Review: Sonnets for an Old Century (UrbanTheater)

     
     

Like life, ‘Sonnets’ is a bumpy ride

     
     

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.

   
UrbanTheater Company presents
 
Sonnets for an Old Century
  
Written by José Rivera
Directed by
Madrid St. Angelo i/a/w Juan Castaneda
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
thru April 24 |  tickets: $20   |  more info  

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Chicago has a vast and virtually unknown storytelling scene. Shows like The Moth, 2nd Story, Story Club, Stories at the Store, This Much Is True and Essay Fiesta feature the best writers and storytellers in the city. As a member of this scene (and Essay Fiesta producer), I see at least a dozen personal monologues performed each month. You would think that after hearing more than 100 narratives, I’d become jaded. However, I’d argue that the opposite is true. My appreciation for genuine and honest storytelling continues to grow and appears to be without bounds. Conversely, my bullshit detector has become highly attuned.

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter CoombsI mention all this because Sonnets for an Old Century, the new UrbanTheater Company production that’s part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep, is a storytelling showcase. The play, written by José Rivera, consists of a series of monologues told by the recently deceased. The stage is their purgatory, and it is here that each provides commentary on the life he or she has lived, both the good and the bad. So in essence, these monologues—or free-verse sonnets—are personal narratives, even if the narratives are fictional.

Overall, Sonnets is an incredibly inconsistent show. There are moments where the monologists hit their high notes, striking genuine emotion. In these rare scenes, you can sense the actor is digging deep, plucking an honest chord from within and relaying that to the audience from behind the mask of the character. It is also in these scenes where the dialogue rises above contrivance and overwroughtness to become something real and relatable.

Unfortunately, there are far too many monologues in which the diction is absurd, even spiraling into laughable territory. Lines like "ecology of the spirit" and "rhythm of vegetables" could work if they weren’t delivered with such grave seriousness. Nobody talks like this, not even poets—or at least good poets. The actors struggle when assuming these pretentious characters, often falling into the trap of indicating rather than acting. But can you blame them? Nobody can relate to a clunker of a line like the "fallopian tubes of her mind." How can the actors find a place of genuine feeling when lines like this are the antithesis of genuine feeling?

But let’s get back to the highlights. There’s a beautiful monologue delivered by actor Hank Hilbert. He plays an actor who, in life, kept his homosexuality and his AIDS diagnosis hidden from most of the world. The language of the piece is pedestrian, though it still retains its power. There is humor as well as poignancy. There is action as well as characterization. It has all the makings of a great narrative.

Another highlight is provided courtesy of Christian Kain Blackburn. His character talks about sin, and attempts to justify his earthly behavior, which in life included drug and alcohol abuse. He then gives a riveting speech about his invalid father and the pain of watching the man grow old, weak and helpless. Blackburn pulls from the gut and succeeds in delivering one of the most compelling sonnets of the production.

     
Gino Marconi in a scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs
Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series.

Despite these shining moments, and a few others, the play’s inconsistency detracts from its overall quality. Each character need not deliver his or her monologue in a similar voice – that would be a sign of a non-dynamic writer. But the style should remain consistent. You can’t go from real-world dialogue to slam poetry and expect us to think these characters exist in the same universe. Perhaps if director Madrid St. Angelo addressed these style shifts, there would be more cohesion and a better end product.

The reason why the aforementioned storytelling series are successful is because they strive to tap into a place of vulnerability without the protection of pretense. Sonnets for an Old Century will probably turn off quite a few audience members because of just how much it clings to its loftiness. If the actors and director could find a way to make each piece vulnerable, despite the laughable dialogue, this would be a much more powerful play.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi

GarageRep continues through April 24th, with performances Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm; with a three-show marathon on Sunday, April 24 at 1 pm, 4pm & 8 pm.  For more info, go to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2011 GarageRep page.

 

Artists

Featuring: Jennifer Walls, Alex Polcyn, Christian Kain Blackburn, Gino Marconi, Gabi Mayorga, Shannon Matesky, Hank Hilbert, Rashaad Hall, Marilyn Camacho, Paloma Nozicka, Dru Smith, Marvin Quijada, Meghann Tabor, Phillip E. Jones, Arthur Luis Soria, Sojourner Zenobia Wright, Mike Cherry, Whitney Hayes and Amrita Dhaliwal.

       
        

What is GarageRep??

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REVIEW: Gross Indecency – Oscar Wilde (Black Elephant)

A Modern Take on Indecency


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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
 
 

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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: “Cuba and His Teddy Bear”

Chilling and tragic examination of father-son dynamics

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UrbanTheater and People*s Theater of Chicago presents:

Cuba and His Teddy Bear

by Reinaldo Povod
directed by Marilyn Camancho
thru December 13th (ticket info)

review by Oliver Sava

Joseph-CubaA family drama in unfolding at Humboldt Park’s Batey Urbano (map), the storefront theater currently home to the midwest premiere of Reinaldo Povod’s Cuba and His Teddy Bear. At the heart of the dysfunction is Cuba (Madrid St. Angelo), a small time drug dealer, and Teddy (Christian Kane Blackburn), Cuba’s artistic son with a major monkey on his back. When Cuba’s friend Jackie (Hank Hilbert) unloads two pounds of marijuana on the pair, drug dealing becomes family bonding, but it’s only a matter of time before things go to hell. The buyer that Teddy has lined up, heroin addict/Tony award winning playwright Che (Julian Martinez), has no intention of paying for the product, and he’s brought along the Dealer (Kamal Han), a stickup artist who walks with a skull-adorned cane due to of an abscess in his leg from repeated injections.

If your character is in the title of the play, you better be damn good. Luckily, St. Angelo and Blackburn are. The success of the production hinges on the relationship of these two characters, and the two actors have great chemistry that comes from having truly explored the circumstances of these characters. St. Madrid plays Cuba with equal parts concerned family man and dangerous drug dealer, creating an incredibly realistic portrait of a father trying to do the best he can with the limited skills he has. Cuba tells Teddy that if he wants to do drugs he can just ask him and they’ll do them together. He wants his son to become a federal agent because it’s good, honest work. Cuba sees the potential in his son and when he sees it being extinguished it drives him to the edge of sanity; the play’s climax is a tense standoff between father and son that ends in a gunshot and a flood of tears.

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Blackburn’s Teddy has an introverted intensity throughout Act I that hints at the character’s secret shame, and watching him confront his demons in Act II is heartbreaking. He grooms his father with a gentle touch that is both tender yet unnerving, and the character’s willingness to throw away his future in exchange for human affection is fully realized by Blackburn, especially in the scene with Martinez’s Che. Martinez, dressed like a pachuco with two huge black circles around his eyes, is wonderfully menacing and tragic, content with living on a Central Park bench and exploiting the emotions of misguided youth so he can score. When Teddy tells Che, "You should come to me because you want to see me, not because you want to get high," the audience knows that will never be the case, and so does Teddy, but he clings to his desires in the face of utter futility.

The biggest flaw with the production is the length – the playwright’s ambitious script packs so much material in two and a half hours that the weight begins to slow down the pace and lessens the casts energy. The show could use about a half hour of cutting, but the ensemble that director Marilyn Camancho has assembled captures the gritty intensity of Povod’s script, resulting in a chilling examination of father-son and dealer-junkie dynamics.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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