Review: The Wedding (TUTA Theatre)

     
     

TUTA’s garishly manic wedding holds more potential

     
     

A scene from 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht, re-mounted by TUTA Theatre of Chicago

  
TUTA Theatre presents
  
The Wedding
  
Written by Bertolt Brecht 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic 
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The wedding party is back! Under the direction of Zeljko Djukic, TUTA Theatre remounts its wildly successful production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Wedding, an early comedy about a wedding dinner filled with obnoxious and unpredictable guests. Having triumphed with last year’s production (see our review), TUTA is having another go.

TUTA Wedding #3Andy Hager is back at his panty-sniffing best as the Bridegroom’s Friend. As the Bride’s Father, Kirk Anderson holds court once again with the unbearably tangential and grotesque stories. As Bride and Bridegroom, Jennifer Byers and Trey Maclin regale once more as the newlywed couple that strives too hard to impress people they don’t like. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Stone (The Wife) and Jaimelyn Gray (The Bride’s Sister) again take lusty feminine mischief to fabulous extremes.

Ariel Brenner, Sean Ewert and Jake Lindquist join the cast to take on the roles vacated by Laurie Larson, Christopher Popio and Ben Harris. TUTA’s rehearsal process for its remount was terribly short and it shows. Hardly enough time has been allowed to let the new cast members jell with the old. Gone is the near seamlessness by which TUTA conveyed these Weimar Era characters’ jaded frustrations, cynicism and anxiety over class. Another weekend of performances will probably warm up the whole cast to the old Wedding magic, but it shouldn’t be left for too long. Part of the genius of the earlier production was the way madness fluidly sprouted in one corner while a guest struggled to win the center of attention in another.

That said, there’s potential for fresh manic humor from the incorporation of new blood. Brenner plays the Bridegroom’s Andy Hager as Bridegroom's Friend in the remount of TUTA Theatre's 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht.Mother with a little more mischief and flirtatiousness than Larson did—Larson had a mother’s scowl that could sour milk and make mares give birth to deformed foals. Ewert’s Husband sympathetically depicts a man who may actually love his Wife, whatever his demons may be—or hers. Finally, Lindquist sings with a little more vaudeville bravado than did Harris in the role of The Young Man. There is much new here for the cast to work and play with, hopefully with exciting results.

Audiences will still find much to enjoy at The Wedding. The bones of Djukic’s direction are still strong. Jesse Terrill’s original compositions hold up very well, and the incorporation of pop tunes sets the right distancing tone for commentary upon the selfish, self-absorbed action of the guests. And then there’s the Jello—from a jiggling entrée of cod to jiggling desserts, nothing portends wedding disaster like garishly colored food that just won’t stay still.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Scene from TUTA's production of 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht

   
  

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REVIEW: Baal (TUTA Theatre)

   

It’s Bros before Ho’s, Brechtian Style

TUTA BAAL - #1

   
TUTA Theatre presents
  
Baal
  

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
Peter Tegel 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps no one could accuse Bertolt Brecht of being a feminist. But TUTA Theatre’s production of his first play, now at Chopin Studio Theatre, easily lends itself to feminist critique of its patriarchal constructions of rebellion and artistry. Whether or not that was the playwright’s original intention, Zeljko Djukic’s compelling direction opens up examination of all the impulses and beliefs that drive its protagonist, particularly regarding gender construction. Baal (Ian Westerfer) may be the ultimate artistic outcast and iconoclast. All the same, he does not rebel against the codes of masculinity that allow him to abuse women and murder his best friend at the suggestion of homoeroticism.

TUTA BAAL - #2 But first, a critique of the production: the show is brilliant. If you haven’t yet heard that Baal is Jeff recommended, then you heard it here first. That accolade that will be seconded by every critic that has eyes to see and ears to hear. Djukic has developed cohesiveness in his ensemble that would be the envy of many other productions; their unity reveals itself with each fluid moment and inspired scene change. Dramatic transformations carry emotional weight from scene to scene, until the entire wicked fabric of the play unfolds in a rich, decadent tapestry that, nevertheless, maintains its Brechtian distance. For all the cunning by which that effect is wrought, this is a production to run to.

As for the eponymous lead, I really don’t like using the word “star” in Chicago theater. But Westerfer, as Baal, is a star–a man on fire. He is both the Poet as subversive pop idol and a sly Brechtian parody of that very notion. He is an actor who goes the fullest limit of his outrageous role yet never overreaches or looses control. Lucky him, he gets the lushest language of the play; his use of it never disappoints. Peter Oyloe pairs Westerfer accurately and admirably as Ekart, Baal’s bohemian partner in crime, but clearly, the show is Baal’s. Every effort done by the rest of the cast, especially mastery of Brecht’s language, sets Baal at the epicenter and supports him completely—like water that buoys the floating arrow in a compass pointing north.

The centering of Baal within each environment he’s placed is the quintessential dynamic in this clear and sterling translation by Peter Tegel. Whether in the company of posh German elites, ready to publish Baal’s works in order to boost their own image—or singing before rough crowds at a low-end dive—or in the presence of women who show up for furtive sex at his attic flat—or on the road with Ekart–at an insane asylum—dying before of the sort of merciless men he’s known all his life—Baal’s reactions to all these environments reveal his strongly held beliefs and excessive character. Baal acts out, a perpetual motion machine of absolute contrarianism, but his acting out alone would be meaningless a vacuum. The image of the German Expressionist artist in his pre-Nazi environment awakens Brecht’s dramatic interrogation as to the value of such an artist.

TUTA’s production never forgets that delicate balance between the outsider artist and the cynical society through which he passes. What looks like bawdy roughness and uninhibited abandon is really action constructed and choreographed with military precision. That the cast makes it look so friggin’ effortless is the knee-slapping wonder of this show.

Now, on to the feminism: Baal’s serial abuse of his women lovers forms the main action onstage. But his attitudes toward women and sexuality are not simply born of his defiance of the cramped, hypocritical, bourgeois conventions of his time. They spring equally from his culture’s conceptions of masculinity and the outlaw artist. In fact, besides the warrior or the criminal, the rebel male artist may be the uber-masculine figure of Western Civilization, one that repeats itself interminably to the present day. “Bros before ho’s” is a sentiment far more ancient than its current hip-hop expression and Baal is certainly not its first or only representative, in art or in life.

The wonderful paradox about a figure like Baal is that he can rebel on one level, yet conform to age-old gender constructions that allow for the abuse of women. Baal spurns the middle class sycophants who offer his art patronage. His open insult to their offer is fabulously defiant, a theatrical delight. His rejection of middle class mores regarding sex and gentility toward women gives him access of women’s bodies without all that ridiculous, sentimental love stuff. Whether the middle class males Baal mocks have more respect for women as persons than he remains an open question. But Baal’s extreme adherence to working-class masculinity allows him to abuse women as he feels they deserve.

“This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens”–so writes TUTA’s dramaturg, Jacob Juntunen, in the program notes. No kidding. Among the principles Baal is drunk on are those regarding his uber-masculine artistic revolt. To drink heavily is masculine, so Baal drinks by the bucketful. To beat one’s woman is masculine, so of course he slaps his bitches around. To fuck women without attachment is masculine, so he fucks the whores and throws them to the other guys. To get them pregnant and abandon them is really masculine, so he knocks them up and runs from the stupid cows—they’re only trying to trap him anyway.

To top it all off, once they’ve thrown themselves into the river because they’ve been fucked, abandoned, and (maybe) knocked up, he sings about their floating, rotting corpses. That’s not just masculine, it’s deeply profound and poetic. Genius–genius that allows a male artist to get away with it.

I’ve rubbed your faces in it, but so does Brecht. The real genius of his play is that overweening masculinity is not just a principle that Baal is drunk on. Everyone around him is drunk on it, too—both men and women. Women keep offering themselves to Baal, no matter how extreme the abuse. Here, women have bought into the concept of the outlaw artist as totally as the men. In such a culture, Baal gets all the tail he wants, is as abusive as he pleases, and never has to be accountable to anyone about it. As for their consent to all his unprincipled sadomasochism, some women are more consenting than others, not that it makes any difference to our hero.

It’s here, however, that Djukic’s direction exhibits one truly mystifying flaw. In some ways, the fact that everything else flows so smoothly contributes to it showing up like a sore thumb. Toward the end of the play and Baal’s friendship with Ekart, out of jealousy Baal rapes a young woman who is Ekart’s lover. The rape is portrayed in truncated symbolic form. Why? What is the point of pulling that punch–too violent? A previous scene shows Baal tormenting his pregnant lover, who accepts his beatings and begs for his blows instead of abandonment. In a following scene, Baal knifes Ekart in the back for suggesting, in front of their old boozy gang, that Baal is a homo. Would the realistic depiction of a rape be too much, sandwiched as it is between these brutal scenes? The choice to minimize that violence is bizarre and bewildering. If the idea is to prevent Baal from seeming too unsympathetic, then that choice is really bizarre.

Oh well, in terms of this play’s historical place, the Third Reich is just around the corner. Very soon, it will be “Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche” for the women of Germany. Perhaps worse, more hypocritical men than Baal will be enforcing those policies–but only perhaps.

      
       
Rating: ★★★½
  

TUTA BAAL - #3

 

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REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Orange Flower Water (BackStage Theatre)

Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma

Orange Flower Water (4 of 7)

BackStage Theatre Company presents:

Orange Flower Water

 

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Chopin Studio Theatre thru March 27th (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.

Orange Flower Water (2 of 7)Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.

Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.

The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.

Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.

Orange Flower Water (3 of 7) Orange Flower Water (7 of 7)

The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.

The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.

The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.

Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Orange Flower Water (6 of 7)

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