REVIEW: To Master the Art (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Delectable Julia Childs biography feeds the soul (if not your belly!)

 

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TimeLine Theatre presents
   
To Master the Art
   
By William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Through Dec. 19   |  
Tickets: $28–38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t go hungry to see To Master the Art, TimeLine Theatre Company’s sparkling, heartwarming play about culinary icon Julia Child. Director William Brown and co-author Doug Frew have created a masterful, multi-layered experience that excites all the senses. Its tasty imagery and food talk, the loads of fresh ingredients displayed and the onstage cookery that wafts the scent of sauteed onions out to the audience will leave you ravenous.

ToMasterTheArt_187This world premiere covers the decade Child wrote about in ‘My Life in France’, beginning with her first exposure to French food and cookery, when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris while he worked for the United States Information Service. We see Child’s sensual pleasure in her first French lunch. We learn with her how to choose vegetables and cook the perfect scrambled eggs. We see her frustrations as she works on the manuscript that would ultimately become the seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Brown’s staging is impeccable, and his cast first-rate. Though a little young for the part — Child is 39 at the start of the play, and 50 by the time her first cookbook is published — Karen Janes Woditsch has Julia down, voice and mannerisms all exactly right. As her husband, Paul, Craig Spidle appears a bit more than 10 years his wife’s senior, but there’s plenty of sizzle between them. This is a love story, not just a food history.

It also touches on politics. Set in the 1950s, when the Red Scare was in full swing, the play chronicles the difficulties that even Americans abroad had with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Amy Dunlap expressively plays the Childs’ bohemian and possibly Communist artist friend, Jane Foster Zlatovski, persecuted by the witchhunt, and a dramatic scene shows an interrogation Paul Child underwent. We also see Paul’s increasing dissatisfaction with his government overseers. And, sometimes, his impatience with what becomes his wife’s sometimes overwhelming obsession. Spouses of food writers, chefs and other avid cooks will empathize with his heartfelt cry at yet another iteration of onion soup: "How many gallons of this stuff do I have to eat?"

 

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You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy this show. But those who love to cook and to eat will find lots to delight them. Designer Keith Pitts has created a quaint and workable Parisian kitchen that forms the backdrop for much of the action, complete with antique stove and pots hanging on the wall. (A culinary friend of mine spotted a ringer in the kitchenware, but it doesn’t matter.)

Terry Hamilton doubles in a delightful performance as Child’s mentor Chef Max Bugnard and her conservative, xenophobic father. Jeannie Affelder gives French fire to Child’s collaborator Simone Beck.

Ann Wakefield portrays the stuffy Madame Brassart, who balks Child’s progress at her cooking school, and wonderfully, Child’s wildly enthusiastic penpal Avis DeVoto. (In a minor flaw, the origins of the correspondence between DeVoto and Child, who had not met when they began writing to each other, is explained only in the program: Child had written to DeVoto’s husband, Bernard, about a magazine article he’d penned about knives — and received an answer from Avis, who had inspired the piece.)  In an excellent piece of staging, Wakefield appears to act out DeVoto’s letters to Child. Juliet Hart also appears in an epistolary role as Judith Jones, the editor who ultimately shepherded Child’s work to print.

Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross and Ethan Sacks fill out the cast, each ably playing a variety of roles.

TimeLine waited a long time before it commissioned a play — To Master the Art is the first in the 14-year-old company’s history — but it certainly started out with a flourish. Kudos also to dramaturg Maren Robinson and others who provided the excellent information about Child and her world contained in the program and lobby displays.

My only quibble: The show runs roughly two and half hours. It’s tough to sit through such a long, delectably food-centric play with nothing to eat. It ought to be dinner theater. At least, they should serve a snack at intermission!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Free post-show discussions take place on selected Thurdays and Sundays. An hour-long panel discussion will occur on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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Extra Credit:

     

REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

Strawdog and Brecht a wicked good combo

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

 
Strawdog Theatre presents
 
The Good Soul of Szechuan
 
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
David Harrower
Directed by
Shade Murray
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 29th  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Bertolt Brecht believed epic theatre would reveal society’s immorality and incite virtuous action in its viewer. The genre is formulaic by nature, and in the wrong hands, epic theatre is just tedious. The techniques intended to alienate the audience – actors playing multiple characters, unrealistic settings, costumes and props in plain sight, the occasional musical interlude – do just that, but have the potential to disinterest more than disaffect. It takes a skilled ensemble to find emotional resonance when a script intentionally creates a hurdle in the actor’s connection with the audience, but Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.comStrawdog Theatre’s cast and creative team use the conventions of epic theatre to enhance David Harrower’s gritty translation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The updated language pulls Szechuan into the present, turning the city into a modern industrial metropolis filled with selfish people that hate their lives as much as they each other. The dialogue should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been on the CTA, with the characters indulging in profanity-driven whining as prostitute protagonist Shen Te (Michaela Petro) tries her hardest to appease their demands. Modernizing the language has the potential to push the style into realism, but there is enough stage business and audience participation to keep the theatrical artifice at the forefront. As patrons are seated, a house band plays rousing folk-rock while actors warm up on stage and interact with unsuspecting members of the audience. Make no mistake, these are actors putting on a show, not actually the characters they portray. So it’s still epic.

From the orgasmic chants of “Shen-te, Shen-te, Shen-te!” that signal the main character’s entrances to the ethereal strings that soundtrack the Gods’ (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, Anita Chandwaney) scenes, music is used to quickly establish tone and give the actors added support. Intended as one of those pesky alienation techniques, the musical numbers have such energy and passion that it is difficult to not feel moved, especially when the entire ensemble raises their voices together. The actors double as the band, and their vocal quality is matched by clear and confident accompaniment that showcases the various instrumental talents of the cast. The only song that never really clicks is “The Song of Smoke,” a headbanger sung by Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts) that lingers a little too long and stretches the character’s fury past its breaking point.

Director Shade Murray is adept at tragicomedy, and he finds the humor in Harrower’s downtrodden Szechuan. When Shen Te can no longer handle the greed of those she aids, she creates Shui Ta, a brash male alter ego. Shui Ta’s tracksuit and gangster swagger are laughable, but when Petro puts on her ass-kicking boots she does not play around, especially when she pulls out a brick of heroin. The exaggeration of her costuming and behavior strike a comedic chord as her actions take her deeper into darkness, creating laughs that are tinged with uneasiness. Most of the humor comes from the characters acting despicably – the aggressive disrespect of Shen Te’s houseguests, the flippant bitchiness of her landlord Mrs. Shin (Shannon Hoag) – and each laugh is another reminder that this is a performance, forcing the audience to question what exactly is so funny.

In the end, it’s another Brecht show with another Brecht message: Capitalism makes people do bad things. The biggest problem with epic theatre is that after a while it’s just not fun to watch people struggling, but when a company is having as much fun as Strawdog does in The Good Soul of Szechuan, the dark corners of human depravity don’t seem that bad a place to be.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

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Strawdog Theatre announces new artistic staff and ensemble members

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As part of their ongoing celebration of 22 years(!) in Chicago theatre, Strawdog Theatre Company proudly announces the hiring of new Managing Director Hank Boland, new General Manager Cortney Hurley, the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, Mike Przygoda and Justine C. Turner and the appointment of Matt Hawkins as Strawdog Artistic Associate and Resident Director.

hboland_large Hank Boland replaces Alex J. Goodman as Managing Director of Strawdog Theatre Company.  Boland’s work with Strawdog Theatre Company includes writing Season Seventeen’s epic musical The True Ballad of Fall’s Blessings, directed by Strawdog’s Artistic Director Nic Dimond and written in collaboration with Strawdog Theatre Company. In 2006, Dimond asked Boland to develop a writing initiative for Strawdog Ensemble Members.  Billed the The Hit Factory, this program regularly schedules late night events and graduations to showcase new work. The Hit Factory now also offers tuition based classes to the public, please see our website for more information. The Hit Factory is committed to creating new works, and strengthening the working relationships between Strawdog Theatre Company and other members of the Chicago theatre community. Boland holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film from Columbia College in Chicago where he is an adjunct faculty member in the screenwriting department.

Cortney Hurley, Strawdog’s Production Manager since 2006, has been promoted to General Manager, overseeing Strawdog’s growing theatrical complex located at

Strawdog Theatre Company is now home to a 70-seat mainstage theatre, 40-seat Hugen Hall cabaret space complete with bar and liquor license and 400 square foot rehearsal space called Nowhere Mountain.

Strawdog Theatre Company is also pleased to announce the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap has appeared on the Strawdog stage in Cherry Orchard, Marathon ‘33 and the Strawdog Radio Theatre Series. Dunlap graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts and has been seen in productions at several Chicago theatres including 16th Street Theater, Lifeline Theatre, Factory Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, Adventure Stage Chicago and Estrogen Fest.

Paul Fagen was last seen as Father Toulon in Strawdog’s critically-acclaimed production of Red Noses. Originally from Annapolis, MD, Fagen has also acted in productions at The House Theatre of Chicago, Speaking Ring Theater and Quest Theatre Ensemble.

Mike Przygoda was most recently the Musical Director and Arranger for Strawdog’s Red Noses. Przygoda holds a BFA in music composition from Columbia College Chicago.  He has worked on numerous shows in Chicago both as a composer and as a performing musician for companies such as The House Theatre of Chicago (Valentine Victorious, Ellen Under Glass, The Boy Detective Fails, Hatfield & McCoy, The Sparrow, The Magnificents, The Nutcracker, The Rose & Rime), American Theatre Company (Oklahoma!), The Hypocrites (Camille/La Traviata), Trapdoor (AmeriKafka), Next Theatre (The Busy World Is Hushed, 365 Days/Plays), The Neo-Futurists (Beer) and has written music for Serendipity Theatre Collective‘s Second Story.  He served as a musical director for the Second City Touring Company.

Justine C. Turner joins the Strawdog Ensemble after appearing in Red Noses. Originally from Oak Park, IL and a graduate of Columbia College, Turner was most recently seen in the remount of Rivendell Theatre’s These Shining Lives at Theatre on the Lake and appeared in Ren Faire last summer at The Factory Theatre.

Director of Strawdog’s smash, sold-out production of Red Noses Matt Hawkins joins Artistic Associates Kimberly Senior and Shade Murray in their growing ensemble of Resident Directors. Hawkins previously directed Hatfield & McCoy for The House Theatre of Chicago, On My Parents Hundredth Wedding Anniversary for the side project and will direct Cabaret for The Hypocrites next spring.

Strawdog’s staff includes Artistic Director Nic Dimond, Managing Director Hank Boland and General Manager Cortney Hurley. The complete Strawdog ensemble includes Jennifer Avery, Hank Boland, Abigail Boucher, Don Cardiff, Erin Carlson, Michael Dailey, Anita Deely, Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, John Ferrick, Mikhail Fiksel, Aly Renee Greaves, Carmine Grisolia, Christopher Hainsworth, Kyle Hamman, Erik Hellman, Tom Hickey, Shannon Hoag, Anderson Lawfer, Sean Mallary, Kat McDonnell, Gregor Mortis, Stacy Parker Hirsch, Michaela Petro, Mike Przygoda, John Henry Roberts, Justine C. Turner, Jamie Vann and James Anthony Zoccoli.

Map to Strawdog Theatre: