Review: Sonnets for an Old Century (UrbanTheater)

     
     

Like life, ‘Sonnets’ is a bumpy ride

     
     

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.

   
UrbanTheater Company presents
 
Sonnets for an Old Century
  
Written by José Rivera
Directed by
Madrid St. Angelo i/a/w Juan Castaneda
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
thru April 24 |  tickets: $20   |  more info  

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Chicago has a vast and virtually unknown storytelling scene. Shows like The Moth, 2nd Story, Story Club, Stories at the Store, This Much Is True and Essay Fiesta feature the best writers and storytellers in the city. As a member of this scene (and Essay Fiesta producer), I see at least a dozen personal monologues performed each month. You would think that after hearing more than 100 narratives, I’d become jaded. However, I’d argue that the opposite is true. My appreciation for genuine and honest storytelling continues to grow and appears to be without bounds. Conversely, my bullshit detector has become highly attuned.

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter CoombsI mention all this because Sonnets for an Old Century, the new UrbanTheater Company production that’s part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep, is a storytelling showcase. The play, written by José Rivera, consists of a series of monologues told by the recently deceased. The stage is their purgatory, and it is here that each provides commentary on the life he or she has lived, both the good and the bad. So in essence, these monologues—or free-verse sonnets—are personal narratives, even if the narratives are fictional.

Overall, Sonnets is an incredibly inconsistent show. There are moments where the monologists hit their high notes, striking genuine emotion. In these rare scenes, you can sense the actor is digging deep, plucking an honest chord from within and relaying that to the audience from behind the mask of the character. It is also in these scenes where the dialogue rises above contrivance and overwroughtness to become something real and relatable.

Unfortunately, there are far too many monologues in which the diction is absurd, even spiraling into laughable territory. Lines like "ecology of the spirit" and "rhythm of vegetables" could work if they weren’t delivered with such grave seriousness. Nobody talks like this, not even poets—or at least good poets. The actors struggle when assuming these pretentious characters, often falling into the trap of indicating rather than acting. But can you blame them? Nobody can relate to a clunker of a line like the "fallopian tubes of her mind." How can the actors find a place of genuine feeling when lines like this are the antithesis of genuine feeling?

But let’s get back to the highlights. There’s a beautiful monologue delivered by actor Hank Hilbert. He plays an actor who, in life, kept his homosexuality and his AIDS diagnosis hidden from most of the world. The language of the piece is pedestrian, though it still retains its power. There is humor as well as poignancy. There is action as well as characterization. It has all the makings of a great narrative.

Another highlight is provided courtesy of Christian Kain Blackburn. His character talks about sin, and attempts to justify his earthly behavior, which in life included drug and alcohol abuse. He then gives a riveting speech about his invalid father and the pain of watching the man grow old, weak and helpless. Blackburn pulls from the gut and succeeds in delivering one of the most compelling sonnets of the production.

     
Gino Marconi in a scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs
Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series.

Despite these shining moments, and a few others, the play’s inconsistency detracts from its overall quality. Each character need not deliver his or her monologue in a similar voice – that would be a sign of a non-dynamic writer. But the style should remain consistent. You can’t go from real-world dialogue to slam poetry and expect us to think these characters exist in the same universe. Perhaps if director Madrid St. Angelo addressed these style shifts, there would be more cohesion and a better end product.

The reason why the aforementioned storytelling series are successful is because they strive to tap into a place of vulnerability without the protection of pretense. Sonnets for an Old Century will probably turn off quite a few audience members because of just how much it clings to its loftiness. If the actors and director could find a way to make each piece vulnerable, despite the laughable dialogue, this would be a much more powerful play.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi

GarageRep continues through April 24th, with performances Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm; with a three-show marathon on Sunday, April 24 at 1 pm, 4pm & 8 pm.  For more info, go to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2011 GarageRep page.

 

Artists

Featuring: Jennifer Walls, Alex Polcyn, Christian Kain Blackburn, Gino Marconi, Gabi Mayorga, Shannon Matesky, Hank Hilbert, Rashaad Hall, Marilyn Camacho, Paloma Nozicka, Dru Smith, Marvin Quijada, Meghann Tabor, Phillip E. Jones, Arthur Luis Soria, Sojourner Zenobia Wright, Mike Cherry, Whitney Hayes and Amrita Dhaliwal.

       
        

What is GarageRep??

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Bailiwick Chicago extends F**KING MEN for 2nd time

Bailiwick Chicago Announces 3-Week Extension

of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN


Executive Director Kevin Mayes announced today that Bailiwick Chicago’s hit production of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN will be extended for an additional three weeks due to popular demand. Performances will continue through Sunday, August 29 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont with the original cast.

We are so pleased that Chicago audiences have embraced this production,” said Mayes, “and we are excited that we’ve been able to keep the original cast together for this second extension. It’s been an amazing summer for Bailiwick Chicago, with our two hit shows Aida and F**KING MEN. We are incredibly proud of – and humbled by – the response.

F**KING MEN observes the sex lives of the modern urban gay American male. Conceived as a noir-riff on Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play, LA RONDE, the play examines ten men from all walks of life as they negotiate the before and after of lust, love, betrayal and the pursuit of sex and emotional connection. Funny, poignant, sometimes dramatic, always provocative and sexy, the show has been critically acclaimed by Chicago critics: “Emotionally Searing…Superb Performances…there is truth and understanding in F**KING MEN.” (Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times) “…[F**KING MEN] is serviced brilliantly by this snappy, assured Chicago production.” (Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune) “…F**KING MEN is pretty fucking solid.” (Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago).

Bailiwick Chicago has launched a dedicated web site for the production with photos, videos, and additional information about the show at www.FMenChicago.com.

Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $25. Special Reserved seating is available for $30. Student and Industry rush tickets will be available at the door for $15 at every Sunday performance. Group (6+) tickets are $20.00. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252, or go towww.ticketmaster.com.

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REVIEW: F**king Men (Bailiwick Chicago Theatre)

The Circle of Gay Life

FMen-Vanguard 

    
Bailiwick Chicago presents
   
F**king Men
   
Written by Joe DiPietro
Directed by
Tom Mullen
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I don’t know if you read the papers, but us gay guys get a pretty bad rap. If we’re not contributing to the downfall of society, we’re made out to be self-loathing, sex-crazed loveless loners.

But the truth is, gay men—just like all human beings—are capable of love, and in fact, spend much of their lives, as everyone does, looking for it. And it is this search for Ryan - Beaumeaning, connection and kindness in a sea of sex that playwright Joe DiPietro attempts to illuminate in his cyclical play Fucking Men.

Fucking Men is a loose adaptation of the 19th century play La Ronde in which pairings of characters are featured in scenes preceding and succeeding sexual encounters. It’s an interesting structure—often employed as an improv comedy exercise—that lends itself to strong characterizations and oodles of dramatic irony.

The play begins and ends with John (Arthur Luis Soria), a young lovelorn prostitute. John is about to turn a trick. The trick’s name is Steve (Cameron Harms), a closeted military man who wants to receive oral sex from a man, you know, just to test it out. After the deed is done, Steve freaks out and beats up John.

Next is a silent scene in which Steve is in the gym sauna opposite Marco (Armand Fields). Steve touches his chest, signaling to Marco that he’s interested. Without saying a word, the two men fool around. Afterward, Marco continues his locker room routine: change out of clothes, pack up his bag, etc., while the closeted Steve rambles on about his sexuality and his encounter with John.

Naturally, the next scene depicts Armand with yet another character (this one a wisecracking, pot-smoking college student). And the domino effect of the La Ronde continues from there.

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The overarching theme of the play seems to be the need to inject kindness into our relationships, no matter how fleeting. It is all too easy to take advantage of others to fulfill our own selfish sexual and emotional desires. But if you come at sex with a sense of empathy, then you can be sure to limit the amount of pain you spread throughout the world and increase the love. Think of it like paying it forward…only sexually.

Some of the scenes really capture this idea. When the older and partnered Leo (Thad Anzur) enters the college dorm of Kyle (Cameron Johnson) for a random sexual encounter, he gets cold feet. Leo wants to know Kyle, to have some emotional connection prior to the physical connection. Youthful Kyle just wants sex and makes it  clear that if Leo isn’t going to give it up then he can easily get it elsewhere. The two end up chatting and finding some common ground to connect on. Leo gets the emotional connection he’s been seeking, and Kyle gets the sex.

Christian - KarmannOther scenes, however, are less believable. The opening scene in particular falls flat. When the closeted Steve gushes about his self-doubt and sexual confusion to the prostitute, I had to roll my eyes. The scene just doesn’t seem grounded in reality. A prostitute is going to know not to take on a buff, aggressive client who is deeply self-hating and fearful of gays. It’s a safety precaution. And the closeted Steve’s dialogue is riddled with more clichés than a Lifetime movie.

The other major flaw of the play is the music. Laurence Mark Wythe composed original instrumentals for Fucking Men that play as transitions between scenes as set pieces are moved and altered to create the various settings. And although the music itself is just fine, it undercuts the dramatic tension of the scenes when it is used underneath the dialogue. I’m assuming this was a decision made by director Mullen, and I would hope it is relegated only to scene transitions in future performances.

Overall, Fucking Men strikes at the core of what motivates gay men—and quite possibly everyone else too—to have sex. And although there are some weaknesses with a few of the characters whose behaviors just are beyond believable, it’s pretty easy to find traces of yourself in most of them.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

fucking men cast with playwright Joe DiPietro

Cast of “F**king Men”, including Director Tom Mullen and Playwright Joe DiPietro.

           
           

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