Reivew: Faith Healer (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
 

The bleaker side of Ballybeg

  
  

Mary Michell as Grace in a scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

  
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Faith Healer
      
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Belinda Bremner
At Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In one of the four monologues that compose Brian Friel’s harrowing story about a religious performer’s doomed tour, an aging act-manager describes the one constant you experience in northern Europe: dampness. Not wetness per se, he explains, but an unyielding saturation in your clothes and hair and skin. As I sat and listened to the three desolate characters in the moody, reflective Faith Healer, that feeling of heavy saturation is something I identified with.

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman The unfulfilled desires and emotional stagnations of Frank, the titular artist (Kevin Theis), his deprived wife Grace (Mary Michell), and his manager Teddy (Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey) almost sink into your being. The present, as they portray it at least, is more or less a venue for romanticizing, decoding and brooding over the past. We never get to meet the true characters that live out the events leading up to an alluded-to tragedy–only the half-husks remembering the details years later and in some cases, from beyond the grave. It’s all very Irish.

Friel is more recognizable by his perennial hit Dancing at Lughnasa, a play that takes place in the same fictional village but counteracts its grim wallowing with nostalgia and a little whimsy. But this is different universe, one where God is less tangible, and balance or order look like fatalistic notions. Even self-centered, alcoholic Frank is clueless to whether or not he even harbors legitimate abilities. In practice, presenting Faith Healer creates a challenge: how do you stage this play and not have it read as maudlin?

Director Belinda Bremner accomplishes a semi-even tone by highlighting the speeches’ dank and sometimes searing humor. As Teddy, bottle after bottle in-hand, Hickey is so genial he’s heart-breakingly pitiful. Fantastical stories about his deceased dog give way to an account of death and a tear-soaked plea to keep business and personal relationships separate. Likewise, Michell (Grace) plays to the subtext of her relationship with her husband, conscious that every bitter detail is as equally self-destructive to dwell on as it is righteous to point out.

Faith Healer sways off-track in the one place it can’t afford to: the title-character. Theis gets carried away with the weathered Irish persona. His jagged, gravel-heavy dialect work pushes beyond brogue into a realm more comparable to a pirate or Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice.” The effort for realism shows admirable dedication, but a character as layered as Frank aught to be born from instincts, not donned like a St. Patrick’s Day costume. Theis appears to have those instincts—veiled, they do no good.

 
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

Faith Healer continues through April 16th at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, with performances Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (708) 445-4440.  For more info, go to www.oakparkfestival.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Of Mice and Men (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Familiar story has power under the stars

 Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men"

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Of Mice and Men
 
By John Steinbeck
Directed by
Belinda Bremner
Austin Gardens Park, 157 N. Forest Ave., Oak Park (map)
Through July 10  | 
Tickets: $10-$25; chair rental: $2 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One trouble with shows based on works almost everybody had to read in high school is they tend to lack suspense. That said, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck evokes all of the power of the original tragic novelette. Even though you know what’s coming at every step, Belinda Bremner’s production provides plenty of impact.

The timeless themes of loneliness and the solace of forged connections and shared dreams come to life under the stars in Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor venue. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a "play-novelette," designed theatrically, so it makes a seamless transition to the stage. (A minor quibble: I disagree with Bremner’s decision to combine the three acts into two, but I suppose that with the show at nearly 2½ hours, she didn’t want to add the extra intermission.)

Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men" You can bring or rent lawn chairs if you like, or sit in the bleachers, though one lady in front of me really knew how to do outdoor theater right — she came equipped with a blanket to spread on the lawn, a pillow to lounge on, votive candles, mosquito sticks, bug spray and a basket of snacks and drinks. (If you bring nothing else, I highly recommend bug spray.) Some scenes take place on the stage and others on the ground at stage left, so whatever you sit on, situate yourself toward "house" right for the best views.

Just in case you went to school in some other country, Of Mice and Men follows George Milton and Lenny Small, two itinerant, California farm workers during the Great Depression. They have been traveling together for years, though George is smart and ambitious and Lenny is mentally impaired — a small child in a strong man’s body. The two aspire one day to have their own place, where they can live off the fat of the land. Lenny never tires of hearing George recount what will happen when they achieve this goal.

George often vents his frustration with Lenny, who gets the pair into odd scrapes and some serious trouble through his love of touching soft things and his lack of understanding, but he never considers abandoning his companion. Lenny is completely confident in George — though he offers to go off and live in a cave, he trusts George won’t take him up on it. Kevin Theis gives George just the right edginess and protectiveness, while David Skvarla does a stupendous job as Lenny, endlessly befuddled and attractively childlike, as the show builds to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

When the two arrive on a new ranch, they meet Candy, a broken-down old hand whose own companion, a beloved, elderly dog, becomes a matter of contention in the bunkhouse. Candy offers George and Lenny a means of bringing their far-off hopes to reality. Veteran Chicago actor William J. Norris’ compelling performance gives the production real depth.

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Meanwhile, Curley (a vigorous Adam Meredith), the pugnacious son of the ranch boss, picks on Lenny just to make up for his own inadequacies; and another lonely ranch hand, Crooks (a sensitive portrayal by Emanueal Buckley), kept at arm’s length because he’s black, is also inclined to take out his resentment on Lenny but ultimately relents.

Curley’s new wife, a nameless and ill-omened young woman who regrets the recent marriage that has done nothing to cure her loneliness, tries to chat up the men just to have something to do, but they misinterpret her friendly overtures. Ricky Lurie’s period clothes for the men look just fine, but Curley’s wife ought to be dressed more provocatively. Her plain-jane overalls and braids, combined with Skyler Schrempp’s rather earnest portrayal, make it difficult to imagine how the men can see her as a tramp.

Ron Butts, Stanton Davis, Ben Carr and Walter Briggs ably fill out the cast.

Unseen live musicians provide a little incidental music, but they seem under-utilized. A recording of Woody Guthrie classics played before the show and at intermission seemed fitting at first, but became tiresome by its third iteration. More live music could make this very good production into a great one.

       
      
Rating:★★★½
   
   

Note: Free parking available in the 19th Century Club lot on North Forest Avenue.

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REVIEW: Mid-Winter’s Tales ‘09 (ShawChicago)

Unwrap This Holiday Present NOW!

 

ShawChicago presents

Mid-Winter’s Tales 09

At the Ruth Page Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn)
Adapted and directed by Belinda Bremner

December 18th-21st (ticket info: 312-587-7390) 

By Katy Walsh

Before the age of electronic entertainment, communities gathered around the fireplace to tell stories. With the wind howling outside and increased hours of darkness, families told tales to amuse themselves and brighten the long nights of winter. ShawChicago presents Mid-Winter’s Tales 09, a collection of multi-generational stories and songs. Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 mixes it up with a variety of author samplings from a W.B. Yeats’ poem followed by a column snippet from Chicago’s own Mike Royko to, of course, words of wisdom from George Bernard Shaw. Although the show celebrates the winter solstice with cultural representation leaning in an English direction, it balances out the traditional Christmas fruitcake focus with a double helping of lakes (pronounced la keys).

With the aid of DVDs to set the holiday mood, I’ve memorized many lines from the retelling of stories, like; “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “Christmas in Connecticut.” To my delight, Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 shares an unfamiliar collection of holiday stories. “The Wise Men of Chelm and the Miracle Lakes” is a stone soup rofendition about potato pancakes entertainingly led by ensemble member John Francisco. Mary Michell is hilarious in corresponding with her true love and his clever gift-giving in “Not Another Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Living in the generation of holiday gluttony, the moments that melt icicle-hearts are the recalling of children’s holidays in “Hilda Sutt Polchek Remembers Christmas at the Hull House” and “Scarlett Ribbons.

Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 is performed on a bare stage with guitar (Rachel Schiff) and violin (Blake Hackler) accompaniment. This strings-only music adds an undertone of sad winter quiet – that at times the amplified music competes with the non-miked cast. The actors are a talented band of storytellers. In the dreary winter evening, without a Christmas tree and a menorah to look at, the audience focuses on the actors’ facial expressions and their words. Spoiled lately from the grandeur of big musical productions, it’s hard to adjust to the sparse stage. Because Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 represents simpler times of storytelling, the plainness has an authentic and intimate quality.

Although an exploration of multi-religious representation of winter solstice could prove to be even more interesting, this 2009 focus on Jewish folklore promotes both understanding of its traditions and strong cravings for lakes (even though and I don’t like potatoes!).

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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