Review: Radio Golf (Raven Theatre)

        
     

Wilson’s thought-provoking drama has a whole new relevancy in 2011

     
     

Warren Levon, Demetria Thomas, Michael Pogue in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf'. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

  
Raven Theatre presents
  
Radio Golf
  
Written by August Wilson 
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through April 9 |  tickets: $30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

It’s only been six years since Radio Golf, the tenth and final work in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle, premiered at Yale Rep.

A lot has happened in six years.

In that time, certain middle-upper-class white signifiers prominently featured in this 1990’s-based drama have taken a dip from grace. Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, lucrative condo investments and, well, Tiger Woods…let’s just say they aren’t what they used to be. “Unemployment” has knocked out “affluenza” as the country’s go-to economic buzz-word, Chicago just watched a mayoral campaign season with similar Harold Washington-era fears about equal race representation and, oh yeah, America elected its first non-white president.

Michael Pogue, Demetria Thomas in a scene from Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.Yesterday, this show about a wealthy young black man running for mayor of Pittsburg was contemporary. Today it’s a period-piece, a quality that only adds to its resounding ideas.

The timing of director Aaron Todd Douglas’ production feels perfect. With just enough distance and room for perspective, we get to see the protagonists’ superficial goals and misplaced trusts with an unwavering knowledge of the consequences—something Wilson, who died in 2005, never got the chance to witness for himself. I wonder if he knew he was creating a prescient work of theatre.

As candidate Wilks, Michael Pogue conveys idealism and an eagerness to please his community, listening to its grievances and welcoming citizens into his private office, a space traditionally reserved for the shady deals that are kept far away from picture-windowed PR campaign centers. Time goes on and compromises need to be made, such as the necessity to petition a neighborhood for blight status and the unethical demolishing of a delinquent taxpayer’s house. A little more arc in Pogue’s demeanor would be compelling. But like the rest of this cast, Pogue finds the rhythm in Wilson’s dialogue most of the time (the poetic allegories are clear and strong), steam-rolling it a bit here and there.

David Adams is the most consistent and entertaining of the bunch. Patient and methodical as the stubborn but righteous owner of the dilapidated property at 1839 Wylie Ave.—a brick house that stands in Wilks’ way between continued suburban poverty and a massive, gentrifying real estate complex—Adams carries the weary but proud burden of a man who values what’s right. Blue collar local Sterling Johnson (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) does likewise. Both actors nail Radio Golf’s comedy with complementing styles: Adams understated and Whitfield abrasive.

It makes me wonder about 2012. 15 years after this story takes place, how much of “the game” will be the same, and who gets to play?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Warren Levon, Michael Pogue, and David Adams in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

Radio Golf continues through April 9th, with performances Thurs. through Sat. 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling 773-338-2177, or online at RavenTheatre.com.

 

 
 

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REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

Raven Cat horiz 1

   
Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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