Review: Romeo and Juliet (Babes With Blades)

  
  

A tale of lovers missing its heart

  
  

Gillian N. Humiston (Romeo) and Ashley Fox (Juliet) in Babes With Blades' Romeo and Juliet

  
Babes With Blades presents
  
Romeo & Juliet
       
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Brian DeLuca
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Babes With Blades has pulled out the production stops for a visually strong and sumptuous all-woman Romeo & Juliet. The rough around the edges, yet classically suggestive scene design (Bill Anderson; Jason Pikscher and Stephen Carmody, brickwork) graces Raven Theatre’s studio space with a versatility that still hints at architectural grandeur. Meanwhile, Ricky Lurie’s costumes, inspired by Italy’s late 19th-century Liberal Period, imaginatively strike the production’s gender-bending balance—functional enough to readily support the cast for their legendary BWB combat scenes and convey class distinctions and individual character.

Eleanor Katz and Amy Harmon - Babes With Blades' Romeo and JulietThen there’s the always-exciting stage combat (Libby Beyreis), in which the gals pack swords, rapiers and pistols into the street warfare between the Capulets and the Montagues. Brian DeLuca’s directorial vision suggests cyclically repeating historical patterns of social and legal breakdown—a solid and sophisticated touch for revisioning Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers.

All the same, there’s no substitute for classical Shakespearean training and experience, especially so far as Romeo (Gillian N. Humiston) and Juliet (Ashley Fox) are concerned. Humiston’s performance is weak to begin with, but as death stalks the lovers and emotional stakes are raised, her performance degenerates into shrill and unwatchable histrionics. Fox fairs better when paired with her Nurse (Eleanor Katz) or facing up to an implacable parent, Capulet (Maggie Kettering), determined to marry her off to Paris (Delia Ford). Shakespeare’s tale of impossible, adolescent love struggling to find expression in a landscape strafed by turf wars needs stronger stars than this show has on hand. Sadly, an otherwise thoughtful and well-paced production misses out at its critical center.

Gillian N. Humiston and Delia Ford in a fight scene from Babes With Blades' 'Romeo and Juliet'Ford JK 7381

That leaves the older cast members to carry the show. By far, Katz delivers the strongest, earthiest, most nuanced performance; Kettering’s Capulet is a force to be reckoned with and Katie Horwitz as Friar Lawrence comes across solidly like a frustrated surrogate parent, trying to keep the kids on track long enough to have it all work out. Amy Harmon has the swagger to give her Mercutio street cred, but could use a little refinement on his monologues. Shakespeare knew that lower class didn’t always mean lower IQ, and Mercutio’s accelerated imagination and verbal agility would make him a rap star if he were discovered today.

Fox and Humiston do pull off their final death scene together but, by the time they do, the audience has missed the heart of the story for too long. Romeo & Juliet was spawned from an era of real traditional marriage—from a time when marriages were set up like business partnerships. What did love have to do with it? Shakespeare’s audience came to see pure, unbridled love daring to violate social constraints. But in the world of art, we know it takes massive skill and discipline to make it that love look raw, spontaneous, free and new.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Gillian N. Humiston and Ashley Fox as Romeo and Juliet, presented by Babes With Blades

 

Artists

Cast

Gillian N. Humiston*, Ashley Fox, Megan Schemmel, Delia Ford*, Amy E. Harmon*, Eleanor Katz, Maggie Kettering, Katie Horwitz, Rachael Miller, and Kim Fukawa*. 

Production Team

Brian LaDuca (Director); Wyatt Kent (Assistant Director); Bill Anderson (Scenic Design ); Leigh Barrett* (Lighting Design ); Libby Beyreis* (Violence Design); Ricky Lurie (Costume Design); Harrison Adams (Sound Design); Kjers McHugh* (Stage Manager); Dustin Spence (Producer).

* = Company member

  
  

Review: Radio Golf (Raven Theatre)

        
     

Wilson’s thought-provoking drama has a whole new relevancy in 2011

     
     

Warren Levon, Demetria Thomas, Michael Pogue in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf'. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

  
Raven Theatre presents
  
Radio Golf
  
Written by August Wilson 
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through April 9 |  tickets: $30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

It’s only been six years since Radio Golf, the tenth and final work in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle, premiered at Yale Rep.

A lot has happened in six years.

In that time, certain middle-upper-class white signifiers prominently featured in this 1990’s-based drama have taken a dip from grace. Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, lucrative condo investments and, well, Tiger Woods…let’s just say they aren’t what they used to be. “Unemployment” has knocked out “affluenza” as the country’s go-to economic buzz-word, Chicago just watched a mayoral campaign season with similar Harold Washington-era fears about equal race representation and, oh yeah, America elected its first non-white president.

Michael Pogue, Demetria Thomas in a scene from Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.Yesterday, this show about a wealthy young black man running for mayor of Pittsburg was contemporary. Today it’s a period-piece, a quality that only adds to its resounding ideas.

The timing of director Aaron Todd Douglas’ production feels perfect. With just enough distance and room for perspective, we get to see the protagonists’ superficial goals and misplaced trusts with an unwavering knowledge of the consequences—something Wilson, who died in 2005, never got the chance to witness for himself. I wonder if he knew he was creating a prescient work of theatre.

As candidate Wilks, Michael Pogue conveys idealism and an eagerness to please his community, listening to its grievances and welcoming citizens into his private office, a space traditionally reserved for the shady deals that are kept far away from picture-windowed PR campaign centers. Time goes on and compromises need to be made, such as the necessity to petition a neighborhood for blight status and the unethical demolishing of a delinquent taxpayer’s house. A little more arc in Pogue’s demeanor would be compelling. But like the rest of this cast, Pogue finds the rhythm in Wilson’s dialogue most of the time (the poetic allegories are clear and strong), steam-rolling it a bit here and there.

David Adams is the most consistent and entertaining of the bunch. Patient and methodical as the stubborn but righteous owner of the dilapidated property at 1839 Wylie Ave.—a brick house that stands in Wilks’ way between continued suburban poverty and a massive, gentrifying real estate complex—Adams carries the weary but proud burden of a man who values what’s right. Blue collar local Sterling Johnson (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) does likewise. Both actors nail Radio Golf’s comedy with complementing styles: Adams understated and Whitfield abrasive.

It makes me wonder about 2012. 15 years after this story takes place, how much of “the game” will be the same, and who gets to play?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Warren Levon, Michael Pogue, and David Adams in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

Radio Golf continues through April 9th, with performances Thurs. through Sat. 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling 773-338-2177, or online at RavenTheatre.com.

 

 
 

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REVIEW: Berwyn Avenue (Von Orthal Puppets)

  
  

Puppets don’t make up for unlikable characters

  
  

Berwyn Avenue - Von Orthal Puppets

   
Von Orthal Puppets presents
   
Berwyn Avenue
   
Written by Cynthia Von Orthal
Directed by Cynthia Von Orthal and Tiffany Lange
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I get that Berwyn Avenue is supposed to be a 1970s kitchen sink drama about blue-collar life in Chicago. And on some levels, the play, produced by Von Orthal Puppets, achieves this.

The characters like to drink and bowl. They all have heavy Chicago accents. And at dinnertime, the parents call out for their kids, who run loose through the neighborhood. It may be stereotypical, but for some, this was reality. However, I give less credit to the constant peppering of 1970s references throughout the play. There are just too many forced mentions of nostalgia, including nods to quick tan and the singing nun.

Still, a good story and engaging characters could have made this play. Alas, an uneven plot and unlikable characters nearly destroy it.

Berwyn Avenue focuses on a slice of Gay Martini’s life. Gay is the mother of seven children and the wife to a deadbeat drunk fireman. She chats on the phone to her best friend Babs Blahute about items she put on layaway at Sears and cooks up Kraft dinners at night for the kids. Her 15th anniversary is on the horizon, and she’s planning a big barbecue to celebrate the event, despite the fact that her husband hasn’t made it home in more than two days.

Meanwhile, Babs’ tomboyish daughter Sin and Gay’s son Scooter have a close-knit friendship. The two spend nights over at each other’s houses and stay up late telling scary stories. Eventually the lives of both families are shaken to the core when tragedy strikes one of the children.

The plot is all over the place. One minute we’re focusing on Gay and her marital problems, the next we’re focusing on Barb’s husband and his affinity for Gay, then we delve into Gay’s husband’s love for Barb, then we visit with the kids for a while. It’s dizzying and only serves to drag the play down, both in coherency and pacing. The climactic anniversary barbecue ends up being fairly anticlimactic, save for the deus ex machina in the form of the aforementioned child tragedy.

Worse though are the unlikable characters. I know Cynthia Von Orthal, who wrote and directed the piece, was trying to make Gay into a tough but loving mother figure. But she’s just so negative that it’s a chore to try to like her at all. In fact, that applies to all the characters. Everyone wallows in their mildly tragic lives to the point that the only feelings evoked are pity and contempt.

The set design and puppetry, both credited to Von Orthal Puppets, are enjoyable. The puppeteers are talented, and sometimes the technical feats alone redeem scenes.

A sharper script and more dynamic characters could fix the flaws in Berwyn Avenue. In its current form, the puppetry is the production’s highlight. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to carry the show.

       
      
Rating: ★★
      
     

NOTE: This show is not appropriate for children

   
   

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REVIEW: Gross Indecency – Oscar Wilde (Black Elephant)

A Modern Take on Indecency


Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 001

 
Black Elephant Theatre presents
 
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
 
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by
Michael Rashid
Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through November 14 | tickets: $18-$22   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

We humans love a good scandal. We love to put people on the pedestal of fame and notoriety and then topple the perch. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde puts a modern slant on the Victorian era scandal that was made of Wilde’s personal life. There is a preamble of sorts set in present day at the Green Carnation Bar on karaoke night. The Green Carnation is a gay bar and the men are mostly Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 015 young and a study in beauty. The characters are happily drunk and indulging in what could be at best naughty behavior but the fact that they are all men still leaves a dangerous edge to this drama.

The walls of the bar are covered in art that scandalized the Victorians. Aubrey Beardsley’s line drawings of engorged phalluses are joined by a portrait of a Greek boy, an absinthe advertisement, and, of course, Oscar Wilde at his languid best. This preamble serves as an unnecessary distraction – we are not needing a peek behind the walls of what is no longer forbidden, and I find drunken karaoke to only be fun when I am also inebriated. When the lights finally go down, the people in the bar become the characters in Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial.

Wilde made no secret of his love for young men and found a willing partner in Lord Alfred Douglas who he affectionately called Bosie. The Marquis of Queensbury , Bosie’s father, called Wilde a Sodomite and was subsequently sued for libel. It is certain that Wilde was more upset at being called something so common. He was also famous for his wit and aestheticism. To be a mere Sodomite was beneath Mr. Wilde.

The actors portray historical characters with a farcical quality and post modern edge. Mark LeBeau Jr. speaks the dialogue of Sir Edward Clark as if he were in a screwball comedy of the 1930’s – talky and fast.  Unfortunately LeBeau garbles some of his words, and the staging has his back to the audience for some his scene.

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Casey Chapman is glorious to watch as Sir Alfred Douglas-Wilde’s beloved Bosie. Chapman portrays a glowering and somewhat petulant Douglas who defies his father and revels in his sexuality in the times when even the piano legs were covered in the parlor. Chapman looks the part of an aristocrat in his carriage and his enunciation. He and Kevin Bishop as Oscar Wilde bring erotic shading to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The fact that the staging is in a modern bar takes away the bodice ripping illusion of Victorian times.

Danne W. Taylor is menacing as the Marquis. He dons an eye patch for the role and it is a nice addition. In one moment Taylor is the chicken hawk in the bar and in the next a hypocrite with a title disowning his son.

Jake Szczepaniak is great comic relief as George Bernard Shaw. It is known that Shaw was a champion for equal rights and quite the curmudgeon, but his appearance is a welcome non sequitur to the proceedings.

Alex Polcyn plays one of the judges to great comic effect as well. The hypocrisy of the times and the ridiculous nature of making an example of one man is a great premise for a farce. Polcyn dons a U.K. style court wig and orates like a Monty Python character. The timing and elocution are perfect and a lot of fun to watch in spite of the heavy subject matter.

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 013 In the second act, Kevin Bishop is seen more as Wilde. He is wonderful in the role and portrays Wilde’s famous wit and refusal to be common. Michael B. Woods is very funny as the cardigan -wearing judge in Wilde’s trial that sends him to prison. Woods is the quiet and observant bartender for most of the play and then transforms into a perfect vision of a cranky old man banging on the table for order in the court.

It is fortunate that the comic moments are in this production. Wilde was funny and acerbic with little tolerance for fools. Moises Kaufman incorporates a lot of the trial and Wilde quotes, but runs a bit on the talky side. It’s a razor-thin balance that Kaufman’s dialogue treads. He attempts to show how anyone’s life can be misconstrued as a criminal act just by how they choose to live. Black Elephant Theatre uses the subtitle ‘love is a crime’, recalling the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were targeted as the means by which a plague was unloosed. The same thing happened to Oscar Wilde and just as painful and ignominious death awaited him when he was released from prison.

Michael Rashid’s direction is skillful, though one wonders what he could have done if time were shaved off of the production and if farce and drama were more seamlessly blended. At times the action feels like one of the Beardsley’s exaggerated drawings, and  then suddenly it’s as murky as the absinthe that Wilde supposedly imbibed.

I recommend this production with a caveat. Unless you dig watching drunken karaoke, take a pass on the pre-show. It’s meant to get the audience into the mind frame of the times and the characters, but it adds more time to a production that clocks in at two hours without karaoke.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 002

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a presentation of Black Elephant Theatre and runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sundays at 8:30pm through November 14th. The production is located in the West Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago. A trailer of the play and more information is available at www.blackelephanttheatre.com

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REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

Raven Cat horiz 1

   
Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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Raven Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

raven theatre logo

Raven Theatre announces

 

A Season With The Masters

Williams, Wilson, Chekhov

Producing Artistic Director Michael Menendian and Co-Artistic Director JoAnn Montemurro announce Raven Theatre’s 2010/2011 Season, which includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, Radio Golf by August Wilson and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. Each story illuminates intimate, personal conflicts amidst massive cultural shifts, whether it is within the family unit, the local African American community or the entire nation.  (more info at the Raven Theatre website)

October 17 – December 19, 2010

   
   
  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
  Written by Tennessee Williams 
Directed by
Michael Menendian
   
  Big Daddy’s birthday brings out the true colors of the wealthy Pollitt family. At the heart of the story is Maggie, the beautiful daughter-in-law, who struggles with a lack of emotional honesty from her husband, Brick, and with the judgment of Brick’s brother and his wife. Lies, deception, false loyalty, and greed play characters as big as Big Daddy himself in one of Williams’ most loved dramas. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955 and was made into a major motion picture in 1958.

 

  February 27 – April 9, 2011

   
   
  Radio Golf
   
  Written by August Wilson
Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
   
  Radio Golf, written in 2005, was August Wilson’s last play before his untimely death (August 2005). It is also the final chapter in The Pittsburgh Cycle. In this stirring drama an Ivy League educated entrepreneur, Harmond Wilks, and his banking executive friend plan to convert a blighted neighborhood into an expansive shopping mall. Their ultimate goal is to use Wilks’ success as a developer to leverage him into becoming Pittsburgh’s first African American mayor. It’s a dirty political business that includes back room deals and zoning loop holes. When they discover that a building cited for demolition has a history that affects their heritage, these two modern men are forced to get in touch with their past. Radio Golf won the 2007 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

 

June 5 – July 23, 2011

   
   
  The Cherry Orchard
   
  Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Michael Menendian
   
  Chekhov’s last play tapped the history of his own family’s home and the fall of the aristocracy. In The Cherry Orchard, the Ranevsky family is facing financial ruin, largely due to the spendthrift ways of the family matriarch and her devotion to a parasitic lover. The family attempts to come up with a solution so that the estate won’t be sold, but none of the plans lead to action.
   

 

Character Dynamics

The dynamics that define the characters in these plays are similar to those that drive our own lives today. Williams’ masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, centers on the legacy of Big Daddy’s enormous wealth, which was amassed by exploiting cheap labor to create one of the largest plantations in the South. Radio Golf, August Wilson’s final work in his ten-play cycle about the Black culture in Pittsburgh, delves into the ambitions of the rising middle class in pursuit of their American Dream. In the genteel comedy The Cherry Orchard, foreclosure of an estate threatens a family’s way of life that has remained unchanged for decades.

 salesmanchippies Photo from last seasons critically acclaimed Death of a Salesman (our review)

12 Angry Men - Raven Theatre Photo from last season’s critically-acclaimed Twelve Angry Men. (our review)

    
     

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Theater Thursday: Escape From Happiness

Thursday, August 5th

 

Escape from Happiness by George F. Walker

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)

raven theatre-escape from happinessJoin Infamous Commonwealth Theatre as they continue their exploration of the topic of redemption. See George F. Walker‘s Escape from Happiness; a dark comedy that follows the deeply eccentric members of a family in crisis. Both viciously funny and incredibly poignant, Escape from Happiness explores the many ties that can bind – and sometimes choke – a family. Following the performance, please join the cast, crew and other ICT company members in the lobby for appetizers, wine and beer.

Show begins at 8:30 p.m.  Event begins immediately following show

Tickets: $25

For reservations call 312-458-9780 and mention "Theater Thursdays," or visit www.infamouscommonwealth.org.