REVIEW: A Doll’s House (Infamous Commonwealth)

  
  

Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results

  
  

Kate Cares and Stephen Dunn in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House", presented by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

  
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
  
A Doll’s House
  
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by
Chris Maher
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.

Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre debuts its sacrifice-themed 2011 season with this half-hearted update on A Doll’s House, directed by ICT Artistic Director Chris Maher.

Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.

If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.

It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.

As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.

But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.

A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)

Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.

The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson

Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).

REVIEW: Escape from Happiness (Infamous Commonwealth)

Uneven production still allows for entertaining conclusion

 

Infamous Commonwealth Escape for Happiness Press Photo 2

   
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
   
Escape From Happiness
   
Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Genevieve Thompson
at the
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I am not an elderly person. But I’m not completely cool with starting an almost 3-hour show at 8:30, which is the case with Infamous Commonwealth’s Escape from Happiness by Canadian George F. Walker. The major problem with that almost 3-hour show is that it drags, so when I walked at around 11:20 it felt like it was much later.

Starting-time aside, the production isn’t without merit. Although the laughs dip, Walker’s black comedy has some extremely funny moments. The play throws the audience into the thickets of a very dysfunctional family, but one where all the progeny visit often. Escape from happiness posterEveryone, from mom to dad to the trio of sisters, have their little neuroses and quirks, a few worse than others. A product of the early-90’s obsession with petty crime, slacker philosophy, and guns, Escape from Happiness is a chapter in a cycle set in Walker’s old neighborhood in Toronto. There are several untangled knots tied in the plot that make it feel like a link in a chain instead of its own complete whole. There’s an occasional focus on vigilantism and mention of how awful the surrounding neighborhood is, but those points don’t mesh well with the rest of the familial-centered story. Walker stretches his characters and world too far and too thinly for us to really clamp onto any one character. The focus moves from sister to sister without choosing a protagonist. Reeling, complicated family dramas can be brilliant (August: Osage County, anyone?), but Walker just can’t keep our interest going for all his characters throughout the course of the play.

The mission of Infamous Commonwealth is to visibly envelope themselves in one theme each season. The concentration this year is redemption, which is a pretty obvious theme in the play, directed by Genevieve Thompson. Tom (Jim Farrell), the father, is infested with mental illness and shunned and despised by over half his immediate family. The problem is that his past sins didn’t seem worthy of such acidic hate, a failing of writing and direction. Mom (Barbara Anderson) seems to live in willful obliviousness to everything, and the three sisters pick sides and pick on each other. All of the in-fighting is framed within a story about small-time dealers and crooked cops, an external disturbance which feels forced.

The cast has a hard time connecting and building off of each other. Anderson, especially, feels fundamentally false, going through rehearsed motions instead of breathing life into the character. She plays at the crazy and ends up feeling safe. She’s joined by several supporting cast members, like Anne Sheridan Smith and Joe Ciresi, who don’t listen to the other actors on-stage.

Infamous Commonwealths Escape for Happiness Press Photo

As the youngest sister and the focus of the first chunk of the story, Whitney Hayes is fine. The character just becomes increasingly boring and unimportant, and Hayes has much less to do after intermission. The real glue that keeps this show together is Nancy Friedrich as the clingy middle sister, Mary Ann. She has a schizophrenic monologue in the middle of the play that is the funniest thing in the production. She’s mousey and prone to rambling, nailing Walker’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, she functions as a bit part for most of the production. As her sister Elizabeth, Jennifer Mathews takes over for the last half of the play and handles it pretty well, although the character isn’t nearly as funny as Mary Ann. Jim Farrell and the hapless Stephen Dunn are also noteworthy, adding their own comic touches when they can.

Thompson’s production, maybe because of Infamous Commonwealth’s love of themes, sheds some humor in order to clarify the message. And Walker’s writing is dense and unevenly paced. However, the humor blasts through in the second act, and the cast comes together to make it work. Comedies, even black comedies, need to roll along at a quick clip, and this Escape from Happiness lumbers under its own weight.

  
   
Rating: ★★
    
      

Extra Credit

           
Escape From Happiness cast1 Escape From Happiness cast2 Escape From Happiness cast3 Escape From Happiness cast4 Escape From Happiness cast5

Featuring: Barbara Anderson, Josh Atkins*, Joe Ciresi*, Stephen Dunn*, Jim Farrell, Nancy Friedrich*, Whitney Hayes*, Chris Maher *, Jennifer Mathews* and Anne Sheridan Smith.           *denotes company member

West Stage of the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street.  Running July 10 thru August 8;  Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:30pm

                 
                  

Arthur Miller Project: an interview with Eclipse Theatre gang

Talking about Arthur M. with the gang at Eclipse

It’s dangerous to getting together with Eclipse Theatre’s crew of artists. They love talking about theatre as much as I do, so the interview format quickly turns into casual and fun conversation that could have gone on and on if we let it. Artistic Director Nat Swift, who directs Eclipse’s current production Resurrection Blues (our review 3.5stars), JP Pierson, who plays Stanley, and Nora Fiffer, who will perform in their summer production After the Fall, easily demonstrate their company’s dramaturgical drive and intelligent grasp of recurring themes in Arthur Miller’s work. They appreciate Resurrection Blues for its focus on media and I appreciate its prophetic power to show us the dire straits we could be heading for—a perspective that make me the “wonderfully cynical” one in the group. Enjoy.

 

 

 


 

Previous Arthur Miller Project interviews:

    
     

Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

millerproject

Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

by Paige Listerud

It seems like only yesterday we started The Arthur Miller Project. Back in November, TimeLine Theatre was finishing up with All My Sons and Raven Theatre had extended its hit production of Death of a Salesman. I still marveled at the line-up of Arthur Miller works being produced through the 2009-2010 season. To the best of my knowledge, an opportunity like this–to grasp the breadth of Miller’s drama, live, in a single season–is unprecedented, even for a world-class theater city like Chicago. You don’t have to be a theater geek to appreciate what a break it is to see an American master like Miller done comprehensively, and done well, in the course of a year.

Plus, it happened this way without anyone planning it. No theater company coordinated with any other to produce seven Miller plays across the city. They are still not coordinating with each other, not even for advertising purposes–unlike TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court Theatre’s promotional collaboration, Fugard Chicago 2010. In fact, Infamous Commonwealth, TimeLine, and Raven Theatre bid against each other for the rights to produce All My Sons–much to the bewilderment of Miller’s estate, according to Eclipse Theatre’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift.

Well, for some reason Arthur Miller is in the Chicago theater community’s headlights this year. Companies needed and wanted to dig into Miller’s canon. When they couldn’t get All My Sons they moved on, not to another playwright but to another Miller play.

So April is here, Easter is upon us; the spring Chicago theater season is about to burst into full glory. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre opened The Crucible last week (see our review) and Eclipse Theatre started its previews of Resurrection Blues on March 25. You can see our interview with Infamous Commonwealth’s Chris Maher and Craig Thompson below. Video of Eclipse Theatre’s theater artists and events are to come.

We hope you’ve warmed up nicely from seeing TimeLine and Raven Theatre’s productions last fall—find our interviews with their directors below.

Covering everything Eclipse Theatre has planned for its Arthur Miller season could be a project in and of itself. But then its mission, unique in the Midwest, is to concentrate upon one playwright per season, supplementing fully mounted plays with further explorations of the playwright’s work in a series of intimate readings and discussions. Eclipse selected Miller’s lesser-done plays Resurrection Blues, After the Fall and A Memory of Two Mondays for full-scale production. As in previous seasons, Eclipse will also employ directors, actors, scholars and dramaturges to enhance their subscribers’ introduction to other Arthur Miller works. It’s all part of the subscription–although, for a suggested donation, non-subscribers can also join in the journey to the heart of Arthur Miller.

If sneak peaks are any indication, that journey will be substantial.

arthur-miller2 First up in Eclipse’s Playwright Scholar Series is a staged reading of Miller’s first full-length play written in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Held Saturday, April 10, at 2 pm at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the play has the kind of protagonist who reads like the photographic negative of Willy Loman. David Beeves acquires success in every area of his personal and professional life, regardless of the obstacles. “But his good fortune merely serves to reveal the tragedies of those around him in greater relief, offering evidence of a capricious god or, worse, a godless, arbitrary universe.” I guess there are two kinds of tragedies in life: one is never getting what you want and the other is getting it. While we are familiar with the former in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a work like The Man Who Had All the Luck explicitly shows the playwright delving into the latter.

Swift, who also directs Resurrection Blues this season, particularly looks forward to discussing the theme of “being liked”—the proverbial American need to be liked—running through both plays.

Other Arthur Miller treats:

The Homely Girl, A Life—Eclipse has been contemplating a workshop on a stage adaptation of this Miller novella. At last notice, acquiring rights from the estate were still a little sticky. Stay tuned.

Enemy of the People—discussion will compare Miller’s adaptation to Ibsen’s original work. Hopefully, discussion will resonate with Eclipse’s upcoming production of After the Fall in July and Infamous Commonwealth’s The Crucible going on right now. All three have to do with Miller going before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

A View from the Bridge—readings from the original one-act version and songs from the opera version. Just this January, Gregory Mosher, once head of the Goodman Theatre, revived this little Miller classic on Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. In a thousand ways, this tense tale of incest and domestic violence just keeps turning up. Its blue-collar atmosphere may enhance Eclipse’s last play of the season, A Memory of Two Mondays.

arthur-miller-marilyn-monroe The Misfits—a reading of the screenplay and discussion of Miller’s life and writing. Marilyn Monroe was with Miller all through HUAC and starred in this, her last completed film, screenplay written by Miller. The shooting of the film was the site of their marriage’s demise. Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, depicts the making of The Misfits.

Swift doesn’t mind not getting All My Sons for Eclipse’s season. While a famous Miller blockbuster definitely would bring in more revenue, focusing on lesser-known Arthur Miller works better fits their mission to cover the full arc of a playwright’s career. “Our focus is largely dramaturgical,” says Swift, “to ask how these works resonate–especially now. Not to compete with other companies.” Other companies covering Arthur Miller simply give more context to what Eclipse is doing.

Chuck Spencer blew me away,” says Swift, regarding Raven Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. “I’m looking forward to seeing Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre. A bunch of people are thrown into the same room and it builds terrifyingly with the realization of how bad it’s going to get.”

I’m anticipating how good it’s all going to get, show by show, event by event. Please join us, here and at the theater.


For all YouTube interviews, click on “Read more”


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Arthur Miller YouTube Project: Crucible interview

A fast-paced, minimalist Crucible emphasizes the currency and timelessness of Arthur Miller

We met up with Chris Maher, director of Infamous Commonwealth Theatre’s latest production of The Crucible, and Craig Thompson who plays the of role of John Proctor. Ian Epstein, whose review marveled that their production’s fast pace “makes the piece a borderline thriller,” conducts the interview at Raven Theatre. The themes of timelessness and timeliness dominate the discussion, together with a genuine love for Miller’s actability.

 

Part 1

 

Part 2

 

Read our review for The Crucible here. (★★★)

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REVIEW: The Crucible (Infamous Commonwealth Theatre)

Minimalist “Crucible” finds hope amid darkened righteousness.

 

Crucible1

 
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents:
 
The Crucible
 
by Arthur Miller
directed by
Chris Maher
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The intriguing thing about a good production of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible – and Infamous Commonwealth‘s definitely falls in this category –  is how distant it feels from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was so infamously intertwined and on Miller’s mind as impetus for this composition.

The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials, an historical event that took place in Massachusetts back in the days of Puritan Theocracy (circa 1690).  Tituba (Adrian Snow), a slave from Barbados, and a bunch of goodly Puritan girls are caught dancing in the woods – at the time, some are even allegedly naked. And since Puritan foulplay of any sort is rewritten as Satanic rite, the whispers reverberating through Salem are about much more than a little naked dancing in the woods.

Abbigal Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) and John Procter (Craig C. Thompson) -Infamous Commonwealth TheatreNumerous accusations begin to fly that girls have even been consorting with the Devil himself.  There are some murmurs that say Abigail Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) did it.  Or was it the Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty (Glynis Gilio), as others say?  No, they insist, contradicting and indicting one another in a back and forth game of guilt and blame:  it was this girl and not that one, or it was Goodie Proctor (Jennifer Matthews) leading them all to the Devil! 

The accusations babble as sourceless and incoherent as a Massachusetts brook.  Townspersons accuse each other of increasingly sinful behavior, eventually metastasizing from the realm of the accused adolescent girls to grown women and eventually to the men as well.  Before long the small New England town appeals to an out-of-town minister to bring some order and some God to the whole mess – but it only gets muddier, further from the event and any sensible resolution.

As the play’s four Acts (though there’s only one intermission) unfold, the audience watches this small New England town shred itself, its children, its ministers, even the rule of law in hot pursuit of the Devil’s involvement, if any, in civic affairs.  The action moves from a villager’s home to the courtroom and then the prison at dawn on a day scheduled thick with hangings for witchcraft. Nick Rastenis‘ spare, white, post-and-beam, wood-colored set makes movement from one setting to another an effortless rearrangement of bodies on stage, and perhaps a table or a chair.  Rachel M. Sypniewski‘s costumes match the barren quality of Rastenis’ set, making it clear that Crucible-Prepress-Cropped-sThe Crucible is a kind of minimal costume drama; it’s a period piece where bare white walls and exposed wood beams do wonders. 

The minimal quality of the set and the dire consequences of being accused of witchcraft render Stephen Dunn‘s flamboyant gesticulations as Reverend Parris a little too sticky on stage – they tangle up the audience’s attention, making them question his character, and not listen to Reverend Parris’s doublespeak.  Perhaps this is the one instance where Director Chris Maher has pushed too hard – as otherwise the actors successfully achieve and maintain a nearly manic pace and pitch that keeps all four acts clipping along at a pace that makes the piece a borderline thriller – no small accomplishment for a piece where the characters are all too busy attempting to outdo each other’s rhetoric with brimstone polemics on the floor of a courtroom.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Extra Credit

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