REVIEW: Beautiful City (Theatre Mir)

Solid cast punctuates this urban fairytale

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Theatre Mir presents

Beautiful City

 

Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Rob Chambers
At Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph,
thru April 3rd
(more info)

By Katy Walsh

“Make no little plans” is a phrase coined by Chicago’s infamous urban planner, Daniel Burnham. In Theatre Mir’s play Beautiful City, lead character Tony Raft embraces this philosophy despite opposition from his architect, a witch and the mob.  Performed at the Storefront Theatre in conjunction with DCA Theatre and the Beautiful_City10Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Beautiful City is the story of each person’s quest to get what they want by overcoming ‘the simple ugly truth.’ Tony wants a grandiose shopping mall. His mobster mama wants more money. His architect wants to be healed. The witch wants urban renewal and the freedom to dig through garbage. Beautiful City interconnects three families in an urban fairy tale of betrayal, greed and redemption.

The entire cast has been solidly constructed. Here are some of the pillar performances: Yosh Hayashi (Tony Raft) impresses with his vigorous audacity over a shopping mall obsession. Splendidly rotten in Steep Theatre’s Hollowlands, Hayashi exploits the humor in his every diabolical depiction. It’s Gilbert Gottfried as Hannibal Lector. Walking up and down stairs in 3 inch heels, Rachel Slavick (Mary Raft) is tough. Except for a wonderful salad thrashing scene, Slavick plays it stone faced cold. Mira Vasiljevic (Gina Mae Sabatini) contorts her look with an ongoing skunk face in her portrayal of the witch. Physically and vocally, Vasiljevic showcases her character as a bizarre source of life’s truth. She’s hilarious! C. Sean Piereman (Paul Gallagher) is the one to be rescued in this modern day fable. In the first few scenes, Piereman’s pain is so uncomfortably real, one feels the need to call 911. Other high energy moments of dramedy are Jeremy Kahn (Stevie Moore) as a fast-talking punk, Kristen Secrist (Jane Sabatini) as a wacky hospital volunteer, Kurt Brocker (Rolly Moore) as a desperate thug and Megan Kohl (Dian Black) as the confident gum -chewing cop. It is stellar acting wrapped up in Whitney McBride’s character-perfected costumes.

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Director Rob Chambers maximizes the physical space and the script to establish the framework of this adult fairy tale. Chambers is working from the foundation laid by playwright George F. Walker. Walker illustrates the issues of gentrification with an entertaining myth of mobsters verses witches. The parts are there for a solid built fortress. To nail it, Walker needs to sand it down for refinement. Some of the scenes are longer than necessary. In particular, a pivotal end scene is overly explanatory. This technique feels Hollywood-esque in “dumbing it down for the mainstream.” There are also some transitional moments of clunkiness, like, the scene where Paul is in the witch’s store. When did he decide to seek her out? It’s like realizing you are already in a room when you thought you were walking down a corridor. Walker’s blueprint needs a hallway connecting smaller rooms to more effectively imagine city dwelling. Nonetheless, even without a script renovation, Mir Theatre’s Beautiful City is an entertaining lesson of urban renewal for the entire community.

Making his own contribution to our city landscape, Frank Lloyd Wright says, “eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful city left in the world.” Right with you, Frank!

Rating: ★★★

 

Post-show Discussions

  • Thursday, March 11, with cast and director Rob Chambers
  • Saturday, March 20, with Dr. Michael Bennett, executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center
  • Friday, March 26, with Al Gini, contributor at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and professor of philosophy and business ethics at Loyola University, Chicago

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REVIEW: Orange Flower Water (BackStage Theatre)

Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma

Orange Flower Water (4 of 7)

BackStage Theatre Company presents:

Orange Flower Water

 

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Chopin Studio Theatre thru March 27th (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.

Orange Flower Water (2 of 7)Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.

Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.

The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.

Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.

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The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.

The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.

The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.

Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Orange Flower Water (6 of 7)

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REVIEW: Mrs. Caliban (Lifeline Theatre)

Forbidden love and the rebirth of spirit

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Mrs. Caliban

Based on the novel by Rachel Ingalls
Adapted for the stage by Frances Limoncelli
directed by Ann Boyd
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Magical Realism, the melding of fable with cold hard reality, is a term not often heard in mainstream American culture. Fortunately. we find magical realism beautifully rendered in Lifeline Theatre new production of Mrs. Caliban.

MrsCaliban1_web As the play opens, the Calibans go through a stultifying ritual of getting on with the day. Fred communicates with wife Dorothy by checklist. There are no loving words or affectionate pecks on the cheek. Fred can barely look Dorothy in the eye as he stumbles over the worn excuse for those working late –  “I’ll call” – before walking out the door. Dorothy seems to inhale the indifference as she closes the door and forges ahead with her household tasks, habitually turning on the radio; losing herself in the world of music, news and the American “fables” called commercials.

A chirpy announcer is heard extolling the virtues of dishwashing liquid and reasoning that a hot TV dinner can corral a straying husband. Dorothy loses herself in the music and mocks the commercials with interpretive dance. (Brenda Barrie , playing the role of Dorothy, is an ethereal delight to watch – exuding a sprite-like joy and wonder in the character.) Dorothy has lost most of the joy in her waking life and her surroundings are stark and white. Matching the minimalistic set-design, she dresses in varying hues of beige – literally fading into the background. Mrs. Caliban’s only human contact involves forays to the supermarket and coffee with her friend Estelle.

Estelle is literally a siren in red, played by Jenifer Tyler. A divorcee who extols the joys of promiscuity and drinking too much coffee, Tyler gives an edgy performance as a woman who tries to make her fantasies come true through promiscuity and betrayal. What could easily have been a scenery-chewing role, the character of Estelle – as honed by Ms. Tyler – is instead shaded with beauty and vulnerability. Her actions are reprehensible but grounded in insecurity and wanting to be loved.

But this life of ritual and fantasy is starkly interrupted by the appearance of an escaped monster. With menacing tones, the media calls the monster Aquarius Man; warning that he dismembers his victims. The monster appears in Dorothy’s kitchen while she prepares a meal for Fred and his business client. He is a hulking creature played with a man-child flourish by Peter Greenburg. He takes in the scenery and the character of Dorothy with animal senses. Greenburg projects the feeling that all of his senses are heightened, absorbing and then becoming his surroundings as he takes everything in with astonished wonder. The monster’s chemistry with Dorothy is instant and believable.

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There is a lovely comic rapport established between Dorothy and Aquarius Man. She feeds him vegetables and discovers that his name is Larry. The monster speaks tentatively, literally a foreigner learning a new language. Greenberg uses this technique to such skill that it adds hilarity when he tells Dorothy his real name or when he recoils from alleged vegetarian cornflakes and prefers the taste of the box.

Aquarius Man Larry is the antithesis of husband Fred, played by Dan Granata. Fred has become accustomed to ignoring his wife as anything other than someone to go over the checklist as he exits the house. He has long exited her heart or had any intimacy with Dorothy. Mr. Granata imbues his performance with sadness and guilt. Fred is a philanderer and doesn’t have the capability to connect with anything or anyone. Dorothy knows that Fred is cheating but begins to not to care as her relationship with Larry becomes intimate and then erotic. She listens to him and asks about the world of which he longs to return. He listens to her about the loss of her children and then her marriage.

There is a surprising erotic intensity between Larry and Dorothy. The erotic history of the monster and the damsel in distress goes far back in theatre and literature. Dracula and Mina Harker, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, or the Wolf Man and the Gypsy Girl are but a few examples (not to mention pop culture’s “Beauty and the Beast” or “Shrek”). Larry and Dorothy never actually kiss but rather consume each other through their senses of touch and smell. She caresses his odd green skin and seems to become consumed by the tactile sensation.

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This is so much more than a story of interspecies mating. It is a fable of redemption, fate, acceptance, and forgiveness by becoming of love more than in love. Larry is brutally honest with Dorothy about his life and his origins. When he commits what is considered a horrific crime in self-defense, Dorothy is called upon to face her perception of wrong and right. Is it harder to defend Larry because she knows one of the alleged victims? Will she still stand by him and help him get to his native home?These wonderful actors make the questions more than simple romantic flights of fancy.

Special attention must be given to Monica Dionysiou who plays three supporting roles as Estelle’s out of control adolescent daughter Sandra, a pushy saleswoman, and is scary funny as the Supermarket Cheese Majorette. It is a surreal experience that will make you look askance at the sample lady at the market.

Mrs. Caliban” is adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the novel by Rachel Ingalls and directed by Ann Boyd. Ms. Boyd does an exemplary job of bringing archetype and fable into the realm of reality, creating a production void of flat moments or missed beats,.

Brandon Wardell’s lighting add beauty to the action, creating a chiaroscuro effect that enhance the actors without the use of physical props. The silhouette of Larry as he feeds from the energy of the sea was touching and more so when Dorothy becomes one with the sea as well.

“Mrs. Caliban” is an ensemble piece at its best. It is a great theatre experience that leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. I was left wondering about my own fears and presumptions about other beings. Also, it’s a sly and funny indictment of our advertisement-drenched sensibilities. It’s possible that we have all had moments when the box would have tasted better than the contents but let ourselves be deluded into what is supposed to be good or look good by 30 second blurbs.

Take 90 minutes and get a better look at the Lifeline Theatre’s highly-recommended production.

Rating: ★★★★

“Mrs. Caliban” is at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. It is accessible by CTA and there is ample parking at the NE corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free shuttle service before and after the show. The play runs Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00PM, and Sundays at 4:00PM, through March 28th. Contact Lifeline at 773-761-4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com

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REVIEW: Harper Regan (Steep Theatre)

Kendra Thulin shines in U.S. premiere

Harper 3 

Steep Theatre Company presents:

Harper Regan

 

By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Through Feb. 27 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

My long-suffering husband, whose theatrical taste runs to comedies and musicals, tends to react to the odder dramas I drag him to with a question, "Why did they produce this play?"

I can’t answer on behalf of Steep Theatre Company, whose U.S. premiere of the quirky, dysfunctional-family drama Harper Regan is one of a raft of British plays in Chicago this season, but I can make some guesses. One is that Simon Stephens is one of England’s hottest playwrights, and the chance to introduce one of his newer works — "Harper Regan" premiered in 2008 at London’s National Theatre — had to be very Harper 1tempting. Another is that it has three very juicy roles for women and a lot of other parts that could be doled out to ensemble members. (Having grown accustomed to the shrunken casts of these straitened times, it’s refreshing to see a different actor for every part in a play, though several male roles might easily have been doubled.)

Exquisitely acted and painstakingly directed as it is, however, Harper Regan may be more satisfying for its cast than for audiences. The plot follows the breaking up or breaking out, depending on how you look at it, of Harper Regan, 40-ish, middle-class and troubled. Her father is dying, her boss is a creep, she hates her job, her husband’s out of work, she’s not getting along with her 17-year-old daughter, they had to move from her northern England hometown to unfamiliar suburban London, she’s not speaking to her mother, and she is deeply insecure.

In an exceptional performance in the title role, Kendra Thulin shows us Harper’s discomfort and self-doubt in every line of her body, cringing and hesitating as, having asked her supercilious employer (Alex Gillmor) for time off to visit her ailing father, she listens to his hectoring refusal. Later, apologizing to her daughter for some sharp words, she says, "I’m so weird, aren’t I?"

Harper 2Caroline Neff is intense and believable as Harper’s nerdy, conflicted daughter, more comfortable with her iPod than her mother. Chelsea Warren’s costumes, notably for Harper and her daughter and mother, show a fine attention to detail.

Act I lags somewhat as the initial facts of Harper’s life slowly emerge, mostly in talky monologues and peculiar conversations she has with unsettling strangers. At last, she leaves home, not telling anyone she’s going. In Act II, we get more disturbing revelations: Why her husband can’t find work. Why they had to move. Why Harper and her mum are at odds. And, most importantly, we see that Harper is even weirder and more unstable than she seems.

Melissa Reimer puts in a strong performance as Harper’s estranged mother. Peter Moore performs sensitively as her down-and-out husband. Curtis M. Jackson is realistic as a teenager she meets near home, while Dan Flannery seems stiff as an older man she encounters during her time away. Julia Siple, Jonathan Edwards, Brendan Melanson and Adam El-Sharkawi fill out the cast.

Marcus Stephens’ stark, leaf-strewn concrete set echoes the harshness of Harper’s world, yet seems inappropriate for many of the indoor scenes, among many off-kilter aspects of this unlikely psychodrama.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Notes: Adult language and themes.  All photos by Lee Miller

WITH ENSEMBLE MEMBERS Jonathan Edwards, Alex Gillmor, Brendan Melanson, Peter Moore, Caroline Neff, Melissa Riemer and Julia Siple
AND Adam El-Sharkawi, Dan Flannery, Curtis Jackson and Kendra Thulin
PRODUCTION MANAGER Julia Siple* STAGE MANAGER Jon Ravenscroft SCENIC DESIGN Marcus Stephens LIGHTING DESIGN Brandon Wardell COSTUME DESIGN Chelsea Warren COSTUME ASST Gwen Smuda SOUND DESIGN Matthew Chapman PROPS DESIGN Jesse Gaffney DIALECT COACH Eva Brenneman DRAMATURG Gemma Hobbs            *denotes company member

Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

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Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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