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: 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: Under Construction (Jackalope Theatre)

   
  

Finding meaning from life’s little knick knacks

 
 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Brenann Stacker, Christopher Meister, & Dan Conway

    
Jackalope Theatre presents their adaption of
   
Under Construction
   
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by
AJ Ware
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Step onto the set of Under Construction and you immediately suppose that you’re about to witness the typical family melodrama.  Audience seating is minimal; right onstage with the players in Jackalope Theatre’s intensely intimate adaptation of Charles Mee’s original play (adapted by Andrew Burden Swanson, Melanie Berner and AJ Ware, who also directs).  But the usual Thanksgiving gathering serves up a platter of multicolored feathers, glasses stuffed with random textiles to suggest different kinds of beverages, dinner rolls cut out of memory foam and candles on the table crafted from colored pencils.  This is not a “real” Thanksgiving but a creation, a re-creation based on fallible and impressionistic memory. 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerBoth the memory and its recreation belong to Abbey (Brenann Stacker), an artist who creates sculptures from found objects, the detritus of knick-knacks that survive us.  What Abbey tries to reconstruct is her relationship with her father Sam (Christopher Meister), a prickly man at war with himself in his staid role as family breadwinner and working class Joe.  Continuously frustrated, he cannot help taking it out on his family.  Not a model dad, Sam eventually leaves his family, which also includes son Jack (Dan Conway) and wife Emily (Mary Jo Bolduc).

Reconciling her feelings after her father passes away becomes the driving force in Abbey’s work, as well as her livestream conversations with her brother Jack, who wonders himself just how much he is turning into his father.  Under Construction jumps around between present events and Abbey’s continually revised and reconstructed past.  This structural element to the play has its pay-offs, but also sacrifices continuity, which probably is the point.  Uncertainty purposefully suffuses past events.  But the play’s transitional demands make the actors start cold with some scenes and that sort of emotional scramble makes its demands on the audience as well.  Nevertheless, both Stacker and Meister expertly render some very hard-boiled truths—she, about the barren depths of an artist’s creative malaise and he, about the life-draining impact of a man’s labor exploited under capitalism.

Jackalope’s production also does an excellent job of taking Mee’s pastiche of 1950’s social etiquette books and father/daughter scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and replaying them with totally transformed impact between the characters themselves.  Family may indeed be a replay of scripts handed to us from a variety of comforting and familiar sources, but that replay’s actual outcome might not comfort or reassure like some safe and predictable “Father Knows Best” scenario.  Sam does not know what to make of his life and Abbey has a hard time knowing what to make of their relationship once he is gone.

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Christopher Meister, Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerIn the context of uncertainty, forgiveness becomes a creational act.  Gently conveying this well are the actors cast as the grandparents, Sophia (Margaret Kustermann) and Henry (Jim Schutter).  Even as bit parts, they provide the foundation for this family. 

If there is a weak point to Under Construction, it’s the role of Emily, who for the most part gets pigeonholed as a long-suffering wife with little room for nuance or variation.  Here is another character that needs some process of forgiveness.  If she has any, it goes mysteriously and failingly silent.  Abbey, at least, has her work—an art form wherein she can take the scraps of what’s left of a life or a relationship and make it into something with meaning.  It’s what we do with the detritus left behind, after all, that truly matters.    

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

UC 11x17 FULL                      

     
     

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