REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

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Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
         
         

REVIEW: Girls vs Boys (The House Theatre and AMTP)

Cool atmosphere jilted by annoying show

 

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The House Theatre and AMTP* presents
 
Girls vs Boys
 
Book/lyrics by Chris Matthews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen
Directed by
Nathan Allen
Music directed by
Ethan Deppe
At the
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru May 9th  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Break-up vs Kill. If given the consequence-free choice, would you have the uncomfortable conversation with the pending ex or just shoot him? The House Theatre, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, presents Girls vs Boys. The lives of six teenagers unravel in a party world GVB 3 of drugs, alcohol, sex and guns. George wants to be cool. Casey wants to feel something. Jason wants his old girlfriend. Sam wants her brother’s respect. Kate wants Jason. Lanie wants safe sex. To get what they want, they pop Ritalin, slam beers, screw friends and fire weapons… all while singing and dancing. Girls vs Boys is “High School Musical” vs “Gossip Girl” where disputes are settled in the Wild West way.

Visual vs Audio: From the moment of arrival, the transformed Chopin Theatre is impressive. Collette Pollard has created a rock concert venue complete with mosh pit. Ticket holders are given the opportunity to join the party in the pit standing or take traditional audience seats. The band is visibly housed on the stage. The action will take place in an area extending in front of the band and encircling the pit. The ensemble will mingle with pit people during scenes. The visual is unique and the anticipation is high.

Then the music starts. The band is loud and it’s hard to hear the singing. There are two hand-held microphones shared between the six main characters. Without the hand-held ones, the entire ensemble is reliant on ear pieces that are inconsistent in volume. To compensate, some of the singing is more like screaming. The screechy tunes might not be noticeable in a rock concert but Girls vs Boys is a musical. Or is it?

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Musical vs Concert: A musical is a play with songs. A concert is songs and play. Girls vs Boys is watching kids at a concert sing with the band, act impulsively and mess up their relationships. This show has a long playlist with in-between conversations that are predictable and trite. It’s similar to concert moments when the band goes  unplugged with an anecdote between songs. If Girls vs Boys was all about the music, dialogue would disrupt the concert flow. Unfortunately, the tunes GVB 5themselves are not memorable. Although the band jams rock, the singers project pop. The fusion is awkward. Even though the script dialogue is flawed, the excessive number of songs promotes a strong desire to return to discourse. “Say it! Don’t sing it!”

Singing vs Dancing: Girls vs Boys is more like a concert with great back-up dancers. Tommy Rapley has choreographed high energy numbers for the cast to dance their way into exhaustion. Climbing in and out of the pit, the ensemble has synchronized, gun-toting, dramatic vigor. Notably, whenever one of the guys takes drugs, their shirt comes off. It was oddly like a Public Service Announcement saying ‘don’t take drugs. They make you strip!’ The good news is the guys are ripped. The bad news is it feels like any Jason Statham movie where the weaker the script, the more he takes his shirt off. Shockingly, Girls vs Boys, shirts came off and I STILL didn’t love it!

 
Rating: ★½
 

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes included a fifteen minute delayed start and a ten minute intermission

Extra Credit:

  • House’s blog entries on Girls vs Boys
  • Chris Jones lists House’s 2010-2011 Season
  • Girls vs Boys production photos courtesy of John Taflan.

*AMTP = American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University 

 

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REVIEW: The Illusion (Court Theatre)

A Love Letter for the Theatre

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Court Theatre presents
 
The Illusion
 
Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a the-illusion_008 hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.

The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.

Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.

In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.

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Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.

Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.

Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Extra Credit

 

View (2010-03) The Illusion - Court Theatre