REVIEW: Legion (Wildclaw Theatre)

 

Spooky special-effects; original music accent this horror-fest

 
 
Wildclaw Theatre presents:
 
Legion
 
adapted by Charley Sherman
directed by
Anne Adams
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 18th
(more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The story of Legion, the sequel to “The Exorcist”, has taken many forms: first as a 1983 novel by William Peter Blatty, then as a film (The Exorcist III) and now it is a play, adapted by Wildclaw’s Artistic Director Charley Sherman, and presented by WildClaw Theatre.

WildClaw’s favored subject matter is the frightening and supernatural. When horror is done right it’s one of the most fun and satisfying types of show to see – the audience feels like a unified place when everyone is afraid of the same boogeyman.  The boogeyman here is two-fold. The string of murders that start Legion off match the M.O. of the Gemini Killer, who was supposed to have been killed twelve years before the start of the play. And of course being the Exorcist sequel, it must feature the worst villain in the history of literature: Satan. So what exactly is going on? Who is committing the murders? I’ll never tell…

Legion takes it’s name from a biblical quote that Blatty uses at the beginning of the novel The Exorcist: “Now when [Jesus] stepped ashore, there met him a certain man who for a long time was possessed by a devil … And Jesus asked him, saying, ‘What is thy name?’ and he said, Legion … “ Given the references to Mafia murders, the Vietnam war and the Holocaust that Blatty references after, it makes one wonder what exactly this Legion is. Is it’s the darkness and rage of humanity that makes this Satanic literary duo so terrifying? It’s not simply the devil. In contemporary society of different beliefs, cultures and mindsets, a biblical tale of demonic possession is not enough to strike fear into a universal audience. But you don’t have to believe in the Christian bible to think Legion is scary.

The main character, Lt. Kinderman is Jewish. His consistent references to kibitzes and Matzo are enough to make one a Meshugina, but the incorporating of a religion other than Christianity reminds the audience that this is a story about man, not God. Len Bajenski’s very endearing yet, (there is no other way to say this) Colombo-esque performance as the detective is more familiar than derivative and is a nice counter-balance to the heavy, daunting subject matter.

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Despite it’s serious side, Legion never forgets to be entertaining, especially with the over the top special effects skillfully done by Fraser Coffeen. The audience gets to witness the horrific crime scenes with Lt. Kinderman, bodies and all. Of course, the gore does not look real but there is a fun, campy theatricality to the poor victims in Mr. Blatty’s dark tale.

The adaptation takes great care to loyally mirror the book on stage, which can lead to information overload. Trying to cram the density of a novel into a two-act play is too much: too many characters, too many ideas, and too many subplots. Didactic speeches about the existence of God and the nature of man can be cut down substantially. The large cast still relies on double and triple casting of almost all of the actors, and the effect is confusing and overwhelming. Legion soars when it distances itself from the novel and finds its strength as an independent play. The best example of this is a comedia del arte inspired flashback to the childhood of the Gemini killer that is startling and extremely engaging.

The glue that holds this entire production together is the fantastic original music by Scott Tallarida. The screeching strings are reminiscent of the score from the movie Psycho. The music is both terrorizing and humorous, to a very entertaining end.

Director Anne Adams has made a creepy play. Her instincts about when to be campy and when to be down to earth are dead on. The staging of some of the larger group scenes are usually clean and precise, although some staging drifts into clutterdom. Not to give anything away, but Cheryl Roy is fantastically creepy in the ensemble and Scott T. Barsotti gives a performance that will make one jump in one’s seat – perhaps to one’s embarrassment.

Legion is a play that lives in the dark and the light: it’s political and scary and light and cinematic all at the same time. It’s unafraid to push the limits of on-stage horror to the maximum. While not a perfect production, this play hits all the right marks for a fun night out.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

   

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REVIEW: Just An Ordinary Man (Steppenwolf Theatre)

More like extra-ordinary

 
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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:
 
Just an Ordinary Man
 
written and performed by Joe Frank
at
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
performed March 13th
(more info)
 
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt
 

On March 13, Santa Monica-based NPR broadcaster and monologist Joe Frank took his peculiar sense of humor to the stage at Steppenwolf for a very special one-night event. The night was organized by ensemble member Terry Kinney, and sold out three days in advance, according to Mr. Frank’s facebook page. His large Chicago fan base stems from his Sunday night radio show on WBEZ. His work is dreamlike, surreal and very, very funny. For his performance Saturday night, Mr. Frank read a piece from 2008 “Just An Ordinary Man.” He sat behind a desk, with at trashcan to his left and a glass of whiskey to his right and read aloud his 90-minute surreal monologue, without even taking one sip of water. On the opposite end of the stage, his musical accompanist James Harrah wailed on electric guitar at all the right moments. The only other set piece was a large movie screen, on which a short film was projected about halfway through the evening.

Joe Frank’s work is hilarious and profound. He has an uncanny ability to create a world of darkness, and then crack the tension with highly absurd comedy. Yet this alone does not encompass his writing style. It’s unhinged yet poignant. Often, the tales will lead to a metaphorical ending. For example, one story in the program is about a man who owns the largest telescope in the world, a dreamlike and abstract notion, and ends with the haunting, real world revelation, “You can’t see the entire universe in the daytime.” This particular show focuses on the passing of time, the loss of love and art, among many, many other things. It is very loosely framed by love letters from “Just An Ordinary Man” to the woman he is clearly stalking, but whom he considers to be his first love. His stories morph into one another, and are often separated by a guitar solo that leads into Mr. Frank picking up anew.

At one point on Saturday night, Joe Frank riffed on the word “meaning” as it relates to art. Meaning is important, he conjectured, but if there is too much meaning, then the thing loses all it’s meaning. His exhausting repetition of the word “meaning” rendered the word, (you guessed it) meaningless, transforming the word into the antithesis of its definition. This kind of insightful sculpting of words is more than a parlor trick: it is a profound and carefully orchestrated exploration of the English language and the boundaries of communication. Through the seemingly pointless speech, Mr. Frank made a clear point about intention and honesty in art. Finding this, the purest kind of communication, should always be the most rudimentary goal of theatre, although that intention is often overshadowed, perhaps in the quest of that little thing Mr. Frank finds so fascinating: meaning. Mr. Frank’s work forgets to be consumed with political or social import and instead explores the human mind.

The silent short film directed by Paul Rachman and featuring Linda Carol and Joe Frank bisected the evening. The film was projected behind Mr. Frank as he read aloud the narration. It was a clever and charming piece that flowed with the performance nicely, especially because of how in sync Frank’s reading was with the film behind him. The visual component was a refreshing addition to what was otherwise an evening of watching Mr. Frank read. The words were intended to be the stars of the evening, and the performance perfectly matched the radio show in tone, although a stronger visual component would have been nice.

Unfortunately. Mr. Frank has no scheduled dates to return to Chicago, but there are still opportunities to hear his work. His radio show airs in syndication every Sunday night at 11 PM on WBEZ and archives of his radio show are available on his website www.joefrank.com.

 

 
Rating:  ★★★½
 

REVIEW: The Gimmick (Pegasus Players)

Rich script overrides lackluster adaptation

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Pegasus Players presents:

The Gimmick

 

by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Ilesa Duncan
performed at Truman College, 1145 West Wilson Ave.

through March 28th  (more info, tickets)
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Chicago Dramatists’ alum Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick is a one-woman show originally performed by the playwright herself in 1999. It is a superbly-written poem/monologue that tells the story of ten-year-old Alexis, as she and her best friend Jimmy grow up together in 1970’s Harlem. The children are surrounded by addiction, LaNisa%20Frederick%20&%20Brandon%20Thompson_Webprostitution and violence both from their parents and their peers, and find solace both in the arts and in each other.

Although it was originally written as a solo piece, Pegasus Players has unnecessarily brought on Caren Blackmore and Brandon Thompson to play supportive roles. The result is a collection of cold, weird, disconnected scenes that come off more like high school skits than scenes in a play, tied together by Alexis’ (LaNisa Frederick) speeches. The work put in by the actors is passable, but the production is passionless: from the snooze-fest of a set (made up of a scrim and a couple of window units) to the beyond lame staging.

Frederick does her best, working against banal direction and bizarre costuming (she is dressed in a huge purple, flowy, over-shirt thingy that completely monopolizes her body). She’s able to transform her role from being cute and funny to dark, gross places when needed. Her monologues are by far the most engaging parts of the show. Brandon Thompson, who ages about ten years as during the play as Jimmy, does a great job of playing a ten year old in a respectful, believable and sweet way.

LaNisa%20Frederick%20-%20Cab_Web When improv actors are learning their craft, they are taught never to bring real props or costumes onto the stage, because it interferes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The theory is that if everything is pantomimed, then anything can be possible. As soon as a real object enters the scene, it becomes harder to imagine things that aren’t really there. I wish someone had told director Ilesa Duncan thies before she directed this play. The idea is creativity in minimalism. Just because a play doesn’t call for fireworks is no reason to slack off when trying to fill the space.

This being said, don’t write off this play entirely. The writing is so robust that you’ll still have a good time. Pegasus Players’ mission to bring theater to those with limited access. which is a very worthy cause. But almost everything about this production, from the props to the costumes, to the set is more half-hearted than impressionistic.

 

Rating: ★★

 

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Free and metered street parking is available in surrounding neighborhoods.  Valet parking is available at Magnolia Cafe at 1224 West Wilson for $8.00.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

REVIEW: Aelita and Shiny Boxes (Dream Theatre)

More work-in-progress than job-well-done

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Dream Theatre presents:

Aelita and Shiny Boxes

 

by Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui
directed and designed by Anna Weiler
through February 21st (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Aelita and Shiny Boxes are two original one acts by young playwrights Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui, presently premiering at the Dream Theatre. This theater company, which produces only original work, has never before done a show written by anyone other than the artistic director, Jeremy Menekseoglu.

aelitaAelita, by Bil Gaines, is an allegorical story about a young woman who has to kill in order to free her soul. It’s a short play that dives right into big questions about god, violence, and love, while skipping details like relationships and characters, in a quasi postmodern style. The characters are very loose sketches of actual people, often speaking in bold, fragmented ideas rather than traditional dialogical thoughts. They seem to have a minimal point of view in order to bring home philosophical points of the play, and this break down in speech seems to have affected the opinions of the actors. The singular exception is Giau Truong as Amboy, the giant, who is older than death. This is the most clearly written character, and Truong is a charming and amenable actor that is fun to watch. This not totally lacking in humor, Aelita takes itself pretty seriously. The whole production leads up to a moral at the end which is always a tough sell, especially from a young playwright. 

Shiny Boxes, written by Mishelle Renee Apalategui is a tightly structured and nicely staged play about haunting childhood memories and the traumatic transition into adulthood. The set needed for this avant-garde piece is perfect for companies working with smaller budgets, as it uses inexpensive, everyday items to create the suggestion of a nineteen-year-old’s apartment and a child’s birthday party. A multi-colored metallic “happy birthday” banner hangs from the wall, and when the light hits it, it creates an amazing sparkling effect that is as full of nostalgia as the writer intended. The playwright does a nice job of weaving in and out of flashbacks, but this play, like Aelita (maybe even more so) takes itself a little too seriously, and the subject matter verges on melodrama.

As a whole, these plays both possess a didactic, college theater feel. The work and themes show promise.  No doubt both playwrights will grow and mature – creating amazing work in the future, but for now, however, the writing veers towards the immature.

SPECIAL NOTE: Because of a medical emergency that took place on stage during opening weekend, I saw this play twice. I have to make a mention on how professionally and seamlessly the actors improvised and performed the second half of the play without a key actor. The work was so committed that I could not tell that anything was wrong until I received a phone call from the executive director the next day. Another mention to the poor actress who fell ill, her performance while sick was so good, again I had no idea that anything was wrong. Bravo to the cast.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Performances occur Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 21 at Dream Theatre 556 W 18th Street.  Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Street Parking is available.

Tickets are $15-$18, 773-552-8616 / annainthedarkness@gmail.com

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AELITA & SHINY BOXES is a double feature of world premiere plays directed and designed by Dream Theatre Company member Anna Weiler (Somewhere In Texas). Dream Theatre Company invites two new playwrights, Bil Gaines and Mishelle Apalategui. Each writer has a unique style that complements the Dream Theatre Company tradition of high art. Featuring Dream Theatre Company members: Giau Truong, Megan Merrill and Judith Lesser and introducing: Chad Sheveland, Meredith Rae Lyons, Alicia Reese, Sean Murphy and Zach Livingston. Featuring soundtrack music written by Oh My God, Abraham Levitan and Coehlo. Photographs by Giau Truong. Graphic design by Lou Rocco Centrella.

REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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REVIEW: The Castle (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle bites off more than it can chew

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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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REVIEW: Annie (Broadway in Chicago)

A familiar show for kids of all ages

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Broadway in Chicago presents:

Annie

 

Book by Thomas Meehan
Music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Marin Charnin
directed by  Martin Charnin
thru January 24th at the Auditorium Theatre

review by Aggie Hewitt

anniecast3_minimized In this dark re-imagining of the Broadway classic Annie, executive producer Kary M. Walker gives us an in-your-face look at the cold realities of depression era life, exploring big business, child abuse and of course the vague references to Annie’s Electra Complex buried deep within the play’s subtext.

Just kidding! It’s Annie! Shiny, happy Annie. The 1977 musical about the spunky little red head who’s prediction that “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” actually comes true.

This play means different things to different people. To kids who go to see it, it must be a great night. They came to the Auditorium Theatre on the night of the Annie Chicago premier dressed in white tights and pink coats, ready for a night at the theater, and I doubt they were disappointed. Lynn Andrews’ hilariously annieandsandy_minimizedcruel and pathetic Miss Hanigan was a stand out, and her clownish rendition of “Little Girls” was a highlight.

In kid’s entertainment, the children on stage are more appealing to the parents than the little ones in the audience. Of course kids like seeing other kids with grown up jobs, like acting in a big budget musical. They also like stories they can relate to, that are about children. But as far as the cutesy singing and dancing in Annie, that’s tailored to adult taste. Annie is an adult impression of an ideal child, as are her fellow orphans. For the adults who watch Annie, the kids are the best part. In this production, Madison Kerth is a confident Annie with a powerful singing voice and a very good actress as well. The children perform “A Hard Knock Life” with frustration and that adorable, Annie-esque gallows humor for kids, which has made this show a funny hit for 32 years. And the stand out of the whole production is the super cute seven year old Mackenzie Aladjem, playing the youngest orphan-girl, Molly. With her messy brown hair and her runt-of-the-litter quality, this little thing stole every scene she set foot in.

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The two black sheep in the audience that night were companion and me, who both long ago traded pink coats and white tights for Marc Jacobs knock offs and black leggings. During intermission, my friend turned to me and said, “I want to see what happened before Annie. What did Daddy Warbucks do that was so bad he needed to bring an orphan home for the good P.R?” Twenty-Somethings in 2010 may have trouble trusting Annie—The world famous musical who’s original Broadway production made 22 million dollars. We see Daddy Warbucks (played here by David Barton) as a weird combination of Woody Allen and Rupert Murdock. But it’s best for guys like us to check our cynicism at the door, or if that’s not possible just not go. It’s to easy to be cynical about a show like this. Its fun for kids, and it’s shiny and bright. The actors hit their marks and sing like birds. It’s Annie, the same Annie you remember from when you were a kid. This play is not necessarily regarded as a children’s show, it’s more a musical that kids will love. At this point, Annie is something for families and hard core musical fans. There is nothing wrong with that.

Rating: ★★★

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all all pictures by Peter Coombs

 

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