Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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Review: The Master and Margarita (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

Strawdog explores intersection of religion, magic, insanity – and actors

  
  

(From L to R): Kyle Gibson (Ivan), Tom Hickey (Woland) and Rob Thomas (Berlioz) in Strawdog's "The Master and Margarita". 
Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Master and Margarita
   
Adapted by Edward Kemp
Based on novel by
Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

As artistic differences threaten the theatrical production of Pontius Pilate, Satan arrives in town to set the record straight. Strawdog Theatre presents The Master and Margarita. In anti-religion Moscow, a writer works feverishly to create a masterpiece play. His girlfriend Margarita believes he is ‘The Master’ and is willing to do anything to support his writing. The government’s theatrical department interferes with his show. They want to ensure Pontius Pilate discredits Jesus’ existence. Satan and his cronies visit for a little civilization observation. They also want to get their magic show on the stage. Arrested, committed, beheaded, the poor souls of Russia are in chaos. When Satan sheds insight into mortals’ psyches, the balance of life has a peaceful neutralization. The Master and Margarita blurs the division between magic and religion, imagination and psychoses, theatrical and actual, life and death.

Dennis Grimes (Master) and Justine C. Turner (Margarita) in Strawdog's 'The Master and Margarita'. Photo by Chris Ocken.Is it a play about a play about the historical decision maker Pontius Pilate? Or is it the full blown hallucination from an asylum inmate? Is it pro-religion or just anti- being anti? The Master and Margarita is for certain an epic of biblical portions. On a primarily stark set, crowd scenes are choreographed using cast as colorful and changing scenery. The large ensemble is white-faced (make-up designer Aly Renee Amidei) and sometimes black-masked. (Special nod to Amidei for the Centurion’s makeup: I was transfixed.) The mass unified look effectively emphasizes the alternating mood from theatrical to threatening to comical to spooky. Costume designer Joanna Melville goes hellish, dressing up an underworld ball in goth prom attire. The vibrant swirl of activity is non-stop. Under the direction of Louis Contey, the multiple themes and scene transitions flow smoothly and briskly into the next.

A plethora of Russian names, myriad of actors playing numerous roles, and the whitening effect add to a quandary of identification. Among the easily recognized, the damned bunch are hilarious misfits. Tom Hickey (Woland aka Satan) leads with smug wisdom and a surprising twisted kindness. Anderson Lawfer (Behemoth) is hysterical as a talking cat. Without even that many lines, Lawfer drawls the funny out with a bow tie without pants comment. Double-vision, Danny Taylor (Fagott) has a comedic and mysterious allure. Anita Deely (Azazello) is the non-nonsense assistant from hell. As the enduring lovers, Dennis Grimes (The Master) is a gentle martyr-type and Justine Turner (Margarita) is his strong lovely rescuer. The entire ensemble are convincing as actors playing theatre types, actors playing crazies or actors playing people going to hell… or maybe there isn’t a distinction.

The first act is a bubbling manifesto of intriguing confusion. The intermission is a pause from the frenzy to admit uncertainty to the point of the show. At some point in act two, there is an ‘A-ha moment.‘ All the dots connect for art open to interpretation. To sum it up, the cat said it best in one of the final scenes, ‘now, I get this play!’ What the cat said!

     
     
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Guests at the Ball of the Damned, a scene from "The Master and Margarita". Photo by Chris Ocken

The Master and Margarita continues through April 2nd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm. There is no performanceSunday, April 3. Tickets are $20 with group, senior and student discounts available. Tickets may be ordered by calling 773.528.9696 or by visiting www.strawdog.org.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

     
     

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REVIEW: The Sound of the Yellow Flower (Strangeloop)

 

Characters fail to connect in Belarus drama

 

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"

   
Strangeloop Theatre presents
  
The Sound of a Yellow Flower
  
Written by Dustin Spence
Directed by
Letitia Guillaud
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 N. Cortland (map)
thorugh October 3rd |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Dustin Spence’s The Sound of a Yellow Flower revolves around four characters in post-Soviet Union Belarus looking for liberty, justice, and love in their unstable country. Years after violinist Sasha (Rich Logan) and military colonel Nikolai (Mark A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"Pracht) help usher in an era of independence for Belarus, they are faced with the question of what comes next. Nikolai wants to see Sasha takes a position of political power, but Sasha wants nothing to do with it, having married Zoe (Samantha Garcia), an American activist working to expose the injustices done by the current government. Nikolai’s relationship with heroin-addicted prostitute Natalia (Meghan M. Martinez) ends up bringing the four together in an explosive, tragic climax, but Spence’s script fails to capture the setting and the scenes have an unnatural build to them that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage.

Language becomes a hurdle in establishing the play’s foreign setting, as little is done to de-Americanize the dialogue beyond the actors adding eastern European dialects. The opening scene has musician Sasha and Nikolai speaking in semi-broken English, but thankfully it is quickly done away with as it makes no sense to have two educated characters speaking ungrammatically in their own language. The profanity-laced dialogue has an almost-Tarantino stylization that feels out of place in the European environment, but the two actors are able to make the action interesting enough to keep the focus.

Zoe speaks in a thicker accent to show her unfamiliarity with the language, but ends up sacrificing a lot of diction in the process. The playwright doesn’t provide much exposition regarding the current socio-political climate of Belarus, and losing Zoe’s expository lines due to her accent diminishes the clarity of the plot. Dialects prove a further hindrance when the characters become enraged, as the actors often lose their accents in the explosion of emotion.

Sound of the Yellow Flower 3 Sound of the Yellow Flower 1

These sudden fits of rage occur throughout The Sound of a Yellow Flower, as most of the scenes quickly and without warning turn into screaming matches between the characters. Intensity is fine, but without any proper buildup the emotions feel empty. The relationships aren’t given the time to develop completely, making the connections between characters feel artificial. When it doesn’t feel like there’s any danger in watching a hooker get choked, there’s something wrong.

When these jumps into fury are avoided, the play gains actual depth, like a scene that juxtaposes one of Nikolai’s first nights with Natalia with the first meeting of Sasha and Zoe. The actors are given the time to create intimate moments with each other, and the relationships benefit greatly from the newly established chemistry. The scenes that follow are a return to form, but the brief glimmer of love provides a bit of hope for the tragic characters before their lives fall apart.

      
      
Rating: ★★
  
   

Sound of Yellow Flower poster 2

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

living-quarter

Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters

 

by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.

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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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