Review: Radio Golf (Raven Theatre)

        
     

Wilson’s thought-provoking drama has a whole new relevancy in 2011

     
     

Warren Levon, Demetria Thomas, Michael Pogue in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf'. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

  
Raven Theatre presents
  
Radio Golf
  
Written by August Wilson 
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through April 9 |  tickets: $30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

It’s only been six years since Radio Golf, the tenth and final work in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle, premiered at Yale Rep.

A lot has happened in six years.

In that time, certain middle-upper-class white signifiers prominently featured in this 1990’s-based drama have taken a dip from grace. Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, lucrative condo investments and, well, Tiger Woods…let’s just say they aren’t what they used to be. “Unemployment” has knocked out “affluenza” as the country’s go-to economic buzz-word, Chicago just watched a mayoral campaign season with similar Harold Washington-era fears about equal race representation and, oh yeah, America elected its first non-white president.

Michael Pogue, Demetria Thomas in a scene from Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.Yesterday, this show about a wealthy young black man running for mayor of Pittsburg was contemporary. Today it’s a period-piece, a quality that only adds to its resounding ideas.

The timing of director Aaron Todd Douglas’ production feels perfect. With just enough distance and room for perspective, we get to see the protagonists’ superficial goals and misplaced trusts with an unwavering knowledge of the consequences—something Wilson, who died in 2005, never got the chance to witness for himself. I wonder if he knew he was creating a prescient work of theatre.

As candidate Wilks, Michael Pogue conveys idealism and an eagerness to please his community, listening to its grievances and welcoming citizens into his private office, a space traditionally reserved for the shady deals that are kept far away from picture-windowed PR campaign centers. Time goes on and compromises need to be made, such as the necessity to petition a neighborhood for blight status and the unethical demolishing of a delinquent taxpayer’s house. A little more arc in Pogue’s demeanor would be compelling. But like the rest of this cast, Pogue finds the rhythm in Wilson’s dialogue most of the time (the poetic allegories are clear and strong), steam-rolling it a bit here and there.

David Adams is the most consistent and entertaining of the bunch. Patient and methodical as the stubborn but righteous owner of the dilapidated property at 1839 Wylie Ave.—a brick house that stands in Wilks’ way between continued suburban poverty and a massive, gentrifying real estate complex—Adams carries the weary but proud burden of a man who values what’s right. Blue collar local Sterling Johnson (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) does likewise. Both actors nail Radio Golf’s comedy with complementing styles: Adams understated and Whitfield abrasive.

It makes me wonder about 2012. 15 years after this story takes place, how much of “the game” will be the same, and who gets to play?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Warren Levon, Michael Pogue, and David Adams in Raven Theatre's 'Radio Golf' by August Wilson. Photo by Dean LaPrairie.

Radio Golf continues through April 9th, with performances Thurs. through Sat. 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling 773-338-2177, or online at RavenTheatre.com.

 

 
 

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REVIEW: The Odd Couple (Raven Theatre)

   

Oddly Uninspiring

 

Pills

  
Raven Theatre presents
 
The Odd Couple
 
written by Neil Simon
directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through July 18th  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Oscar is messy. Felix is tidy. Oscar is brash. Felix is meek. Oscar likes gambling and cigars. Felix likes cooking and vacuuming. They’re both divorcees. They live together. They’re not gay.

If you pitched this as a show concept to a modern-day television executive, he’d either laugh you out of his office or option it as the next banal reality TV show. Either way, the idea would be seen as too simplistic and naïve for a contemporary television Ladleaudience. And that’s saying a lot, considering this is the same audience that demanded 11 seasons of “7th Heaven”.

But back in 1965, this is exactly what constituted good theatre. That’s when Neil Simon’s acclaimed The Odd Couple—featuring the slovenly Oscar and the uptight Felix–premiered on Broadway, garnering that year’s Tony for Best Play. In fact, it was such a hit that it ran for 966 performances, took a leap to the big screen in 1968, jumped to the small screen in 1970, went animated in 1975 and was revived for television once more in 1982. Now, the Raven Theatre Company, known for taking cracks at classics, is doing its own production.

The Raven’s version is utter slapstick. Characters speak with Ralph Kramden growls and nasal newsreel voices. Their movements and reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. When a scene calls for the emotion of surprise, the actors look as if they’re trying to pop their eyes out of their sockets. At one point, a character actually runs face first into a door when trying to stop a despondent Felix from going into the bathroom alone.

I assume it was director Michael Menendian’s vision to do a live-action cartoon version of The Odd Couple, and unfortunately, the outcome is a terrible miscalculation. The play–which already struggles to connect with an audience who are more surprised to see a marriage last rather than end in divorce—comes off as vapid, void of any real meaning whatsoever. It’s like the tragedy that has befallen Felix (Jon Steinhagen) is one big joke. And we get no sense of Oscar’s (Eric Roach) own unresolved marital issues except for his messy condo, which is a parallel for his messy life. Instead, Menendian has reduced the story to a one-joke pony that keeps begging to be laughed at. Sure, at first it deserves a chuckle, but by the end it’s just kind of desperate.

To their credit the cast is spectacular in their respective roles, even if the final outcome is damaged by misguided direction. Roach toes the line with Oscar, portraying him as a slob but a fun slob. This is a guy who’s a borderline hoarder, but he’s also a wild and crazy guy.

Steinhagen’s portrayal of Felix is a good balance to Oscar’s party-animal stereotype. He’s reserved, slightly effeminate and deeply emotional–or at least an emotional wreck, which is more than can be said about Oscar who takes a much more cavalier approach to his failed marriage.

Poker

In the end, Raven Theatre lost an opportunity to give a fresh take on this well-worn classic. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Menendian take up the task of providing this fairly hollow play with some real emotional depth. Rather than take the easy slapstick route, why not venture on that high road and make the actors bring some realism to their roles? Let’s see The Odd Couple as a dark comedy for once. After all, is this not a play about two men whose marriages have fallen apart, whose families have been torn from them due to their own negligence? If it truly is a funny show, the humor should still shine through despite a graver tone.

Still, there will always be an audience for schlock like this. Some people just don’t want to see something thought provoking or culturally relevant. Some people just want a show with uncomplicated laughs and a simple plot with characters as three-dimensional as a piece of construction paper. For those people, The Odd Couple will work just fine.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 

Performances continue through July 18: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm (No show July 4)

odd-couple-girls2

Cast: Greg Caldwell, Larry Carani, Brigitte Ditmars, Liz Fletcher, Greg Kolack, Eric Roach, Jon Steinhagen, Anthony Tournis

Creative Team:   Michael Menendian (Director), Amy Lee (Light Design), Katherine M. Chavez (Sound Design), Ray Toler (Set Design),  JoAnn Montemurro (Costume Design), Cathy Bowren (Stage Manager), Dean LaPrairie (Photographer)

   
   

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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