Review: Soul Samurai (Infusion Theatre Company)

     
     

Not quite enough soul in ‘Soul Samurai’

     
     

Glenn Stanton, Megan Tabaque, Paul Tadalan, Christine Lin, Zach Livingston, Anji White.

  
Infusion Theatre Company presents
   
Soul Samurai
  
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Mitch Golob
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Bloodthirsty shoguns run a post-apocalyptic New York City. A female warrior seeks revenge for her murdered girlfriend, armed with only a katana and a wise-cracking sidekick.

It’s a pretty sweet premise for a play. Especially when a live DJ is scoring the activities and comic book-style video projections provide visual gimmickry. Infusion Theatre Company’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai promises to attract nerds and action-addicts alike. If only the product lived up to the hype.

Nguyen’s play falls into the same pit many of the action movies he’s sending up fall into. Instead of a cohesive plot, the story just seems to be an excuse for the next battle. Even with director Mitch Golob at the helm and Geoff Coates crafting the complex sword brawls, the production can’t overcome the play’s flaws. The pacing of the entire show is jilted and the fights seem to be running at about 75%, not full Christine Lin, Amy Dellagiarino in Infusion Theatre's 'Soul Samurai' by Qui Nguyen. Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPennaspeed. It’s fun, but it is not fun enough.

Nguyen writes in a style that is half neo-Kung Fu flick and half Blaxploitation. He sets his story several years after New York City has fallen to ultra-violent gangs and a few genuine psychopaths. We follow Dewdrop (Christine Lin) as she seeks to avenge the death of her lover, Sally December (Amy Dellagiarino), who was attacked by a mob of bad guys right in front of Dewdrop’s eyes. The narrative is chopped up so we also see how Dewdrop went from a demure, Asian college student to an urban Amazon. She battles through to Brooklyn, along with her loudmouthed pal Cert (Steve Thomas). But as she slashes deeper into the city, the thugs get more sinister. And maybe a soul-deprived Sally December is among them. Like any good hero, Dewdrop presses on to the bloody end.

I have to give Infusion props for bringing a tale on-stage that you usually don’t see—something action-based instead of focusing on a bunch of characters jabbering the whole time. Although the play is a unique beast for theatre, it doesn’t feel entirely original. While “Kill Bill” was Tarantino’s homage to Hong Kong cinema, it was also an entirely new tale. Soul Samurai seems like an homage to “Kill Bill”. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is referenced at least twice.

While his production generally exudes the cool necessary for something like this, Golob’s show is flawed. On paper, the running time was an hour and 45 minutes; in reality, the show clocked a half hour over that. A lot of that was due to slow transitions Master Leroy (Evan Lee), Dewdrop (Christine Lin)and dragging scenes, including a training montage that overstays it’s welcome. And on opening night, at least, the on-stage action, music, and video weren’t entirely synced up.

The cast captures Nguyen’s tough, dog-eat-dog style well. Lin has a bit of tough time commanding the space, but she finds it eventually. She’s got the spunk, but she can’t always externalize it. Thomas is the highlight of the show, always flying at a breakneck pace and delivering his profanity-laced witticisms with flair. Other favorites include Glenn Stanton as a pimp-coat donning shogun and Evan Lee as the stereotypical sensei (“Sally” comes out as “Sarry”).

Considering how cool the show could be, the end product is just sort of disappointing. There’s a lot of flash, and Jesse Livingston’s musical styling adds some fun. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough to cover up the holes in Nguyen’s pedestrian script. How often, though, is there a chance to see live samurai battles in this city? The slice-and-dice novelty is indeed worth checking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPenna

Soul Samurai runs April 28 – June 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave.
The performance schedule is Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. Tickets are $25 during the run with student, senior and industry
discounts available. Industry tickets, $15, are available at all Thursday
performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-975-8150 or at
infusiontheatre.com.   

Photos by Anthony LaPenna

  

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Review: Do the Hustle (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

Creating despicable characters we could care less about

     
     

Patrick Andrews and Francis Guinan in Brett Neveu's  'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Do the Hustle
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by William Brown 
at
Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A father and son scuffle over a cup of hot chocolate. The boy walks out in a rage. The cashier bonds with the dad over tough parenting. In response, the father pulls a fast one and steals $10. Writers’ Theatre presents the world premiere of Do The Hustle. Eddie is teaching Sam the family business. The mark, the build-up, the take, father teaches his son the important elements of the perfect con. The duo executes a progression of swindles to get to the big pay off. The scamming hits close to home when the rip-offs get personal. Who is zooming who? Do The Hustle is a series of dark, biting stings that swell into a big ouch.

Patrick Andrews, Karen Janes Woditsch and Francis Guinan - Brett Neveu's 'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Playwright Brett Neveu penned a chain of seedy intrigues. Playing the audience, the con within the con within the con surprises and baffles. How did they do that? The repeated dialogue is authentically redundant and natural family-speak. The dysfunctional relationship between father and son is well-established. The missing nut in this shell game is the connection. Neveu has created truly flawed characters. They are distinct and despicable. But Neveu comes up short on the big score by cheating the audience of a person to care about. It is no “catch me if you can’ – “the dirty rotten scoundrels” run “the sting” under a “paper moon.” The con artist can be an endearing good bad guy! The double-dealing father, the scheming son, the bitchy grandma, the addict mom: whether they are the confidence men, shills or victims, no one bamboozles empathy.

Under the direction of William Brown, the long con is paced dynamically. Set-ups transition into the next with movable doors (scenic designer Kevin Depinet) that illustrate the location. Andrew Hansen (sound designer) aids in the placement with doors opening to street noises. With minimal furnishings and props, the door generated sounds set the scene. The focal point is the action. And Brown directs it to loathsome heights. Francis Guinan (Eddie) is perfect as a fast-talking louse. Patrick Andrews (Sam) acts out cons of cons with masterful earnest but malicious intent. Joe Minoso and Karen Janes Woditsch excel in multiple roles. Minoso goes from invalid to pawn to rifleman with extensive versatility. Woditsch plays shrew from every angle. The cast is wonderful! I just don’t like any of them. In the end, Do The Hustle had a great beat but I couldn’t dance to it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Patrick Andrews, Francis Guinan, Joe Miñoso and Karen Janes Woditsch - 'Do the Hustle' by Brett Neveu at Writers' Theatre.

Do the Hustle continues Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm, with performances occurring at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.  For more info, visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Running Time: One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

  
  

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

Extra Credit:

     
     

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REVIEW: Welcome to Arroyo’s (American Theatre Company)

Arroyo’s could use a remix

  arroyos-cop

 
American Theatre Company presents
 
Welcome to Arroyo’s
 
by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by
Jaime Castaneda
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron
(map)
thru May 16th  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was any winner coming out of the recent Pulitzer prize controversy (besides the actual winner, Next to Normal), it would be American Theatre Company. In case you are an actual person and not addicted to theatre blogosphere chatter, basically the Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to a piece that wasn’t a finalist recommended by the Drama Jury. The Jury did, however, recommend Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, (our review ★★★½) which enjoyed plenty of praise for its world premier at Victory Gardens here in Chicago last summer (and I’m kicking myself for missing).

arroyos-dj Why does ATC come out on top? Because months ago, they scheduled the world premier of Diaz’s first play, Welcome to Arroyo’s, therefore serendipitously landing upon a bunch of free publicity. And the opening Monday was buzzing with anticipation—perhaps expectations were too high. While Diaz’s earliest play is tons of fun, it is clearly a stepping stone.

Set in 2004 New York City, the play wanders between three plotlines. Mostly, it follows the trials of green entrepreneur Alejandro Arroyo (the gruff but lovable Joe Minoso) as he tries to attract customers to his brand new bar, transformed from his late mother’s bodega. We also watch his sister Amalia (Christina Nieves) practice and protect her art: graffiti. A romantic yet hostile spark flashes between her and, ironically, a police officer (Edgar Miguel Sanchez). Lastly, Lelly Santiago (Sadieh Rifai) complicates everything with her tireless search for a mythic founder of hip hop, Reina Rey—a Puerto Rican woman who might have very intimate connections with the Arroyos.

Diaz’s problem is that neither of these stories have a whole lot of forward motion. In theory, each of the subplots is powerful and thought-provoking, but the play is spread too thin among the three. No through-line has much momentum on its own, and they don’t really push each other that far. Lelly’s pursuit, for example, is engaging, but unfocused. I was never quite sure what she actually wanted or what was in her way. And once Lelly and Alejandro meet up, Diaz’s dialogue falls into a metaphysical hole, becoming far too abstract to keep audience along.

Arroyo’s momentum is ferociously spun forward by the antics of Jackson Doran and GQ, who save the play from drowning in headiness. Respectively playing Trip and Nelson, Arroyo’s in-house MCs, these two serve as narrators, commentators, characters, and clowns. They keep the work fun and fresh with their theatrical hijinks, and they could’ve been used even more.

arroyos-bar

Even if the play isn’t that brilliant, director Jaime Castaneda and cast do their best to keep the production’s flow swift and funky, like any good hip hop cut. Minoso can be almost childlike in his portrayal of Alejandro, but he keeps his wits about him, especially when he’s interacting with Trip and Nell. Nieves, though sometimes grating, is fun to watch and brings plenty of swagger. Rifai’s Lelly is the least believable, partly due to Diaz’s shaky writing and partly because of Rifai’s overcompensation.

Yes, I’m a white kid from rural Michigan, but I love my hip hop. This is why I was probably so attracted to Diaz’s attention to urban bravado. Arroyo’s is slick, but not afraid to get goofy. Keith Pitts’ stylish set definitely helps. The play has some crucial errors, but it’s a great ride. Diaz and Castaneda have hit on something, they just need to clarify, streamline, and remix. ATC have landed in buzzworthy territory, but the end product calls for some polishing.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Review: Timeline Theatre’s “All My Sons”

Timeline tackles Miller with outstanding results.

All_My_Sons2

Timeline Theatre presents:

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
directed by Kimberly Senior
Greenhouse Theatre Center 
Running thru October 4th (buy tickets)

 Reviewed by Oliver Sava

All_My_Sons5 Timeline’s All My Sons is a beautiful, haunting piece of theater. Arthur Miller‘s masterpiece is the story of the Keller family, rocked after the disappearance of son Larry during World War II and patriarch Joe’s (Roger Mueller) trial for shipping defective airplane parts that led to the death of 20 pilots. When Larry’s brother Chris (Erik Hellman) invites Ann (Cora Vander Broek), Larry’s sweetheart, to the Keller house to propose to her, tensions rise as mother Kate (Janet Ulrich Brooks) interprets the gesture as a confirmation of Larry’s death. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George (P.J. Powers) arrives with shocking revelations from the man that went to jail for Joe Keller, their father.

Exquisitely directed by Kimberly Senior, the cast captures the sense of family that is essential to a successful production by finding a comfort with each other that allows the language to flow naturally. The rhythm of Senior’s production is like a heartbeat: when the stakes are high the show moves at a rapid pace, taking the audience on an emotional sprint as the characters watch their world collapse, but there are also quiet moments when the actors can slow down and absorb the changing circumstances around them. Silence is used remarkably well, such as when Chris struggles to find the words to express his love for Ann (or does he know the words and is afraid to say them?), and when these pauses are broken, intense reality rushes in to fill the gap. The perfect balance of these moments is what ultimately makes the production so captivating, mimicking the diversity of the everyday.

All_My_Sons3Janet Ulrich Brooks shows why she’s been nominated for two Jeff Awards this year with her portrayal of the delusionally optimistic Kate, perfectly capturing the pain of a mother’s loss underneath a facade of hopefulness. From the moment she takes the stage, Brooks exudes a welcoming presence that pulls the audience firmly into Miller’s world, and it is no surprise when she is able to calm the infuriated George and make him feel like a child in her home again. Brooks seems to bring out the best in her costars, and the scenes that she shares with Mueller are bristling with the chemistry of a couple that has been married for decades.
In the earlier scenes of the play Mueller and Hellman establish the father/son dynamic that lies at the heart of All My Sons, a relationship that revolves around their understanding of war and what it means regarding their missing family member. Hellman plays Chris with a youthful exuberance, but underneath his calm exterior is a man that is haunted by the death he has seen, and caused, in his short life. Conversely, Joe lives in a semi-denial regarding the amount of responsibility he had with the defective airplane parts, and when these two characters’ vastly different emotional states come out in full force the results are explosive.

All_My_Sons6Initially, Cora Vander Broek‘s Ann does not seem to fit in with the rhythm that the company has created. She speaks with a calm confidence that is a stark contrast to the other women in the play, but when she consoles Chris as he confesses his survivor’s guilt, it becomes apparent why Ann is different: she has control. Surrounded by women that have chosen to be subservient to the men in their lives, Anne refuses to compromise for what she wants, and the strength of her convictions ultimately leads to the play’s tragic conclusion. The only person that is able to put a dent in Ann’s steely demeanor is her brother, and Powers plays George with just the right mix of compassion for his sister and disdain for the Kellers so as to never make him seem malicious.

Timeline can proudly add another success to their already hefty list with All My Sons. From the fabulous cast, including the heretofore unmentioned neighbors that establish the world around the Keller home, to the revelatory direction, Miller’s classic is done the justice it deserves. Just ask all the audience members reaching for their tissues at the end of the show.

Rating: ««««

 

View Arthur Miller's -All My Sons- at Timeline Theatre

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