Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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REVIEW: The Infernal Machine (InnateVolution Theater)

     
     

An old tale gets an updated retelling

 

Infernal Machine logo

   
InnateVolution Theater presents
   
The Infernal Machine
   
Written by Jean Cocteau
Directed by Dr. Beverle Bloch & Raymond K Cleveland
at
The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you’ll notice about InnateVolution Theater ProductionsThe Infernal Machine is the venue. The play occupies an unorthodox space, a gay bar specifically. A ring of chairs lines what is normally used as a dance floor while sparkly music videos of disco divas blast on monitors, serving as a strange sort of pre-show.

I’m a firm believer that environment plays a significant role in the theatrical production. And I usually love novel settings. But the choice to perform Jean Cocteau‘s surrealist take on Oedipus in a gay bar where patrons at times spoke over the performers during the first act seemed like a bit of a mistake. Admittedly, by the end of the play, the ambient chatter had quieted down, but it was always a presence and always served as a distraction, even when the actors delivered some pretty strong performances.

But the bar did have a large screen, which was obviously a necessary technical requirement for this play, written by a man known for his offbeat film work. And although I would have liked to have seen more intermingling between the live action of the play and the minimal action that takes place on the screen, the use of visual projections does help establish setting, given the production’s minimal props on stage.

The play itself is a fairly ancient story. It’s the tale of Oedipus, the young man whose future is foretold to be a great tragedy. He’ll one day murder his father and marry his mom. It’s a tale of tragic destiny and the futility of trying to avoid our predetermined futures. It’s also a tale of humility, as Oedipus slowly realizes that even he, conqueror of the Sphinx, is subject to the same rules that dictate all of mankind.

This is my first time to see Cocteau’s version, and from what I gather, it’s basically the same as the original tale minus the ornate poetry of Grecian writing. The language is contemporary; the characters resemble modern-day archetypes. The story is still set back in ancient times, but the characters possess an attitude that make them more relatable to those who live in the here-and-now. Take for example Queen Jocasta (Erin Cline). She’s a drama queen and a half, vamping for the audience and overreacting every time someone steps on her scarf. Cline does a brilliant job bringing this diva to life, making her a very engaging character to watch.

Another wonderful character, and a great comic relief, is the wise old adviser Tiresias (Arne Saupe). Saupe brings to Tiresias a clever sensibility and vaudevillian comedic timing. After all, the old man is blind, which lends itself to a lot of ironic sight gags, and Saupe uses this to full effect.

Much of the rest of the acting is uneven. Experience level seems to vary widely from performer to performer, which serves as a distraction when a scene lags because of one character. At times, the play verges on high school pageantry.

Still, this is a small production by a small theatre company, and overall it is an entertaining show. If you don’t mind a bit of background noise while watching a play, InnateVolution’s The Infernal Machine is a fun night out.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Performances run November 5 – 21, 2010 at The Call (1547 W Bryn Mawr Ave)
in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago..  Regular performances are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  Tickets are $20 and include 1 well liquor, house wine, or Miller drinks.

   
   

 

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