REVIEW: Obscura (Red Tape Theatre)

 

A Nightmare of the Observed

 

Obscura at Chicago's Red Tape Theatre: (Left to right) Robert Oakes, Meghan Reardon, Lona Livingston, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

   
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Obscura: a voyeuristic love story
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I guess that I will call it synchronicity. Before I went to see Obscura at Red Tape Theatre, I read a story about Franz Kafka and the present day battle over his unpublished papers. Kafka has always been both fascinating and terrifying to me. Obscura: a voyeuristic love story delves into several layers of the bureaucracy that threatens to delete the remnants of humanity. It is darkly funny, emotional, and simmering below the surface is the threat that this can happen to you the observer. It haunted me like Kafka.

(Left to right) Lona Livingston, Meghan Reardon (legs), Nicholas Combs, Robert Oakes.  Photo by James PalmerWhen entering the theatre, you walk down a runway to your seat.  The runway is lit up and a part of the play’s set. The effect is that you feel like a trespasser in someone’s yard because upstage from the runway is the cutaway of a dreary apartment building. The actors are already on stage going through the motions of their characters. Meghan Reardon as Salvia is obsessively mixing brightly colored potions and doing an inventory of the ingredients. Lona Livingston as Mrs. Craw the landlady is cleaning and checking on repairs. Nicholas Combs as Ned is suffering over a typewriter in a tiny garret crowded with so many books that he sits on a stack of them. Robert L. Oakes as Rodney seems to be the most menacing character of all. Rodney sits in a spare and utilitarian room with only a calculator and a desk. He pores over data with the preciseness of an actuary.

All of the characters have something to hide and yet cannot keep it from the unseen bureaucracy. Rodney is spying on Salvia and sending her green letters that send her into a panic. Salvia hears Ned coughing all night along with the clacking of the typewriter and offers him a remedy from her collection of potions. The offer is a timid ruse to get to know another human being and yet she does not want to reveal herself. Ned is surprised when the girl he has been watching through the peephole speaks to him and quickly makes up a story about what he is writing. He cannot reveal that he has written nothing for all of his efforts and makes up an absurd circus story that enchants Salvia. Enter into this Mrs. Craw who breaks into the tenants apartments and burrows through their belongings on a regular basis.

These characters are at odds with each other while trying to connect at the same time. It makes for fantastic tension and sardonic humor. They are all in a hidden hell with the rules for escape being doled out in coded fragments. They barely seem human until the lustful sounds of wild sex emanates from a hidden apartment’s walls. A metaphoric mass orgasm breaks the fever under which they have suffered and the bureaucracy also goes berserk. Their humanity starts to emerge and they tentatively try to connect with each other.

Chicagoan Jennifer Barclay is the playwright for Obscura, and she spins quite the tale with some Brechtian influences as well. I acquired feelings of prewar decay from the characters, the set, and the dialog. Director Julianne Ehre has pulled off a feat reminiscent of Orson Welles, director for an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial”. This tale could have happened at any time in this century or the one we just left and that is what is so surreal. The apartments look as if there has been a war. Accordingly, we know that there is always a war somewhere on this planet, with certainly a domino affect tangentially leading right back to us.

It is funny and frightening when Rodney picks up his telephone to inquire about the green letter he has received. He has been the observer and finds himself on the other side of the pinhole with his life upside down. He is put on eternal hold by a robotic voice and is kept on tethers by an intermittent human who sends him to another extension. Music from “Oklahoma!” plays in the background. Hell is ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ on continuous loop.

(Left to right) Meghan Reardon, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

The character of Mrs. Craw – and her snooping – is the connection for everyone. She is seemingly trapped in her own painful past and justifies her intrusions by reasoning that she’s really caring for people. I found the denouement between her and the Stranger (played by Chris Carr) to be the one part that’s too neat and openly emotional. It is one layer too much for the irony of the rest of the writing. Mrs. Craw has survived a war; the connection between her and the Stranger should be more of a shock instead of the maudlin feel that comes across. Perhaps Ms. Barclay was attempting to humanize everyone to show that bureaucracy does not have to win.

In any case, that small flaw is no fault of the cast. They are all very good and did a brilliant job of pulling me into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Special kudos goes to scenic designer William Anderson. The visual of an urban apartment building is perfect down to the use of the concrete floor outside of Rodney’s sparse apartment.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Obscura –A Voyeuristic Love Story runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until October 23rd. There are additional shows on October 16th and 23rd. For more information go to www.redtapetheatre.org.

   
   

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REVIEW: That Sordid Little Story (The New Colony Theatre)

Tall Tale Is Too Big

 

The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Thea Lux, Tara Sissom, Brandon Rutter, Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs - photo by Anne Peterson

   
The New Colony Theatre presents
   
That Sordid Little Story
   
By Will Cavedo, Andrew Hobgood and Benno Nelson
Composed by
H. Riggs, C. Gingrich, T. Sissom and T. Lux
Directed by Andrew Hobgood
Music Directed by
Henry Riggs
at
Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western, Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The New Colony Theatre’s original play That Sordid Little Story is a huge production, both figuratively and literally. It fills the spacious Viaduct Theater with a two-tiered  stage that is flanked with jutting runways. There are two intermissions throughout the 2.5-hour long piece. Including musicians, the cast just jumps the dozen marker, which I know is no Cherrywood, but it’s The New Colony, That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Danny Taylorstill a sizeable amount of people for an off-Loop production.

The play also feels huge. It’s epic in its nature, with its protagonist, Billy Lomax (Patriac Coakley), journeying from Fayetteville Georgia across the South in search of a bluegrass band that may just hold the answers to the identity and whereabouts of his father. Along the way, Billy encounters a cast of colorful characters including a manipulative antique shop owner (Caitlin Chuckta) and her jealous brother (Wes Needham), a man of color who claims he’s half Cherokee (Anthony DiNicola), a stand-up comic (Sean Ellis), a couple of Latino day laborers (Aaron Alonso and Gary Tiedemann) and others.

The elusive bluegrass band serves as the soundtrack to Billy’s life. Each song inexplicably represents Billy’s current situation, or at least that’s how he reads into it. And so the band becomes the fuel that drives Billy, and for that matter the rest of the play, forward.

I should note that The New Colony takes a unique approach to creating a new production like this. The lines delineating actor, writer and director are blurred, with all cast members getting some say in the development of the play and its final treatment. With a company of about 30 members, this sounds like a situation where too many cooks could have spoiled the pot. And while the pot is not spoiled, it suffers from too many ingredients.

The New Colony, Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Aaron Alonso, Patriac Coakley and Sean Ellis - Photo by Anne Petersen The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Jack McCabe.  Photo by Anne Petersen.
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The play practically bursts at the seams. There’s just so much in it. Issues of race, issues of family, issues of wealth and social class. In covering so much territory, very little is actually said.

In addition, there are too many characters that come in and out of Billy’s life for us to really care about them. Once Billy starts developing a connection with someone, he leaves or he is left. We as the audience catch on to this pattern quickly, which means mentally we know there’s little at stake with these friendships. Once that happens, we know we can check out, and thus the relationships that Billy is making just don’t have Sordid_11 much of an impact. In the end, you’re left just waiting to see how the whole thing wraps up.

Also, some of these scenes lag. There are conversations between talking heads that sound reminiscent of college-level discussion groups. Much of this dialogue could be cut, and we’d still get the point. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a 2.5-hour long play as long as your play needs to be 2.5 hours. With some obvious editing, That Sordid Little Story could shave off a good 30 minutes.

But let’s take a moment to focus on what this play does well, namely, the music. This is a four-star score, lyrically and melodically. Heart-wrenching at times, uplifting at others, the music overshadows the rest of the play with its spot-on descant harmonies and its band’s down-home-country affection.

Also, the acting is consistently solid. Standout performances include Sean Ellis as the drunk comic, Aaron Alonso as a non-English speaking immigrant and Caitlin Chuckta, who reminded me of comic actress Stephnie Weir.

That Sordid Little Story is anything but little. It’s a big piece – too big. With some self-editing, this could have been more than just a cool concept. But as it stands, I’d rather just listen to the soundtrack.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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