Review: The Homecoming (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

  
  

Mary-Arrchie excels at stripping away social restrictions

  
  

Luke Hatton, Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Jeremy Chandler

    

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents

    

The Homecoming

        
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Geoff Button
at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $18-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After experiencing Belarus Free Theatre’s powerful Being Harold Pinter (our review) earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how any traditional Pinter production would resonate going forward. Mary-Arrchie’s production of Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming has answered that question: more than ever. While Pinter’s domestic wars have always proved powerfully apparent and has inspired plays such as Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County, Belarus Free Theatre’s Pinter unearthed the immediacy and politics of his writing in such a way that American audiences now have a new frame of reference with Pinter’s writing. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s loft storefront, Director Geoff Button crafts an absurdly detailed production that hits all of the most vital aspects of this play dead on. The comedy and relationships are sharp. The rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue is surgically articulated. The sexually charged faceoffs are bubbling. Ultimately, this Homecoming stays with you after exiting out onto Sheridan Road.

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerAmerican audiences were appalled, fascinated, and viscerally affected when The Homecoming made its American debut in 1967. As the play has aged, the shock may have worn off, however, the parallels in family relations is perhaps more recognizable. The brilliance lies in how subtly Pinter transcends from the everyday to the absurd. It’s as if we travel from Kansas to Oz without the tornado. The story is set in 1964 London in the home of Max (Richard Cotovsky) where he lives with his two sons Lenny (Vance Smith), Joey (Dereck Garner) and his brother Sam (Jack McCabe). Max speaks loudly and carries a shiny stick. There are references made to his dead wife which was also the death of a female figure in this home. Daily domestic conversations are instantly off kilter on topics such as cooking, “Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook.” This world is turned on end with the return of Max’s third son Teddy (Luke Hatton) and new wife Ruth (played by Michaela Petro in one of the most riveting performances of the season).

Smith and Petro begin the “game” in their first scene together. Smith’s Lenny is deadly blunt and comical. Their banter revolving around a simple glass of water is thrilling, “Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.” As events unfold, social rules disintegrate. Jealousies and desires revolving around Ruth play out literally in front of her husband, Teddy. Petro’s Ruth is captivating in how she is objectified and yet never victimized, always winning the battle of wits. All the while, Hatton is fascinating while adulterous actions are played out in broad daylight. He avoids playing aloof and instead makes us question the limits of civility.

Amanda Sweger’s set is detailed. The fray of the wallpaper still hangs from the ceiling where a wall used to be. Sweger makes her own set glow evocatively like a Chinese light box in her double duty as lighting designer. Sound designer, Joe Court has the audience sit in silence during the preshow, listening to an amplified clock’s ticking time bomb effect before the start. However, his use of distorted gong-like effects adds unnecessary gravitas at moments, which conflicts with Pinter’s much more powerful uses of silence. Costume designer Izumi Inaba is faithful to Pinter’s text while giving Petro the most perfect shade of red in a suit that highlights Ruth’s sensuality and assertiveness.

Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerOne element that proves difficult for any ensemble of American actors is the English dialect in this play. When most effective, the dialects are differentiated by class (something that may not land as clearly on an American audience’s ears anyhow). Unfortunately, the dialects all but disappear with a couple actors during the performance which distracts slightly. In addition, on the night I attended, Pinter’s words began to trip the actors up somewhat during the final scene. However, when Cotovsky, on his knees says, “I am not an old man” it strikes right at the chord Pinter intended.

One of the strongest elements of this production is Button’s staging. His attention to proximity between characters tugs and pulls at the tension. There is a time when a pause plays better at ten feet and other times where it is more effective at three inches. Button plays with this notion to its fullest extent and creates visually telling pictures.

There are numerous levels at which to enter this play. One is the simply thrilling entertainment of seeing social restrictions stripped away. What if people did and said what they wanted and felt at any given moment? We all know of families in which small battles are blown out of proportion – perhaps all too well. We also know of instances of jealousy and flirting played out amongst siblings and parents when an outside party, especially an attractive one, is brought into a home. Pinter has turned the volume up and shined a spotlight on these moments. Button and his cast excel at making the unrealistic dangerously truthful.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin Chandler

The Homecoming continues at Angel Island Theater through April 10th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Running time is 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 (Thursdays and Sundays), $20 (Fridays) and $22 (Saturdays), and can be bought online or by calling the box-office at (773) 871-0442. For more info, visit: www.maryarrchie.com.

All photos by Benjamin Chandler.

  
  

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REVIEW: Toronto, Mississippi (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

      
  

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

  
  

Eve Rydberg and Daniel Behrendt - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

   
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
   
Toronto, Mississippi
   
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
at
Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $13-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Kitchen sink dramas often spell death for real theatricality. However raw or radical they were post-WWII, overplayed working-class melodramas, set in the same old, worn out living rooms, give audiences little more than rehashed and trite explorations of troubled lives truncated by cramped, dreary social and economic conditions. I had my worries about Toronto, Mississippi, which is enjoying its Midwest premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre under the direction of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Certainly its set design (William Anderson) has “Momma-on-the-couch-play” written all over it. But Garcia has honed his cast to make the audience see the particular beauty of Joan MacLeod’s mercurial script and also what is thoroughly special about these characters.

Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn in Toronto Mississippi - Mary-Arrchie TheatreTo that end, no young actor could be better cast to take on the role of a mentally handicapped teenage girl than Eve Rydberg. She plays18-year old Jhana, a young woman roiled by adolescent, hormonal drives for independence and sexual exploration, but who still needs daily training to remember her home address and how to dial 911 in the case of emergency. Jhana’s developmental challenges require a tight leash and perpetual watchfulness over her exceptionally vulnerable future. Her mother, Maddie (Laura Sturm), seems quite used to playing hardball with Jhana, whether she’s firmly and patiently correcting her inappropriate emotional outbursts or confronting her about her crappy work performance at “The Workshop,” a place that employs the developmentally challenged.

Rydberg and Sturm make a beautifully realistic mother-daughter team. Sturm definitely sculpts Maddie’s demeanor and body language to reflect the wear and strain of constant tending to Jhana’s needs. But one equally feels secure in the presence of Sturm’s performance. The way she strides across the living room, treating the difficulties of raising a specially challenged daughter like an everyday thing, evokes Maddie’s inner toughness and resiliency in the face Sisyphean duty.

Yet the play clearly belongs to Jhana. She is not this family’s burden, but its star. Classed vaguely by medical experts as having “soft autism,” Jhana’s way of perceiving and communicating with the world could only be defined as fragmented pastiche. The loved ones around her must interpret her jumbled words and gestures intuitively to understand her. Lucky for the audience, Jhana’s emotions are always on the surface. She’s incapable of hiding them away, either out of deception or self-deception. Watching Rydberg nail every emotional moment and gesture in Jhana’s journey is truly the overriding delight of this production.

That leaves the men of the play who, besides being flawed with their own particular obsessions and weaknesses, get an uneven interpretation from the actors. Bill (Daniel Behrendt) is the struggling and frustrated poet who boards at Maddie’s house. Behrendt delivers a bountifully sympathetic performance through Bill’s generous, funny and empathic relationship with Jhana. Only by increments do we discover Bill’s bitter neuroses over women, at least until the arrival of “the King” awakens them to full ugly glory. King (Luke Renn), Maddie’s ex and Jhana’s dad, is a traveling Elvis impersonator who shows up when it suits him. Clearly a guy who believes in living his legend—even if it is somebody else’s legend—King darkens Maddie’s door once more for a little ex-sex, Eve Rydberg and Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatresome filial adoration from Jhana and a general lifestyle regrouping.

Jhana is not the dysfunctional one as her dysfunctions are excusable because they can be explained away by her disability. But Maddie, King and Bill’s dysfunctions are also understandable. They want to be more than what they are; they want to have a life that meets their dreams; they want what they don’t have, might never have, and that alone leads to lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. Their dreary day-to-day malaise is ours. Yet the actors have to particularize, in exacting detail, each of their character’s individual malaises in order to capture our attention before our eyes glaze over at the sight of another working-class stereotype.

There is really nothing normal about normal. The devil is in the details; the devil is also in MacLeod’s sparsely poetic language. Bill’s definition for poetry is nothing less than MacLeod’s strategy for laying out her dialogue: “Poetry is at its best when no one knows what’s going on.” Rather, the meaning of what’s poetically said can only be intuited from the emotional impact that the actor deduces from subtext. The audience needs to grasp all the subtext of Bill and King’s territorial pissing contests, no matter what poetic depths MacLeod’s script strays into. What’s more, Sturm and and Renn need to take the latent chemistry between Maddie and King and notch it up a skotch. That’s the only way to make the assignation of this otherwise tough and pragmatic lady more realistic.

Since the production can resolve these issues in the course of the run, I urge people to make time for Toronto, Mississippi. MacLeod’s script is not the same old kitchen sink. Rydberg’s performance elevates the play’s message about the unique beauty of every individual’s self-expression to lovingly brilliant heights. Jhana’s small victories make the grey drudgery in her world shrink away. Would that we faced each day with the same perspective.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Daniel Behrendt, Laura Sturm, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Production Personnel

Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Featuring: Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn, & Laura Sturm.
Designers include Bill Anderson (set), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Matt Gawryk (lighting design), Carlo Lorenzo Garcia (sound design), CoCo Ree Lemery (paint charge), Mary Patchell (stage manager)

  
  

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REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre)

 

The Man Behind the Monster

 

 Frost (Andrew Carter) interviews Nixon (Terry Hamilton)

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
Frost/Nixon
  
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

It’s not a stretch to cast Richard Nixon as a monster. He was a cantankerous soul who rabble-roused around an unpopular war and abused the presidency to allegedly commit felonious acts. His legacy is a sobering stain on the political landscape that serves as a reminder for others to not blindly trust those we choose to lead.

FrostNixon_101 The real challenge of this work is portraying Nixon as a human being, a man of both wants and desires as well as fears and frustrations. To put it another way, the challenge is to bring out Nixon’s humanity while simultaneously highlighting his treachery.

TimeLine Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon brilliantly toes this line.

The play details the famous 1977 interview with the disgraced president. Those producing the interview meant for it to be the trial that Nixon never got, thanks to a full pardon by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, spearheading the questioning was a character with questionable skills—David Frost (Andrew Carter). Frost was an international playboy who hosted successful talk shows in the U.K. and Australia. At one point, he had an unsuccessful run in America. This failure forever nagged him, and so he devised a plan to restore his good name. That plan was to nab the biggest interview of the decade.

Meanwhile, Nixon (Terry Hamilton) was self-sequestered in his California mansion. He was defeated. He had achieved the highest position of public office only to fall so very far. However, word of Frost’s desire to conduct an interview piqued his interest. For one, the financial agreement on the table to secure the interview would make Nixon a very rich man. But moreover, doing a softball interview with a British talk show host could help him restore his good name.

Of course, as history reveals, Nixon agreed to multiple sit-down interviews with Frost. And although the majority of tape captured during these sessions was merely a lesson in Nixon’s uncanny ability to evade tough questioning, it eventually led to a rare and honest glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac.

This play is nothing without a good Nixon, and Hamilton’s portrayal of the man is executed with great finesse. There is obviously a conscious balance between depicting Nixon as a human and a villain with the ultimate goal to strike at the heart of truth. One way this is accomplished is by subtlety yet powerfully revealing to us Nixon’s insecurities. For example, there is a scene in which Nixon questions whether a pair of laceless Italian shoes is too effeminate for him to wear. In this scene, Hamilton broadcasts Nixon’s childlike need for reassurance, knocking the man down to mortal proportions. It is also fortunate that Hamilton never verges on caricature, opting to veer away from political cartoon. Rather, he aims for documentary.

 

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Director Louis Contey is a real talent. His use of blocking to create dramatic tension between Frost and Nixon is just another pleasurable subtlety of this production. Specifically, his work is highlighted in a scene in which an inebriated Nixon makes a late-night phone call to Frost. Although the two speak from separate locations, Contey puts them in the same space. There they move around each other and glare at one another in a battle of intimidation.

The set design by Keith Pitts also enhances the quality of the production. Large projections, created by Mike Tutaj, are cleverly used to alter the setting, from Nixon’s California home to a trans-Atlantic flight. Televisions flank both sides of the stage where closed-circuit cameras broadcast the historic interview. This gives us, the theater-going audience, a vision of how the medium of television shaped and influenced the interview.

TimeLine Theatre’s Frost/Nixon digs deep into the psyche of one of our most notorious presidents. Yes, Nixon may not have been an honest man, nor was he necessarily a decent or good man. But he was a man. And although this does not forgive his transgressions, it helps us better understand his weaknesses.

Ultimately, TimeLine has created a triumph of a production. Buy your tickets now while seats remain.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
 

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REVIEW: Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Party on, Dude!

 

cherrywood

  
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
  
Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable
   
Written by Kirk Lynn
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $13-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fliers announce ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable.  A foursome decides to host a party. They have three kinds of chips, an array of music, bottles of booze and a shots of… milk? In response to their fliers, the guests arrive and fill up the house. The usual party suspects are all present. Free loading crashers. Whiny girl. Depressed divorced guy. Unwanted neighbor. Gaggle of gals in bathroom line. P.D.A. couple on the dance floor. Hot shirtless guy. Person continually announcing ‘I’m wasted.’ Sporadic drunken wrestling. It feels, looks and sounds familiar except with a couple of twists: Somebody brought a gun. Everybody has been drinking wild wolves’ milk. People are opening boxes of their secret desires. Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is a virtual reality party experience without the pressure to mingle or the aid of a cocktail.

In a large living-room-like space, the audience seats encircle the action. Closely matched in numbers, the 50+ wallflowers watch the 49 performers party. It’s such a tight fit that I needed to move my purse before a guy sat on it. Director David Cromer has gone fire-code-capacity to create an authentic party.

The proximity blurs the fourth wall completely in deciphering between the party gawkers versus goers. I consciously refrain from shouting out an answer to ‘name a good band that starts with the letter ‘A’.’ It seems like a jumbling of improv mixed in with scripted lines. Crediting playwright Kirk Lynn with some of the best lines, it’s existentialism goes rave with the ongoing philosophy ‘if you want something different, ask for it.’ Lynn writes dialogue describing cocktail banter as ‘question-answer-it-doesn’t-always-happen-like-that’ mockery. One character describes herself with ‘everything I do is a form of nodding. I want to break my neck to stop nodding.’ In a heated exchange, the neighbor jabs, ‘you remember the world? It’s the room outside the door.’ It’s genuine party chatter. Some conversations are playful. Some are deep. Some just don’t make any sense. Clusters of people are sharing philosophical drunken babble throughout the room. A gunshot brings the house of strangers together in a communal bonding alliance.

For the theatre goer looking for a break from classic plot driven shows, Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is performance art. It is a ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ For those who wonder what Chicago actors and designers do off-season, this is an opportunity to fly-on-the-wall it. If you’ve anticipated they hang out together and party, this would be your imagined drunken haze. The who’s who of storefront theater is boozing it up. It’s a Steep, Lifeline, Dog & Pony, House, Griffin, etc. reunion bash, and man do they know how to party!

  
   
Rating: ★★★
       
    

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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