REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai Theatre)

Dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm

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Seanachai Theatre presents:

Dancing at Lughnasa

 

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Elise Kauzlaric
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox
through April 4th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is the deftly-written female roles. The story concentrates on the interactions, loves, and private catastrophes of the Mundy sisters, five adult women who live together in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg. Friel visits this made-up town in several of his plays, including his smash hit Translations, and here he shows a period directly before massive changes swept over Ireland and the world. Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s ode to nostalgia. It exudes the bittersweet feeling that come along with fond memories of a perfect instant in time, a moment followed by years of strife and hardship.

Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 1 Friel’s play gets a delightful treatment by Seanachai Theatre Company, a group that focuses on producing classic and cutting-edge Irish drama (their home base is the Irish American Heritage Center). I’m about as Irish as a Shamrock Shake, but I was able to relate to this heart-wrenching production, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, on a visceral level. It explores themes that are familiar to us all: the sometimes devastating effects of change and the crystal-clear beauty of a perfect memory.

The 1990 play is set in the summer of 1936. Friel’s world is rife with tension; we’re watching the events directly preceding the bubble popping. In this Ballybeg, the Church is confronted with pagan practices (the play’s action takes place around the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa), the industrial revolution is transforming rural life, and the problems of the world, problems which would explode in a few years, are creeping into the remote corners of Ireland.

The narrator, Michael (the charming Kevin Theis), was seven at the time, but now tells us the story as a middle-aged man with the advantage of knowing what happens next. Not a whole lot of action actually occurs in the play, but we stay riveted to every scene because Michael tosses us tidbits of future adversity.

Even though they are all adults, the Mundy sisters range a great deal in age. They are all unmarried and they all work very hard to keep themselves afloat. The oldest is Kate (a powerful Barbara Figgins), whose motherly leadership and strict Catholicism is equally resented and needed by her sisters. Her middle-aged peer is Maggie (Sarah Wellington), who fills the house with jokes, dancing, and soda bread. Rose (Anne Sunseri) and Agnes (Carolyn Klein) are both in their 30s and have a very special bond with each other. Michael’s mother Chris (Simone Roos) is the youngest, and allows herself to be strung Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 2along by Michael’s charismatic yet deadbeat father, Gerry (Philip Winston). The five sisters have to deal with a new addition to the household, Father Jack (Don Bender), their elderly uncle who just returned from a long mission trip to Uganda, where he has contracted malaria and left his Catholicism behind.

The actresses have a great connection with each other, filling the house with lots of love and lots of hostility. Wellington shines the most—she is lovely, vibrant, and fun, yet can still find Maggie’s vulnerability and loneliness. The script says that Rose has a developmental disorder, but this doesn’t come across in Sunseri’s performance, she just seems like the youngest sister (which might be a choice by Kauzlaric). This isn’t a huge problem, but it muddles a later scene involving possible sexual abuse. Beyond this issue, the five women capture the sibling relationship wonderfully. Sometimes they are sweet as honey, sometimes they can’t stand to be under the same roof.

Alan Donahue’s set handles the play well, but Sarah Hughey’s lights are clunky and disjointed. This Dancing at Lughnasa does not skimp on the dancing and music, all of it adding to the joy and drama of the piece.

Even though every aspect of this show is Irish, it hits on something we all know. Seanachai’s production is gorgeous and tragic, dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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Review: Bare Boned Theatre’s “The Hecubae”

The Hecubae Strains Between Ancient Poetry and Horrendous Modern Reality

Polyxena (Beth Allin, R) awaits sacrifice by the Son of Achilles  

Bare Boned Theatre presents

The Hecubae
by Rebekah Walendzak and Jeffrey Brouthiette
directed by Jeffrey Bouthiette
Running through Sunday, August 30th  (buy tickets)

What is Hecuba to us or we to Hecuba? The obvious answer could lie in the present-day struggles of women eking out an existence in war torn camps for displaced The ghost of Polydorus possesses the women of the chorus (clockwise from left: Cynthia Shur, Lorraine Freund, Sienna Harris, Emily Friedrick). persons. Bare Boned Theatre’s playwrights Rebekah Walendzak and Jeffrey Bouthiette have attempted to mesh the excruciating suffering of contemporary women in the midst of war with Euripides’ classic tale of a war-devastated queen. Unfortunately, what they have gained may be just equal with what they have lost in the process. Furthermore, substantial lack of clarity in some scenes may ruin the theatrical experience for those unacquainted with the original work.

On the plus side, the general shift in the play, from Hecuba surrounded by her attending women to the women being refugees in a contemporary camp, strengthens the Greek choral moments of the original play. Directed by Bouthiette, the unity of The Hecubae’s all-women cast is resilient and undeniable. Moments of song evoke the greatest power and hope for their survival.

One Greek choral moment in the beginning, however, must be thoroughly revised for greater clarity. The choral performance of Hecuba’s youngest child being killed by a trusted friend and ally is far too confusing. And the use of a woven mat to represent her child is far too amateur for this production.

Hecuba (Samantha Garcia) grieves the death of her daughterBare Bone’s modernization of Euripides becomes more effective with smaller touches—such as when a soldier with ruined legs, mounted on a makeshift cart, wheels onstage to tell Hecuba the latest bad news. The scene where Odysseus uses graphs to explain how Hecuba’s daughter will be sacrificed ranks as a near-perfect portrayal of rationalized brutality. Casting the young Samantha Garcia as Hecuba follows Bare Boned Theatre’s philosophy of non-traditional casting, yet Garcia’s command of Euripides’ poetic language conveys her Hecuba as noble as well as fallen.

How sad it is, then, when this adaptation splits scenes in such a way that poetry and dramatic tension are lost. Then contemporary travesties only obscure, instead of enlighten, Euripides’ words and drain away the potential for Hecuba to stand for all women in war.

Hecuba (Samantha Garcia, left) watches Hec015

It’s back to the drawing board for the playwrights. They must strive once more, not only to sustain a dramatic arc through crucial scene changes between the ancient and modern camps, but also to personalize and particularize the suffering of modern women in war for a truly meaningful adaptation. In general, clichéd representations of women’s suffering or victimization do not move people. People can feel sorry for the women represented in such a drama, but they cannot become emotionally engaged with their suffering as audiences should be.

Euripides knew how to make his deeply sexist, predominantly male Greek audience identify with Hecuba–with her powerlessness, her outrage, and her descent into dehumanizing violence. He could pull them from their positions of male privilege and plunge them into the profound depths of loss and despair that women in war know. We should be so lucky to have the same done to us.

Rating: «
 

Full Cast: Beth Allin, Lorraine Freund, Emily Friedrick, Samantha Garcia, Sienna Harris, Earlina “Earl” McLaurin, Cynthiaq Shur

Creative Team: Mike Smith (lighting design), Jeffrey Bouthiette (sound design), Matthew Buettner (scenic design), Aly Greaves (costume design), Chris Radar (Stage Manager)