the first American girl who wants the Bollywood look,” she chats up her current client. “All the girls have wanted it since ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” Wedding dresses are her art and that art is just as dependent on the personality of the client as her own imagination. “You are not choosing me. I am choosing you,” she tells the prospective bride.

Weddings and family are what she knows, but a hate crime almost destroys her drive as an artist. Attending the wedding of a woman getting married in one of her creations, she and her children become the targets of the inchoate rage of an American couple attending another wedding nearby. What brings her back to her art again are her friends and a poem by Rumi: “Dance, when you’re broken. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. . . Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”

Malik’s one-act starts strong. Her characters are not just Muslim, not just from the Middle East or South East Asia; their multicultural backgrounds position them uniquely in the world. One is a Texan mother of the American South, not converting, but “reverting” to Islam. The other is a hip hop teen raised in West London who can’t stand her mother’s assimilationist choices. This girl’s own reaction to her mother’s generation has to do with the way her mom applied lemons to her daughter’s skin, when she was younger, to make it whiter.

Malik clearly wants to show a wide range of Muslim women and their individual reasons for claiming the veil. As such, most of her characters’ psychology is well-developed and their life stories powerfully integrate tradition, poetry and passages from the Koran. Of all the characters, only the Southern Muslim belle seems the weak and underdeveloped one. Upon opening night, Malik’s performance of this character also waned in accuracy. Her troubles with American Southern dialect were too apparent.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston
Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Of greater concern is the play’s repetitious monologue structure—the introduction of tea, the particular tea made the emblem of each Muslim woman’s culture; the introduction of a story which reveals a violent hate crime; and finally the character resorts to faith and culture to stand against it–by the time the fourth and fifth characters are introduced, the pattern becomes worn. Also, physical violence and verbal harassment are the only kinds of hate crime and speech directly addressed by these characters. Beyond the introduction of strong, self-determining Muslim women, Malik digs no further into the ways feminist critiques of the veil have been based on cultural and religious ignorance, and thus used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly, American feminists had to learn the hard way just how their work could be used by a right wing administration to further its imperialist ambitions.

Next’s production itself runs almost seamlessly and poetically. Unfortunately, sound problems, at opening, rendered the rap from the young hip hop Londoner almost indiscernible. The fuzz from the speaker system, cranked up to play over the drums, got in the way of the script.

However, no one can dispute the essential timeliness of this play, or its vitality and humanism. In the middle of anti-Muslim hysteria, how hopeful it is to discover a promising young playwright just beginning to explore terribly relevant themes. Next should be applauded for opening their season with such immediate work from a practically unknown playwright. Unveiled’s series of monologues has strong bones and beautiful language. The incorporation of Alex Wing’s music and Cynthia Sopata’s movement beautifully correspond to and amplify the storytelling. Rohina Malik is one to watch. Get to know her.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Rohina Malik, in the poster for her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Productions Personnel

Written and performed by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
Scenic & Lighting Design by Jim Davis

Music by Alex Wing

Movement by Cynthia Sopata

Next Theatre announces their 30th-Anniversary Season

Next Theatre - War With Newts 

Scene from last season’s “The War With the Newts ★★★½

Next Theatre announces their

 

30th-Anniversary Season

 

Next Theatre Company announces their 30th  anniversary season, complete with three main stage plays receiving their Midwest premieres, along with their What’s Next Series focusing on new Chicago artists.  All productions, plus the What’s Next Series, are presented at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston.

 

Main Stage Shows

 

November 4 – December 5, 2010

 

  The Piano Teacher
   
  Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  When the sweet, cookie loving Mrs. K, the epitome of the caring grandmotherly piano teacher, reaches out to her old students, she discovers a chain of startling secrets that she can no longer keep hidden inside her piano bench. With breath-taking theatricality and stunning language, Julio Cho takes us on a journey of discovery that brings international responsibility into the sanctity of our family kitchen.
   

 

January 20 – February 20, 2011

 

  Madagascar
   
  Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Kimberly Senior
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  Director Kimberly Senior and internationally recognized playwright J.T. Rogers, the pair who brought you The Overwhelming, team up again to offer audiences another gripping thriller. In the same hotel room overlooking the Spanish steps in Rome, three Americans across three different moments in time find themselves alone.  A sister, a mother and a family friend grapple with loss, regret, and the nature of truth. Using his trademark cunning insight and grippingly eloquent characters, J.T. Rogers weaves a haunting story about the mysterious disappearance of a loved one, and the unexpected consequences that bring a family closer together.
   

 

April 14 – May 8, 2010

 

  The Metal Children
   
  Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
   
  Midwest Premiere
   
  What responsibility do artists have for the impact of their work? Provocative New York playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp offers a powerful portrait of small-town censorship and the American divide over family values in his newest play fresh from a sold-out Off-Broadway run, The Metal Children. A gifted New York writer attempts to defend his young adult novel to the same small American town hell bent on banning his work, causing an explosive encounter from which no one in the small Midwestern town will recover.
   

Tickets

All tickets for Main Stage shows are $20 – $40 with subscriber and student discounts available. Tickets may be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

 

After the fold (click on “Read more”):

  • 30th Anniversary Season new programming
  • “What’s Next Series” schedule
  • What’s Next” Lab
  • Panel Discussions

Next Theatre - Magical Exploding BoyDean Evans in last season’s “Magical Exploding Boy”  ★★★

  

     
     

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2

Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
         
         

REVIEW: Magical Exploding Boy (Next Theatre)

Transcending the need for words

 

magical-exploding-boy

 
Next Theatre presents
 
Magical Exploding Boy
 
Written and performed by Dean Evans
Next Theatre, Evanston
through April 3rd
(more info)

By Barry Eitel

For all those out there who are sick and tired of all the shows in Chicago filled with all those darn words in them, there is a production out there just for you. As part of their Dark Night Series, Next Theatre brings you Magical Exploding Boy, concocted by Dean Evans. And for those of us who enjoy vocabulary in our theatres, this wordless piece is still a wonderful time.

dean-suitcase Evans, ensemble member of The Neo-Futurists and Chicago Physical Theater, knows his miming. He studied at the School for Mime Theater at Kenyon College, and learned from master mimes Marcel Marceau and Stephen Niedzialkowsky. Magical Exploding Boy is his major piece, which he wrote and performs. He has taken the work to several theatres around the city over the past few years (as well as the Bahamas a few months ago). The fantastical one-man show integrates mime, clowning, props, great physical comedy, as well as more interpretive moments.

Considering the nature of the piece, it makes sense that Magical Exploding Boy doesn’t really follow much of a narrative arc. A lot of time is focused on a baby doll with removable limbs and several stock facial expressions. Like some sort of weird toy demon, the baby has the ability to take over part of Evans’ body. Sometimes the baby is mischievous, other times it’s a bit hornier. Evans takes on multiple personas in the piece. At one moment he is victim to the doll’s wishes, at another he plays both 4th Grade bully and wimp, later he is an amoeba, and he ends up in space dealing with botany experiments gone awry. These episodes follow each other pretty erratically; characters in one section don’t really relate to what just happened in the preceding story. It’s like flipping through channels late at night (when everything gets a bit stranger) – except Evans is the remote. The title of the work no doubt alludes to this—Evans “explodes” into these varied situations, and there is a fair amount of magic working in each little vignette.

dean-evans-dolphins2 It’s easier to plug into the funnier moments, like when Evans deals with the doll or when he beats himself up (and then defeats himself). When he is traveling in deep space or struggling underwater, it’s harder to relate. Evans’ performances are mesmerizing, but the length and depth in which he explores these scenes can drag the show down. They can also get confusing. Evans never loses sight, however. When he is underwater, he actually looks like a jellyfish or amoeba, and you earnestly believed that he is stuck alone in the far reaches of outer space. It’s really a matter of whether you are more into mimes or clowns.  (I guess I’m more on the goofy side.) And even though they might put you in a daze, the interpretive sections are dazzling and fun.

Evans is charming and inventive in his performance. The show, set on a more or less blank stage in front of a curtain, revolves totally around him; his charisma and personality drive the whole thing forward. His choice of props is both mundane and brilliant. They don’t take away from him at all but remain completely relatable. For example, at one point he has to throw away a tidbit of paper and he drags out a giant trashcan with ‘City of Evanston’ stamped on the front!

Although nothing is said, Evans envelops the nonverbal human experience, transcending the need for words. Although terms like “mimes” and “clowns” usually bring up ideas about lame street performers or wacky circus antics, Evans’ work reminds us that these are both established art forms with a ton to offer artistically. Magical Exploding Boy is a rare treat for a Chicago audience, a chance to see a trained physical actor perform without the crutch of words for a little over an hour.

 
Rating: ★★★