Review: Iphigeneia at Aulis (Lights Out Theatre)

  
  

Ritualistic elements explore value and purpose of faith

  
  

Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

  
Lights Out Theatre presents
   
   
Iphigeneia at Aulis
   
Written by Euripides
Directed and Adapted by Josh Altman
at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than just a little hippie feeling prevails in Lights Out Theatre’s production of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis. That vibe comes, partly, from Collaboraction’s theater-in-the-round space, which seats its audience on pillows at various levels to the stage floor. The other contribution comes from Josh Altman’s cast of barefoot players, complete with hearty drum elements, which make their Greek army stranded on the shores of Aulis look more like a summer of love gone wrong. Love gone wrong isn’t a bad choice of words, since Helen, wife of Menelaos (Michael Hamilton), has run off to Troy with Paris. Now the cuckolded husband and his brother, Agamemnon (Kipp A scene from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)Moorman), must amass their armies to get her back. But even fatherly affection doesn’t stand a chance once the army’s prophets proclaim that Artemis demands the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (Anne Leone), Agamemnon’s daughter, to get the whole enterprise off to sea.

Earthy and casual may be the look but nothing’s sloppy about the cast’s indelible care with Euripides’ language (adaptation also by Altman). Moorman, particularly, wrings every ounce of sympathy, depth and miserable humanity from his guilty and tormented father figure while never casting doubt on his position as commander-in-chief of Greece’s forces. Partnered with a rich and resonant performance by Barbara Figgins as Clytemnestra, Moorman holds the dramatic space through which Euripides savages dubious religion, the insanity of war and the dangerous power of demagoguery—political concerns of an Athens demoralized by the Peloponnesian War 2500 years ago, still finding their resilient parallel today.

While most of Altman’s younger cast members securely back up the principal leads, Iphigeneia’s shrill desperate pleas to Agamemnon’s for mercy doesn’t allow much play or range. Of course, the girl’s about to die, yet Leone needs to find the nuance of Iphigeneia’s mental state to make her anguish more watchable and compelling.

     
Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti) Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)
Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti) Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

Neither does Iphigeneia’s sudden 180-degree turn toward being the willing victim convince–and for this play, it very badly needs to. Euripides makes a habit of putting his characters through 180-degree turns. He assigns several to other characters in this play alone. It almost seems like a perverse test for the actor, to instantaneously supply their character with psychological veracity in absolute contradiction to what they felt a moment ago. But having begun without much depth toward losing her life, becoming the Greek’s willing sacrificial lamb also proceeds without the intense psychological subtext that makes Iphigeneia’s transformation credible.

At least the ritualistic elements of Altman’s direction, bracingly and cunning bolstered by Hamilton’s drumming and Ben Chang’s violin, close Iphigeneia in Aulis with fundamental questions about the value and purpose of faith. By accepting an absurdity—that her death will bring freedom to Greece and immortality to her–Iphigeneia is able to transcend her misery and embrace her end with serene, courageous, almost godly composure. But should such things be believed? Figgins carries the evening with her exit clouded in doubt and suspense.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Members of the "Iphigeneia at Aulis" cast, including: Ben Chang, Anthony DeMarco, Barbara Figgins, Michael Hamilton, Adam Hinkle, Anne Leone, Anna Lucero, Kipp Moorman, and Andrew Nowak.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

All photos by Serena Valenti

     

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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

  
  

The Queer Meaning of Christmas: Always Be Yourself

  
  

Rudolph finale by David as Joan

  
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
   
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
   
Book/Lyrics by David Cerda 
Music by
David Cerda w/ Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Jan 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Hell In a Handbag Productions have run their queerlicious holiday spoof, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for 13 years, yet it’s Christmas theme could not be more current or relevant than if it were written yesterday. Directed by Derek Czaplewski, this Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) is as Scrooge as they come, running the North Pole like a sweatshop. His terrorized elf population scrambles for job security since he’s outsourced most of the toy manufacturing to India. To generate extra income, Santa cynically develops a series of reality TV Mrs. Claus loses her balance. by David as Joanshows for NPN (North Pole Network). Sam the Snowman (Christopher Carpenter) lays out the whole scene with casual and realistic world-weariness, just right for this particular recessionary season.

Into this milieu, Jane (Danni Smith) and Tom Donner (Chad) give birth to Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a sweet little reindeer with an instinctual love for feminine attire. Fresh from the womb, Rudolph can already spot Chanel and Prada on other women and lusts in his heart to wear them himself. But mom and dad fear gender non-conformity just won’t go over well in the gossipy and economically strapped environs of Christmastown. So, they force Rudolph into overalls and trot him out to the reindeer games to put a little butch into his act.

The big butch of the reindeer games, Coach Comet (David Besky), uses his position to put the moves on his young reindeer charges. But, like any classic closet case, he – like everyone else – rejects Rudolph when his unstoppable femme side emerges. While reviling base hypocrisy is de rigueur element for LGBTQ comedy, Hell in a Handbag’s spry and professional cast keeps to the situation fresh, the jokes well-timed and humanely on message. David Cerda’s humorous script holds up fabulously well; it helps that the original Christmas cartoon is also about being yourself, no matter what societal pressures deny who and what you are. Cerda and crew boost the original cartoon with a ton of salacious queer fun and Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography makes the most of a tight stage at Mary’s Attic.

     
Trailer Trash Barbie by David as Joan Meet Coach Comet by David as Joan
The Dragbeast! The Abominable Dragbeast (David Cerda, center) massacre's a Lady Gag_0007 North Pole Smackdown by David as Joan

Rudolph loses the town’s support but gains a reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (Jennifer Shine), who regales the audience with how HOT his red hose make her. Then there’s Rudolph’s ally Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist, who Dan Hickey executes with nostalgic and dorky perfection. Once this pair make it to the Island of Misfit Toys, the audience not only gets to revel in Chad’s exact portrayal of Charlie-in-the-Box, but also the Half-Naked Cowboy (Chad Ramsey), Trailer Trash Barbie (Terry McCarthy) and the Choo-Choo Train (Barbara Figgins) with square wheels.

That Cerda, as the Abominable Drag Beast, tries her grab at fame in a Gaga-esque meat dress, while Ed Jones goes beyond the beyond as Santa’s drunken wife, puts the cherry and nuts on top of Hell in a Handbag’s confection. It’s so bad it’s good for you. But most of all, for all its celebration of pervy practices, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer restores a little innocent sweetness to a holiday made hard, jaded and meaningless by rampant commercialism. Always be yourself—that’s the best Christmas message I’ve heard in a long time and something meant to last the whole year round.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Christmastown! by David as Joan

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REVIEW: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Provision)

     
     

The art of making miracles where you least expect them

    
     

Christmas Pageant somewhere-sometime

  
Provision Theater presents
   
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  
Bassed on novel by Barbara Robinson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Mrs. Bradley (Cheryl Golemo) has bitten off more than she can chew. Mrs. Armstrong (Barbara Figgins), who usually directs the church’s yearly Christmas pageant, cannot move from her hospital bed, her leg awkwardly suspended in traction. So, Mrs. Bradley has agreed to take over her directorial duties. So far, in Provision Theater’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, everything seems quite doable until Mrs. Bradley’s son, Charlie (Ryan Cowhey), lets it slip to one of the Herdman children, toy - christmas pageant figurinesbullies and roughnecks all, that rehearsals for the pageant are followed by cookies, donuts and other refreshments. That brings the herd of Herdmans to rehearsals at the church and they proceed to hijack the production by taking over its leading roles.

Local, homespun Christmas pageants are familiar rituals that bring communities together to view comforting tableaus of the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus. Attend and you are sure to hear the same passages of familiar Scripture, see a familiar nativity scene, and go through the familiar arrivals of the shepherds and the Three Wise Men. Generally, it’s an evening without surprises but with kids there are no guarantees. Provision’s pageant drama is different from the usual, in that it relies on the unpredictable nature of kids for its humor and suspense.

Directed by Tim Gregory, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever also takes some healthy swipes at pettiness in churchgoing culture: the Herdman’s being the poorest family in the community and their children knowing little to nothing about Jesus’ birth, while the community’s church ladies are in a snit to they discover that they have taken the leading roles in the pageant instead of their own children. Mrs. Bradley can feel community support slipping away from her production, as well as her control of her young actors slipping away during the rehearsal process.

1011-homepage-bcpeMuch about Provision’s production still has rough edges. Since most of the roles are filled with untrained child actors, the production definitely has ‘community theater’ written all over it. But it’s surprising how much Gregory can evoke small miracles with his young and inexperienced cast. Imogene Herdman (Page Weaver) ultimately does make a sympathetic and convincingly loving Mary. The sacrifice that the Herdman children make to welcome the baby Jesus is honestly touching. Along the way, little touches that evoke the individual personality traits of the cast make each child special to the audience. In fact, its the small touches that entertain more than the manic comedy scenes. Mr. Bradley (Andy Luther) brings a solid strain of authenticity when centering Mrs. Bradley’s creative efforts on the real meaning of Christmas. While not a totally professional effort, families will no doubt enjoy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

     
     
Rating: ★★
  
  

Christmas Pageant anon

     
      

REVIEW: Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular (Hell-Handbag)

 

A Comic’s Comeback – Wishful Thinking on a Roll

 

 The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #8 by David as Joan

   
 Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
 
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular
   
Written by David Cerda
Directed by
Cheryl Snodgrass
At
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 6  |  tickets: $10-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Self-destruction, it seems, is the quickest way to create a comeback. In this case it’s as if a 747 pulls out of a talespin just about 100 feet before crashing into the runway. Author/producer David Cerda’s latest confection for his Hell in a Handbag zanies is the perfect vehicle for Ed Jones to do his wicked imitation of Paul Lynde, a basket case in free fall. Except that for legal reasons Jones’ on-the-skids comic who craves a second chance in show biz is now called Rip Nelson (R.I.P.—get it?) who’s hosting a 1970 live taping of a CBS variety show, a Halloween “spooktacular” that he desperately hopes will stop his slide into the bottle. When he gets in trouble, he Ed Jones as Rip Nelson in the The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular - Hell in a Handbag - Mary's Attic reverts to his tag line, “Wooga, wooga!,” a joke that becomes more pathetic as Rip tears himself up. But never fear—Rip is blindly hurtling toward happiness!

Unctuously neurotic (with classic Lynde-like dithering), Jones’ sad-sack Rip amounts to a one-man disaster area. Mired in a self-pity that morphs into toxic insecurity, he hits the bottle and insults his faithful dresser (Barbara Figgins channeling Thelma Ritter). We get, of course, a ton of bitchy byplay in the dressing room, catty wisecracks that feel as familiar as a funhouse mirror. Rip morosely calls his show a “celebrity cemetery where has-beens go to die.”

Somehow addled Rip manages to throw himself into this vaudevillian variety show where the guests interact like tornadoes spawned from a hurricane. These include, of course, Cerda’s patented parody of Joan Crawford who, with Rip, laments ungrateful Christine in the jaunty duet “Kids” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” By now Cerda’s Crawford has become the default drive for the celluloid monster in fetid flamboyance; she’s easily the scariest think in the Spooktacular. But Joan gets plenty of grotesque competition from Missy Aguilar’s strait-laced Kate Smith. This blowsy belter performs a clever duet with Red Genson’s geeky Bob Dylan that perfectly folds the latter’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” into the former’s “God Bless America.”

Imitations that sometimes can pass for impersonations, these usual suspects from the disco decade include Brigitte Ditmars’ hilariously peppy Ann Miller (who hoofs up a storm to “Spooky” complete with phony tap dancing), BC Kalz as an embarrassingly off-rhythm and tone deaf Brooke Shields ruining David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters,” and Michael Hampton’s no-nonsense Bea Arthur (who deadpans “Monster Mash” with an equally dour Dylan). Aaron Lawson adds spice as Donny Osmond, squeaky clean as he demurely declares himself “homosexual catnip”. (This is 40 years ago, mind you.)

Elizabeth Lesinski, as a chatty Charo, makes you realize what killed vaudeville as she launches into the conga-dancing finale “Hootchie Cootchie Halloween,” a deliberately daffy production number that features Rip as Carmen Miranda on steroids. Completing the encourage are Patricia Austin’s adequately brief cameo as Phyllis Diller, Andrew Swan as insolent Brady brat Susan Olsen, and Alex Grelle’s bittersweet Shelley Duvall, a riot as she becomes the butt of everybody’s insults because she’s ugly and offers absolutely no consolation for her father’s failure to appear.

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #4 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #6 by David as Joan
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #10 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #1 by David as Joan

When it turns out that Rip’s mad scene is the result of Quaaludes that he accidentally drank when he stole Donny Osmond’s glass of orange juice, the loser suddenly rallies and discovers he’s not washed up after all. That of course is just when he’s given a new chance, a CBS comedy with Don Knotts. (This is a show that really believes you can have your cake and eat it too—mock Rip and then care about his comeback.)

It all makes for an exhausting 60 minutes full of what will seem to younger audience members esoteric to arcane cultural references from two generations ago. Despite its brevity, Cheryl Snodgrass’ staging often feels jerky: The dressing room scenes repeatedly drop the energy. (It might be better to play this as a continuous TV show with appropriately stupid commercials inserted during the breaks.)

Kudos to Kalz’ self-caricaturing wigs and to Brian McKnight’s sound design which delivers the variety show’s essential laugh track. But it was all but drowned out by a tipsy Andersonville audience who offered their own clap-happy ovations: Their kindness to these “strangers” amounted to shining generosity. But then everybody loves a loser…

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular-Production photo #2 by David as Joan

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REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai Theatre)

Dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm

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Seanachai Theatre presents:

Dancing at Lughnasa

 

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Elise Kauzlaric
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox
through April 4th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is the deftly-written female roles. The story concentrates on the interactions, loves, and private catastrophes of the Mundy sisters, five adult women who live together in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg. Friel visits this made-up town in several of his plays, including his smash hit Translations, and here he shows a period directly before massive changes swept over Ireland and the world. Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s ode to nostalgia. It exudes the bittersweet feeling that come along with fond memories of a perfect instant in time, a moment followed by years of strife and hardship.

Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 1 Friel’s play gets a delightful treatment by Seanachai Theatre Company, a group that focuses on producing classic and cutting-edge Irish drama (their home base is the Irish American Heritage Center). I’m about as Irish as a Shamrock Shake, but I was able to relate to this heart-wrenching production, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, on a visceral level. It explores themes that are familiar to us all: the sometimes devastating effects of change and the crystal-clear beauty of a perfect memory.

The 1990 play is set in the summer of 1936. Friel’s world is rife with tension; we’re watching the events directly preceding the bubble popping. In this Ballybeg, the Church is confronted with pagan practices (the play’s action takes place around the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa), the industrial revolution is transforming rural life, and the problems of the world, problems which would explode in a few years, are creeping into the remote corners of Ireland.

The narrator, Michael (the charming Kevin Theis), was seven at the time, but now tells us the story as a middle-aged man with the advantage of knowing what happens next. Not a whole lot of action actually occurs in the play, but we stay riveted to every scene because Michael tosses us tidbits of future adversity.

Even though they are all adults, the Mundy sisters range a great deal in age. They are all unmarried and they all work very hard to keep themselves afloat. The oldest is Kate (a powerful Barbara Figgins), whose motherly leadership and strict Catholicism is equally resented and needed by her sisters. Her middle-aged peer is Maggie (Sarah Wellington), who fills the house with jokes, dancing, and soda bread. Rose (Anne Sunseri) and Agnes (Carolyn Klein) are both in their 30s and have a very special bond with each other. Michael’s mother Chris (Simone Roos) is the youngest, and allows herself to be strung Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 2along by Michael’s charismatic yet deadbeat father, Gerry (Philip Winston). The five sisters have to deal with a new addition to the household, Father Jack (Don Bender), their elderly uncle who just returned from a long mission trip to Uganda, where he has contracted malaria and left his Catholicism behind.

The actresses have a great connection with each other, filling the house with lots of love and lots of hostility. Wellington shines the most—she is lovely, vibrant, and fun, yet can still find Maggie’s vulnerability and loneliness. The script says that Rose has a developmental disorder, but this doesn’t come across in Sunseri’s performance, she just seems like the youngest sister (which might be a choice by Kauzlaric). This isn’t a huge problem, but it muddles a later scene involving possible sexual abuse. Beyond this issue, the five women capture the sibling relationship wonderfully. Sometimes they are sweet as honey, sometimes they can’t stand to be under the same roof.

Alan Donahue’s set handles the play well, but Sarah Hughey’s lights are clunky and disjointed. This Dancing at Lughnasa does not skimp on the dancing and music, all of it adding to the joy and drama of the piece.

Even though every aspect of this show is Irish, it hits on something we all know. Seanachai’s production is gorgeous and tragic, dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

lughnasa_pp_01

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