Review: The Metal Children (Next Theatre Company)

     
     

A fiery display of uncompromising conflict

     
     

Laura T Fisher, Caitlin Collins, Sean Cooper in 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

   

Next Theatre Company presents

 
The Metal Children
 

Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $25 – $40  |  more info  

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The inspiration for Adam Rapp’s 2010 play, The Metal Children, now having its Midwest premiere with Next Theatre Company directed powerfully by Joanie Schultz, stems from Rapp’s own personal experience with the subject matter. Rapp’s 1997 real-life young adult novel, “Buffalo Tree”, deals with very different topics than the heated novel his fictional character, Tobin Falmouth (Sean Cooper), has written with The Metal Children. “Buffalo Tree” was a fictional account of a 12-year old boy in a juvenile detention center (something Rapp is also familiar with), while Falmouth’s The Metal Children is a novel revolving around teenage pregnancy and abortion. However, both were banned from the school curriculum lead by an opposition of the Christian right. In Rapp’s play, this sets the stage for a fierce debate between art and religion, modern feminism and the purpose of education.

Bradley Mott and Laura T Fisher in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael BrosilowBack to Rapp’s real-life novel, in 2005, “The Buffalo Tree” was banned from the school curriculum of a Middle American high school, causing a heated debate involving students, teachers and parents. The school board meeting was attended by Rapp and was covered by the New York Times. This was the incident causing Rapp to write The Metal Children, which brings his fictional author into the same scenario—only in many ways the similarities between Rapp’s life and his play end there. The journey he takes us on is both unpredictable and disturbing, as any fan of Rapp’s plays has come to expect from the playwright of such unflinching plays as Red Light Winter.

The play is set in the fictional town of Midlothia. While there are no specifics other than “Middle America” on the exact location, it could be assumed as Pennsylvania due to the moderate distance to New York implied, references to hills and the fact that Muhlenberg, PA was the actual site of Rapp’s 2005 controversy. Tobin Falmouth begins the play filming a video address for the school board debate addressing his controversial book, using a camcorder belonging to his agent, Bruno (Marc Grapey). Tobin is the picture of self deprecation: living in filth, receiving visits from his drug dealer and slutty neighbor, drugs, drinking and clinging onto any scrap of hope his ex-wife will return to him.

Bruno eventually persuades Tobin to make the trek to Midlothia and personally appear at the debate. He is largely convinced by an impassioned letter from a progressive English teacher, Stacey, defending his book. His first remarks after hearing Bruno read the letter are, “She sounds hot. Do you think she’s hot?” Well, flash-forward to a motel room in the middle of nowhere and we learn that Stacey (Paul Fagen) is not the attractive woman Tobin had in mind, but rather a gay man in his thirties who appears very on edge.

As events unfold, Midlothia begins to seem more like a Steven King setting with spray painted cryptic warnings, gold painted teenage girls, driving rain, phone calls with vacuum cleaners on the other end, means of escape destroyed and one creepy looking pig-masked man with nunchucks. Tobin meets his devotees in Edith (strongly played by veteran actor Meg Thalken), who runs the motel, and her daughter, Vera (a defiantly complex Caroline Neff). Our hero continues to test our expectations, however Rapp excels in creating empathy for unspeakable actions.

The school board debate arrives after an evening of unbelievable occurrences. It is led by a civil and church leader, Otto (Bradley Mott). Shultz and her design team create the most perfect atmosphere for this scene. (There were several moments where I felt the urge to raise my hand, shout out and participate in the debate.) Caitlin Collins, as Tami, the conservative Christian student opposed to the book, is terrifyingly fascinating in her accusations that “Tobin Falmouth is attempting to glorify teen pregnancy.” Vera’s rebuttal is determined exclaiming, “To remove art from a culture, is to name that culture dead!” Laura T. Fisher is yet another standout in the debate as Roberta Cupp, the conservative community leader. When Tobin finally speaks, he clearly is less passionate than anyone about his book; he instead tells the heartbreaking story of what compelled him to write The Metal Children. The brilliance of Rapp lies in that the more we learn of the content of this book and its consequences, the more that even the most progressive audience members find it difficult to choose which side is “right.” What is clear is that each side is far too invested in their own cause to ever understand the other.

Shultz’s direction is masterful in her gradual unraveling of these strange events. Scenic designer, Chelsea Warren, creates efficient use of the space using tracked blinds to frame each scene. Shultz’s cast is also of the highest caliber. Cooper is decidedly subtle in his soft-spoken, yet versatile performance as Tobin. A conversation he has with a certain voicemail is devastating. In addition, Cooper has a strong resemblance to Rapp in this somewhat autobiographical role.

Rapp’s plays rarely take place in a realistic world. There are numerous events in his plays that defy society’s logic. However, Rapp is also one of the gustiest playwrights today and embraces fiction without reservation. His plays are decidedly “messy” with open questions, plot points left unsettled and mixed visceral emotions. The Metal Children is no exception, and with this intelligent, emotional and honestly executed production, the boundaries are tested of what contemporary realism can achieve on the stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Sean Cooper and Marc Grapey in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Next Theatre Company’s Midwest Premiere of Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children continues through May 8th at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston. The performance schedule is: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Saturdays, April 23 and 30 and May 7 have an added 4 p.m. matinee. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 – $40, and can be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

  
  

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Review: Sinbad, The Untold Story (Adventure Stage Chicago)

  
  

Update on a classic adventure fantasy takes off, but not high

  
  

(l to r) Edgar Sanchez, Mildred Langford, Dana Dajani. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Adventure Stage presents
   
Sinbad: The Untold Story
   
Written by Charles Way
Directed by Amanda Delheimer
at Vittum Theater , 1012 N. Noble (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

How relieving, I thought while sitting amongst the kids and pre-teens at Adventure Stage’s Saturday matinee, to hear the words “Baghdad” and “Koran” outside of a contentious context. The children who will see Sinbad: The Untold Tale are part of a generation who’ve never experienced America before its frighteningly mainstream Islamophobic discourse, before every televised use of the phrase “Muslim” was intrinsically linked to controversy and heated debate. Charles Way’s 2006 play, on the other hand, is about as amenable as it gets: a quest story promoting courage and nobility–values that are universal with characters that are relatable.

The intent, as well as the production’s partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is commendable; the execution is so-so.

Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mike Ooi (koken) - photo Johnny KnightWay’s tale takes place in the years after Sinbad the Sailor’s epic journeys in “1001 Arabian Nights,” after the adventurer has wrapped up his seventh voyage at sea and called it quits. Retirement doesn’t end the world’s conquests, though, so when a witch plagues his city with a haze that in short-time will kill all adults (“Gas-s-s-s!,” anyone?), the tired and afflicted sailor transfers the hero role to his eager orphan porter (Edgar Miguel Sanchez, physically-grounded and affable as the young lead, alongside Dana Dajani as his travel partner Ittifaq).

From thereon, there aren’t many divergences from the tried-and-true action-for-kids plot. The porter is handed a box containing three items to use in times of peril, a girl sets out to prove herself by tagging along, saving him and becoming a love interest along the way, clever quips abound, etc. etc. It’s all very familiar and sustainable. But assuming the young audiences are not familiar with the original Sinbad stories, they’ll likely trip over a few recurring points. They may ask themselves, “who is that old man that keeps talking about adventures that sound more interesting? Who is Ittifaq’s mom, and why should I care?”

The action works from time to time. David Chrzanowski’s fight choreography infuses some video-game-type elements that, at the performance I attended, garnered lots of positive verbal reaction from the kids and least one audible “that’s cooool!” from a little girl behind me. Others fall comically short, like an attempt at a flying carpet that left two actors’ feet visible under their stuffed faux-legs. Not yet versed in polite restraint, many of the children outwardly giggled during a moment clearly aiming for a different response.

Sinbad: The Untold Tale could easily shave off 15 minutes, and its desired audience is a little ambiguous. As a journey tale, it meets the bar–but it isn’t magic.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Sinbad the Untold Story. Photo by Johnny Knight

Sinbad: The Untold Story continues through April 16th, with 10:30am performances March 22, 24 and 31; April 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15.  Family matinee 2pm performances continue April 2, 9 and 16, with a special evening performance April 8th at 7pm. Tickets are not available online.  Instead, call 773.342.4141.

  
  

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Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Theatre Mir)

  
  

Brecht’s musical play restored is vital and thrilling

  
  

Kristen Secrist and Mira Vasiljevic in Theatre Mir's 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle'. Photo credit: Adam Orton.

  
Theatre Mir presents
  
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Alistair Beaton
Music by Chance Bone
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at
The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After a buildup of Western airpower in the Mediterranean this week, the French foreign minister was asked if the military operation was meant to remove Muammar el-Qaddafi from power: “No. The plan is to help Libyans choose their future.” It is in this strikingly resonant world backdrop that Theatre Mir has staged their fourth production, Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 musical play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The production is the opening to the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State Theatre.

Theatre Mir does not do easy plays. Chalk Circle is intellectual, philosophical and incredibly relevant in terms of current events in places such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is the type of play a UN Ambassador might want to take in during his free time. All the while, director Jonathan Berry and Theatre Mir have created a production that is equally entertaining and human. Alistair Beaton’s recent contemporary translation also deserves much of the credit.

Kristen Secrist and Jeremy Kahn in Theatre Mir's 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht. Photo by Adam Orton.One notable attribute of this translation is Beaton’s inclusion of the “play-within-a-play” prologue, wherein a diplomatic official (crafted with great care and humor by Stephen Loch) must convince a war-torn town and their farmers that a collectivist economic and social outlook is necessary for survival. However, the official must first watch a play. To this he pleads, after being informed that it will last two and a half hours, “Couldn’t you make it any shorter?” Simply put, it probably could be, but in the end you do not regret the time you’ve spent.

The play revolves around the idea that when you take down a totalitarian government, and the people are left to decide their future, there is often a circular occurrence where the oppressed become the oppressor. It also challenges what it means to be “good” in such conflicts. We are taken through the tale by the singing narrator, played by the talented guitarist and actor, Zeke Sulkes. Sulkes played a similar function in The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance (our review ★★★½) earlier this year, which has some conceptual parallels to this production with the cast picking up and playing various instruments throughout the play. This element also achieves Brecht’s famed “alienation” effect by always reminding the audience that these are actors in a play. Chance Bone’s folk rock scoring adds a driving cultural liveliness to the evening.

After the prologue, we begin the play in a Caucasian town called Grusinia amidst an emerging civil war. The governor (played by Yosh Hayashi, and ironically mocked by Hayashi later when he takes on his more pivotal role). The governor is beheaded and his widow (Mira Vasiljevic) flees into exile leaving behind her infant child, Michael. A servant girl, Grusha (Kristen Secrist), discovers the child and takes him away from the town to safety. She first has pledged her love and allegiance to a departing soldier, Simon (Jeremy Kahn). Throughout her travels she battles, begs and borrows to protect the child and quickly develops a maternal attachment. She eventually weds a dying man (a crass Sean Bolger) to provide for the child, which makes things complicated upon Simon’s return. Secrist plays Grusha with utmost passion, ambition and love. She leaves nothing on the table with this role and carries the first half of the play.

We learn with Simon’s return that war has ended. Order has seemingly returned, and so has the governor’s wife looking for her child. However, the second half of this play is dominated by one of Brecht’s most fascinating characters, Azdak. He is the drunken scholar turned judge who redefines the definition of what it means to be “good.” Yosh Hayashi is thrilling as Azdak. He is constantly versatile and unpredictable. His performance truly showcases his talents, proving to be one of the most captivating actors working in this city. The play boils down to the chalk circle in which the young Michael (now a toddler created effectively in puppet form by designer Megan Hovany) must stand in the middle of the circle while Grusha and the biological mother compete in a tug of war with the child. The outcome is perfect and creates wonderful philosophical debate during after-show drinks.

This particular space at The Viaduct poses many challenges for any set designer or director. However, scenic designer Chelsea Warren creates a found material stylistic set. It is functional and avoids realism, playing well with Brecht’s intent. Melanie Berner’s costumes are an excellent guide to help the audience keep track of which social class the ensemble is playing at any given time. Meanwhile, Bone’s underscoring is as effective as his melodies. A certain use of a slide whistle here, or a saxophone bellow there, add humor and energy to lines.

Overall, Berry makes excellent use of his cast through employing them in various roles as musicians, dancers, actors and stagehands. His staging provides for fascinating movement, including one moment when Grusha must cross a treacherous bridge with the child to flee her pursuers. The ingenious and simple technical method of achieving this moment culminates in one of the most immediate and suspenseful moments of the evening.

While Chalk Circle incorporates all of the entertainment and heart of a Broadway musical, it also leaves you with bleak unanswered questions. One of Brecht’s lines that echoed with me this morning as I read an article on rebuilding Egypt was, “War is over. Fear the peace.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Poster for 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht, presented by Chicago's Theatre Mir.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $25 (regular price), $20 (seniors), $15 (students) and $10 (industry). For more info and reservations call (773) 296-6024 or visit: www.theatremir.com.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre will close the festival with The Voodoo Chalk Circle, a retelling of Brecht’s story adapted by Chelsea Marcantel, April 8-May 1. This adaptation will be set amidst a hurricane strike in New Orleans. Festival tickets to both performances are $30.

All photos by Adam Orton

     
     

Review: Precious Little (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Rivendell explores the boundaries of communication

 
   

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

   
Rivendell Theatre presents
  
Precious Little
  
Written by Madeleine George 
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through April 2  | 
tickets: $15-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

If you’re going to present a play about language, you may as well cast Marilyn Dodds Frank. Among her high attributes—she has plenty, versatility and precision hover near the top—Frank lays claim to one of the most interesting voices in Chicago. That’s a dubious designation, I guess, but much of Madeleine George’s Precious Little is indebted to it. Whether she be dressed as a gorilla (abstractly, thank god) in a zoo or timidly counting numbers aloud as a frail, elderly woman in a recording booth, Frank’s tenor and masterful delivery lends authority and depth to her multiple characters and, consequently, to George’s mixed-bag of a play.

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Kathy Logelin, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little 007More or less a showcase for fine acting, the scope of Precious Little is limited, but focused: an 80-minute meditation on human communication’s shortcomings told through three interweaving narratives. A lesbian professor and linguistics researcher (Meighan Gerachis) struggles to cope with news that her artificially-inseminated child may suffer a mental disability upon delivery. Stressed with complications in her research and unable to find enough solace confiding in her graduate-assistant lover (Kathy Logelin), the professor looks toward unconventional alternatives for an emotional connection.

Gerachis plays the troubled teacher with a balanced sense of sympathy and fault. Having sex with her student, betraying the trust of her test subject’s daughter, and openly confessing that she’d be more willing to handle raising a child with a physical set-back instead of a mental retardation, Brodie isn’t the most admirable protagonist. Gerachis makes those flaws identifiable and human.

The burdens these women shoulder aren’t light—a career-risking affair, an ailing mother, the ethics of abortion—yet the stakes of director Julieanne Ehre’s play never simmer to a high boil.

But maybe they don’t need to. The drama is frequently dotted with intellectual musings and light humor, and the partial detachment allows complicated ideas about expression to appear more clearly. Then again, if we’re to empathize with a supposedly sane 40-something-year-old scientist who’s driven to the extremity of fantasizing romantically about a caged animal, it would help if there were more emotional gravity to cling to along the ride. Ehre’s program note suggests the “quest for definitive knowledge ultimately leads to an acceptance of ambiguity.” Really though, it’s willingness of Precious Little to settle for ambiguity that sells the plight of its characters a bit short. What we are given to ruminate, however, is worthwhile, said subtly and said sincerely.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Meighan Gerachis, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little
Meighan Gerachis, Kathy Logelin, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little

Precious Little continues through April 2nd at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and can be purchased online or by calling 312-742-8497.

     
     

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REVIEW: Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch (Lifeline Theatre)

    
  

The importance of being loved and loving others

  
  

Scene from Somebody Loves You Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - photo by Suzanne Plunkett

    
Lifeline Theatre presents
    
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch
   
Adapted by Frances Limoncelli
Based on book by
Eileen Spinelli
Music by
George Howe
Directed by
Ann Boyd
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Every day for lunch, Mr. Hatch has a cheese and mustard sandwich with a prune for dessert. He’s predictable and dull. Every day, his neighbors greet him with ‘Hello, good neighbor!’ Mr. Hatch ignores them, isolating himself from the daily goings on of his pleasant community. Unexpectedly, he receives a Valentine’s Day package with a note saying ‘somebody loves you.’ Who is his secret admirer? Not knowing the culprit, Mr. Hatch befriends everyone. Feeling loved turns him into a brownie-baking, see-sawing, harmonica-playing, good neighbor. When the postman delivers more news about the package, Mr. Hatch returns to ‘normal.’ What’s a neighborhood to do? Lifeline Theatre’s Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch proves to be an upbeat, engaging, heart-warming ‘Love Thy Neighbor 101’.

Michael T. Downey as Mr. Hatch - Lifeline Theatre - Photo by Suzanne PlunkettUnder the rambunctious direction of Ann Boyd, the talented cast IS the bright and cheerful neighborhood. To build the community spirit, two rows of audience are on the stage, each made cozy with blankets. Some of the play’s action takes place in Row D of the audience. The effect allows the quartet of actors to interact with guests to play catch, answer questions and teach a new song. In the lead, Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch) is so glum and downtrodden initially that his makeover is like a caterpillar to butterfly effervescent explosion. The magical fragility adds to the heart-tugging, misty moment when Downy re-cocoons. The rest of the cast play a variety of parts with delightful amusement. In lively animation, Sara Sevigny is jovial as Mrs. Weed, Mr. AND Mrs. Dunwoody, co-worker and a dog. Sevigny looks so surprised every time her puppet barks that she fooled me into seeing a dog. Micah J.L. Kronlokken energetically meets and greets the kids in the audience with a play by play expectation for the performance. He’s a kid-friendly narrator and mailman. Wearing different hats, Tuckie White goes back and forth from teen to lady to kid with active enthusiasm.

Based on the literary work of Eileen Spinelli, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch has been adapted for the Lifeline stage by Frances Limoncelli. Accompanied with songs composed by George Howe, the story teaches life lessons on kindness and isolation. Along with the familiar treat-people-like-you-want-to-be-treated message, Lifeline goes the extra block to say an individual is responsible for his own happiness. At one point, Mr. Hatch profoundly declares, “I’ve wasted too much time being lonely.” Ultimately, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch illustrates the importance of being loved and loving others. It’s a show for all ages. The kids will giggle. The adults may tear up. And everybody will want to live the greeting, “Hello, good neighbor!”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Running Time: Sixty minutes with no intermission. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

 

CAST: Guest artists Michael T. Downey (Mr. Hatch), Micah J.L. Kronlokken (Mr. Goober), Sara Sevigny (Mrs. Weed), and Tuckie White (Tina Finn). With understudies Timothy Cahill and Victoria Abram-Copenhaver.

CREW: Lifeline Theatre ensemble members Frances Limoncelli (Adaptor); with guest artists Ann Boyd (Director), George Howe (Composer/Lyricist), Jessica Kuehnau (Costume Designer), Aileen McGroddy (Assistant Director), Shayna Petit (Stage Manager), Rick Sims (Sound Designer), Brandon Wardell (Lighting Designer), Chelsea Warren (Scenic & Props Designer).

  
  

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REVIEW: K. (The Hypocrites)

 

Allen goes coo-coo for Kafka

 

 

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen004

   
The Hypocrites present
   
K.
   
Written and Directed by Greg Allen
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through November 28   |  tickets: $14-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

At the last three productions I’ve seen put on by The Hypocrites, arguably the local leader in avant garde storefront, there’s been some blatant reference to the originating text. In Sean Graney’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein last year (our review ★★), the pages of numerous copies of Mary Shelley’s book were pasted on The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen001the back wall. In No Exit (review ★★★), Inez splattered toothpaste all over the set and tacked on leaves from Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. And in their season opener K., translated from “The Trial”, a semi-finished novel from that proto-surrealist genius, Franz Kafka, characters read, toss around, and swear upon a tiny copy of Kafka’s chilling story. The stage adaptation and direction are the handiwork of Neo-Futurist Greg Allen, a master of metatheatricality. The production unravels in the last few scenes, but the darkly funny story is an enthralling journey. One wonders, considering that Kafka died before finishing “The Trial” (or any novels, really), if this is sort of the point.

Allen first penned his adaptation in 1996. “K.” is Josef K., Kafka’s unwitting protagonist in his slamming critique of law, order, and bureaucracy. “The Trial” is pretty much an expressionist legal thriller, with less crime and more paperwork. K.’s monotonous life is disrupted when he is arrested one morning, but not detained and never told what offense he committed (the police don’t even know). The rest of the piece follows K.’s long, occasionally action-packed struggle to get his trial to go to trial.

 

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen005 The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen002

Allen cherrypicks from Kafka’s plot. He hits important characters and scenes, but he streamlines the piece. This works well for the adaptation; K.’s Sisyphean legal journey is easy enough to follow and digest. Allen then plugs the gaps with a self-awareness that shocks the story into a stage life, one that is very aware that it is theatre. The actor playing K.’s father, Sean Patrick Fawcett, must yank a program from the audience to prove to K. that he is, in fact, K.’s father. A painter sells works with titles like The Hunger Artist, The Penal Colony, and The Castle. And there’s a full-on Metamorphosis moment. These choices tap into themes that both resonate with the original text and go beyond it: the nature of narrative, and reality, for that matter.

Brennan Buhl’s portrayal of K. syncs perfectly with Allen’s vision. He straddles the script, keeping one foot in the story and the other in our world. Sometimes he is charmingly aloof, making it seem like he’s part of some dark improv set—ready to joke and riff off whatever happens to him. At other crucial points, he snaps into the plot’s reality with devastating somberness. Buhl’s performance is stripped of sentimentality; his whole world is funny and inconsequential until the agonizing futility of his situation beats him into submission.

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen003There are a few times when the Allen’s meta-theatre meddling fails to produce the fruit, the ending being the prime example. K. has a possibly fatal encounter with his arresting officers, but the final outcome isn’t revealed, and Buhl sucks in the audience at the last moment….except we don’t know where we’re going. We get a sort of “what happened?” moment, and I was very confused as to what actually happened. Allen’s tight focus slackens here and the moment clogs up the heavy theatrical metaphor flowing through the piece.

Buhl is joined by a great supporting cast who all jump into a massive gumbo of personas. They do great things with Chelsea Warren’s set, which features plenty of doors to shift around, open, and slam. There’s an energy present here that isn’t seen often today, one that doesn’t mock the fact that theatre is happening, but lovingly accepts the art form while pushing its limits. Even with K.’s misfires, Allen has created riveting, intellectual theatre.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brennan Buhl - Hypocrites Theatre - Greg Allen

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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