REVIEW: Toronto, Mississippi (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

      
  

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

  
  

Eve Rydberg and Daniel Behrendt - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

   
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
   
Toronto, Mississippi
   
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
at
Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $13-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Kitchen sink dramas often spell death for real theatricality. However raw or radical they were post-WWII, overplayed working-class melodramas, set in the same old, worn out living rooms, give audiences little more than rehashed and trite explorations of troubled lives truncated by cramped, dreary social and economic conditions. I had my worries about Toronto, Mississippi, which is enjoying its Midwest premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre under the direction of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Certainly its set design (William Anderson) has “Momma-on-the-couch-play” written all over it. But Garcia has honed his cast to make the audience see the particular beauty of Joan MacLeod’s mercurial script and also what is thoroughly special about these characters.

Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn in Toronto Mississippi - Mary-Arrchie TheatreTo that end, no young actor could be better cast to take on the role of a mentally handicapped teenage girl than Eve Rydberg. She plays18-year old Jhana, a young woman roiled by adolescent, hormonal drives for independence and sexual exploration, but who still needs daily training to remember her home address and how to dial 911 in the case of emergency. Jhana’s developmental challenges require a tight leash and perpetual watchfulness over her exceptionally vulnerable future. Her mother, Maddie (Laura Sturm), seems quite used to playing hardball with Jhana, whether she’s firmly and patiently correcting her inappropriate emotional outbursts or confronting her about her crappy work performance at “The Workshop,” a place that employs the developmentally challenged.

Rydberg and Sturm make a beautifully realistic mother-daughter team. Sturm definitely sculpts Maddie’s demeanor and body language to reflect the wear and strain of constant tending to Jhana’s needs. But one equally feels secure in the presence of Sturm’s performance. The way she strides across the living room, treating the difficulties of raising a specially challenged daughter like an everyday thing, evokes Maddie’s inner toughness and resiliency in the face Sisyphean duty.

Yet the play clearly belongs to Jhana. She is not this family’s burden, but its star. Classed vaguely by medical experts as having “soft autism,” Jhana’s way of perceiving and communicating with the world could only be defined as fragmented pastiche. The loved ones around her must interpret her jumbled words and gestures intuitively to understand her. Lucky for the audience, Jhana’s emotions are always on the surface. She’s incapable of hiding them away, either out of deception or self-deception. Watching Rydberg nail every emotional moment and gesture in Jhana’s journey is truly the overriding delight of this production.

That leaves the men of the play who, besides being flawed with their own particular obsessions and weaknesses, get an uneven interpretation from the actors. Bill (Daniel Behrendt) is the struggling and frustrated poet who boards at Maddie’s house. Behrendt delivers a bountifully sympathetic performance through Bill’s generous, funny and empathic relationship with Jhana. Only by increments do we discover Bill’s bitter neuroses over women, at least until the arrival of “the King” awakens them to full ugly glory. King (Luke Renn), Maddie’s ex and Jhana’s dad, is a traveling Elvis impersonator who shows up when it suits him. Clearly a guy who believes in living his legend—even if it is somebody else’s legend—King darkens Maddie’s door once more for a little ex-sex, Eve Rydberg and Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatresome filial adoration from Jhana and a general lifestyle regrouping.

Jhana is not the dysfunctional one as her dysfunctions are excusable because they can be explained away by her disability. But Maddie, King and Bill’s dysfunctions are also understandable. They want to be more than what they are; they want to have a life that meets their dreams; they want what they don’t have, might never have, and that alone leads to lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. Their dreary day-to-day malaise is ours. Yet the actors have to particularize, in exacting detail, each of their character’s individual malaises in order to capture our attention before our eyes glaze over at the sight of another working-class stereotype.

There is really nothing normal about normal. The devil is in the details; the devil is also in MacLeod’s sparsely poetic language. Bill’s definition for poetry is nothing less than MacLeod’s strategy for laying out her dialogue: “Poetry is at its best when no one knows what’s going on.” Rather, the meaning of what’s poetically said can only be intuited from the emotional impact that the actor deduces from subtext. The audience needs to grasp all the subtext of Bill and King’s territorial pissing contests, no matter what poetic depths MacLeod’s script strays into. What’s more, Sturm and and Renn need to take the latent chemistry between Maddie and King and notch it up a skotch. That’s the only way to make the assignation of this otherwise tough and pragmatic lady more realistic.

Since the production can resolve these issues in the course of the run, I urge people to make time for Toronto, Mississippi. MacLeod’s script is not the same old kitchen sink. Rydberg’s performance elevates the play’s message about the unique beauty of every individual’s self-expression to lovingly brilliant heights. Jhana’s small victories make the grey drudgery in her world shrink away. Would that we faced each day with the same perspective.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Daniel Behrendt, Laura Sturm, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Production Personnel

Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Featuring: Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn, & Laura Sturm.
Designers include Bill Anderson (set), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Matt Gawryk (lighting design), Carlo Lorenzo Garcia (sound design), CoCo Ree Lemery (paint charge), Mary Patchell (stage manager)

  
  

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REVIEW: The Wreck of the Medusa (The Plagiarists)

Cannibal Fare for Cannibal Times

 
The Plagiarists present:
 
The Wreck of the Medusa
 
created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters
directed by
Jack Tamburrie
at
Angel Island Theatre, 731 W. Sheridan (map)
through May 9th | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There are plays that you admire; since their productions are also admirable, you recommend them. There are plays that you carry with you long after you leave the theater; these you recommend highly. Then, there are plays that you wish would Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0534 spread like wildfire around the world and this play is one of them. The Wreck of the Medusa, created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters, is now enjoying its world-premiere at Angel Island Theatre (home of Mary-Arrchie Theatre). The Plagiarists, who produce only original works, have been workshopping the play for at least two years, unveiling its fledgling prototype in the DCA Incubator Series in January 2009.

Such meticulous care in development was more than worth the effort. Based on the worst maritime disaster of the 19th-century, The Wreck of the Medusa relies upon multiple narratives, medias and styles to relay the horror of the event and its attempted cover-up by the French government. But the play also challenges the notion of ever really knowing what its survivors went through, especially through the vehicle of art. It’s a decidedly self-conscious play that never becomes precious about its ability to tell the truth. Rather, it generates layer upon layer of ambiguous meaning, made manifest through the disparities that crop up in narrative and perception.

In 1816, the French Naval Minister Dubouchage (Marsha Harman), under the Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII (Kasia Januszewski), appointed Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys (Andrew Marchetti) as captain of the frigate Medusa. His mission, with three other ships, was to deliver Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz (Christopher Marcum) as the new governor of Senegal in a peaceful handover of the colony from the British to the French. The crown chose Chaumareys based on his pedigree and Royalist loyalties—quite understandable, since Napoleon’s 100 days had embroiled France the summer before. However, they completely overlooked Chaumareys’ extreme lack of naval experience and personal knack for gross incompetence.

What was supposed to be a standard voyage turned into mind-numbing disaster. On July 2, the Medusa ran aground off the coast of Senegal. 150 passengers were abandoned on a cobbled-together raft while the captain, the governor and high-ranking officers made it to shore in two days in lifeboats. Stranded without sails, navigational equipment, or decent provisions, the passengers quickly turned on each other, to the point of murder and cannibalism. After 12 days at sea, only 15 survived from the original 150 and 5 of those died soon after rescue by the Argus, a companion ship they’d lost sight of before the wreck.

Plagiarists_Wreck Promos_02272010_0055_fade[1] The disaster resulted in absolute scandal for the newly established Bourbon monarchy. Especially when, against all government efforts to discredit them, two survivors, ship’s surgeon J.B. Henry de Sevigny (Kevin V. Smith) and geographical engineer Alexander Correard (Greg Hess) collaborated on a tell-all book about the shipwreck that spread like wildfire across Europe.

Peters and Miller’s genius employs many different points of view leading up to the abandonment of the passengers on the raft, then intricately explores the wreck’s political and cultural aftermath once its survivors have been rescued.  But the horror of the raft itself they leave to the dark pit of the imagination. Indeed, all narratives surrounding those fatal twelve days, as well as all attempts by artists to graphically depict it, seem more like the human mind struggling to comprehend unimaginably dangerous depths within the human psyche.

But for ignorant Americans, like myself, who know nothing about the Bourbon Restoration, this is fine storytelling theater–the narratives themselves contain full acknowledgement of their frailties and incompleteness. Furthermore, the absurdity of the storytelling becomes heightened by the exuberantly melodramatic rendition of the wreck that bookend the play’s straightforward sections. Here, the dark, macabre tale of The Wreck of the Medusa receives some Monty Python treatment. I have no idea whether Peters and Miller are quoting directly from W. T. Moncrieff’s The Fatal Raft, but these scenes certainly do read like a 19th-century melodrama “based on true events!” While the cast is brilliantly even and superlative in their multiple roles, Steve Wilson’s versatility stands out both as Jack Gallant, the plucky British sailor with the ridiculously pregnant pause, and as the disturbingly creepy Richefort, a stranger to whom Captain de Chaumareys inexplicably gives over command of the ship.

Other roles also stand out. Christopher Marcum’s insidiously evil Governor Schmaltz looks like the Bourbon version of the Bush/Cheney administration. His aide Griffon Du Bellay (Griffin Sharps) creates with him the perfect match made in hell. Kevin Smith so convincingly portrays the psychology of the ship’s doctor, one fears for the actor’s own sanity. Sevigny’s ratiocinated dissection of events and their effects on the minds of the survivors, including his own, cannot spare him the hallucinatory horrors of PTSD. Marsha Harmon conveys a kind of androgynous polish in her roles as Dubouchage and as the Herald for the Lord of the Tropic (Kasia Januszewski). Through it all, even on trial, Marchetti’s Chaumareys remains perfectly proper, slightly aloof, and totally clueless.

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509 Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0521

Greg Hess’s engineer, Correard, comes across as the play’s one regular guy. But even his ambiguities over our capacity to relay what really happened get teased out through his partnership with Theodore Gericault (James Dunn), the artist willing go to extremes to paint the truth about the raft. Gericault’s work hangs in the Louvre, now regarded as a seminal work for the Romantic Movement in painting. Several characters explore its meaning during the play. Their responses are generally ours, to any catastrophic event we get to see up close and in person.

Surely, the story of the wreck of the Medusa isn’t worse than the economic and war-as-foreign-policy wrecks into which we have so blithely and incompetently sailed. This Plagiarists production reflects our own country’s monstrous wreck—told in miniature, told in fragments, told in horror, told in farce. Perfect for a broken world, perfect for a world we have pushed to the breaking point.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509

REVIEW: The Rant (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Mary-Arrchie’s ‘The Rant’ Illuminates and Devastates

Mary-Arrchie's "The Rant"

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents:

The Rant

by Andrew Case
directed by Sharon Evans
at
Angel Island Theatre through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Much about Andrew Case’s play The Rant masquerades as a typical cop show. There are interrogations with guys in police uniform across bare tables under unforgiving lights. All the same, the play’s dialogue is too whipsmart for television. It’s subject—an investigation of police misconduct—pushes beyond the conservative boundaries of cop/good-perp/bad formulas dominating network television. Finally, the sophisticated handling of media relations between public and police is all too knowing and wise.

rant2 Case invests eight years’ experience on police misconduct issues for New York City into this no-holds-barred one-act, and it shows—like a house on fire. The result is a sorely needed resuscitation of public dialogue on the hope of preserving justice in a system hideously compromised by racism, truncated by police cultural codes of loyalty and silence, and all too often cynically betrayed by the fourth estate.

Public Advocate Lila Mahnaz (Lindsey Pearlman) wants to get at the truth. The autistic son of Denise Reeves (Shariba Rivers) has been shot and killed during a police response to a call. Her own background as an Iranian Persian-American, informs her view of police behavior with jaundiced skepticism and almost revolutionary fervor. Her pursuit of the truth takes her down a winding road that exposes police corruption, the exploitation of and by the press, and the comprehendible, but frustrating, unreliability of witnesses. Her progress acts as a great meditation the difficulty of getting to the whole truth, encompassing many of the pitfalls of well-meaning advocacy.

Director Sharon Evans’ superlative cast nails this intelligent drama to the wall. Rivers’ aggrieved Denise, mother of the slain boy, packs a lifetime of angry suffering into every uttered syllable—it’s a weight she both resignedly shoulders and also wields as a weapon against her detractors. Pearlman’s public advocate displays the earnest pluck and self-righteousness of youth running smack into the roadblocks of police obfuscation and threats. At the same time, she is forced into confronting the barriers created by her own relatively privileged life. Earl Pastko as Mahnaz’s clandestine journalist contact, Alexander Stern, is perfectly sharp, jaded, neurotic, and totally New York. “I no longer believe in facts,” says Stern, “I believe in leverage.” Emanueal Buckley’s performance as Officer Charles Simmons potently rounds out the play. His sorrowful closing monologue seals the play’s mounting despair on the possibility of ever seeing justice done.

TheRant-Press1I’m of two minds about Heath Hays’ rough and ready set design. At times the primitively constructed flats—clear plastic stretched over wooden frames–serves Matthew Gawryk’s visceral lighting design superbly and fits the anarchist vibe of the Mary-Arrchie Theatre to a T. At other times it seems too ghetto-fabulous for its own good and there’s no need for that here. The play is already gritty and fabulous. The cast is rock-solid fabulous. Mary-Arrchie has a hit on its hands. Audiences should run, not walk, to see it.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

Photos by Sharon Evans

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Mary-Arrchie’s "Our Bad Magnet" extended thru Jan. 18th

Due to popular demand, Mary-Arrchie Theatre will be extending the Jeff Recommended US Premiere of Our Bad Magnet, by Douglas Maxwell, at Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan .

Currently, the final dates for 2008 will be December 18th – 22nd. The extension, then, will begin January 2nd and run through January 18th, 2009.

Kevin V. Smith, John Wilson, Layne Manzer, Daniel Behrendt

L to R: Kevin V. Smith, John Wilson, Layne Manzer, Daniel Behrendt

Press accolades:

“well-cast American premiere…features some breathtaking moments…one of the most effective and surprising endings I’ve seen in a while…” – Chicago Tribune

“For anyone who wants to experience joy, sadness, and the potential to be moved to tears in their holiday theater-going experience, don’t miss Our Bad Magnet.” -Edge Chicago

“Maxwell’s play is rich, moving, funny and real, and well served by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia’s direction, which keeps the right balance of tension and humor. All four actors are excellent” -Centerstage Chicago (Must See Show)

Layne Manzer, Daniel Behrendt, John Wilson

L to R: Layne Manzer, Daniel Behrendt, John Wilson

More accolades:

“drama’s U.S. premiere is helped by Garcia’s note-perfect cast” -Time Out Chicago

“the amorphous ending is a thing of almost transcendental beauty, a surreal and unknowable benediction from some vast, benevolent god.” -Windy City Chicago

“This cliques with me” CheekyChicago.com

Visit the theatre company’s website for more info: www.maryarrchie.com/now.html

 

Daniel Behrendt, John Wilson, Layne Manzer

L to R: Daniel Behrendt, John Wilson, Layne Manzer