REVIEW: The Water Engine: An American Fable (Theatre 7)

  
  

Suspenseful Mamet play recalls 1930s Chicago

 
 

Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven

   
Theatre Seven presents
 
The Water Engine: An American Fable
   
By David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $12–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Set in Chicago in 1934, David Mamet’s rarely mounted 1977 drama, The Water Engine: An American Fable, currently in a beautifully nuanced production by Theatre Seven, takes us back in time to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Charles Lang, a punch-press operator in a factory by day, dreamy inventor by night, has created an engine that runs on pure water. He dreams it will put an end to factories and bring him a peaceful life in the country with his unworldly sister.

Brett Lee in Water Engine - Theatre SevenChicago history buffs, alternate-history fans and anyone who enjoys great, intimate theater should take this show in. While it’s set too late to be steampunk, this arguably science-fictional play has a similar feel. Brenda Windstead’s 1930s costumes and John Wilson’s sound-stage set transport us to another time, one that almost-but-not-quite existed.

But "autres temps, autres moeurs" does not apply here. In fact, it’s business very much as usual. In his effort to patent his invention, Lang runs afoul of a scheming shyster who tries to sell him and his creation into nefarious corporate hands. I don’t doubt that many would-be world-shaking discoveries meet similar fates today.

Although the plot is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and Mamet brings in all sorts of fascinating sidelines, such as a recurring theme about a chain letter, period-style advertising and the world’s fair itself. The action cris-crosses Chicago, from the fairgrounds to still-extant spots such as the Aragon Ballroom and Bughouse Square.

Mamet originally wrote this short script, which runs about 80 minutes without intermission, as a radio play, and Director Brian Golden’s exciting staging effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways. His cast includes Theatre Seven company members Dan McArdle, Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and George Zerante, as well as Brett Lee, Lindsey Pearlman, Cody Proctor, Alina Tabor, Jessica Thigpen and Travis Williams.

Charles Lang in Water Engine - Theatre SevenEach cast member plays multiple roles in this play within a radio play. In fact, the 10 cast members portray over 40 parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the radio play and random Chicagoans in wonderful character sketches.

In the longest role, Proctor plays Lang with well-executed, nervous nerdiness. Zerante smarms as the crooked lawyer, and Williams menaces as the corporation muscle. Pearlman delightfully segues from refined actress to ranging street-corner orator to gruff storekeeper. Newcomer Tabor adds wide-eyed youthful charm.

The whole ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine.

 
   
Rating: ★★★★   
   
   

Cassy Sanders, Travis Williams, Jessica Thigpen, Brian Stojak, Lindsey Pearlman

All photos by Heather Stumpf

 

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Mimesophobia (Theatre Seven)

One of the most refreshing plays to land this season

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Theatre Seven presents:

 

Mimesophobia

Written by Carlos Murillo
Directed by Margot Bordelon
At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue,
through April 4th (more info)

By Oliver Sava

I knew Mimesophobia was going to be Brechtian when I saw the costume rack on stage. Underneath the hanging clothes? A shelf of props. Double Brecht. No actors, no dialogue, and it is obvious who is running the show: everyone’s favorite pioneer of epic theatre, Bertolt Brecht. My suspicions are confirmed when the two narrators take the stage, Man-Who-Speaks-Omniscient-Between-the-2nd-and-3rd-Person-a.k.a. Brian (Brian Golden) and Woman-Who-Speaks-in-the-2nd-Person-Omniscient-a.k.a. Jessica (Jessica Thigpen). With the articulation of newscasters, the duo introduces us to the world of the play, continuously reminding us that what we are seeing is, without a doubt, a staged retelling.

T7_Mimesophobia_07 Suddenly the empty stage is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where two young screenwriters are premiering their new film about the murder-suicide of a New England couple. Henry (Michael Salinas) and Aaron (Brian Stojak) break down the final scene of Before and After frame by frame – don’t forget, this is a retelling – and questions begin forming. Who died? How? And who is this woman going on The Charlie Rose Show and why is this elderly Hyde Park couple terrified of her? These questions will be answered by the end, but more will be left unanswered.

Mimesophobia juggles three storylines, each informing the others but also doubting them. Truth is relative. Cassy (Cassy Sanders), the sister of the murdered woman, tries to understand the events that lead to the killing by reconstructing her sister’s journals, burned on the night she was killed. At an artist’s colony, Henry and Aaron are working on a first draft of Before and After, but struggling with a bad case of writer’s block. Shawn (Cyd Blakewell) is the rambling genius writing One Night Only: Actual Death and the Future of American Entertainment, a nonfiction novel about cultural fascination with the recreation of deadly situations. Stuck on the middle chapter – “the cat burglar’s pick that once turned will drop the tumblers in place opening a door” – she is also living on a cot at the artist’s colony, eating peanut butter tortillas and murmuring like a maniac.

After the Chinese Theater prologue, the history of Shawn and how she crosses paths with Henry and Aaron. The script is clever, the narrators are beginning to have a little more fun – Jessica is playing Beth, Shawn’s mother – and Blakewell delivers each line in a detached monotone that is creepy as hell. Brecht rears his adorable little head with costume changes on stage and actors as set crew, but it works with the play’s theme that entertainment survives by fictionalizing fact. Theater is inherently a lie, but it is the collective experience of the audience seeing a story together that creates truth by asking the viewer to question what they think they know. The play has us asking questions and thinking about the bigger ideas, but is there a human connection? Is this a seriocomic experiment in dialectical metatheatre or will this story resonate on a deeper emotional level?

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Enter Cassy, the character most impacted by the central tragedy of the plot and our anchor to the truth. Sanders bring vulnerability to the production, her quivering voice and small frame a sharp contrast to the crisp confidence of the other performers, and her scenes are the most visceral of the production. As she uncovers hidden facts about her sister and her troubled marriage, Cassy begins to question her own relationship with the deceased.

The pieces are all in place, now the puzzle building begins, with Murillo’s script layering events to build suspense. Revelations that Cassy finds in her sisters journals provide major breakthroughs in the plot, which are then explored through the creative lens of Henry and Aaron. How Shawn fits into the narrative is the biggest mystery, and Blakewell offers few clues to her enigmatic character’s intentions, a captivating cipher.

Seeing these pieces come together is the fun of Mimesophobia, so the less you know, the better. Margot Bordelon’s direction moves the production at a quick pace that doesn’t sacrifice emotion, and the actors have a firm handle on Carlos Murillo’s stylized dialogue and the relationships, especially Cassy’s with her dead sister. Funny, provocative, and poignant, Theatre Seven’s Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company, and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.

 

Rating: ★★★★

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Review: Theatre Seven’s “Cooperstown”

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Theatre Seven presents:

Cooperstown

by Brian Golden
directed by Brian Stojak
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Intertwined aspects of race, love and Civil Rights have been examined ad infinitum in many a previous drama. But with Cooperstown, playwright Brian Golden brings an original perspective to such well-trod topics. The times they are a changin’ in this 1962-set drama. Golden frames those remarkable changes within the context of something altogether ordinary, a Cooperstown diner. Here, as employees toil for a minimal $1.40 an hour, a monumental combination of baseball, racism, social unrest and the arrival of Jackie Robinson collide during one flashpoint weekend.

Cooperstown-9 It’s the basis for a wonderful story and as directed with understated nuance by Brian Stojak, it’s told well on the whole. There’s a refreshing lack of anguished over-emoting by the able cast, even when (especially when) events take on painful, life-changing significance. That’s the upside. The downside goes to the nitty-gritty of Golden’s script. The overall story has terrific potential. Its particulars are pocked with nagging holes and improbabilities that erode its basis in truth.

The first of these is snags apparent almost immediately, as Junior (Cecil Burroughs), the diner’s black supervisor, labors over a notebook. This “report,” Junior insists, is the key to a better life, as it is certain to get him a promotion from white diner owner Jimmy Fletcher. Never mind that Fletcher hasn’t set foot in the restaurant in years – Junior speaks of the notebook as if it possessed magic. It will, he asserts, secure him the title of manager, a pay raise and better working conditions all around. Burroughs plays Junior as a man of intelligence and depth; it simply doesn’t ring true that this character would so naively believe his situation would instantly improve simply by presenting a worn ledger full of hand-written notes to a boss he hasn’t even seen in years. The more Junior talks about how his battered notebook is going to change everything, the more artificial Cooperstown sounds.

There’s a parallel contrivance and lack of specificity with several other plot elements. A photo-op with Jackie Robinson in the diner is somehow directly connected to Governor Rockefeller’s patronage plans. A black protest group defined by the letter “S” (underscored and never explained) decides that “taking down” the diner will achieve…well precisely what it will achieve is as muddled as the link between Robinson’s meal there and the Governor’s job appointments. Finally, there’s a scene late in the story that requires immediate action (to say more would reveal spoilers) by Junior and the staff. But instead of tending to the crisis at hand, all and sundry stand around talking for a prolonged period. Emotional exposition trumps situational veracity.

A different but equally vexing problem is apparent in the all-important, star-crossed love story between Junior and Fletcher’s wife, Grace (Emjoy Gavino.) Despite otherwise fine performances by Burroughs and Gavino, they have no chemistry between them.

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Far believable is the sweet romance between waitress and baseball stat savant Dylan (Tracey Kaplan, sometimes truly difficult to understand thanks to her machine-gun speed speech) and Huck (Chance Bone), a plain-spoken out-of-towner with a similar passion for America’s Pastime. It’s a lovely subplot, although it wouldn’t hurt to tone down Dylan’s tomboy streak a tad – when she becomes almost physically ill after kissing Huck, she seems more like a prepubescent girl than a young woman.

Golden’s got hold of the core of an engaging, important story. It’s got a fine setting in Michelle N. Warner’s believably lived in, detailed diner. Would that the details were more rooted in probability.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Cooperstown continues through Dec. 20 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Tickets are $18 general admission, $14 students, seniors and industry. For more information go to www.theatreseven.org or call 773/404-7336.