REVIEW: Living Newspapers Festival (Jackalope Theatre)

A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie

 Living Newspapers - John Milewshi - phot by Ryan Bourque

Jackalope Theatre and Silent Theatre Company presents:

Living Newspapers Festival

Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Living Newspapers - AJ Ware - photo by Ryan Bourque So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.

Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.

Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.

The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.

There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.

Living Newspapers - Eric Prather - photo by Ryan Bourque The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.

The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.

 

Rating: ★★★

living-newspaper-poster

Review: Jackalope Theatre’s “Moonshiner”

Jackalope Theatre Sets the Right Period Mood for Moonshiner

Moonshiner

Jackalope Theatre presents

Moonshiner
by Andrew Burden Swanson
directed by Gus Menary
thru Saturday, August 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Moonshiner, a world premiere play by breakout playwright Andrew Burden Swanson, has a lot going for it. Under the direction of Gus Menary, its talented cast invests its characters with all the heft and vitality needed to steer what could have been a thoroughly maudlin work toward deeper grounding in American realism. Swanson’s strengths as a young playwright demonstrate the capacity to maintain a strong dramatic arc that builds tension and suspense without sacrificing character development. But perhaps the most inspired choice by Jackalope Theatre Company in setting the play was selecting the EP Theatre space (map) for its second full-length production.

Moonshiner Everything at the EP space contributes to the production’s Prohibition Era atmosphere–from its pressed tin ceiling to the smell of wood to its molded, movie palace faces and, finally, to its lack of air conditioning. So wear light, comfortable clothing, and be ready to fan yourself like a Southern lady, because there is more than enough here to transport an audience back to rural 1930s Tennessee. Special mention goes to sound designer Justin Cyrul for creating the perfect music to sustain the mood.

Carl (Chris Chmelik) and Isaac (Jeremy Khan) are two cousins just getting by in the Depression on Carl’s clandestine rum running and Isaac’s ownership of the house that they live in together. But conflicting forces conspire to tear apart what little they have of family life.

The mercenary Mrs. Cartwright (Patti Roeder) has her eye on Isaac’s property and may think him an easy mark because of his blindness. Her niece Constance (Caroline Neff) spares nothing in warning Isaac of her aunt’s true intentions and Isaac’s blindness merely covers a deeper innate gift all his own. Meanwhile, Carl’s illegal activities meet further complications upon the revelation that the sheriff’s daughter has gone missing.

Menary does a great job enjoining his cast to keep it real. Some of the roles in Swanson’s work are stock Southern characters dangerously bordering on stereotype. So we have Forsythe (James Erico) and Gabbleman (Jim Elder) as the polite, but corrupt and menacing, sheriff’s deputies; Virgil (Wes Perry) as a bit of a Bubba, and Mrs. Cartwright as the typical, hypocritical church lady. What prevents the play from becoming trite is both the direction and the psychological pithiness and humor of Swanson’s dialogue. He shows that he can write characters that go against the predictable grain with Carl’s moonshiner boss, Dwayne (Bill Hyland), and the feisty, independent niece, Constance. The role of Isaac could have devolved into stereotype, but is spared that by an intelligent, deeply humanizing performance by Khan.

But Carl may be the masterpiece of characterization in the play and Chmelik portrays his erotic, troubled, and mercurial nature right up to its suspenseful end. Here is where all the efforts to manifest a cohesive, realist, ensemble work pay off and the entire cast and crew can take pride in their achievement. The only thing lacking over all may be in pacing. The slower lifestyle of the rural South shouldn’t be replicated in dramatic time on the stage.

With action sequences that include fights (fight choreography by Ryan Bourque) and gunfire, you’ve got a play that could very well translate to film. But I hope Swanson keeps his talent in Chicago just a little longer. I also hope Jackalope Theatre’s career is a long one, especially if it keeps producing original works like this one that are “deeply rooted in the American mythos.”

Rating: «««½