Review: An Enemy of the People (Stage Left Theatre)

  
  

Stage Left’s ‘Enemy’ requires suspension of cynicism

  
  

William Watt as Doctor Stockmann, An Enemy of the People. Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
Stage Left Theatre presents
   
An Enemy of the People
   
Original play by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by
Arthur Miller
Directed by
Jason Fleece
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Before many can know it, one must know it.’ Corporate, government, media, medical: which “expert” is most credible to announce an environmental threat? Stage Left Theatre presents An Enemy of the People. The play was originally written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen and adapted in the 1950’s by Arthur Miller. It’s1959 in Norway. The Institution has capitalized on a vacation hot springs spot. The entire town benefits from tourists seeking a healthy retreat. The doctor at The Institution finds killer bacteria in the water. Delighted over the important scientific discovery, the doctor tells the mayor the deadly risk to the community. The mayor doesn’t have an emergency response. In fact, the mayor believes the real harmful substance isn’t in the water…. it’s his brother. The mayor and the doctor also happen to have a toxic brother relationship. The doctor wants to alert the public to the health risk. The mayor wants to Scene from 'An Enemy of the People'. Stage Left Theatre. photo by Johnny Knightisolate the problem… his brother. It takes a village to avoid a scandal. The town takes sides against a brother. An Enemy of the People is a nostalgic look back at days gone be. It’s the simpler times when elected officials, local newspapers, and spring waters were unquestionably pure.

The premise of the play requires suspension of cynicism. In 2011, Americans drink water out of bottles, scan the Internet for credible media sources, and scrutinize every politician comment for bullshit. The very plot of the play requires a childlike wonder that is difficult to muster. Without it, connecting with the characters is difficult. This particular production never quite successfully bridges the generational gap. Some directorial choices by Jason Fleece makes the flow clunky and artificial. The large cast has some individual standout moments but overall seems disjointed in attempts to come together. In the lead, William J. Watt (Doctor) plays it over-the-top and in-the-face, whining his opinion. Watt seems less like a man of science and more like a spoiled child. In a complete departure from the play’s intention, a sympathy arises for his persecutors.The other brother, Cory Krebsbach (Mayor) plays it much more subtle. Krebsbach is all-politician smooth-talking the town into rallying against medical expertise and their own health. Bringing comic relief, James Eldrenkamp (Aslaksen) is funny ‘in moderation’, Kurt Conroyd (drunk) makes a hysterical spectacle and Sandy Elias (Morton) is a curmudgeon cartoon.

The set, designed by Alan Donahue, has an Ikea-does-cabin-look. It’s all wooden with a strong modern ambiance. Apparently, the middle of the set provides a shadowboxing effect for a mob scene. The audience semi-circles the stage. I was sitting stage right and didn’t observe the dramatic effect.

Back in the day, An Enemy of the People must have raged a war on authority. Today, Americans are continually in conflict with leaders. The evolution of thought to modern times makes the content less profound. This production is somewhere between an enemy and a friend of the people.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

An Enemy of the People continues at Theater Wit through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:30pm.  Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission. Tickets are $22-$28, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-975-8150.

  
  

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Review: Kingsville (Stage Left Theatre)

   

Exposing the poisonous threads of macho culture

   
    

Nick DiLeonardi as Mike and Andrew Raia as Justin  – Photo by Lila Stromer

     
Stage Left Theatre presents
 
Kingsville
    
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by Vance Smith
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through November 21  |    tickets: $22-$28 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

When the student gunmen opened fire at Columbine High School in 1999, the nation took a collective gasp. The very idea that schools could become a place of intentional yet random mass murder was unimaginable and so shocking as to defy belief. Today when students commit in-school murders, they’re met not so much with shock and disbelief as they are with a sense of tragic resignation. The headlines are regional or even local rather than national because on a national scale, school shootings are no longer front page, above-the-fold news. It is as if the world has become comfortably numb to the idea that childhood is a time of danger as much as of innocence.

That sad fact makes Andrew Hinderaker’s Kingsville all the more forceful. Delving the troubled world of a high school reeling from a student shooting, Kingsville is heart-breaking in its veracity and its sensitivity. In its world premiere at Stage Left, Kingsville Kingsville - Stage Left Theatre is also  powerful indelving the related topic of bullying; the sort of relentless, dehumanizing abuse that can drive young people to the violence borne of utter despair. Or at least it is for the first half or so of the play.

For all its many merits, Kingsville loses much of its impact when its plot swerves away from its young protagonists and into the world of an adult who does something so far-fetched it’ll make your eyes roll in disbelief. We’re not going to give away the action here – that would be a major spoiler. Suffice to say, Hinderaker’s narrative ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness.  Until then, Kingsville is a richly compelling story as it mines the volatile, triple-threatening world of adolescence, machismo and guns. Moreover, director Vance Smith has a remarkable pair of young men in the two key roles that anchor the piece.
Andrew Raia plays Justin, a high schooler who has been the target of brutal locker room harassment. Nick DiLeonardi plays Justin’s best (perhaps only) friend Mike, a high school outcast who has found empowerment – and relief from all-consuming loneliness and self-loathing – by learning to shoot at a local teen center. Raia nails the rage, frustration and desperation of a young man for whose daily life is defined by humiliation and dread. It’s with stunning impact that Raia delivers a monologue describing the abuse – the details are excruciating, but it isn’t just the particulars that make the sene so harrowing. Raia taps into an anguish that’s almost unbearably raw and authentic. DiLeonardi’s Mike  seems – superficially at least – more laid back than the deeply wounded Justin, but he’s just as heart-breaking: A fundamentally decent kid driven to do something terrible simply because he doesn’t have the tools to cope with with all the badness around him.

The adults in Kingsville aren’t as effective, primarily because the characters feel more like representations of opposing points of view more than actual people. Wayne (John Arthur Lewis), reeling from the death of his son in a school shooting, advocates arming students so that they aren’t sitting ducks if a gunman opens fire on a classroom. Justin’s father James (John Ferrick) passionately opposes Wayne, a stance that has been an excuse for Justin’s tormentors to take their bullying to heinous levels of cruelty.

Hinderaker also has Audrey, a lecturer (Cat Dean) punctuate the piece, relaying the results of a startling and revealing study about contemporary attitudes about machismo. Audrey’s direct address, like that dubious plot development, detracts from Kingsville more than it adds to the production. The speeches are didactic, and while they offer some eye-opening information, they put a hitch in the storytelling. When the action stops so that Audrey can break in with academic commentary on kids and guns, the audience is bumped out of the story and into a virtual lecture hall.

What Kingsville does well is show how integrated the poisonous threads of macho man culture are within the tapestry of gun culture. They provide the basis of a fantastic, if ultimately unbelievable, story.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Kingsville - poster

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REVIEW: Blackbird (Guild Theater)

 

Romance Interruptus or the Same Old Coitus Interruptus?

 

 Blackbird - Promo 004

  
Guild Theater presents
   
Blackbird
   
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Daniel Scott
at Stage Left Theatre, address (map)
through August 25th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless! Pitiless! That’s the only way.”
         —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I can’t tell you the extent to which I’ve anticipated reviewing Guild Theater’s production of Blackbird. The success of David Harrower’s 80-minute one-act has been legendary. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award, critical acclaim on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and then local fame generated by Victory Gardens’ superlative production last July, Blackbird was a well-established phenomenon before I stepped through the doors of Stage Left Theatre to see it.

That build-up may have been a little too much for Guild Theater’s Spartan, no-frills rendering. But the problem lies more in Harrower’s basic plot premise and not so much in Daniel Scott’s careful direction or the sincerely wrought performances of David Schaplowsky as Ray and Cassandra Cushman as Una.

A young woman confronts a middle-age man at his workplace; he shows deep anxiety at her presence there and repeatedly asks her to leave. She persists in interrogating him with fragments of past events. It soon becomes clear that they know each other from long ago and the young woman is pursuing with him her unfinished business over a failed relationship. The nature of that relationship reveals its shock, scandal and gravity once the audience learns this couple’s “affair” began when he was 40 and she was 12.

Now as to the “true” nature of their relationship: was it true romance for the both of them or was it child abuse? Was it undeniable passion or overwhelming perversity? Was her interest in him bold, precocious sexuality or was it the vulnerability of childhood loneliness, chaffing under parental oppression? Was his interest in her an inappropriate love he could not master or was it cold, calculated exploitation?

The audience has nothing to rely upon except the fragmented narratives and traded accusations of two unreliable characters. Only one other character enters briefly at the end. The rest is “He Said, She Said,”–only Una was prepubescent when the deed was done. Harrower’s script dangles the audience between the play’s thematic moral absolutes. Is Una a damaged young woman whose innocent childhood was blighted too early, or a bold, sexually rebellious girl whose sexual transgressions went waaay beyond conventional understanding? Was she “asking for it”?

Is she still asking for it by stalking Ray with her confrontation? Is her confrontation about achieving closure or is it about reopening their relationship now that both of them are adults, legally speaking? Is Ray a lying, seducing cad without any moral compass or a repentant sinner striving to adhere to his new, principled life? Can he resist Una’s disturbingly needy bid for his attention and love or will his resistance collapse under replayed memories, emotional immaturity, and unbalanced psychological patterns re-emerging from the depths? Will mad, unbridled and perverse love win again against decency, mental health and morality?

Thus the thematic and ethical juggling of Blackbird leads to its inevitable climax. Or should I say, climax interruptus? Both Cushman and Schaplowsky build deeply sympathetic, if troubling, characters. Scott’s direction emphasizes absolute naturalness and that fits Stage Left’s intimate theater space to a tee. Schaplowsky in particular brings searing emotional exposure to Ray’s troubled soul. Cushman strives to bring psychological verity to Una’s troubled state and Scott’s direction certainly gives the actors the space to grow into these parts. The trouble is that these characters’ troubled souls are dragging on the dramatic pace and Guild’s production lacks the drive that can keep an audience guessing at which moral conundrum will come up next.

Unfortunately Blackbird’s problems are larger than slower-than-necessary, if thoughtful, performances. Essentially, Blackbird is pornography dressed up to look like social consciousness—dressed up perhaps because it thinks its audience will always be polite company. Bad enough that Harrower’s play begins with that stereotypical porn canard—the woman who falls in love with her (statutory) rapist—the whole point of this play’s sojourn is to precisely end up with our star-crossed lovers’ final sexual encounter, which is then immediately thwarted by the entry of Girl (Marrissa Meo – recently seen in the highly-successful 7-month run of Red Twist’s Pillowman). That’s the moment Una and Ray’s psychologically illicit tryst finally falls apart. It’s porn with a conscience but, for all its other stereotypes, Harrower might as well have brought in a character playing the Pizza Guy for good measure.

Let’s be fair. Much more precisely, Blackbird is an almost comically complex melodrama. Comedy, melodrama and pornography are all genres that depend on types for dramatic action more than full-fledged, three-dimensional characters. Those types are put into situations and those situations play out in fairly predictable ways. Blackbird’s ultimate sexual encounter is telegraphed long before the end. One can feel manipulated by all the play’s twisty steps along the way, but ultimately, we’ll get to the porn ending when the woman finally shows she’s wanted her rapist all along. Since they are so true to porn type, can any real connection be built between the audience and these characters? Ray and Una themselves cannot seem to relate to each other beyond type, whether that type is victim and predator or Naughty School Girl and Teacher.

Making it real, making both these characters real enough for the audience to truly care what happens to them, that is the burden that theater artists must bare. Any theater company taking on Blackbird has to battle against the romantic porn fantasy that Harrower sets up at the beginning.

The real pornography of Harrower’s play, however, is not the sex that almost happens between Ray and Una or the sex they had long ago. It’s their wallowing in shame, regret and stifled yearning—that’s the real spectacle put up for our enjoyment. Since few realistic insights about child abuse or under-aged sex can be found here, you’ll excuse me if I turn to the more pleasurable entertainments of “Debbie Does Dallas”.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Blackbird features Guild company members Cassandra Cushman and David Schaplowsky, along with Marissa Meo, and is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Scott. Performances will be at 8pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, August 16-18 and 23-25 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago, IL (map). Tickets are $15 and $10 for industry; reservations may be made by calling (312) 613-8885 or emailing guildtheaterprods@gmail.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door with cash only. The box office will open at 7:30 on the days of the performance.

REVIEW: Sun, Stand Thou Still (Ka-Tet Theatre)

Buy a ticket, take the ride.

 

KaTet1

  
Ka-Tet Theatre presents
  
Sun, Stand Thou Still
 
by Steven Gridley
directed by David Fehr
at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield  (map)
through June 5th  tickets: $10-$20  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

Cosmic road trip! Everyone climb into the beat up truck of the human condition for the drive everyone dreams of, but are too afraid to take. The drive wherein souls are lost and found, fate and choice crash – where you can go back and do it again, throwing yourself against the idea that you cannot change outcomes. Or that fate will have its way no matter what, so throw the dice, and make your own way. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Sun, Stand Thou Still, written by Steven Gridley, is a dreamlike adventure across timeless roads to places we’ve been. We visit the destinations made of real life nightmares, and those we consider to be the most joyous of human experiences.

Love and death.

But, what if the sun stood still and we were caught in that singular place; one where love and life are synonymous with death? When the sun began moving again, would we make a different choice.? Take it all back? Do it all again because the moments of good we received were worth the pain we endured? On this road trip, with seven characters in search of internal freedom, the highway is rough and uncertain, sweet, and driven by struggle.

In Sun, Stand Thou Still, these most essential of human events happen simultaneously in a time-order only the cosmos know. This is not linear time, nor time measured by a clock, but time as we know it flows through the spheres, and cannot fully comprehend.

Ka-Tet Theatre’s production is full of energetic and committed performances that drive into this work and remain true to it. The play includes five characters: Officer Peters, The Driver, The Hitchhiker, The Apple Woman, and The Man. The use of kuroko, traditional to Kabuki Theatre as stage hands who move silently on the stage during the performance to manage set and prop changes, are always wonderful to see. Kevin Lambert and Kyle Youngblut perform these roles to perfection. A good kuroko brings a prayerful quality to a production and these two do just that.

Jeremy Clark, as the Driver, elicits a fierce performance that stands as lead, even within such a close ensemble. This is an actor who is very at home in his skin. Zany, with compromised eyesight, The Driver pulls out every stop on what would be deemed appropriate on the ground, but on this ride, pushes every envelope right into true love and death and back again. Part Zen master and part madman, this character cries out to be fully realized in word and deed. Clark throws this role off the cuff with a magical deftness. He does not strive, but owns his performance. It has been awhile since I have seen an actor so in character that nothing breaks his focus.

Emily Waecker designed the costumes for the play, and they are very important to this piece. From The Apple Woman to The Driver, The Man, and The Hitchhiker, the costumes convey the accident of time placement that has occurred. Is The Apple Woman a misplaced renaissance maiden, traveling this lone road in space and time? The Man, a crazed cowboy riding through from another period in search of his bride? The Hitchhiker, lost in the stars in the 1950’s, coming to earth now in this time and place? Meanwhile, the Driver is synonymous with everyman, you and me, dressed for the right now. The costume choices are gorgeous in their simplicity and daring. They stand on their own, making statements about context and providing grounding.

Scenic designer Isabella Ng sets this scene, creating automobiles from suitcases, giving the beautifully strong visual command that we are all travelers, carrying what we have, even into collisions of will and destiny. The set theme carries the idea that one cannot escape their experiences, but bring them along for the ride, even into the place where one moment, one action, changes everything. Again, we are treated to an element from Kabuki Theatre, Hiki Dogu; set pieces designed to move the actors on and off the stage. This use of an 18th-century set conception gives the piece an added mystery and fluidity.

David Fehr directed the production with a very loose hand. It’s difficult, when working with an ensemble that is so well connected, to know when to push and when to stand back. Unfortunately Fehr too often chose the latter, even in those places when his reign was needed to bring the piece into a swifter pace. There is depth and wisdom here that hasn’t entirely grown yet, but would flourish with the right director expanding creative boundaries and letting the ensemble thrive while keeping the fine art of control amongst an enormously talented cast. With a little stronger hand from a staid director, Sun, Stand Thou Still would surely swirl and fly around us gloriously.

The script is, for the most part, exemplary, but given the deep concept of time it presents, more should have been brought from the writer himself. There is something that isn’t being said, but held onto, unexplored. I offer this in the spirit of passion for theatre and excellent work, which this is. In the linguistic sense, this piece left me longing for a greater depth of description of the emotional time and space we were a part of.

Overall, the Ka-Tet Theatre Company, comprising the ensemble of Brian Hurst, Jeremy Clark, Dan Meisner, Kathryn Bartholomew, Mark Pracht, Kevin Lambert, and Kyle Youngblut, work incredibly well together, bringing a reverence to this piece that’s a joy to watch.  Sun, Stand Thou Still strips away place and time and brings our most haunting, frightening, and magnificent human truths tumbling on top of one another.  This piece has so much to offer in terms of bold new theater by Ka-Tet, a relatively new theatre ensemble, that it would be well worth your time to venture out to Lakeview to give the show a look-see.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Theater Wit opens smart performance space in Lakeview

Architect Richard_Kasemsarn (photo by Dick Smith) Architect Richard Kasemsarn with the plan of Theater Wit. (Photo by Dick Smith.)

 

Theater Wit: Chicago’s newest performance space opens

 

By Leah A. Zeldes

"It’s jaw-droppingly different," says Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, about his troupe’s new home.

After 16 months of a $1.3-million joists-out renovation, the one-time post office adjoining Theatre Building Chicago is now the sparkling new Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map), a dynamic new multi-performance space. The building, most recently Bailiwick Arts Centre, still has a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before the city of Chicago grants its Public Amusements Venue license. Wechsler expects it in mid- Theater Wit lobby (photo by Joel Wanek) May; for now, Wit is running its inaugural play, Spin (our review ★★★), on a "suggested donations" basis. Valet parking isn’t in place yet, either, but for the time being, Wit has arranged free parking in the lot behind Cooper’s restaurant across the street.

The building now houses three 99-seat black-box theaters, providing a new showcase for intimate local productions.

"This is a size of theater that didn’t exist," Wechsler says. "There were (too small) 70-seat theaters, in which you could never turn a profit on a show, and (too expensive) 150-seat theaters … in which you could never turn a profit on a show. I really wanted this size of theater for myself."

Along with Wechsler’s Theater Wit company, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre will share the space as resident troupes, contributing work to the building and using about 75 percent of the performance time, with the remainder available for rental. In the fall, once all the theaters are up and running, Wit will introduce a flex-pass arrangement for tickets to all productions.

Architect Richard Kasemsarn explains that the theaters are cleverly separated by dressing rooms to create easy backstage access and keep sound from bleeding from one to the other. They are also insulated from exterior noise, save for occasional seepage through the brick wall from the adjoining Theatre Building. New metal joists support a variety of lighting configurations.

Theater Wit lobby (photo credit: Joel Wanek) One of the three theaters will feature flexible seating, not yet installed. Seats in the other two, salvaged from a Bolingbrook high-school auditorium, are surprisingly wide and comfortable, and they’re spaced with reasonable leg room, although their incline and offset don’t quite keep tall people from blocking your sight lines.

Theater Wit exterior (photo credit: Joel Wanek) Architectural salvage provides handsomely quirky decorative elements through the space, although you won’t mistake this for a posh downtown theater. It does retain that hand-built, slightly rough quality common to Chicago storefronts. Kasemsarn, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute, recruited students to help with the finishing.

The modest lobby features a bar, and the building has ample restrooms — a seven-stall ladies’ room should minimize lines at intermission. Oversized ductwork is intended to keep theater goers at comfortable temperatures without contributing noise.

"I really want to control everything from the time you hit that lobby door," Wechsler says.

Theater Wit architectural drawings (photo by Dick Smith)

REVIEW: Gimme Change (3EyedMonster Theatre)

To have and have naught

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3EyedMonster Theatre Company presents
 
Gimme Change: 3 short plays on homelessness
 
Written by Conor Woods, Joe Kwaczala and Megan O’Donoghue
Directed by Conor Woods, Megan O’Donohue, Bill DiPiero
at
Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 8th  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Three short plays, one topic—that’s the promise of 3EyedMonster, a new theater company delivering fresh new drama by young playwrights on current issues. Since its overall goal is to “invite active discussion,” Conor Woods – company founder, playwright, and actor – can take special satisfaction in achieving this goal. Gimme Change: three short plays on homelessness offers youthful energy and curbd4 perspective to a bear on a world-weary subject, fraught with all sorts of misconceptions and misdirection. The level of skill demonstrated by the production’s playwright cohort, which includes Woods, Joe Kwaczala and Megan O’Donoghue, shows surprising clarity, audacity, and sometimes just downright sophistication. The young cast not only keeps up with the material, but also invests the full expression of theatricality into its subject.

CURB’d, written and directed by Conor Woods, reveals layers of presumptions about homelessness through presenting the kind of discussion one recalls from college days. Three students, fulfilling a class assignment, sit on the sidewalk as panhandlers awaiting passers-by to donate a measly dollar to their kitty. What first seems like an easy assignment drags on interminably and the students reveal to each other their preconceptions about homelessness, poverty, and the best ways to get money from strangers. Each character also reveals their personal prejudices about each other in a sparring match over which is the best way to address homelessness. On the whole, CURB’d is an excellent introduction piece for the whole cycle, enough to cover typical misinformation about homelessness and begin investigations into one’s personal prejudices regarding poverty, the giving and receiving of money, and the importance of appearances. But the 25-minute format cannot cover all this and allow development for substantive characters. Woods must reach into the usual grab bag of student   stereotypes—which aren’t wholly wrong, just thin. Drew (Drew McElligott), Patricia (Megan O’Donoghue), and Brian (Mike Anderson) don’t get to evolve past acerbic accusation, whiny pontification, and dry, diffident noncommitment. Brian provides appropriate comic relief to Drew and Patricia’s self-involved battle, but the three-step dance between them begins to feel formulaic after 15 minutes.

standpoint2Standpoint by Joe Kwaczala is a performance art piece reminiscent of the 90s. Its dippy twists and turns address, and provide escapist diversion from, the subject of homelessness. Performing his own piece, but directed by Bill DiPiero, Kwaczala begins at the end; receiving over-the-top accolades for a performance we have not seen. Then he leaps into the cyclical performance. It’s a moment of self-congratulatory obsession that echoes the defenses used by some to avoid dire social conditions. Some of Kwaczala’s best moments are deeply inspired. Such as when he engages in parody of a character that thinks dealing with homelessness is “not that hard. You can get a job; it’s not that hard. You can get a shower; it’s not that hard . . .”—all the while putting sticks of gum into his mouth, one after the other, until the character can hardly speak for the globular mass that has accumulated. Here we have self-absorption, lack of awareness, lack of compassion, and perpetual consumption captured in a rapid-fire minute. Kwaczala’s piece suggests we can all be entertained and diverted from the stark reality of homelessness, even while being sent an engaging message about homelessness—from artists trying to reach people through entertainment on a subject that is anything but. Kwaczala moves quickly and lyrically through character after character, moment after diverting, humorous moment on the hypocrisy of  addressing homelessness in this way. However, what the piece needs now is a strong editing hand to “sharpen its message.” Sorry, but perpetual distraction from the subject of homelessness is, well, distracting and also soon becomes playinghouse2boring. One wonders how much further Kwaczala could develop his theme by focusing on what we cannot be distracted from regarding homelessness—namely, the fear of being in dire poverty ourselves one day.

Playing House by Megan O’Donoghue is the most successful of all three plays. It succeeds in exploring levels of truly comprehensive desperation around homelessness. Also, the pure theatricality of the work offers profound contemplation on creation and destruction in the reality of homeless children’s lives. A homeless girl and boy employ diverting play to pass the time while waiting for some parent (one hopes) to return and feed them. Among the detritus of their living space, they find old clothes for dress up and soon enact dialogue between a homeless woman (Meghan Hartmann) and a “rich bitch cunt” (Conor Woods) who looks down on her homeless condition. What follows is the kind of honest and humorous exchange one wishes would occur between have and have not. Woods gets to slay with lines like, “Betty Ford didn’t become homeless when she was addicted,” and “I voted for Obama because of people like you.” Hartman herself lays into the best homeless rant I have ever heard in literature, movies or theater. But even more, the children, through utterly engaged imagination, create a momentary release from homelessness that turns out to be as fragile as their prospects for survival. The other works may be clever, thoughtful pieces that can provoke dialogue, but they depend on the triptych for resonance. Playing House is not just a message, but also true, fully realized drama and can stand on its own.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Here Where It’s Safe (Stage Left Theatre)

Exposes disturbing trend of foreign surrogate mothers

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Stage Left Theatre presents:

Here Where It’s Safe

 

Written by M.E.H. Lewis
Directed by
Scott Bishop
through April 3rd
(more info)

Review by Barry Eitel

Stage Left’s most recent offering, Here Where It’s Safe, definitely fits in with their declared purpose of exploring socio-political subjects. The new play sifts through an ethical quagmire that has international implications: the rising issue of barren couples paying foreign women to have children for them. M.E.H. Lewis focuses on Indian surrogates in Here Where it’s Safe, telling a very contemporary story about an American woman’s relationship with the young Indian girl that’s carrying her baby. It’s a massively relevant tale full of current statistics, figures, and headlines, but the social topics of the play overshadow the dramatic gravitas.

safe2 This is the last show Stage Left is doing in their long time space on Sheffield; they will be moving into the Theatre Wit complex for next season. They make a grand exit with scenic designer William Anderson’s gorgeous set. His design envelopes the space, placing us in a traditional Indian world with intricate motifs in metal and wood. Scenes travel thousands of miles and take us from America to India, and the set is open enough to allow all of the scenes to happen with short transitions. Complemented by Jessica Harpenau’s lights and Elizabeth Flauto’s colorful costumes, the production forms a fascinating world.

On the whole, the performances are pretty convincing, although sometimes there seems to be a disconnect among the ensemble. Cat Dean is Abigail, a woman ravaged by her failed attempts to have a child. Dean carries the show, but can also be a bit too stoic at times, which teeters on boring an audience. Her best work is when she is in the scenes with Mouzam Makkar, who plays Beena, the 19-year old girl Abigail is paying to have her baby. Makkar has the best performance in the production, capturing the youthful brattiness of a teenager combined with the emotional maturity of a wife and mother forced to make tough choices. She is a blank slate with the ability to project and withhold intentions and motivations from her scene partners and the audience. Occasionally, though, what drives her forward is hard to read even in the intimate space. Cory Krebsbach is goofy yet lovable as Abigail’s husband and Anita Chandwaney is excellent as Dr. Uma, Beena’s “boss” at the surrogate agency. safe1 The weak link in the cast is Kate Black as Abigail super-liberal friend Jem, who doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides providing a progressive worldview on the matter and saying “breeder” a lot. Supposedly Jem helps flesh out the ethical issues, but Black comes across as detached and uncaring.

I think the cutting of a couple of scenes would strengthen the play. As it is, Lewis’ script extends itself too far, having a lot of shorter scenes. They begin to feel extraneous after awhile. The plot and themes could be consolidated; the play could kick harder. It feels like Lewis was really excited to confront her audience with an issue that gets very little facetime in the media. However, the play that wraps it could be more coherent. The text evolves around themes, instead of a script giving birth to social, political, and economic questions. The characters all have their reasons, personalities, and the plot is logical, but the work as a whole seems more concerned with putting out a message than telling a compelling story.

I was never bored by the show, nor turned off by any of the more overt political discussions, and it does shed light on a little-known yet somewhat disturbing trend. Here Where it’s Safe could just be made a lot more powerful if it didn’t tangle itself in some vague opinions.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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