Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     

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Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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REVIEW: Blue Door (Victory Gardens)

biograph-marquee

Victory Gardens presents:

Blue Door

 

by Tanya Barfield
directed by Andrea J. Dymond
through February 28th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer-nominated Blue Door is mired in the heaviness of academia and leavened by the poetic treatment of events so horrific they seem to defy the very beauty inherent to poetry. That dichotomy makes for a frustrating evening at the Victory Gardens Biograph.

bluedoor On the one hand, Blue Door is a densely packed introspection into history rendered dusty dry by the cerebral self-examination of a mathematician protagonist. On the other hand, Barfield has penned a devastating, multi-dimensional drama that could be a companion piece to the photographic history of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary.”) Allen and Barfield have no connection that I know of, other than each mined art from the same harsh historical foundation. And if you’ve seen Allen’s work, you may well find it rushing up through your memory in the final, harrowing moments of Blue Door.

Those moments are tough and necessary, arriving as Ivy League math professor Lewis (Bruce A. Young) finally faces the demons that have destroyed his marriage, his career and his sense of self. In the 90 minutes leading up to that emotional breakthrough, Barfield loads her two-hander with a multi-generational litany of sorrows. Wife gone, career in tatters, Lewis finds his home filled with ghosts. Beginning before the Civil War with Lewis’ great-great grandmother and continuing through a family tree afflicted with tragic, strange fruit through decade upon decade, Lewis confronts the woes of a Job. His debilitating personal history is by no means exaggerated – click on any decent U.S. history site and you’ll find many a real-life story that’s far worse. But compressed into a one-act play, Lewis’ family feels more representative than authentic, an overwhelmingly inclusive outline rather than an organically unfolding biography.

The other crucial problem lies with the exposition. It dominates. Andrea J. Dymond’s capable direction can’t change the imbalance of explanation outweighing action. Of course, Lewis’ ghosts are storytellers, so a degree of telling is inevitable. Even so, the drama loses urgency as recitations overshadow events. That’s a shame, because those ghosts – the great-grandfather born into slavery; the hobo grandfather whose life and death call to mind both Robert Earl Hayes and Emmett Till; the alcoholic father who beats his son bloody – are fascinating both as pages from history and as personal narratives. The other man in Lewis’ long night’s journey into day is his brother Rex, a drug addict whose failures provide a telling cracked-mirror image to Lewis’ successes. Lindsay Smiling portrays all of them (as well as Lewis’ great-great grandmother and his grandmother) with vibrancy that’s electric. He’s also cringe-inducing in his pin-point portrayal of race-based humiliation.

Blue%20doo Lewis, by contrast, is problematic, especially when he gets started on subjects such as “the psychological perception of time” as it applies to higher mathematics. He’s an academic, but by having him so often speak in the ultra-erudite language of the very well educated, Barfield leaches the story of some momentum.

The incidents of racism recounted from Lewis’ life – sparking unspoken unease at an otherwise all-white at a cocktail party, an assumption by whites that he’s an expert on racial matters – seem trivial when compared to what his forebears dealt with. It’s only gradually that Barfield unveils just how scarred her protagonist has been by his family history and other peoples’ reactions to the color of his skin. “No matter how many polysyllabic words come out of your mouth, no matter how many tweed suits you wear,” there will always be people harboring the suspicion that you stole those suits, Lewis bitterly notes.

Barfield employs humor to fine effect in the catalyst of Lewis’ crisis – when a student asks a question about Heidegger, Lewis thinks he’s been called a “house nigger.” Without that element of preposterousness , the professor’s lifetime-in-the-making predicament would be almost too depressing to contemplate. But such contemplation is crucial if “Never forget, never again” is ever to be anything more than a bumper sticker. Blue Door (the title comes from the great-great grandmother’s practice of painting the door blue in order to keep night terrors out and family spirits in) opens a portal to history. If only what we glimpsed there were more dramatically resonant and less like chapters in a text-book .

Rating: ★★½

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, continues through Feb. 28 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $20 – $48. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org or call 773/871-3000.

CREATIVE TEAM
Tanya Barfield (playwright), Charlie Cooper (light design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Liviu Pasare (video projections), Judith Lundberg (costume design), Michelle Medvin (stage manager)

CAST: Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Smiling