Review: Tragedy: a tragedy (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Tragedy: a new theatrical experience

     
     

Paul Miller and Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
   
   
Tragedy: a tragedy
  
  
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?

Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.

Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.

That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.

The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.

I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.

The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

  
  

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REVIEW: Church and Pullman, WA (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Exhilaration, fear and loathing in religion

     
     

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Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Church  /  Pullman, WA
  
Written by Young Jean Lee
Directed by
James Palmer
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Young Jean Lee’s plays, Church and Pullman, WA, are really two peas in a pod. Produced by Red Tape Theatre under the direction of James Palmer, Lee’s two one-acts bookend human experience on matters of self-help, personal worth, religion, motivational speaking and hallucinatory mysticism. It’s not just that having faith is, by its nature, not a rational act–Lee’s works steep the audience in the utter irrationality of belief systems of all sorts and in doing so, exposes the raw human struggle to go on in hope and positive meaning for living.

“I know how to live,” exclaims a young woman (Amanda Reader) at the top of Pullman, WA, glowing bright, professional and squeaky clean. She begins as clearly and simplistically as anyone leading a motivational workshop or a weekend seminar spawned by the Human Potential Movement. “The first thing you have to remember is that You Are You,” she scrawls upon the blackboard behind her. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that she is as plagued by doubts as any fallible human, and the motivational tactics she espouses are a thin shield against uncertainty.

As she falters, an assistant (Meghan Reardon) interrupts to guide the audience through a meditation comforting in its childlike, beneficent imagery—“You are sitting on a giant puffball”–which, of course, soon becomes so festooned with unicorns and candy-coated rainbows, it’s absurd. A second assistant (Austin Oie) chimes in with time-honored, Biblically resonant reassurance, “I am an angel of the Lord.” But he also fails to deliver unimpeachable strength of conviction. Between the three motivational speakers, Pullman, WA veers into macabre madness.

Lee’s writing has got a tiger by the tale. How much should we trust belief systems that tell us everything is going to be alright so long as we believe, whether it’s about believing in ourselves, believing in a higher power or believing in some cognitive system built to reassure and propel us forward? That way leads to madness, madness reflected in the imagery of Lee’s script, which owes a debt to Hieronymus Bosch.

The trouble, if there is any, lies in Church being pretty much the same thing, only expanded. Red Tape may want to review the necessity of performing two almost identical plays back to back as they’ve chosen to do. Nevertheless, set up as a storefront church service, Palmer’s more than able cast easily holds their own through all Church’s tangential swerves and comic detours. They are brilliant at exposing faith as the ephemeral and potentially dangerous thing it is. Rev. Jose (Robert L. Oakes), in particular, leads the audiences on a humorous, hallucinatory sojourn with his sermonizing which, by the way, includes mummies, Jesus among leprous child molesters, and almost everything being poison. His fellow Reverends, Angela (Angela Alise Johnson) and Carrie (Carrie Drapac), nail the links between power, faith and fear with the song:

Shakin’ in your bones is required
To believe in colossal empires . . .

A sentiment impacted all the more by the final chorus, both uplifting and terrifying, in their anthem of religious compliance and resignation. So busy praising Jesus, so busy working for the kingdom, so busy serving their master, they ain’t got time to die. One recognizes religion as a strategy for survival—an exhilarating uplift to meet life’s random and often overwhelming challenges. One can also see its desperate acquiescence to a power greater than oneself, which eventually includes temporal power. As far as Lee’s work is concerned, the two are hopelessly intermeshed. Now that’s something that will put the fear of God in you.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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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: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

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Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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REVIEW: The Love of the Nightingale (Red Tape Theatre)

This eerie ‘Nightingale’ sings a refreshingly resonant tune

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Red Tape Theatre presents
  
The Love of the Nightingale
  
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
directed by
James Palmer
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
(map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not going to lie, my expectations weren’t so high when I entered the space for Red Tape Theatre’s newest production, The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The last (and admittedly, only) show I saw by them, last season’s Enemy of the People (our review ★½), was pretty weak. That said, I was completely blown away. Directed by Artistic Director James Palmer, Red Tape’s Love of the Nightingale was refreshing, bizarre, and remarkably resonant.

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 Nightingale explores the ancient Greek myth of Philomele who, as all those mythology buffs out there will tell you, was transformed into a nightingale after some pretty traumatic experiences. And given that it’s written by Wertenbaker, you can bet the whole story is given a feminist twist. Palmer and his enormous cast explode the story into life, ripping it from its ancient Greek context and filling it with anachronism and theatricality. Set designer William Anderson builds a completely new space within the heart of the gym in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The set is its own little world, encircling the audience and featuring plenty of hidden drawers, doors, and other surprises. Palmer’s production is intensely physical, demanding the actors throw all they got out on-stage, just a few inches from the audience.

The story tells of the relationship between Philomele (Meghan Reardon), her sister Procne (Kathleen Romond), and her brother-in-law and King of Thrace, Tereus (Vic May). For those unfamiliar with the Greek myth, Procne asks her husband, Tereus, to bring her little sister out to Thrace for a visit. He sails over to Athens to pick her up, but things get a little heated on the trip back. Through a brilliant choice, the play is shaped and revealed by an almost silent dollmaker/carpenter/puppetmaster (Robert Oakes), who seems compelled to tell this unsettling story to us.

The dream team of designers Palmer amassed has concocted a marvelous world. Ricky Lurie’s modern-dress costumes are stunning, reveling in the uncanny style Palmer has set out. The suits and dresses are bright and colorful, contrasting sharply with the terrifying depths the play plunges towards. Anderson’s set is simple enough REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 to hold all of the different scenes required in the text, yet exudes its own bizarre essence. This is all pushed by Palmer, who moonlights as lighting designer, and his fetish for flickering fluorescents. The show is eerie and surreal, sometimes a dream and sometimes a nightmare.

Although the performances are at times outdone by the incredible design, there are some choice actors here. Romond’s tortured Procne is excellent; although the character doesn’t feature much in the original myth, here we’re entranced by her struggle. As Philomele, it takes Reardon a scene or two to hit her stride but she gets there, especially as the play gets heavier. May does great work as well, finding both Tereus’ sliminess and his royalty. For such a small stage, the cast is massive. However, they all fit the play extremely well, and everyone out there is required for the world to work as well as it does.

Much of the chorus is used in choreographed movement that surrounds the audience, trapping them into Philomele’s tragic tale. However, sometimes the movement pieces overstay their welcome and reach into repetitive territory, then our interest flags. The play calls for plenty of brutality, but Zack Meyer and Claire Yearman’s fight choreography doesn’t really hack it. It works well technically, but doesn’t have the piercing specificity the rest of the show has.

From their The Love of the Nightinggale, it is clear Red Tape has an aesthetic that works for them. Hopefully, they’ll expand and explore more of what made this play great. If Red Tape keeps churning out work like this, they’ll become a tiger of the storefront scene.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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