Review: Woyzeck (Oracle Theatre)

     
     

‘Woyzeck’ shows uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

  
Oracle Theatre presents
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Translated by David Steiger
Directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: free (public access)  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Woyzeck, now onstage at Oracle Theatre, is not just a searing, bold display of German expressionism, it’s also a unique theatrical experience of uncompromising vision, daring and macabre power. Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1837 tragedy about a working class soldier faced with insurmountable oppression, madness and betrayal has seen several revisions, including Werner Herzog’s film of the same name. David Steiger’s translation utilizes direct, clear poetry in expressing Woyzeck’s (Sean Patrick Ward) terrifying schizophrenic state. But is it the multiple elements pulled together by Max Truax’s direction that carry the day—or, rather, the unrelenting night–from which Woyzeck cannot escape.

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max TruaxEric Van Tassell’s lighting design, with its bleary reds and blues, melds perfectly with the projected images of wild fields inexorably buffeted by the wind (cinematography by Michael Fernandez and Jeremy Applebaum, video design by Max Truax and Bill Ryan, projectionist Ben Fuchsen). James Ogden’s set design elevates the stage to give us subterranean levels that reflect not only the hellish depths of Woyzeck’s mind but also the darker undercurrent of the human soul. One feels that when the actors are playing on top of the stage, they are always a step away from its precipice, emotionally as well as physically. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design crowns the production with its eerie nails-on-the-blackboard effects. Woyzeck is mad, but madness surrounds him, it is his environment, it is the world in which he lives.

The Captain (Sarah Shook) and the Doctor (Sarah Pretz) stand out as Woyzeck’s primary tormentors—the former believing that his underling must be immoral by dint of his poverty, the latter conceiving of Woyzeck as little more than a specimen for his experiments. Both actors possess disturbing otherworldliness, enhanced, no doubt, by the gender-bending aspects of their performance. But it’s Pretz’s deliciously icy delivery that brings home the benighted place that Woyzeck holds in 19th century society. Furthermore, it presciently foretells the development of Nazi eugenics a century before the Third Reich.

Reduced to being a pawn in his lowly position, Woyzeck can hardly hope to hang on to Marie (Stephanie Polt), the mother of his child once the Drum Major (James Errico) sets his sights on her. Ward’s performance as the troubled soldier almost seamlessly portrays a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails, the loss of Marie being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Polt’s sensuality is undeniable; her costume (Joan Pritchard) stands out as one more inspired detail in a production built on ripe symbolism. As for Errico, his flare for vain, bullish masculinity definitely contrasts with Woyzeck’s vulnerability and insecurity, as well as doubly underscoring the terror and despair Woyzeck feels against chthonic and unstoppable desire.

If there’s one flaw in Oracle’s efforts, it’s in its commendable, yet overlong dance sequence (choreography Lyndsay Rose Kane) to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love.” It depicts Woyzeck’s obsessive horror with Marie’s betrayal, as well as subversive desire in general. A bit of editing here would only punch up the piece. Dragged on too long, the power of the moment becomes lost. But this is just one flaw in an otherwise dead-on production. Oracle knows how to reap the most dread out of oppression, cruelty, heartlessness and insanity. Theirs is the must-see show of this season.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

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REVIEW: Dream of a Common Language (Prologue Theatre)

   
   

Must good-girl painters always finish last?

 

 

Clovis at the wall w Victor, Pola, and Marc (high def)

   
Prologue Theatre presents
    
Dream of a Common Language
     
Written by Heather McDonald
Directed by
Margo Gray
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through Nov 18  |  tickets: $16-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value are women’s gifts? What value are women’s talents, women’s work, or the creativity of women? These are the questions Heather McDonald’s play, Dream of a Common Language, focuses on. No amount of armchair theorizing about women’s critical place in cultural creation can erase the reality that women’s abilities, talents and artistic perspective often get placed at the low end of the hierarchy. Men’s creativity, like men’s work, is invariably classed above the creativity executed by women—and often because men are the judges of what is or is not art.

Clovis and the Train (high def)Director Margo Gray and Prologue Theatre struggle mightily against the restrictions of Oracle Theatre’s space and their own low-budget difficulties in order to carry off McDonald’s impressionistic language and scene structure. Unfortunately, serious lack of vision in doing more with less handicaps the execution of this play’s impressionist style. Especially in the first act, cumbersome, start-and-stop scene changes and awkward, unnecessary puppetry dooms this show to fits of embarrassing amateurism.

That’s really too bad, because Gray has collected a cast that capably teases out the delicate moods and emotional shifts that sculpt McDonald’s focus. Clovis (Carrie Hardin), a woman painter, suffocates under not having her painting taken seriously, as well as the stifling proscriptions of her new role as wife and mother in the mid-19th century. Victor (Michael John Krystosek), her husband, also a painter, is at a loss to understand just what is bothering her. Consumed with planning a dinner to organize an exhibition that will feature artists rejected by the establishment, he fails to see how leaving women artists out of the dinner, and out of the exhibition, disturbs his wife. Her long-time friend and fellow woman artist, Pola (Lara Janson), arrives by bicycle in time to lift Clovis’ spirits. Together with the housekeeper, Delores (Hayley L. Rice), the women stage a revolt. They hold a dinner of their own with food stolen from the men’s dinner.

Hardin is most expert in making the audience palpably feel Clovis’ pain. Shakiness and uncertainty plague Clovis’ attempts to re-establish herself, to find the core of who she is and not be swayed by the roles that have been scripted for her as a woman. We sense Clovis’ uneasiness of self and appreciate her struggle to define just what it is that bothers her. Alex Knell turns in an accurate and natural performance as her neglected son, pushed to the side because Clovis cannot accept her restrictive motherly role.

Clovis and Victor - Touch Me (high def) Clovis Poses Victor

Janson’s performance as Pola aptly contrasts her ruddy mental and physical health with Clovis’ shakiness. However, Janson’s constant good nature contradicts all indications that her character is not totally happy–a little more nuance could let the audience catch her frustration at being reduced to painting flowers, just like “all the good-girl painters.” The appearance of Marc (Les Rorick) kicks up the stakes, both because of the secret affair he’s had with Clovis and because Rorick captures a good, full-bodied 19th-century character within a few lines.

Other performers took more time to warm to their roles on opening night, but it’s difficult to discern whether that is their particular dilemma or the direction. Whatever the source, the cast finally congeals into a cohesive, lively and idyllic whole in the second act, sans scene changes and, mercifully, sans puppets. The restoration of Clovis’ self and her relationship with Victor delicately evokes real wonder and profound beauty.

If at all possible at this juncture, it would be wise for Gray to revise her direction for the first act. Flow from scene to scene is needed to preserve McDonald’s impressionist intent. Furthermore, shadow puppets and other forms of puppetry really should be saved for the budget and expertise to do them well. If the intent was to create a more dreamlike, childlike state, then McDonald’s language alone, as well as the energetic game playing of the women in the second act, connect us to the creative children in these characters. What other accoutrements are needed? Absolutely none.

 
   
Rating: ★★½   
   
   

Centaur in the Garden (high def)

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REVIEW: Blood Wedding (Oracle Theatre)

 

A Spooky Spanish Time at Oracle

 

 

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre 2

  
Oracle Theatre presents
   
Blood Wedding
   
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by
Ben Fuchsen
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: by donation  |  more info

Not often do classic canonical plays get featured as a Halloween fright fest. Yeah, ghosts and witches show up in many lists of characters, but they’re usually too heavily laden with symbolism and plot development to cause any nightmares. So Oracle Theatre is going out on a limb this year with their Halloween offering, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The results are mixed. Although Lorca’s lush language evokes plenty of chills, director Ben Fuchsen’s production lacks clarity and cohesiveness.

Lorca, one of the key purveyors of tragedy in the 20th Century, lived a pretty tragic life himself. A gay writer in Spain between the wars, he found himself spurned by men like Salvador Dali as well as facing the stresses of immense critical and commercial success at a young age. He ended up face down in a ditch somewhere, silenced by Franco’s Fascists in 1936. Yet his unsettling plays, many of which seem directly inspired by Sophocles or Euripides, have enjoyed popularity the world over. Blood Wedding is Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatreone of the best known. It follows a pretty standard storyline: longstanding feuds between families, nuptials, infidelity, murder, etc. What makes the piece stand apart is Lorca’s gorgeous poetry and his inclusion of vengeful supernatural forces in this very human story. The Moon, angry that man shuts their windows at night (and therefore shun him), decides to join Death in the manhunt for the runaway bride and her lover. Something much heavier than simple jealousy is going on.

Oracle mines the otherworldly elements of Lorca as much as they can. Instead of a small scene in the latter half of the play, Fuchsen places the Moon (a nearly-nude Justin Warren) and Death (Sasha Walloch clad as a flamenco dancer) in almost every moment. The duo brings a sinister vibe to the whole piece. They conjure all the spookiness in the production, wielding bloody, spine-chilling noises, and frenetic movements.

As their supernatural characters, Warren and Walloch take on all the supporting roles as well. This is where it everything starts to get muddled. We start wondering who is who—is Walloch playing Death now, or a servant woman, or Death pretending to be a servant woman? The concept is engaging, but the execution needs retooling.

The production could really benefit from a plot synopsis in the program. This is due to the fact that the cast focuses on creating atmosphere over storytelling. With its myriad of metaphors, Blood Wedding’s mood is intoxicating, but it’s impossible to stay engaged in that world when you’re just trying to keep up with the story. The style also fluctuates—some actors (like Sarah Pretz, who plays the ominous Mother), stick with heightened realism. Others, Alexander Gerber, for example, who portrays the unwitting (and slightly goofy) Groom, choose to face the audience and speak their lines with an expressionist slant. Both work for the piece, although the realism is far more grounded. The problem is that the stylization isn’t consistent, causing more plot and character confusion.

When you just sit back and let the show flood over you, there’s some great stuff. James Ogden’s gloomy set, consisting of several lacy screens, is appropriately creepy and smartly used. The statuesque Pretz commands the tiny Oracle stage like a captain on a ship. And there were two solid moments that terrorized me. Most of all, Lorca’s tremendous poetic skill, translated here by Michael DeWell and Carmen Zapata, is delicious and heartwrenching all at once.

Oracle is no stranger to the Halloween show. They’ve put up some well-received haunted house-style experiences in the past. I’m not completely sold Lorca can be repackaged as a Halloween treat, but the cast definitely puts forth tons of effort. But with more plot clarity, the production could earn a whole lot more screams.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre - poster

REVIEW: The Ghost Sonata (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle’s ‘Ghost Sonata’ doesn’t sing

 

ghost_sonata_press_1_resized

 
Oracle Theatre presents
 
The Ghost Sonata
 
by August Strindberg
directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata is a tough play to crack open. Written over a century ago, the masterpiece is considered a wonder of Modernist drama. Therefore, it has plenty of bizarre twists and characterizations (vampires and ghosts, anyone?).  Especially now, when we’re used to straightforward stories force-fed through movies and television, the piece is hard to navigate. Oracle Theatre and director Max Truax certainly take up this challenge with their heavily-expressionistic version. Even though they engage Strindberg with honesty and compassion, the end product leaves us bewildered and groping for answers.

ghost_sonata_press_2_resizeYou may want to read a translation of the play before setting out for this production. Truax and his driven cast seem very concerned with conveying mood and themes, but to the detriment of plot and clarity. I had the feeling that everyone onstage knew what was going on but I wasn’t completely welcome. It was like looking through a very dusty window. After a few scenes, it is possible to piece together the general story, but this production doesn’t help much in terms of leading the audience through Strindberg’s dense text.

Truax and his design team create a bizarrely fascinating world, conquering the sometimes awkward Oracle space. There were some amazing stage pictures formed by Truax (doubling as set designer), who whipped up some awesome forced perspective. Although the video projections sometimes confuse the storyline, Michael Janicki’s work fits the twisted world well, with vaguely Victorian black-and-white images appearing in a frame above the action.

The audience enters to Rich Logan looking all comatose in a wheelchair. As the elderly Jacob Hummel, he pushes and manipulates the play forward, imparting plenty of creepiness to the already dark script. Strindberg’s text revolves around a Student (Federico Rodriguez), who meets a cast of wacky characters, including the scheming Hummel, a mummy (Ann Sonneville), a ghostly maid (Lily Emerson), and a dead guy (John Arthur Lewis). Again, even though each of the actors understands and brings life to their characters, the gothic world is not very well explained. Rodriguez carries the show, although sometimes he doesn’t recognize the close relationship he has to the audience. Stephanie Polt fits well into the oppressive world as the object of the Student’s affection, but Sean Ewert as her father, the Colonel, doesn’t match the others. Justin Warren can also fall out of the production’s universe, but he brings some much needed comic relief.

While the performances usually deeply connect to the text, they don’t fit into the space. Truax and his actors seem unaware of how to utilize Oracle’s intimate stage. When emotions run high, the actors often resort to screaming. The audience gets irritated and interest flags. In such an enclosed and small theatre, overplaying can be disastrous. This Ghost Sonata isn’t ruined by yelling, but some over-the-top moments knock down the impact of the play.

Besides clarity, the biggest issue afflicting Truax’s production is a lack of humor. Yes, this is a dark, turn-of-the-century, proto-Expressionistic script, but there has to be some releases—Strindberg, being a master dramatist, pens them in. Avoiding the humor can make the play feel highly melodramatic and uninteresting. There are some nuggets of humor, but most of it is swept away to make way for dreariness.

Truax’s production is very conceptual and looks pretty cool, but fails to respect Strindberg’s text. The focus is too much on theme and not enough on story. The talent is obviously there; with a few exceptions, it seemed like the whole cast was on-board and clicking with each other. The design makes some very innovative choices that you might not expect from a storefront. Oracle’s Achilles’ Heal here is storytelling; Truax finds great skin but uses a weak skeleton.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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Theater Thursday: The Ghost Sonata at Oracle Theatre

Thursday, May 20

The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg 

Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway, Chicago

 

ghostsonataJoin Oracle for wine and appetizers before the show and a post-show discussion on the direction of Oracle’s 2010-2011 season. Max Truax follows up his Oracle directorial debut – 2008’s stunning conceptual Termen Vox Machina – with an elegant, haunting interpretation of Strindberg’s classic chamber play. This mesmerizing and complex narrative portrays a world where two families are imprisoned in their legacy of greed, duplicity and manipulation. Truax’s vision highlights the play’s depiction of the destructive force of truth. There are things in life much more frightening than death.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.  Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 – For reservations visit http://oracletheatre.org/Tickets.htm

   
   

REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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REVIEW: The Castle (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle bites off more than it can chew

the-castle1

The Oracle Theatre presents:

The Castle

 

by Howard Barker
co-directed by Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen
through March 6th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

The Oracle Theatre did something really hard when they decided to take on Howard Barker‘s 1985 play, "The Castle." Barker, who calls his work "Theatre of Catastrophe," writes plays that are intentionally convoluted, morally ambiguous and linguistically challenging. This is the type of play that needs to be tamed by it’s cast and crew, because of the unruly chaos on the pages of the script. 

the-castle3 Entering the theater, the audience is greeted by an attractive young cast masquerading as a flock of crazy townspeople, meandering through the space, improvising conversations with one another about things like "braiding their lovely hair" in creepy voices. When the lights go down, Howard Barker’s dark story begins. In a nutshell, it’s about a solider returning home from the Crusades, to find that the women have taken over the village and turned it into a Sapphic baby-farm with no government. 

Barker writes in poetry, and over-saturates his work with images so that not everyone catches everything. That way, he creates a show that everyone has a personal relationship with, and no one can quite agree on. Everyone understands things a little differently in life, why try to deny that in art? He also believes that art should be "an irritant in consciousness, a grain of sand in the oyster’s gut." That is, something unsettling that gnaws at your thinking. He also claims to write without any moral absolutes, leaving the audience swimming in a sea of grey at the plays end, not knowing what to think.

It’s a little bit intellectually overwhelming to think about all of the elements that you are supposed to keep track of when watching this play. Unfortunately, it may have been a little overwhelming for the earnest and likable cast as well. Huge portions of the play are lost to garbled speech and the occasional slip into the dreaded faux Brit accent. Co-directors Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen have missed the mark here, instead of presenting a play without a moral compass, they’ve presented a play with no focus. The lack of an absolute morality; the absurd, complex violence and language call for excessive attention to detail, which is lacking in this production. The set is lazy, with a back wall that is a vehicle for shadow puppets, an awesome concept that falls flat half the time, and unforgivable fake ivy. Sean Campbell‘s expressive lighting is a winning element of the play, especially when it brings the shadow puppets home.

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The production comes so close to hitting a home run but gets lost at third base. The inherent anger in the text is clearly communicated, and the actors come across as being infatuated with their words. It’s the kind of production with a lot of yelling, and a lot of passion but not a lot of depth. One standout performance comes from Victoria C. Gilbert, who manages to find some truth in Skinner the Witch. Although a lot of the show does not work, she’s got a powerful presence, especially in the killer second act. Although a lot of choices are bland, these are actors who all really get it. Watching them work together, it’s clear that they are coming from the same place, and fundamentally understand the work of Barker. Often, when a work is too heady, the performances suffer under the weight of the theory. Baker is the masochistic type of playwright who needs to be tamed; not worshiped. His ideology is too rigid too see actors worrying about it on stage. It’s the type of thing that needs to be infused into the performances, by the directors, not explained away by the actors sly knowingness. From the audience on Sunday night, this seemed like a young theater company biting off more than they could chew up and spit out.

Rating: ★★

 

 

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