Review: Bury the Dead (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Promethean Ensemble misfires in play about war

  
  

Quinn White, Carl Lindberg, Jared Fernley, Joel Kim Booster, Brian Pastor, Dylan Stuckey - Promethean Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead'

  
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Bury the Dead
  
Wirtten by Irwin Shaw
Directed by Beth Wolf
at The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
thru May 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

When Irwin Shaw penned Bury the Dead in 1936, World War I was still lodged like an artillery shell in the American psyche. An astounding nine million combatants lost their lives fighting in the trenches of Europe in what would be the last war largely fought on foot. At the time, no one could conceive that greater methods of mass destruction were on the horizon and that more death lie in waiting.

Brit Cooper Robinson and Joel Kim Booster. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.Although the play is not specifically about any war (according to the script, it is about a fictitious war that has not yet been fought), it is about the massive human toll that war takes and the desire for a society to forget the dead in an effort to pacify the psychic pain. This phenomenon that certainly existed post-World War I remains today. But today’s wars are oranges compared to yesterday’s apple battles. As societies have bled over borders and become global communities and mass communication is a "Like" button away, the dynamics of war that Shaw highlights do not stand the test of time. Vastly enhanced mobility and weapons technology have drastically reduced the number of causalities. Although military deaths are still a topic for discussion, personal freedoms, religious zealotry, resource acquisition, financial costs and nation building are the predominant concerns of today.

This is unfortunate considering the Promethean Theatre Ensemble decided to take the script, virtually untouched, and plop it into the present world (or more accurately 2013). What results is one of the most hilariously ill-conceived updated period pieces I have ever seen. Just take the opening scene. Two soldiers, presumably in either Iraq or Afghanistan, are shoveling sand graves for their fallen comrades as their sergeant stands watch. They begin smart-talking to each other, commenting on the smell of the bodies and the exhaustion felt from physical labor. But instead of speaking in the contemporary vernacular, the two soldiers sport hilariously anachronistic Brooklyn accents and use such words as "gyped" and "stiff." This would be fine if we were observing a couple of wise guys hanging out at the Black and Tan in 1930, but it’s just blatantly bizarre for 21st-century soldiers.

Besides the dialogue, which is only made more cringe-worthy by the scenery-chewing cast, the artistry of the story is non-existent. David Mamet has written that any play that serves to grandstand is not a play worth producing. Shaw’s play is one giant anti-war polemic. There is no devil’s advocate, no counter view that is meant to challenge our own preconceived notions of war. It is just a long diatribe that preaches to the choir. And today’s choir is too intelligent for this kind of preachy pandering. Challenge us. Make us question our views. The last thing an audience wants to do is wallow in the sense that we were right all along. When a soldier ruminates that "Kids shouldn’t be dead," you can just feel the audience collectively shouting "Duh!"

     
Shawna Tucker and Quinn White in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead' by Irwin Shaw. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography. "Bury the Dead" Cast in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's Irwin Shaw play. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.

The play is about seven dead soldiers who choose to stand in defiance and refuse to be buried and forgotten. In the second act, the military—in a remarkably chauvinistic move—contacts the soldier’s wives, mothers and sisters to coax them into the grave. What follows is a series of two-person scenes with more wistful gazing and maudlin emoting than a Lifetime movie. If you’re a fan of repetitious dialogue (e.g., "Let me see your face. Just let me see your face!"), be prepared to get your fill.

With Bury the Dead, Promethean Theatre has produced the equivalent of taking “Gone with the Wind” and setting it in China. This confusing and poorly thought out concept is further harmed by uneven performances and heavy-handed direction. Yes, the script certainly has its flaws, but with some clever updates, it could still have made for an entertaining watch. But save for a Katy Perry reference, the script seems strangely naive, turning what should be a tense drama into a bizarre farce.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Marco Minichiello and David Fink in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead' by Irwin Shaw. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.

Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s Bury the Dead, by Irwin Shaw, continues through May 21st at The Artistic Home, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased by phone (800-838-3006) or online. For more information, visit prometheantheatre.org.

All photos by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography, © 2011.

     

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Review: Volpone (City Lit Theater)

     
     

17th-century satire is sly like a fox

     
     

Don Bender and Eric Damon Smith in Volpone - City Lit Theater.  Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Volpone
   
Written by Ben Jonson
Music composed by Kingsley Day
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Volpone, or The Fox, was written by Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century in just five weeks. It was first performed by the King’s Men at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606. City Lit Theater’s production is the company’s fourth production of their 31st season.

Volpone tells the story of an old miser, Volpone (Don Bender) who, with his servant Mosca (Eric Damon Smith), fakes a deathly illness in order to convince a handful of wealthy men to shower him with expensive gifts after promising each that they are his sole heir. Bender fits into the part of Volpone like a glove. From his voice to his body language, Bender owns the part as well as the stage. Bender’s Volpone is slimy, greedy and everything you would hope to see from such a character. Likewise, Smith’s Mosca is simply entertaining as Volpone’s faithful servant. He plays up the character and is quite funny as he help to Don Bender as Volpone by Ben Jonson - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.work over the wealthy men as they arrive to pay tribute to the “dying” Volpone. Smith, like Bender, understands just want is required of the character, and Smith is both charming and persuasive as Mosca, like a good salesman who could convince anyone man to buy anything he was selling.

Written in the 1600s, Volpone is written in Early Modern English, but the cast does a wonderful job of making the script accessible to the audience. That being said, the script’s dense at times, and while the energy continues to run high through the performance, the action can seem to drag at times.

Occasionally, Volpone calls on his fool (Ben Chang), Castrone (David Fink) and Androgyno (Chris Pomeroy) to entertain him. Equipped with musical instruments, these three sing and play and are a joy. They never fail to get the audience laughing with the lightness and humor of their performances. They are not the best singers but that fact is pushed aside because they’re so enjoyable to watch on stage.

The men whom Volpone tricks are Corvino (Alex Shotts), Corbaccio (Larry Baldacci) and Voltore (Clay Sanderson). These three men deliver exact portrayals of rich and greedy men who think themselves quite clever when, in fact, there are gullible and easily duped. All three men do a fine job, but Shotts in particular as Corvino takes his character over-the-top, not in an obnoxious way, but in a way that works for a satire. He’s very funny in his characterization and his body language.

For the most part the staging is fine-tuned, although Laura Korn, who plays Corvino’s wife Celia, is stiff in her movements and does not completely commit to her actions.

The set, designed by William Anderson, is simple in its style and coloring. With an art deco style set in the 1920s, the palate is of muted colors like brown, beige, blue and black, and there’s not a lot of flair. The simplicity of the set design offers a nice backdrop for the crazy antics of the show and does not detract from the performance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
       

Patti Roeder and Don Bender in Volpone - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight. Eric Damon Smith (left) as Mosca and Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

Volpone plays at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, through February 27. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 773-293-3682 or visiting citylit.org.

All photos by Johnny Knight

  
  

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REVIEW: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (City Lit Theater)

 

The Bodiless Head That Wasn’t Dead

 

 Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

    
City Lit Theatre presents
   
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
   
Written by Stephen F. Murray and Brian Pastor
Based on
novel by Washington Irving
Directed by
Stephen Murray
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Halloween and harvest seem to go together. It’s as if, when the crops are in, the ghouls are out. The land lies fallow and that vacuum is filled by supernatural interlopers, encouraged by the lengthening nights and the coming cold. One of the most infamous is the Headless Horseman, a former Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannon ball, now gallops furiously at midnight, hurling it at unwary travelers and taking them back with him to the bowels of hell.

He’s the main menace in Washington Irving’s delightful fable, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” though a minor one is the thuggish Brom Bones, a bully who recalls the equally intimidating Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.” The story’s victim, of course, is the itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, an awkward booby and suspicious as the one scholar in this hamlet of Sleepy Hollow just outside Tarrytown. Poor gangly Ichabod seems even more ridiculous when he falls for the heiress Katrina Van Tussel, only to fall victim to both Bones and his horse Daredevil, as well as the fearsome Horseman. His undoing follows an ill-fated fall quilting bee that goes terribly wrong when Ichabod clumsily courts the cold Katrina (a name to reckon with). Riding his not so trusty speed Gunpowder, Ichabod is launched into a race from hell or to it, it isn’t quite clear.

This is the engaging plot of a Halloween classic that in a mere hour City Lit brings to full life with an impassioned solo performance by co-adaptor Brian Pastor. His accuracy in portraying these Dutch caricatures from New Amsterdam is matched by his ability to paint stirring word pictures of the haunted glens and ponds, especially as feared by the locals.

Matthew Bivins’ original folk score and the live Foley sound effects (as if for a radio broadcast) by Shawn Goudie add considerable texture to Pastor’s talespinning prowess. Props count a lot here, like a bowling ball suggesting the cannon ball that shortened the Hessian wraith, a doll house to suggest the Van Tussel’s gentry status, and percussive instruments to suggest the trotting, then galloping steeds.

It all makes for some potent storytelling: Pastor’s “pliable and persevering” Ichabod is a sad martyr, punished, it seems, for daring to marry above his station. If only he hadn’t closed to school early to go to this harvest dance and the horrors that happened…

The one problem with the text is that the adaptation declares that this is Irving’s most important story. Not true: That distinction clearly belongs to “Rip Van Winkle.”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

REVIEW: The Body Snatchers (City Lit Theater)

Pod people take over City Lit Theater!

 

CityLit-BodySnatchers_web 

 
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Body Snatchers
 
Adapted and directed by Paul Edwards
From the novel by
Jack Finney
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
[ Thru May 9 | tickets: $25 | more info ]

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

If the late-night creature feature is your idea of fun, you’ll love City Lit Theater’s clever and nostalgic version of The Body Snatchers.

Bringing science fiction to the stage often requires surmounting difficult problems of special effects. Creating futuristic worlds and horrifying aliens is a lot easier for moviemakers than it is for theater directors. Yet in this lively world-premiere staging, the horrors are all conveyed — wonderfully — by the actors, while the special effects evoke not the future, but the past.

bodysnatchers Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, which was in turn the basis for the seminal 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and remakes and sequels in 1978, 1993 and 2007, the production effectively uses video displays of the 1950s – the Atomic Age – to create mood, reminding us of the era, paying homage to the films and sometimes standing in for sets on the small and minimally furnished stage.

The original novel and the film were set in the 1950s simply because they were created in the ’50s. In 2010, however, that timing conveys a sense of solid normality, of a time of innocence and placidity against which the invasion of the emotionless vegetable people seems even more unspeakably alien than it would be amid the turmoil of our war-torn and politically weird 21st century. (Oddly, however, the adaptation dismisses the 1950s’ own political peculiarity, to which the original’s theme of infiltration partly alludes.)

In case you’ve somehow managed to miss all the versions of this eerie story, the plot follows the residents of a small Marin County, CA town who are gradually replaced by identical but impassive beings that grow in giant pods.

Brian Pastor plays Miles, the protagonist and narrator. A doctor, lately divorced, Miles is among the first to hear of the trouble when his old flame, the seductive Becky (Sheila Willis), also newly divorced, comes to him with her concerns over her cousin (Susie Griffith), who’s become convinced that their uncle isn’t really their uncle. Then more and more townspeople report such convictions about their relatives. Meanwhile, romance rekindles between Miles and Becky, though both are gun-shy.

CityLit-BodySnatchers_webAfter Miles’ frightened friends Jack and Theodora (Thad Anzur and Shawna Tucker) reveal a startling find in their basement, the foursome begins to tumble to the bizarre and terrifying truth, despite the glib efforts of Mannie (Jerry Bloom), a psychologist, to dismiss it all as mass hysteria, like the Mattoon Mania. No one’s immune, not even the police (Andrew Jorczak).

City Lit has loads of fun with this show, injecting humorous touches at every level, from the fake newspapers on the video screens to the twitching pod people to unexpected reactions on Miles’ asides to the audience. Pastor, with a keen sense of comic timing, takes the focus of the show, but fine performances feature throughout. The supporting characters — especially Bloom’s urbane Mannie, Kingsley Day’s creepy Uncle Ira and June Eubanks’ sly takes on two female roles — add subtlety and interest.

The whole cast follows ably along with Paul Edwards’ somewhat uneven script, lurching from the pure camp and shrill thrills of the B-movies to the novel’s reflective commentary on suburban married life — the point, of course, being that horrors don’t all come from outer space.

 
Rating: ★★★