Review: The Homecoming (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

  
  

Mary-Arrchie excels at stripping away social restrictions

  
  

Luke Hatton, Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Jeremy Chandler

    

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents

    

The Homecoming

        
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Geoff Button
at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $18-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After experiencing Belarus Free Theatre’s powerful Being Harold Pinter (our review) earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how any traditional Pinter production would resonate going forward. Mary-Arrchie’s production of Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming has answered that question: more than ever. While Pinter’s domestic wars have always proved powerfully apparent and has inspired plays such as Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County, Belarus Free Theatre’s Pinter unearthed the immediacy and politics of his writing in such a way that American audiences now have a new frame of reference with Pinter’s writing. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s loft storefront, Director Geoff Button crafts an absurdly detailed production that hits all of the most vital aspects of this play dead on. The comedy and relationships are sharp. The rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue is surgically articulated. The sexually charged faceoffs are bubbling. Ultimately, this Homecoming stays with you after exiting out onto Sheridan Road.

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerAmerican audiences were appalled, fascinated, and viscerally affected when The Homecoming made its American debut in 1967. As the play has aged, the shock may have worn off, however, the parallels in family relations is perhaps more recognizable. The brilliance lies in how subtly Pinter transcends from the everyday to the absurd. It’s as if we travel from Kansas to Oz without the tornado. The story is set in 1964 London in the home of Max (Richard Cotovsky) where he lives with his two sons Lenny (Vance Smith), Joey (Dereck Garner) and his brother Sam (Jack McCabe). Max speaks loudly and carries a shiny stick. There are references made to his dead wife which was also the death of a female figure in this home. Daily domestic conversations are instantly off kilter on topics such as cooking, “Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook.” This world is turned on end with the return of Max’s third son Teddy (Luke Hatton) and new wife Ruth (played by Michaela Petro in one of the most riveting performances of the season).

Smith and Petro begin the “game” in their first scene together. Smith’s Lenny is deadly blunt and comical. Their banter revolving around a simple glass of water is thrilling, “Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.” As events unfold, social rules disintegrate. Jealousies and desires revolving around Ruth play out literally in front of her husband, Teddy. Petro’s Ruth is captivating in how she is objectified and yet never victimized, always winning the battle of wits. All the while, Hatton is fascinating while adulterous actions are played out in broad daylight. He avoids playing aloof and instead makes us question the limits of civility.

Amanda Sweger’s set is detailed. The fray of the wallpaper still hangs from the ceiling where a wall used to be. Sweger makes her own set glow evocatively like a Chinese light box in her double duty as lighting designer. Sound designer, Joe Court has the audience sit in silence during the preshow, listening to an amplified clock’s ticking time bomb effect before the start. However, his use of distorted gong-like effects adds unnecessary gravitas at moments, which conflicts with Pinter’s much more powerful uses of silence. Costume designer Izumi Inaba is faithful to Pinter’s text while giving Petro the most perfect shade of red in a suit that highlights Ruth’s sensuality and assertiveness.

Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerOne element that proves difficult for any ensemble of American actors is the English dialect in this play. When most effective, the dialects are differentiated by class (something that may not land as clearly on an American audience’s ears anyhow). Unfortunately, the dialects all but disappear with a couple actors during the performance which distracts slightly. In addition, on the night I attended, Pinter’s words began to trip the actors up somewhat during the final scene. However, when Cotovsky, on his knees says, “I am not an old man” it strikes right at the chord Pinter intended.

One of the strongest elements of this production is Button’s staging. His attention to proximity between characters tugs and pulls at the tension. There is a time when a pause plays better at ten feet and other times where it is more effective at three inches. Button plays with this notion to its fullest extent and creates visually telling pictures.

There are numerous levels at which to enter this play. One is the simply thrilling entertainment of seeing social restrictions stripped away. What if people did and said what they wanted and felt at any given moment? We all know of families in which small battles are blown out of proportion – perhaps all too well. We also know of instances of jealousy and flirting played out amongst siblings and parents when an outside party, especially an attractive one, is brought into a home. Pinter has turned the volume up and shined a spotlight on these moments. Button and his cast excel at making the unrealistic dangerously truthful.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin Chandler

The Homecoming continues at Angel Island Theater through April 10th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Running time is 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 (Thursdays and Sundays), $20 (Fridays) and $22 (Saturdays), and can be bought online or by calling the box-office at (773) 871-0442. For more info, visit: www.maryarrchie.com.

All photos by Benjamin Chandler.

  
  

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REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

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Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

Updates: Steppenwolf’s “Superior Donuts” on Broadway

Tracy Letts’ most recent play, Superior Donuts, just opened on Broadway with the same Steppenwolf cast.  After receiving moderate to warm reviews here in Chicago, the NYC reviews so far appear mixed.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

The NY Post gives Superior Donuts a very positive review – 3.5 stars:

After Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts‘ follow-up to August: Osage County, premiered in Chicago last year, the play was deemed entertaining but minor.

Either this Steppenwolf production has been drastically reworked on its way to New York, or we live in a cynical world where a show as tender and honest, as beautifully written, acted and directed as this one can be blithely dismissed.

 

 

While the New York Times produces a review that is so-so:

Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. Superior Donuts, a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.

Superior Donuts may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Below, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones interviews playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County“) and lead actor Michael McKean (“Laverne and Shirley“, “Saturday Night Live“, “This is Spinal Tap“) about Superior Donuts, Letts’ new play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Letts’ 2007 play August: Osage County won the Pultizer Prize and Tony Award in 2008.

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Think Fast: Cheyenne Jackson, Red Orchid Theatre, Barbara Gaines, and Superior Donuts

logo Good news for Old Town’s A Red Orchid Theatre: tickets for their current production Mistakes Were Made (our review here), by Craig Wright, have been selling like hot cakes – so much so that they’ve added an extra Wednesday night performance for all of October.  Be sure to check it out before it closes on October 31st.  Mistakes Were Made stars Michael Shannon, and is directed by Dexter Bullard.   (h/t Chris Jones)


shakespeare

 

Check out the interview with Chicago Shakes artistic director (and founder) Barbara Gaines regarding her direction of the company’s current production, Richard III. Well worth the read.

 


superiordonuts The Daily Beast has posted a rave review of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, which played last year to positive reviews at Steppenwolf. An excerpt:

Letts and his cast can breathe deeply today. While a far less ambitious play than August, with its three-story set and sprawling cast, Superior Donuts is no less successful for what it aims to be: a tender, funny, and often tragic valentine to Letts’ Chicago in a time of intense cultural change. Fans of August won’t find that play’s heavy, gut-wrenching revelations here, but Donuts was always intended to be a smaller, lighter effort, as delightful and sweet as a doughnut itself. The play, which Letts began writing even before August, earned positive reviews when it first opened in Chicago with the same cast in July 2008, and after a year of Letts’ tweaks and rewrites, it may be even better….

Read the entire review here.


Per Perez Hilton:

cheyenn Tina Fey’s brilliant comedy, 30 Rock, may be getting the one thing it’s severely lacking – a hot piece of eye candy!

Rumors are circulating that Broadway hottie, openly gay and successful actor Cheyenne Jackson, will allegedly be joining the cast in a semi or possibly a completely permanent capacity.

For those of you who don’t live and die by the goings on of the Great White Way, Cheyenne has been in productions like Xanadu and All Shook Up!

More here.

Broadway in Chicago announces 2010 season

Broadway In Chicago has announced their complete 2010 Broadway In Chicago Season Series. Shows included in the 2010 Season Series are Billy Elliot the Musical (website), Shrek The Musical (website), August: Osage County,(website), NETworks presentation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and The 39 Steps.  Season subscriptions go on sale Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 10 a.m.  Below is a sampling of pictures from some of these upcoming shows.

 

Feb 2: August: Osage County

 

 

March 18: Billy Elliot the Musical

 

June 1: Shrek the Musical

 

The 39 Steps

 

FYI: For The 39 Steps, no dates were supplied.

Think Fast: Rebecca Gilman, Rondi Reed and Mary Poppin’s walking tour of Avenue Q.

 

  • Audience members were in for an unexpected treat regarding yesterday’s final performance of the Tony award-winning August: Osage County: Rondi Reed, the originator of the role of the boozy Mattie Fae Aiken, returned to play the role for the last time.  Ms. Reed is currently performing the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked, which she returned to later on Sunday for an evening performance.
 
 
  • Oops – the main computer of Broadway in Chicago’s Mary Poppins crashed.  After 45-minutes of unsuccessful IT support, the audience was told the performance would have to be canceled.  Double oops.
 
 

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

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 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.