Review: One Flea Spare (Eclipse Theatre)

  
  

Eclipse tightly weaves sexual and cerebral dark comedy

  
  

Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) and Bunce (JP Pierson) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani.  Photo by Scott Cooper

  
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
One Flea Spare
   
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Charles’ Law: confine elements together, turn up the heat, watch them expand. Prevent them from expanding, and you watch them burst.

It’s a basic principle of chemistry, and a loose outline for any drama in which characters are trapped together during a crisis. The heat, per se, in Naomi Wallace’s 1995 play is in part the Great Plague that ravaged London during the 17th Century, L-R: Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.and in part the class and sexual inadequacies of her characters: a wealthy couple quarantined inside their home, and the two poor, desperate scavengers who sneak in for shelter.

Twenty five days into a preventative lockdown with boards and a guard (Zach Bloomfield) sealing the couple’s walls and windows, a young servant disguised as a wealthy man’s daughter (Elizabeth Stenholt) and a sailor (JP Pierson) inadvertently extend the couple’s incubation stay from three more days to a full twenty eight. Tensions quickly escalate.

The plague is only the backdrop in Wallace’s story—to some of these characters, it’s more or less a nuisance than a crisis. The real threats within the estate are offenses to each others’ presumptions and social sensibilities: sexual bargaining, class warfare, homoeroticism…One Flea Spare explores these tasty ideas with a steady mix of poetry and prose, absurd comedy and claustrophobic tension.

Even with violence always looming, and several onstage nods to penetration, the experience is more intellectual than visceral. It’s always satisfying to think about, if Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.only mostly fun to watch. Underneath the play’s linear-plot exterior lies a mosaic play’s heart, mashing together styles and tones, sometimes with enlightening results; other times, the product is more convoluted.

Director Anish Jethmalani is able to help keep the show grounded in places where Wallace doesn’t, knowing not to overwhelm the tightly packed text. Her straightforward and precise staging provides clarity to themes that could easily otherwise be murky. The cast does likewise. This small ensemble is exceptional, especially Brian Parry as the proud, aging, and sometimes oafish house master. Susan Monts-Bologna achieves sympathy without victimhood as his oppressed wife, and JP Pierson conveys a sense of maturity that’s found somewhere in between a young man’s idealism and an adult’s surrender to reality.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt, center) introduces herself to William and Darcy Snelgrave (Brian Parry and Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper

 

All photos by Scott Cooper

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REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre)

  
  

Sympathy for the Curmudgeon

  
  

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Jacob Marley (Anish Jethmalani)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
A Christmas Carol
   
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by
Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Christmas stories always frightened me as a child. I was the kid peering from beneath the blankets, too terrified to sleep on Christmas Eve. A fat jolly man was slipping into our apartment to leave me stuff based on my behavior. I was supposed to be happy and grateful – so much so as to leave cookies for the guy. All of this was exacerbated by special showings of “A Christmas Carol” on Family Classics. You mean there are ghosts too? Every rendition of the Dickens classic has always made my heart beat faster and sigh in relief when old Ebenezer made his turnaround.
The Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol thankfully gave me, instead of anxiousness, a sense of relief and a warm fuzzy. This beautifully staged play adds an element of humor that I had not previously seen in the story.

The ghost from Christmas Present (Susan Shunk)Dickens’ tale has become an allegory for redemption and forgiveness through the spirit of Christmas. The hardscrabble lives of 19th-century England have not gone away. It is more in our faces than ever with high definition. Goodman’s production suspends belief for a couple of well spent hours and in turn makes the story more relevant. This is brought to light by a really great cast, musicians, gorgeous sets and meticulous costume reproductions.

This is veteran actor John Judd’s first appearance as the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Judd has the scowling and gravelly visage of a first-class crank. His Scrooge is tightly wound and a first class crank. Judd imbues the character with an undertone of sarcasm and sardonic humor as he suggests the workhouses and prisons as an alternative for homelessness. I most enjoyed Mr. Judd once the character was taken down a few pegs by the ghostly visits. He has wonderful comic timing and the karmic retribution that befalls Scrooge is also done quite well in spite of some visual histrionics. The hellfire tombstone is over the top; I would have preferred the neglected gravestone etched with Scrooge’s name. It’s nice to have money for opulent sets this seems to pander to spectacle-seekers, and was not worthy of such an otherwise beautifully dressed set.

There is plenty of to enjoy in this show thanks to some cast standouts. The ghostly visitors were wonderful and backed by glowing special effects. Anish Jethmalani plays Jacob Marley with fiendish anger. The visual effects contain strobes and projections blasting out of the painting over Scrooge’s bed. The painting looks like Andrew Jackson on the $20, which I found sardonically funny (though I don’t know if it was intentional or not). Jethelmani’s appearance is brief but powerful, especially his descent into the fireplace standing in for hell.

Susan Shunk as Christmas Past gives a delightful performance as she takes Scrooge flying. I was impressed that it was the only use of aerial effects. Ms. Shunk is dressed in Dickensian boy attire and has the glee of a sprite as she reveals the history of Ebenezer’s angst and closed heart. Judd is hilarious as he flounders in the air, terrified and then in awe.

   
Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Christmas Past shows Scrooge an earlier Christmas
Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) John Judd as Ebenezer Scrooge

The next spirit is my favorite – Penelope Walker as Christmas Present was a joyful and ebullient delight. This is spectacle done beautifully. Scrooge wakes up in a bed laden with shiny wrapped presents and Ms. Walker sprinkling glitter and musical laughter. Christmas Present is seen against a cyc wall exploding with stars and then a street filled with the townspeople. Ms. Walker does a wonderful turn as she portrays Dickens’ indictment of poverty. It’s astounding to see the switch from glee to desperate darkness. Two impoverished waifs seem to crawl up from the earth from under her cloak. It reminds one of the old lithographic styles of newspaper editorial cartoons from Dickens’ time.

Christmas Future is properly ominous – dark, hooded, and at least 15 feet tall. With no face seen or dialogue uttered, I was taken back to my childhood terrors. Christmas Past also leads to the best visual effects of a giant tombstone with blazing letters, perpetuating the terror of being bad around Christmas.

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Tiny TimRon Rains as Bob Cratchit is a standout of comic gifts and subtle pathos. He seems to channel Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr. Bean’ when he tries to retrieve his hat without disturbing Scrooge. It’s a comic gem that gets a well-deserved hearty applause. Rains avoids the downtrodden treacle of Cratchit portrayals past. He portrays a family man using the power of gratitude to keep the family spirits aloft in spite of poverty. There isn’t one maudlin misstep in his performance and he plays a pretty mean guitar as well.

I give the same applause to the children in this play. It’s hard to be a child and play a child without being too cute. I call it the ‘awww effect’. I give credit to Director William Brown for keeping this in check and for directing a smoothly executed classic production. It stands on its own merit and is worthy of being an annual family excursion. Speaking of families – you can take yours to this, but please teach the kids that it is not okay to chatter throughout the performance. Childlike awe is expected of children and adults but ask questions over ice cream after the show, not during. The same goes to the grown man with the rumbling bass voice behind me. I send you a whack of the wet soba noodle-hush.

 
    
Rating: ★★★½     
      
  

Scene from A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Chicago

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in beautiful downtown Chicago. Call 312-443-3811 or log on www.goodmantheatre.org for more details on tickets and performance times. Go early for dinner before the show because most Loop eateries shut down by 9:00pm. There is a nice theatre gift shop as well. Perhaps you can find something for the jolly guy on Christmas Eve…sleep well and Happy Holidays!

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REVIEW: Twelfth Night (First Folio)

Indian concept hinders First Folio production

 

Donald Brearley (Toby), Craig Spidle (Feste), Mouzam Mekkar (Maria) & Nick Maroon (Aguecheek)

   
First Folio Theatre presents
   
Twelfth Night
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by
Michael F. Goldberg
at
Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oakbrook (map)
Through August 8th  |  tickets: $23-$28  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

When developing a concept for a Shakespeare production, it is important to keep in mind how the changes will affect the audience’s experience. First Folio and director Melanie Keller (Olivia) & Nick Sandys (Malvolio)Michael F. Goldberg re-imagine Twelfth Night in colonial India, and the concept  comes with a variety of strengths and weaknesses in the outdoor venue.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, with heroine Viola (Minita Gandhi) disguising herself after a shipwreck separates her from her twin brother Sabastian (Behzad Dabu). As Cesario, Viola finds herself in the employ of Orsino (Anish Jethmalani), a nobleman hopelessly enraptured with the Lady Olivia (Melanie Keller), who falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola in disguise. Then Sabastian shows up and gets confused with Cesario and everything eventually gets wrapped together in a nice little bow.

The romantic leads don’t seem to have much fire in their performances, with Gandhi and Jethmalani never really establishing a strong chemistry between their characters. Keller fares better in this respect, and I think that is because she isn’t burdened with an Indian dialect.

The choice to have some characters speak in an Indian dialect is unnecessary, and doesn’t add much to the piece besides muddling the diction and verse. It’s impossible to have a strong Shakespeare production without a precise handle on the language, and the dialect restricts the actors, making plots and jokes unclear and making it difficult to follow the action on stage amidst the chirps of crickets and other outdoor distractions. Twelfth Night struggles to really get the momentum moving because of this, and the acting fails to reach the same level of excitement as the design elements.

TwelfthNightPress02That isn’t to say the production isn’t without its charms. The Indian locale does bring an exotic flair to the proceedings, but aesthetics can only go so far. The strongest performances come from Sir Toby (Donald Brearley) and his gang, classic Shakespeare fools that drink and sing and comment on the inanities of the main plot line while relishing in their own silliness. Craig Spidle is a great co-star as the fool Festes, giving his scene’s partners plenty to work off of with his dry wit and perverted sense of humor, and Brearley is quite adept at playing drunk. Nick Sandys dominates the stage as Malvolio, Olivia’s manservant who meets a tragic fate after a prank goes awry. His Malvolio is pretentious, dowdy, and completely clueless, and he has a firmer handle of the language in dialect than his fellow castmates.

From a design perspective, Twelfth Night is spectacular, with the Eastern-inspired costumes and sets creating a beautiful environment for Shakespeare’s comedy to unfold in. Henry Marsh’s score is perhaps the most transformative aspect of the production, filling the outdoor space with the sitar sounds of traditional Hindustani music. The theatre’s Oakbrook location is a beautiful spot for a summer evening of theater, but in an area where sound is going to be a major issue, there shouldn’t be many changes to the language of the piece. By taking the concept too far, the production suffers as a whole, and is just barely saved by above-average supporting performances.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   
Minita Gandhi (Viola) and Anish Jethmalani (Orsino) Donald Brearley (Toby), Craig Spidle (Feste) & Mouzam Mekkar (Maria)
Behzad Dabu (Sabastian), Melanie Keller (Olivia), Anish Jethmaliani (Orsino) & Minita Gandhi (Viola)

All Photos by David Rice.

REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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View (2010-02) Return to Haifa - Next Theatre

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REVIEW: Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

Get ready to love Christmas!

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Goodman Theatre presents:

 A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
thru December 31st (ticket info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Pictured in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by William Brown are (top to bottom) Penelope Walker (Ghost of Christmas Present), John Babbo (Ignorance) and Caroline Heffernan (Want).If you’re not filled with the holiday spirit yet, you will be after Goodman’s A Christmas Carol.  Now in its 30th year, Charles Dickens‘ tale of redemption is brought to life by an all-star cast of Chicago talent, creating a emotional journey through one man’s mistakes that will resonate long after the curtain goes down.

This year’s production begins with a beautiful medley of holiday songs that immediately establishes the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) detests: Christmas brings warmth and calm to a cold, chaotic world. But happiness is not profitable, and the great Yando plays an excellent curmudgeon in the opening scenes. Hunched over books of number and growling at charity workers, he is the portrait of loneliness. Yando begins to transform as he is shown visions of the past and present, and almost immediately the images awaken feelings that have been long buried. A scene between young Scrooge (Andy Truschinski) and his fiancee Belle (Jessie Mueller) is particularly heartbreaking because of the dedication Yando brings to his attempts to change the events that have shaped (destroyed?) him. The journey through his past tortures him, but he cannot escape viewing his own actions – the ultimate punishment. The pain of these moments is heightened by the contrast between the nature of the prison and the characterizations of the jailers: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) and Present (Penelope Walker).

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Weisman, fresh off a Jeff award win for Timeline Theatre’s The History Boys, looks like he is having the time of his life as he flies across the stage, and his jolly nature is a great fit for the early moments of Scrooge’s past, especially the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s. Walker is beautiful in a massive gold and red gown, and she sprinkles glitter with ebullient laughter that forces a smile out of the coldest hearts. As Scrooge’s memories sour, so do his tour guides. The aforementioned scene between Scrooge and Belle stifles the gleeful fire that burns in Weisman, and as Walker reveals the disdain Scrooge’s peers have toward him, as well as the troubles they themselves face, she becomes an almost malevolent force. A scene where she introduces Scrooge to the two children that represent Ignorance and Want, crawling out from beneath her garment to maximum dramatic effect, is particularly haunting, and the perfect introduction to the most terrifying of Dickens’ heralds: the Ghost of Christmas Future. Major props to the Goodman design team for creating the horrifically huge puppet for this last ghost, giving the spirit an overwhelming dreadfulness.

ChristmasCarol-5 The supporting cast impresses, balancing the community’s spite toward Scrooge with the good cheer of the holiday season. The Cratchit family is the heart of the show, and Ron Rains brings a wonderful caring energy as the patriarch Bob, always showing respect to his cruel boss. The scenes in the Cratchit household are brimming with love between husband and wife, parent and child, and actor and script. Fiercely committed, the actors have found the beauty in their misfortune, making Tiny Tim’s (John Francis Babbo) death in the future all the more tragic.

While sadness and loss are major factors of Dickens’ tale, Goodman’s production is filled with humor and moments of pure glee. The party at Fezziwig’s is positively rollicking and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s (Matt Schwader) Christmas dinner is a joyful celebration filled with music and laughter. Where the show is most successful, though, is in the final moments when Scrooge vows to redeem himself, and Yando skips, jumps, and laughs his way into the hearts of the audience, a humbug no more.

 

Rating: ★★★½

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

 Requiem - smaller 1  

 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

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Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.