Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: BRAINPEOPLE (UrbanTheater Company)

  
  

Examining the relationship of magic, passion and faith

  
  

Brain People - Urban Theatre 6

   
UrbanTheater Company presents
  
BRAINPEOPLE
 
Written by José Rivera
Directed by
Marti Lyons
at
Batey Urbano, 2620 W. Division (map)
through Dec. 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Before the lights went down for “Brainpeople” at the UrbanTheater Company (UTC), co-artistic director Madrid St. Angelo told the audience that we were in for some delicious language. This is an authentic description of Jose Rivera’s language and UTC’s spellbinding production. Writer José Rivera is possibly best known as the Brain People - Urban Theatre 9 screenwriter for “The Motorcycle Diaries”. He is also renowned in the theater world as a torchbearer for the Magical Realism genre. From the moment I walked in to Batey Urbano, I could feel the vibe that I remember so fondly from my days in Puerto Rico and not so fondly what I call post Catholic Terror Syndrome.

The set is a carnival of crucifixion imagery, dark wood, and reds to reflect the fires and riots in a not too distant future Los Angeles. It is an unsettling mixture of the surreal and the sublime done to perfection by scenic designer Jorge Felix. There is a muscular image of Jesus tethered to a tree dying or resurrecting in religious ecstasy. Along side this is a grotesque post-mortem painted in icy shades of blue.

Marilyn Camacho plays the mysterious and enticing hostess named Mayannah who once a year invites two strangers to dine with her. Amanda Powell plays the role of Rosemary and Kate Brown is Ani. Ms. Powell gives a tour de force performance as a woman with disassociative identity disorder- or is it possible that she is a channel for more sinister motives? One moment she’s a tentative guest named Rosemary, then Rosalyn, then Rosie and the list continues impressively. Each of Ms. Powell’s characters is done to a perfect comic or terror inducing affect, providing a searing reality check to Rosemary’s flights of illusion.

Mayannah resides in a wealthy grotto of Los Angeles where everything is available with the right amount of money. Hers is a languid existence punctuated by sirens and threats of police violence on her social inferiors. In fact, one can presume that this is a riff on present day Los Angeles, where fantasy and reality are blurred for the world to purchase a ticket. Mayannah’s anniversary repast is offered with the promise of a cash reward if her guests make it to dessert.

Brain People - Urban Theatre 8Ani and Rosemary are willingly subjected to a night of transubstantiation and the mental stigmata of an abandoned child longing for what she calls her unbroken self. Mayannah believes that if the energy of the soul can be consumed, it can also be absorbed and reborn. This is no simple tale of reincarnation or anything that I ever learned in catechism classes. Rivera’s story turns long-held tenets and beliefs on their heads by revealing the underside of learning them. The darkest creases of the mind emerge when society breaks down to martial law and, finally, anarchy. The character of Ani is a portrayal of an individual named for the lost civilization of Armenia. Ani comes to dinner to get the payout and leave the country to find real love and forget that she has a ‘PhD. in all the shitty forms of love’. It is Ani’s character that makes the connection to Mayannah’s soul’s longing while Rosemary sits in a catatonic daze absorbing and healing from her own childhood terrors. All three actors play off of each other with a dizzying rhythm of wordplay balanced with smoking hot sensuality.

Rivera has written dark and acerbic wit for these women. The characters are refreshingly free of stereotypes and shallow characterizations.

The UTC production is the Chicago premiere of BRAINPEOPLE. It is that rare meeting of cast, direction, and location that produces a transporting experience. UTC was formed to bring cutting edge experiences to the theater through diversity and roots in the Latino community and they hit a bull’s eye with BRAINPEOPLE. UTC founders Ivan Vega, Madrid St. Angelo and Marilyn Camacho have something truly special to offer to the theater community of Chicago. Go see this show!

   
       
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

Brain People - Urban Theatre 7

This show has a short run from November 12th through December 12th at Batey Urbano 2620 W. Division in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. More information is available on UrbanTheater Company check out www.urbantheaterchicago.com or call 312-239-8783.

   
   

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