REVIEW: The Real Inspector Hound (Signal Ensemble)

Hammed-up Stoppard fails to find the laughs

 

(left to right) Moon (Philip Winston) and Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) comment on the play while Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) act in the play, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue - running through September 18.

        
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
    
The Real Inspector Hound
      
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
Through Sept. 18  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

From the time the house opens on Signal Ensemble Theatre’s The Real Inspector Hound, to the close of the play, Charles Schoenherr lies unmoving on stage while the other characters cavort around him, never noticing this still figure at stage rear until nearly the end of the one-act comedy.

It just might be the best performance of the play.

Any theater reviewer who takes aim at Tom Stoppard‘s 1968 comedy risks being classified with Birdboot and Moon, the two pompous critics on whom the play focuses. Stoppard, once a critic himself, mercilessly skewers theater writers, painting them as arrogant, self-absorbed and none too ethical.

The critics comment on the play within a play taking place in front of them in highly affected terms, chat through the action, munch chocolates and begin to write their reviews mid-play. Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen), a married, middle-aged philanderer, flaunts his position to entice pretty actresses while piously proclaiming he does no such thing, while Moon (Philip Winston), his paper’s no. 2 critic, continually laments his second-string status. The two put in some comic turns, but they aren’t enough to overcome the broad strokes with which Director Ronan Marra paints the rest of the show.

The meta-play, an exaggerated English country-house mystery, a la The Mousetrap, takes places in what Mary O’Dowd as Mrs. Drudge, the creepy, scenery-chewing housekeeper, tells us is the "drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring." Scenic Designer Melania Lancy has created a fine drawing-room set in Signal’s spiffy new theater, the former home of now Los Angeles-based Breadline Theatre Group, a 50-seat venue in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) listens to Mrs. Drudge's (Mary O'Dowd) story about the new visitor, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) flirts with Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) while Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd) takes notice, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd), Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), and Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) react to a loud noise outside of the house, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue.  Photo by Johnny Knight

Wealthy widow Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Meredith Bell Alvarez), is entertaining her lover, Simon Gascoyne (John Blick) and — to his embarrassment — Felicity Cunningham (Katie Genualdi), the ingenue he’s also been seeing. Added to the menage is the wheelchair-bound Major Magnus Muldoon (Colby Sellers), half-brother to Lady Cynthia’s late husband, who lusts after his hostess. Meanwhile, the radio announces that a murderous madman is loose in the neighborhood and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), a dog of a police detective, arrives on the scene.

As the play becomes more existential, the critics break through the fourth wall and get drawn into the action on stage. In this production, comic business is piled so high that the parody becomes a parody of itself, laden with overdrawn gestures and pointless shtick, such as when characters continually lift a telephone receiver for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the pace crawls.

Through it all, Schoenherr lies, still and untwitching. That’s acting.

   
  
Review: ★½
  
  

Note: Allow time for finding street parking, as well as extra time for traveling to the theater on nights when the Cubs play at home.

 (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight. (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight.

        
        

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Review: Right Brain Project’s “The Modern Prometheus”

More Entertainment Than Intellectual Challenge

 

The Right Brain Project presents:

The Modern Prometheus

adapted by Brad Lawrence
directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel
thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

IT 3_5x2 - Front - Portrait The Right Brain Project enjoyed success with Brad Lawrence’s play Chalk in 2007, a gumshoe noir retelling of the Oedipus myth. Their collaboration seems a constructive fit with this world premiere of The Modern Prometheus, Lawrence’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in the middle of modern debates between science and religion. It is definitely a more thoughtful piece than most Frankenstein versions—one that RBP gears toward maximum entertainment–but it falls short of being the intellectual challenge touted by its press.

There’s no denying the thrill and accessibility of this production. Right Brain Project has not sacrificed the guilty pleasures of the Frankenstein myth, but tried to integrate them with the play’s more serious content. But before getting into special effects, first and foremost, the production is well grounded in even casting and strong performances. Directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel, the progressive pacing and cast invigorate what could have been a well-worn story stuffed with stock roles.

Dennis Newport, in particular, shows depth and range in his humanistic portrayal of Pastor Friedmann. Erin Elizabeth Orr conveys the full-bodied charm and intelligence of a Victorian heroine as Victor Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth. Tom McGrath makes a delightfully smooth and insouciant villain as the devious lab assistant, Henry. Colby Sellers’ Frankenstein Monster achieves that badly needed balance between terror and pathos to make his creature compelling; while Ned Record (Schultz) and Katherine Jordan (Selma) make a vivid and memorable father-daughter pair.

prometheusStrange that the performance that leaves something of a vacuum is the man of the hour himself, Victor Frankenstein (Nathan Robbel). Brad Lawrence’s Frankenstein is more driven young scientist than mad doctor. Still, Robbel’s interpretation seems a little too relaxed to render a man capable of groundbreaking experiments, let alone playing God.

Likewise, Lawrence’s writing overplays the challenge Frankenstein’s discoveries present to Christian faith, even in this 19th century period. The text shows very little recognition that faith itself is a slippery thing.

In the play, little Selma dies, to be brought back to life dramatically by Victor. Victor Frankenstein’s discoveries have temporarily subverted the natural order. Yet, the scene wherein Pastor Friedmann presents Selma’s testimony that she saw nothing in death, neither heaven nor hell, simply does not hold water. Any tent revivalist preacher could make hash of that “evidence” of God’s non-existence in two minutes.

If fundamentalist Christians in our era build Creationist museums, which squeeze billion of years of geological time into 6000 years of creation, then they can discount any evidence that does not fit the narrative of the faithful. Sadly, Lawrence’s text overshoots this nuance to make the struggle between science and faith a direct and full-throttle wrestling match.

Lawrence shows greater sophistication placing Frankenstein’s discoveries in the context of the Franco-Prussian War. What chaos would erupt if news broke out that brought people all over Europe to Ingolstadt, clamoring for their war dead to be brought back to life? Further recognition that, most likely, the rich would be harvesting the poor to resuscitate their dead would lend even greater horror to Frankenstein’s macabre achievement. Lawrence’s work also shows tremendous promise in the acknowledgement–from the mouth of the pastor, no less–that war is a “terrible invention.” It convincingly depicts the ambiguous, compromised relationship that Frankenstein has with his own creation. A little more consideration of whether any invention actually improves humanity’s lot and this play could be all that it intellectually aspires to be.

Dramatically, the end of the second act requires clean up. One moment especially strains all credulity: the pastor hands over Selma’s prostrate body to the Creature he had denounced as a “vessel of heresy” two minutes before. It’s moments like these that I deeply appreciate the actors’ ability to go full-bore, but they must be corrected all the same.

As is, The Modern Prometheus still provides good, solid entertainment. Special nods go to Anthony Ingram (set design), Mark Hurni (light design), Sarah Elizabeth Miller (costume/makeup/props design), Amy Sokol (music director), and Christopher M. Walsh (fight choreographer) for providing the well balanced and vital special effects needed to vivify a timeless tale.

Rating: «««