Review: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Court Theatre)

     
     

Ruhl’s ‘Orlando’: A decent romp

     
     

Amy J. Carle as Orlando (Michael Brosilow).

  
Court Theatre presents
  
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through April 10  | tickets: $10-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with a protagonist that flips sexes and a narrative that slithers through time and space, is required reading for any student of women in literature. The genre-twisting novel, a thinly-veiled biography of Woolf’s sometimes-lover Vita Sackville-West, is Woolf’s most accessible and popular book. The light tone and fantastical story make Orlando ripe for the stage; however, putting the broad and populous novel on stage requires an innovative touch. The Court Theatre put the task of writing a stage adaptation in the very capable hands of Sarah Ruhl. To direct, they snapped up Jessica Thebus, always full of fascinating theatrics.

Kevin Douglas, Amy J. Carle, Erica Elam, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow).The end product has six actors, loads of quick scenes, heavily-thematic design, and a tendency to stuff the audience full with exposition.

The plot spans 500 years, from the rule of Queen Elizabeth to today. Orlando (the ever-energized Amy J. Carle) is a young and restless poet, looking to write an ode to an oak tree but never finding the right verses. His shapely legs and youthful vigor catch the eye of the Queen (Lawrence Grimm, part of a four-man chorus that plays a galaxy of roles), who brings the kid into her court. There Orlando falls for Sasha (Erica Elam), who is visiting England with the Russian embassy. She departs for Moscow, and Orlando is restless once again. He travels the world, only to awake one morning in Constantinople to find that he has transformed into a woman. She then must navigate the new social implications and a whole new set of suitors. Along with the switch in gender, Orlando also must deal with living for hundreds of years and her ever-pressing need to finish her poem.

Ruhl and Thebus use plenty of theatrical magic to sail Orlando’s story. The stage is nearly bare for most of the time, allowing for quick transitions from place to place and time to time. Collette Pollard’s set contains many tricks; for example, a rolling bed becomes both a ship and a chrysalis for Orlando’s transformation. Linda Roethke’s monochrome costumes evolve with the time periods, but also play with gender roles. The four male chorus members begin the show strapped up in corsets, and there isn’t a real effort to hide Carle’s gender. It’s intriguing to watch Orlando go from loose trousers and vests to frilly, voluminous dresses.

Ruhl’s adaptation has a bad case of telling rather than showing. The characters often narrate to the audience about feelings, as well as discuss where the story is traveling. Much of this direct address is full of Ruhl’s trademarked lyricism, but it still leaves one yearning for more dramatization. It seems she unable to exactly figure out how to put Woolf’s tale up, so she uses the direct address as a crutch.

Ruhl’s adaptation is also hampered by a lowered stakes in the second half. The first act – which showcases Orlando’s romances with the Queen and Sasha – builds until Orlando becomes a woman. After intermission, the play can’t quite find its footing again. The second act hurriedly leaps through centuries to reach a rather bland conclusion.

     
Amy J. Carle, Adrian Danzig, Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow). Kevin Douglas (Michael Brosilow).
Kevin Douglas, Thomas J. Cox, and Adrian Danzig (Michael Brosilow). Adrian Danzig, Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth, Thomas J. Cox, and Amy J. Carle (Michael Brosilow).

The actors are all eager and willing. Carle never disappoints as Orlando, and she has a huge journey to take every night. Orlando starts as wide-eyed and lusty and ends as darkly meditative and matured over his 500 years; Carle can nail every aspect of the character. The four chorus members, Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas, and Grimm, make their constant character-swapping look easy. They carry the show, both literally and figuratively. Although not on-stage very much, Elam does decent work as Sasha, alternating between sexy and innocent.

Woolf claimed she started Orlando as a joke, a way to tease Vita. Ruhl’s adaptation captures this light mood, and Orlando’s prevalent attitude through the centuries seems to be “just go with it.” This tone and Thebus’ antics are sure to amuse and inspire, even if Ruhl’s writing gets a tad clunky.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
       
  

Orlando meets "The Great Queen" featuring Amy J. Carle as Orlando and Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth I:

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Peter Pan (A Play) – Lookingglass Theatre

     
     

Endearing young cast creates a playful Neverland

 

 

Kay Kron as Wendy in Peter Pan at Lookingglass Chicago

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Peter Pan (a play)   
     
Written and directed by Amanda Dehnert
Based on the books by
J.M. Barrie
at
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map)
through Dec 12  |  tickets: $24-$62  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Amanda Dehnert has adapted and staged a very faithful version of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic (well, almost–it’s too politically correct to retain the island’s Indian tribe). It’s not just faithful to Barrie, with its multiple narrators describing the exotic and imaginary topography of Neverland, detailing the psychology of its make-believe, and providing back stories on the lesser characters like Tootles, Slightly and Smee. It’s even more faithful to the challenges of childhood, all those non-negotiable, first-time joys and fears where from moment to moment everything that happens can seem the end of the world.

It’s not just the runaway or throwaway Lost Boys who are clueless and compass-less in Neverland. It’s also the Darling siblings, the equally abandoned Pirates and their “leader of monsters” Captain Hook, still hurting from being considered nice when he knew he was nasty. Above all, it’s Peter Pan who is terrified of being “grown up and done for.” He is rightly described as “young and innocent and heartless,” which is just how the author saw the beautiful Davies brothers who he immortalized in “Peter Pan.” Barrie, more than Pewter, didn’t want them to grow up–specifically old and ugly. Only one died young and that was because he perished in World War I.

Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art workThat doesn’t mean that Lookingglass’ rampaging staging is really children’s theater, however much the inventive hijinks recall a school pageant. The few kids in the opening night audience seemed more perplexed than enraptured by the pell-mell action. A bit too hip and flippant for its good, this slickly knowing, slyly winking staging is full of in-jokes for former children. But it does capture the renegade power of children’s imagination , as remembered after the fact by Barrie and Dehnert. Practically everything that Ryan Nunn’s Peter – a true and stalwart Alpha boy with cockiness and superiority to spare – proposes is a game, if only because he’s never had anyone older than himself to sober him up into something like seriousness.

The second act in particular slows down enough to really consider the question of whether there’s a point to all these endless adventures that offer no lessons beyond winning or losing. Peter recruits Wendy to be the mother who the boys lost along with everything else (making them pockets, tucking them in, etc.). For him that mostly means telling stories even as they’re actually living them from action-packed day to dream-laden night. The stories provide stability, but then Neverland is nothing but stories: Lacking a context and contrast, they gradually lose their power to charm. At first Wendy (Kay Kron) just revels in the anarchic freedom of Neverland’s total lack of rules and expectations (”I want to DO EVERYTHING FOREVER!”). But slowly she finds that she’s becoming the thing she pretends to be, a nurturing and protective person whose homesickness is just another way to grow up. (The text says that they had no word for “love” and had to make do with “home” instead.) Neverland is a misnomer because, except for Peter, it must end and the lost boys must be found.

It’s not as preciously philosophical as it sounds because Dehnert wisely distracts from the darker doings with all the romper-room exuberance that a young and athletic cast can bring to this escape fantasy. Of course there’s the usual flying (though not on wires but rope lifts). Wendy’s house is created, as children would, entirely from chalk Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art work2drawings by the cast prettily scrawled across the stage. Lily’s (“Tiger” is now missing) escape from Skull Rock and Hook’s final showdown with Peter are performed on dangling ramps and rolling scaffolding. It’s hectic fun and child’s play in the best sense of the term.

Deliberately or unintentionally, the cast could not be more endearing. Kay Kron’s radiant Wendy shows everything she feels with all the naked honesty of open-hearted children. Jamie Abelson’s no-nonsense John recalls his father (a respectable Raymond Fox), while Alex Weisman’s silly Michael seems little more mature than this nursemaid Nana (Royer Bockus, speaking rather than barking). Thomas J. Cox’s Hook is evil incarnate, a caricature built from memories of the meanest adults the children ever met. Aislinn Mulligan’s tomboyish Tinkerbell is mute but memorable as she evolves from fairy petulance to something like battlefield heroism. Above all, Nunn’s valiant, resourceful and incorrigible Peter sets the standard for this young and able cast. We don’t want him to grow up anymore than Barrie did.

   
   
Rating: ★★★ 
   
     

 

 

Extra Credit:

        
     

   Continue reading

REVIEW: The Sins of Sor Juana (Goodman Theatre)

No justice for Sor Juana

 

production_06

    
Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Sins of Sor Juana
  
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by
Henry Godinez
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
Through July 25   |  
Tickets: $20–$71   |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Although she is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, little is really known of the life of 17th-century writer and protofeminist Juana In´s de la Cruz. What is known is that she was a remarkable figure for her time — illegitimate, brilliant, accomplished and, for a time, a favorite of the viceroy’s court in Mexico City.

Production_12 At 19, she unaccountably entered a convent, where she spent the rest of her life. The likeliest speculation as to why supposes that she saw it as her best means of conducting a scholarly life — which it was, until her opinionated writings on the rights of women to education fell afoul of the Church and attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. However, no one actually knows what drew Juana to take vows.

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the disappointing centerpiece of Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, playwright Karen Zacarías speculates it was an unhappy love affair. While Sor Juana’s many passionate love poems suggest she might have had illicit lovers, the play’s emphasis on an entirely fabricated and uninspiring love life turns de la Cruz from an extraordinary intellectual and advocate for women to a sappy Silhouette heroine.

In this production, she isn’t even a very effective romance heroine. Scenes between Malaya Rivera Drew, as Juana, and Dion Mucciacito, as Silvio, the handsome scoundrel she falls in love with, fall flat as soggy tortillas — no chemistry whatsoever. There’s more sizzle between Drew and Tony Plana, who plays Juana’s father confessor, although whether we’re supposed to imagine an other than intellectual and religious relationship in that case is more than I can tell.

Production_11 Production_10
Production_13 Production_07

Amy J. Carle gives a spunky performance as the upright Sor Sara, bent on bringing Sor Juana to proper nunlike humility. She’s less successful as Juana’s protector, the vicereine, who also has a crush on the young scholar — a fact we’re told by another character rather than shown by any yearning exhibited by Carle.

Zacarías revised her 15-year-old play for the Goodman’s production, supposedly putting more emphasis on the mature Sor Juana, yet that just creates an uneven balance between anguished convent scenes and the cartoonish, cliche-ridden  comedy of the central melodrama, which features out-and-out slapstick from Joe Minoso as the foppish courtier Don Pedro and an evil Production_08scheme hokey enough for a Dudley Do-Right episode.

In another off-kilter element, Laura Crotte puckishly plays Juana’s mystical Mayan maidservant, Xochitl, as well as the Mother Superior of the convent, a conflation oddly emphasized by the director although not reinforced by the plot. Xochitl, whose presence is sometimes actual and sometimes imaginary, adds an intriguing but distracting element of magical realism that Godinez promotes yet which Zacarías barely touches on.

Distractions also extend from Todd Rosenthal‘s large and otherwise lovely set. The pillared setting segues beautifully from austere convent to viceroy’s palace, but continual scene changes involving furnishings rising from below stage or dropping from the fly space begin to seem if they were designed more to showcase the theater’s capabilities than to enhance the drama.

Sor Juana’s story is worth telling and its gaps worth speculating on, but in this piece she’s far more sinned against than sinning.

  
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

Production_14 

Continue reading

Review: Steppenwolf’s 5th-Annual First Look Repertory of New Works

You Have Never Seen These Before

For the past five years, Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work has given Chicago audiences the unique opportunity to view works in progress for the very first time in the intimate setting of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater. All three plays in this year’s First Look series are still in development, and are likely to undergo changes before being produced again.

09 First Look PlaywrightsFirst Look Playwrights: (left to right) Ensemble member Eric Simonson with Laura Jacqmin and Laura EasonPhoto by Elizabeth Fraiberg. 


Honest

Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Honest, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, is the tragic story of best-selling memoirist Guy (Erik Hellman), a man whose past is much stranger than his novel’s fiction. When the factuality of his memoir is challenged by a reporter (Martin McClendon), a Mametian game of deception and blackmail unfolds, with both men’s futures hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Guy’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that shaped the pathological liar seen at the start of the show.

The actors are faced with the unenviable task of bringing to life Simonson’s very dark world, and they due so magnificently. Hellman specifically must play the same character in four different time periods with four extremely different circumstances, and he manages to capture the fear and pain of a tormented soul with the charisma of a man who has been lying and getting away with it for years. Kelly O’Sullivan is heartbreaking as Guy’s cousin Casey, and when the two actors share the stage together the production truly shines.

Where the play falters a bit is in the opening and closing scenes between Guy and Martin, the reporter. Martin seems overly eager to share personal information with a complete stranger, and while it can be justified as forward movement for the plot, it simply did not ring true to the general conduct between an interviewer and his subject. Beyond that quibble, Honest is an engrossing examination of one man’s attempt to hide from his past, and the cruel truth that no matter where he goes, it always finds him.

Rating: «««

 



Sex with Strangers

Written by Laura Eason
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Thirty-something struggling writer Olivia’s (Amy J. Carle) world is turned upside down when she finds herself romantically involved with self-proclaimed asshole blogger Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) in Sex With Strangers, the standout production of this year’s First Look series. Laura Eason’s script seamlessly balances romantic comedy with conflict as Olivia and Ethan’s honeymoon affair begins to feel the pressure of his very public sexual past, and director Jessica Thebus, along with an extremely gifted cast and creative team, has created a production that could easily be transferred to any theater as is.

From the first kiss to the last betrayal, Carle and Grush have the kind of chemistry that makes stage magic. Carle has proven herself an actress of immense depth and talent in the past, but her portrayal of Olivia is one of the most fully realized characters to grace the Chicago stage this season. Her relationship to Ethan is completely believable, in large part due to her male costar’s wonderfully charming characterization.

The two actors handle the rapid-fire banter of Laura Eason’s script with ease, further cementing the realism of the play, and it is real. Sex With Strangers is one of the most honest portraits of love in a world where privacy barely exists and sex is just another bodily function, and it is a must see for Chicago audiences.

Rating: ««««

 



Ski Dubai

Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Lisa Portes
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Rachel (Hillary Clemons) is an Environmental Friendliness Consultant relocated to Dubai with the daunting task of helping her company’s man-made island achieve "green" certification in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin. Still reeling from a construction accident that left her New York City apartment on the sidewalk 15 stories below, Rachel must juggle living with randy roommate/colleague Perrin (Cliff Chamberlain), his insane wife Amanda (Sadieh Rifai), and a slew of other quirky characters while trying to establish a home for herself in a foreign world.

Clemons does an admirable job balancing Rachel’s naïveté with her growing apathy for not only the project to which she was assigned, but the modern ideology of "new is better than authentic," but the trauma of losing her New York home never seems as bad as she makes it out to be. The supporting actors seem to have been directed to take their characters so over the top that they lose dimension, and the actors get lost in showing the audience how wild they are without finding the motivation behind the action. Rifai stands out as Amanda, infusing her character with genuine anger at a world that never stops letting her down, and Jennifer Coombs is absolutely hilarious as the tactless Doctor that hates Dubai and everyone in it.

Jacqmin’s script struggles to find a balance between cartoonish hijinx and political commentary, and the end result is two-dimensional characters that never seem to have a voice of their own. Of the three plays, Ski Dubai is the one that could use the most retooling before being produced again, but when it is funny, like when Coombs traverses the space wearing invisible skis, it is hilarious.

Rating: ««

Continue reading