REVIEW: Hamletmachine (Trap Door Theatre)

     
     

good design ≠ good machine

     
     

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

   
Trap Door Theatre presents
  
Hamletmachine
   
Written by Heiner Müller
Translated by Carl Weber 
Directed by
Max Traux
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through Feb 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As one of the leading figures in postmodern literature, Heiner Müller is nearly as widely influential as fellow German Bertolt Brecht. However, Müller, with ingenious methods of chopping up and pureeing language and story, never gets the same exposure on this side of the ocean as that master of alienation, Brecht. Some of this might come with time, considering that Brecht wrote about 30-50 years before Müller. American audiences may also have a hard time stomaching Müller’s intentionally entangled, muddy hairballs of non-linear narrative, which make Brecht’s plots look relatively straightforward.

Director Max Traux and Trap Door Theatre have a hard time dealing with Müller’s deliberate mess with their production of Hamletmachine, the playwright’s 1977 opus. The piece riffs on both Shakespeare and machines, slamming together Hamlet with 20th Century existentialist questions. Traux conceptualizes the 9-page play (!) as a rock opera of sorts, turning several of Müller’s phrases into musical catchphrases. Although the page length seems miniscule, it’s a very dense nine pages. Müller once staged a 7-hour production of Hamlet, featuring Hamletmachine as the play-within-a-play. At Trap Door, Traux spreads the text among three Hamlets, two Ophelias, and a Gertrude for good measure, further splintering the piece. The droning music, fierce acting, and heavy choreography impart weightiness, but it’s hard to discern much substance from Trap Door’s bloated production. We see lots of horrified expressions and hear plenty of pained soliloquies, but I was never sure exactly why anything was happening.

Müller and Traux are assuming that the audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare’s original, arguably the most important work of literature in human history (we may have to reconsider after Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is published….). Here, Hamlet (either Antonio Brunetti, Rich Logan, or David Steiger) mulls over his usual philosophical inquiries while also posing questions about modern-day revolution and art. Müller really shows off his genius when placing Hamlet’s fundamentally human dilemmas in a contemporary context—“Tomorrow has been cancelled” is an oft-repeated line through the piece.

The cast does a noteworthy job breathing life into Traux’s bizarre, fluorescent-lit world. Rich Logan’s limber, ponytailed version of Hamlet is the most interesting to watch, even when hunkered down in the aisles and gleefully eyeing the action occurring on-stage. Tiffany Joy Ross and Sadie Rogers present two very different characterizations of Ophelia, adding further complexity to the piece. It was obvious the actors were all very committed, but the performances lacked clarity. One can’t expect defined motivations and objectives from such an expressionist extravaganza, but choices should make sense in some way. In Trap Door’s manic production, a lot of the meaning soars over the audience’s heads.

Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi provide an eerie soundscape for Traux’s hellish vision, with a focus on repetition a la Philip Glass. Costume designer Nevena Todorovic creates fascinating concoctions that combine Elizabethan styles with strong doses of steampunk. In general, the design does a fantastic job of evoking a specific mood (a bleak, unhappy mood), a specificity the rest of the production yearns for.

The best moment of the play occurs when Hamlet #3, David Steiger, gives a monologue describing a populist uprising. There is no singing or choreography, just an actor addressing the audience. Steiger gives the audience something to cling onto amid the storm. Even though that moment doesn’t gel with the rest of the play stylistically, it is the most powerful.

Trap Door’s failing, noble as it may be, is that the production is overburdened conceptually. Müller’s script is already a puzzle. In production, the confusion should be unraveled somewhat, not wound tighter. Traux’s vision of the play may be brilliant, but it doesn’t read.

     
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Composer & Sound Designer: Jonathan Guillen / Production Designer: Richard Norwood / Stage Manager: Barry Branfrod / Costume Designer: Nevena Todorovic / Graphic and Video Designer: Michal Janicki / Production Manager: Caitlin Boylan / Makeup Design: Zsófia ÖtvösMusic Collaborator: Nicholas Tonozzi

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

             
        

REVIEW: 1001 (Collaboraction)

A breathtaking testament to the power of storytelling

 

 Pictured (left to right): Joel Gross (as Shahriyar) and Mouzam Makkar (as Scheherazade) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia

  
Collaboraction presents
  
1001
  
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by
Seth Bockley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through October 9  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Jason Grote’s 1001 uses the story of “The Arabian Nights” as the foundation for a centuries-spanning epic that examines the nature of stories and the ways in which they shape and define the world. After a nuclear blast starts the play, the One-Eyed Arab (H.B. Ward) begins to tell the familiar story of the murderous sultan Shahriyar (Joel Gross) and his crafty bride Scheherazade (Mouzam Makkar), who tells stories that never end to elude her death the next morning.

The Wedding Feast from Collaboraction's "1001" - Photo by Saverio Truglia From there, Grote presents amidst stories about Prince Yahya al-Husayni’s (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) lust for his twin sister and Sinbad’s (Ward) afternoon with Jorge Luis Borges (Antonio Brunetti), the narrative of two 21st-century Columbia students takes shape: Dahna (Makkar), an Arab, and Allen (Gross), a Jew. Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization. Under Seth Bockley’s clear and concise direction, the cast navigates the complex script with a momentum that never stops, playing multiple characters and switching between genres without ever skipping a beat.

As Shahriyar, Gross shows an amazing comedic talent, particularly in his handle of malapropisms (“ceviche” for “cesspool” is my favorite), which can cause more groans than laughs in the wrong hands. As a sultan that face palms his wives to shush them, Gross shows no sense of tact or restraint, which increases his comedic worth without diminishing his threat. In his first scene as Allen, Gross delivers a fantastic monologue of incredible difficulty, as the mentally fractured character recalls the events that have led to his residence in the underground tunnels of Manhattan.

Makkar has the least comedic parts of the show, but she helps ground the play by creating characters that feel more realistic than her funnier co-stars. As the primary storyteller, she has fantastic diction, and her voice commands attention when she speaks. The only other female of the cast, Carly Ciarrochi gets the brunt of the humor, and she handles it fantastically. Ciarrochi has a talent for goofy voices, but it is her comedic timing that makes her scenes so memorable, like her Act 1 hysterics as one of Shahriyar’s virgin brides about to be killed.

Pictured (left to right) Antonio Brunetti and Edgar Miguel Sanchez in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia. Pictured (back to front) Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mouzam Makkar in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia H.B. Ward in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.
Pictured (left to right): Carly Ciarrochi, Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Joel Gross in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia Pictured (left to right): Mouzam Makkar (as Dahna) and Joel Gross (as Alan) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.

The rest of the cast does admirable work playing a plethora of different characters, giving each one a distinct physicality and voice so that no clarity is lost. Ward’s Sinbad stands out for his complete lack of awe at the spectacular sights he encounters on his journey, with Ward underplaying each of the sailor’s memory for maximum comedic effect.

The brilliance of the script comes from the ways in which Grote uses the fantastic – and oftentimes comic – stories that Scheherazade tells to enrich Dahna and Allen’s relationship. Towards the end of the play, Scheherazade asks the audience, “What are any of us but a collection of stories?” In that moment the story within a story within a story structure of the play makes perfect sense, revealing the limitless potential in every person to imagine and create at any moment. Collaboraction’s 1001 is an inspiration, and with only a few more weeks before the end of the run I suggest you hurry to get your tickets.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

1001_photo by Saverio Truglia_7573

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REVIEW: Chaste (Trap Door Theatre)

Bizarre love triangle

 

chaste2

 
Trap Door Theatre presents
 
Chaste
 
by Ken Prestininizi
directed by
Kate Hendrickson
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 19th   | tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Imagine the hit cornball sitcom “Three’s Company” re-imagined for an audience of existential-minded intellectuals. I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me. Brunette bombshell Janet Wood is recast as Paul Ludwig Carl Heinrich Ree, a lesser Jewish-German philosopher of the mid-19th century. Secretly straight bachelor Jack Tripper chastenenepaul is recast as Lou Andreas-Salome, the first female psychoanalyst and a student of Sigmund Freud. And buxom blond Chrissy Snow is Friedrich Nietzsche. Keep the copious amounts of sexual innuendo and add some pretty bizarre dream sequences and you have a template for the Trap Door Theatre’s newest production, Chaste.

Chaste is the third Ken Prestininizi play for the avant-garde theatre company to produce. In contrast to some of the other works that Trap Door has done recently, such as the enigmatic Minna (our review ★★★★), Chaste is much more digestible for a general audience. Although there are elements of the absurd sprinkled about, for the most part what you see is what you get. And what you get is an extraordinarily entertaining play about three abnormally awkward and hyper-intelligent thinkers who are stuck in a house and trapped in a love triangle.

The play borrows heavily from history. It is true that all three philosophers did once live together. It is true that Ree (John Kahara) introduced the much younger Salome (Sarah Tolan Mee) to Nietzsche (Antonio Brunetti). And it is true that the three made a pact to live together as a chaste trio in an effort to intellectually understand the secrets of life.

What actually transpired between the threesome is unknown. What is known is that Salome cut ties with Nietzsche, believing him to be desperately in love with her. This was made all the more complex because Ree and Salome had been a couple for some time.

chastehandkiss Prestininzi’s script is poetic without being overwrought. He conveys the madness and the intelligence of these three individuals without ever romanticizing their pursuit of an enlightened life through chastity. In fact, each character, in his or her own way, is somewhat pitiful. They all can wax-philosophic about the role of God, gender equality and the meaning of life, but not one of them seems to be a well-rounded, stable individual. It’s like watching three freakishly smart teenagers fight for the affections of one another.

The actors all play their roles with a fiery passion. Kahara as the nebbish Ree does an excellent job of playing up Ree’s patient restraint, which makes his sudden outbursts of insanity all the more impactful.

Brunetti is a scene stealer with his Salvador Dali-like facial expressions. Even when sequestered from action on another part of the stage, you can’t but help to look his way. No doubt the role of Nietzsche must have been a fun character to assume, and it is obvious that Brunetti revels in doing it.

Mee definitely has the thinnest resume out of the bunch, but she holds her own alongside her cast mates. Although there are moments where her portrayal of Salome threatens to become a Charles Dickens Estella caricature, she juggles the complex layers of the early feminist who seemed to have a schizophrenic love-hate relationship with men.

Tiffany Joy Ross rounds out the cast as Nietzsche’s overprotective sister Elisabeth. Ross’ frigid stare and scowling face could suck the fun out of any ménage a trios. She also succeeds in balancing the character’s stoic exterior with her brother-loving heart.

chasterefuseyou

Director Kate Hendrickson has directed every play that Trap Door has produced by Prestininizi. She has a keen eye for stunning stage pictures. And thanks to a fairly bare set save for a few platforms, the characters’ positions in reference to one another speak amply of their evolving relationships.

Chaste is a clever and often funny example of dramatic historical fiction. It is also probably the closest we’ll ever get to a 19th-century season of “Real World”. But contemporary television references aside, the lunacy that love inspires within these three lunatics, as told by a talented writer through a talented cast, makes for a four-star play.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

chastei'mnotyoursister

Creative Team: Assistant Director: Jen Ellison / Sound Designers Jason Meyer & Shane Oman / Lighting Designer Gina Patterson / Set Designer Joseph Riley / Stage Manager Gary Damico / Costume Designer Nevena Todorovic / Makeup Designer Zsófia Ötvös / Graphic Designer Michal Janicki

Review: Collaboraction’s “G.I.F.T.”

You Can Have Your G.I.F.T. Back

 G.I.F.T._1


Collaboraction presents:

G.I.F.T.

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

G.I.F.T. by Collaboraction is a different form of theatrical performance compared to the traditional plays around the city. It is an unconventional multimedia event that makes an effort to appeal to all of your senses. Unfortunately, this innovative an artistically funky production fell short of entertaining me.

G.I.F.T._2 G.I.F.T. is more of an event than a traditional play. Walking into the large warehouse in a single file line, swerving around a gravel path into a “fantasy” room filling up with a hazy, glowing fog; strangely dressed people in an over-stimulated euphoric state greet me beaming with smiles and warmly welcomed me as if we have been best friends for years. I paused, turned to my guest and jokingly said “I think I have been to this party before.” I smell the incense, looked around at all the crazy characters moving about as if in their own pleasant world and said, “…and I might have been on the same drugs before too.”

Needless to say, G.I.F.T. opens with a trippy, unorthodox experience of mingling-with-the-cast-and-audience in the fictional world that Collaboraction has created. The shock-effect wears off quickly; soon you might find yourself standing there holding weird objects I never knew the meaning of as well as talking to friends about other plays they have seen throughout the week. The audience is left standing around too long to maintain the initial feeling of entering into another dimension and soon one loses interest in what is going on around them.

G.I.F.T._3 G.I.F.T._4

Eventually we are led out of the foggy realm and through another door for the main show. I felt a little like “Alice” who has just climbed through one rabbit hole into a crazy utopian circus and being led into another with no idea what to expect. Through the door you get a sense of intimate space, created by the white glowing floor that curves up into the walls, leaving no corners on the stage. The set design and lighting creates a mystic atmosphere that allows one’s imagination to determine the exact location (I imagined the north pole.)

The main performance consists of a series of reenactments signifying what a gift means, none of which are very enlightening. The acting feels rehearsed and the interactions in each skit feels more like an actor’s exercise. Collaboraction may have been trying to reach out to a more artsy audience – one that is looking for something new and innovative – but G.I.F.T. is just weird and boring.

Rating:

 

G.I.F.T. is playing at Firehouse Square, 459 N. Wolcott through Nov. 29th



Featuring: Saverio Truglia, Aurelia Clunie, Carla Kessler, Hannah Phelps, Catherine Glynn, Antonio Brunetti, Gregory Hardigan, Scott Cupper, Jeremy Harris, Andy Junk, Emma Stanton, and Amber Robinson.