Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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Review: Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…. (Halcyon Theatre)

     
     

Halcyon’s updated Greek tragedy’s as disjointed as its title

     
     

Adam Dodds and Christine Lin  in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell
  that Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable)
  
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by
Tony Adams
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru March 27  |  tickets: $18-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Modern playwrights know you can get a lot of mileage from shaking up the Greek classics. The themes thought up by Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are vibrant and the stakes are feverish. The drama is easy to understand; lives are on the line. Because of their conceptual enormity, they are easily tinkered with. Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis is one such classic, with a plot boiling down to a king sacrificing his daughter for good luck on the battlefield.

In our day, the ever-inventive Charles Mee and the ever-misanthropic Neil LaBute have all taken swings at Iphigenia. Caridad Svich’s 2004 technology-infused Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) is as disjointed as its title. Svich smashes together 21st Century political discourse, the club scene, and the horrendous violence committed by numerous Christine Lin with Derrick York onscreen in 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)' by Caridad Svich. Photo by Tom McGrath. Latin American dictators with the myth. There’s a lot to swallow. Agamemnon is a despot, Orestes is a crack-addicted baby, and Achilles is a sexually-ambiguous raver. Halcyon’s production, directed by artistic director Tony Adams, stumbles over the script’s weaknesses and the cast fails to fully embrace the material.

General Adolpho (Arch Harmon) is Svich’s envisioning of Agamemnon, but he isn’t planning to invade Troy. Instead, he seeks reelection, which may be hard considering his terrible human rights record. In order to get the people on his side, he hatches a plan to kill his daughter Iphigenia (Christine Lin) for sympathy points (although it’s never made clear why he doesn’t just rig the election—seemingly small potatoes for most dictators). Iphigenia flees to the outskirts of town, meeting several of her father’s victims on the way (including three female ghosts played by men). She also comes across Achilles (Adam Dodds), who always has chemicals in his bloodstream and melancholy in his mind. But, like in all the Classics, Iphigenia learns you just can’t beat fate.

Even though I’m no ecstasy expert, Halcyon’s production feels false. The ever-looping electronica (composed by Zebulun Barnow) never reaches the decibels needed. I wanted to feel the bass (although that would probably disrupt Infamous Commonwealth’s A Doll’s House going on down the hall). Svich’s dialogue seems to be penned by an outsider to the scene, especially in these actors’ mouths. The slang feels awkward and the cast seems uncomfortable (especially the drag queens in their heels). Most importantly, Lin and Dodds don’t reach the epic highs needed for Greek drama. Even though Svich’s scenes pull from a huge wardrobe of influences, she relies heavily on Euripedes’ sense of tragedy. Halcyon is unable to grab hold of that level of hubris.

     
Christine Lin and Derrick York onscreen in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable). Photo by Tom McGrath. Arch Harmon in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable), presented by Chicago's Halcyon Theatre. Photo by Tom McGrath.
Adam Dodds and Christine Lin in Halcyon Theatre's 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)'. Photo by Tom McGrath Derrick York in the forground and Arch Harmon on screen in "Iphigeni", produced by Halcyon Theatre in Chicago. Photo by Tom McGrath. Christine Lin  in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

To their credit, Adams and video designer Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson do a mostly fantastic job with integrating stage action and video. Steph Charaska’s set and Pete Dully’s lights make the world jump to life. And the cast captures Svich’s dark sense of humor, especially Rafael Franco, Derrick York, and Arvin Jalandoon as the ghosts. The run time is a little over an hour with no intermission, but the play has a kernel of the epic style of Homer. We watch a journey unfold on-stage, with lots of characters, motivations, and points of view.

In the end, the production takes itself too seriously. There are a lot of moments that feel as melodramatic as the angst-ridden tunes that fuel the play. In a bout of meta-theatricality, Iphigenia brings up the burden of playing a character bound by a plot, a very intriguing idea. But like most of the ideas in this Iphigenia, it’s tossed on a heap with all the others. Almost as if we participated in a bender, the audience leaves bewildered and confused.

  
  
Rating: ★★
       
  

Arvin Jalandoon, Derrick York Christine Lin and Rafael Franco in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia. Photo by Tom McGrath.

 

Artists

 

Cast: Adam Dodds (achilles), Rafael Franco (fresa girl 1), Arch Harmon (adolpho/general’s ass, soldier x), Erica Cruz Hernández (violeta imperial/hermaphrodite prince), Arvin Jalandoon (fresa girl 3), Christine Lin (iphigenia), Terri Lopez (camila), Miguel Nuñez (virtual mc), Derrick York (orestes/news anchor/virgin puta/fresa girl 2)

Production: Tony Adams (director), Steph Charaska (scenic design), Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson (video design), Annie Hu (animation design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Pete Dully (lighting design), Zebulun Barnow (sound design and music), Lee Strausberg (props design), Morgan Gire (stage manager), Tom McGrath (photography)

        
       

Review: Trap Door’s “12 Ophelias”

Begins brilliantly, but has incomplete finish

 header

Trap Door Theatre presents:

12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs

by Caridad Svich
directed by Kate Hendrickson
through October 31st (ticket info) 

 

   Ophelia: Do you think my heart is any lesser? 
 Gertrude: What do you mean? 
Ophelia: For being born.
 

 Kate Hendrickson’s direction pulls out all the stops for Trap Door Theatre’s current avant-garde production, 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs. Characters emerge from and descend into black pools, suggesting just how close oblivion always is. Projection screens made up of white petticoats hung on a line, when opheliataken down reveal an altogether different space. Musicians stationed in various locations suggest angels, as well as prostitutes, waiting their turn. Above all, rich poetic language and original songs create a potent atmosphere that may carry the production long past the point when characters’ psychological motivations fall short of the play’s premise.

After floating for centuries, Ophelia (Mildred Marie Langford) emerges in Appalachia, reborn from the water into a world in which Hamlet is now known as Rude Boy (Kevin Lucero Less); Gertrude (Joslyn Jones) runs a brothel; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, simply known as R (Jen Ellison) and G (Casey Chapman), are the brothel’s lackeys; and Horatio, now known as H (Noah Durham), spars with Rude Boy in daily camaraderie. It is a world in which Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet seem to have a second chance at love. But there are times when Caridad Svich’s reworking seems so far from the original, the two only connect superficially.

For one thing, Langford and Jones exude natural power in their acting. For another, their Ophelia and Gertrude, respectively, are not the weak, timid, easily manipulated women of Shakespeare’s work. As much as one appreciates the tremendous beauty in their strength, what should their characters’ former lives be to them or to us, if all resemblance breaks with the past? Svich’s Ophelia remembers her former life. “I left everyone unblessed,” she recalls of her suicide. Yet her ability to relish her robust sexual appetites and her outright pursuit of Rude Boy/Hamlet bear no relation to Shakespeare.

The only characters with any clear correspondence to their pasts are R and G, with memory so retained in their present consciousness, they recite Ophelia and Hamlet’s lines in parody before the newly reborn Ophelia. The commentary and interplay between R and G is probably the strongest feature of Svich’s work. Their foolery during the song “Lonesome Child,” which takes place opposite of Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet’s lovemaking, is delightfully inspired.

ophelia-4 ophelia-2 ophelia-5

Sadly, Rude Boy may be the most underdeveloped character of the play. The most layered, erudite, and mercurial protagonist in Shakespeare’s pantheon is reworked with utter and brutal reductionism here. Gone is the princely state and Renaissance learning—Svich’s Rude Boy/Hamlet is little more than a womanizing thug. His final battle with H is an indulgent act of self-immolation; his eventual rejection by Ophelia reduces him to a pathetic, slobbering mass. About their former romance, Ophelia dismisses him with, “You were just a rude boy.” It’s a line that utterly breaks with Shakespeare’s realized creation. This abridged Rude Boy/Hamlet stacks the deck and buys this Ophelia’s empowerment on the cheap.

Amidst lush poetry, it’s this dramatic shallowness that belies Svich’s shortcomings. At least in this work, Svich shows greater psychological depth in conveying the state of loss and brokenness, rather than any true hope of recovery from it. Even R and G’s repeated commentary, “The crushed come back—there is no mending here,” loses all dramatic tension to become disproved. Some may revel in that kind of pre-scripted fatalism, but others may wonder what spending 90 minutes with this work was all about, if there was never any hope for healing and love. In spite of the cast’s talents and imaginative direction, the audience may walk away feeling cheated.

Rating: ««½

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