Review: The Homecoming (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

  
  

Mary-Arrchie excels at stripping away social restrictions

  
  

Luke Hatton, Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Jeremy Chandler

    

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents

    

The Homecoming

        
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Geoff Button
at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $18-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After experiencing Belarus Free Theatre’s powerful Being Harold Pinter (our review) earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how any traditional Pinter production would resonate going forward. Mary-Arrchie’s production of Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming has answered that question: more than ever. While Pinter’s domestic wars have always proved powerfully apparent and has inspired plays such as Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County, Belarus Free Theatre’s Pinter unearthed the immediacy and politics of his writing in such a way that American audiences now have a new frame of reference with Pinter’s writing. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s loft storefront, Director Geoff Button crafts an absurdly detailed production that hits all of the most vital aspects of this play dead on. The comedy and relationships are sharp. The rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue is surgically articulated. The sexually charged faceoffs are bubbling. Ultimately, this Homecoming stays with you after exiting out onto Sheridan Road.

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerAmerican audiences were appalled, fascinated, and viscerally affected when The Homecoming made its American debut in 1967. As the play has aged, the shock may have worn off, however, the parallels in family relations is perhaps more recognizable. The brilliance lies in how subtly Pinter transcends from the everyday to the absurd. It’s as if we travel from Kansas to Oz without the tornado. The story is set in 1964 London in the home of Max (Richard Cotovsky) where he lives with his two sons Lenny (Vance Smith), Joey (Dereck Garner) and his brother Sam (Jack McCabe). Max speaks loudly and carries a shiny stick. There are references made to his dead wife which was also the death of a female figure in this home. Daily domestic conversations are instantly off kilter on topics such as cooking, “Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook.” This world is turned on end with the return of Max’s third son Teddy (Luke Hatton) and new wife Ruth (played by Michaela Petro in one of the most riveting performances of the season).

Smith and Petro begin the “game” in their first scene together. Smith’s Lenny is deadly blunt and comical. Their banter revolving around a simple glass of water is thrilling, “Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.” As events unfold, social rules disintegrate. Jealousies and desires revolving around Ruth play out literally in front of her husband, Teddy. Petro’s Ruth is captivating in how she is objectified and yet never victimized, always winning the battle of wits. All the while, Hatton is fascinating while adulterous actions are played out in broad daylight. He avoids playing aloof and instead makes us question the limits of civility.

Amanda Sweger’s set is detailed. The fray of the wallpaper still hangs from the ceiling where a wall used to be. Sweger makes her own set glow evocatively like a Chinese light box in her double duty as lighting designer. Sound designer, Joe Court has the audience sit in silence during the preshow, listening to an amplified clock’s ticking time bomb effect before the start. However, his use of distorted gong-like effects adds unnecessary gravitas at moments, which conflicts with Pinter’s much more powerful uses of silence. Costume designer Izumi Inaba is faithful to Pinter’s text while giving Petro the most perfect shade of red in a suit that highlights Ruth’s sensuality and assertiveness.

Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerOne element that proves difficult for any ensemble of American actors is the English dialect in this play. When most effective, the dialects are differentiated by class (something that may not land as clearly on an American audience’s ears anyhow). Unfortunately, the dialects all but disappear with a couple actors during the performance which distracts slightly. In addition, on the night I attended, Pinter’s words began to trip the actors up somewhat during the final scene. However, when Cotovsky, on his knees says, “I am not an old man” it strikes right at the chord Pinter intended.

One of the strongest elements of this production is Button’s staging. His attention to proximity between characters tugs and pulls at the tension. There is a time when a pause plays better at ten feet and other times where it is more effective at three inches. Button plays with this notion to its fullest extent and creates visually telling pictures.

There are numerous levels at which to enter this play. One is the simply thrilling entertainment of seeing social restrictions stripped away. What if people did and said what they wanted and felt at any given moment? We all know of families in which small battles are blown out of proportion – perhaps all too well. We also know of instances of jealousy and flirting played out amongst siblings and parents when an outside party, especially an attractive one, is brought into a home. Pinter has turned the volume up and shined a spotlight on these moments. Button and his cast excel at making the unrealistic dangerously truthful.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin Chandler

The Homecoming continues at Angel Island Theater through April 10th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Running time is 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 (Thursdays and Sundays), $20 (Fridays) and $22 (Saturdays), and can be bought online or by calling the box-office at (773) 871-0442. For more info, visit: www.maryarrchie.com.

All photos by Benjamin Chandler.

  
  

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REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: Ghostbox (InFusion Theatre Company)

 

Where Bergman dared to tread

 

 

Ghostbox (1) - Photo by Kevin Viol

    
InFusion Theatre presents
    
Ghostbox
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Mitch Golob
Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have to give credit to InFusion Theatre Company for stepping out of the usual experimental game with Ghostbox. Randall Colburn has taken more than a page from one of my favorite directors and made it work by means of multimedia. The one-act play opens with Wife, played by Victoria Gilbert, demonstrating how a simple transistor radio can pick up supernatural signals. The film is shot in a grainy 1970’s patina of de-saturated color. It has an eerie feel and sets the mood for what comes next. The actual stage is painted in washed out gray tones with the screen set center stage. The actors are dressed in gray scale colors as well, with the exception of the Shadow that looms ominously.

Ghostbox is reminiscent of two of Bergman’s masterpieces: “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Seventh Seal”. Victoria Gilbert’s dialogue would seem repetitive in the hands of a less emotive actor. As Wife, she portrays the agony of loss and the psychology that lies beneath. Colburn’s dialogue reaches into the exotic territory of Reykjavik as the beginning of the love story of Husband and Wife. Husband spoke of Reykjavik as if it were the Promised Land where their love would be perfect. Wife reveals that he kept his deep melancholy and sexual dysfunction a secret.

Ghostbox (7) - Photo by Nastassia JimenezThe characters are kept from connecting and roam a wasteland of radio signals and flashbacks on film. This is indeed a thriller, but thankfully not in the obvious slasher mode. There are no winks at the audience in Ghostbox. This play grabs, releases, and toys with the subconscious. The images of water suggest drowning versus cleansing and purity. Even the scenes of Gilbert standing in a field of solid green are ominous and somehow stark.

Kevin Crispin plays the role of Husband. He bears a stricken hollowed visage that harkens back to German Expressionism films as well as the man playing chess with Death in “The Seventh Seal”. It’s a mystery – is Husband trying to avoid Wife in this murky place that they roam or is he keeping clear because of Shadow.

Ghostbox makes excellent use of sound (sound design by Claudette Perez) with jagged piercing radio signals that cause a few gasps in the audience, adding another layer for the characters to navigate in this nebulous place. I had visions of the old ‘Radio Free Europe’ commercials that called for open radio signals behind what was called the Iron Curtain. I was back in my seven year old psyche and recalling the terror I felt for the people who couldn’t just turn on the radio for pleasure as well as the pain and the smell of what I imagined was a real iron curtain. With Ghostbox, Colburn has created an onomatopoeia of vision and sound that projects a stark and frozen hell. When Gilbert and Crispin are together on the stage the action is taut, feeling as if glass is breaking everywhere without hearing the sounds. Gilbert goes from stricken and grieving to anger – anger at being denied love and sexuality. Crispin treads a tightrope of emotion as it is slowly revealed where they are and how they got there.

If Ghostbox were a film it would be in black and white. Director Mitch Golob keeps the scenes tight and efficient as if he were a film auteur. The suffering of humankind is said to be universal, but how it is expressed varies. It’s a refreshing experience to see a theatre production that does not go for the obvious but definitely hits the jugular. (A strange contrast to see the folks in line for Million Dollar Quartet in the main theatre.) It is a shot of surreal Technicolor and then an Icelandic blast downstairs in the Apollo Studio. Ghostbox is marketed for Halloween entertainment and it will hit the spot. Sleep well children…

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Ghostbox (5) - Photo by Nastassia Jimenez

InFusion Theatre Company presents Ghostbox at the Apollo Studio on Thursdays through Saturdays with a special Halloween Performance on October 31st at 8:30 pm. The Apollo Studio Theater is located at 2540 N. Lincoln. Call 773-935-6100 or www.ticketmaster.com

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Sunday in the Park with George (Porchlight)

 

Porchlight’s ‘Sunday’ doesn’t quite put it together

 

Cast of Sunday in the Park With George

   
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Sunday in the Park with George
   
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Directed by L. Walter Stearns, music direction by Eugene Dizon
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"His touch is too deliberate, somehow."

That lyric, from the 1984 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, might well describe Porchlight Music Theatre Director L. Walter Stearns’ uneven revival, which somehow fails to connect the dots of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

Sondheim James Lapine’s imagined backstory behind 19th-century painter Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" (now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago) has only a tangential relationship to the real biography of the groundbreaking neoimpressionist whose early death deprived the art world of what surely would have been a brilliant career. Instead it concentrates on the troublesome issues of balance between art and life, work and relationships, ambition and practicality.

The artist calls for "Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance" — elements that can make or break any work of art. This imbalanced production falters under too much design and not enough tone.

Hidden behind the scenes, Music Director Eugene Dizon on piano and his orchestra — Carolyn Berger, violin; Michelle Lewis, cello; Allison Richards, viola; Patrick Rehker and Derek Weihofen, woodwinds; and Jennifer Ruggieri, harp — do a stellar job with the music. Unfortunately, many of the singers don’t measure up.

Amanda Sweger‘s massive backdrop and Liviu Pasare‘s distracting video projections overwhelm the small stage and the cast as well.

Brandon Dahlquist ably captures George’s sensitivity and absorption, with an expressive face that suggests the real Seurat’s soulful looks and a fine tenor. Yet too often he’s obscured behind the scrim or facing away from the audience. (John Francisco will take this role for the final three weekends of the run.) Seurat’s painting may be the subject of the play, but we really don’t need to see it all the time. An empty stretcher would have conveyed the idea of the work just as well and allowed us to see the actor’s face.

On the other hand, Jess Godwin’s passion is all in her face and rarely in her singing. Playing George’s lover, Dot, the animated and lovely Godwin displays an almost palpable yearning for the artist. The slender redhead bears no resemblance to the Seurat’s actual mistress, Madeleine Knobloch (the buxom subject of "Young Woman Powdering Herself"), which doesn’t matter, but her voice often sounds as thin as her figure, and that does.

Several members of the supporting cast put in excellent performances, however. Sara Stern is superb as George’s peevish, elderly mother. Her fabulous version of "Beautiful" is the highlight of Act I. Sarah Hayes and Daniel Waters do a hilarious job as the unhappy American tourists. Bil Ingraham and Heather Townsend are aptly haughty as the successful painter Jules and his wife, Yvonne, delivering tittering pronouncements on George’s work in "No Life," and Michael Pacas makes a wonderfully wry and full-voiced boatman.

The second act, which jumps forward to a modern artist, also named George — a fictional great-grandson of Seurat — seems much stronger, as if the cast and crew felt more comfortable in the 20th century. Dahlquist, now fresh-faced and beardless, is out in front here. But Godwin, now portraying George’s grandmother, sings "Children and Art" so softly she’s nearly inaudible.

Sunday is one of Sondheim’s more challenging musicals. Porchlight would have done much better to concentrate on the essentials of light and harmony instead of reaching for the heavy design elements that weigh down this production.

"Art isn’t easy, no matter how you look at it."

   
   
Rating:★★
   
  

Benefit Concert

Porchlight Music Theatre hosts a benefit concert, "By Popular Demand," at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 11, at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago (map).

In Act I, singers Jayson Brooks, Sean Effinger-Dean, Nick Foster, Jess Godwin, Lina Kernan, Ryan Lanning, Bethany Thomas, Joseph Tokarz and others perform. At intermission, the audience votes to determine who’ll return to sing again in Act II.

Tickets are $40. Two votes are included with your admission. Each additional vote costs $1 and supports new talent, new works and new productions at Porchlight.