Review: Ghosts of Atwood (MPAACT)

     
     

Exorcising the past without reconciliation

 

  
     

  
MPAACT presents
  
Ghosts of Atwood
  
Written by Shepsu Aahku
Directed by
Andrea J. Dymond
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ghosts of Atwood has a fascinating and voyeuristic premise – a chance to see behind the walls of a midwestern boys military school. The fascination comes from the fact that the narrator is a still-traumatized Black man looking back thirty or so years. He comes from a past of being only one of the few allowed in the White world. It was supposed to be a privilege and an honor to assimilate and pave the way for others to follow.

As suspected, the grass is not green in the verdant woods of Wisconsin for toy soldier Quinn. MPAACT playwright-in-residence Shepsu Aahku is the author of Ghosts of Atwood.  His work is a memoir of his own time in military school back in the 1970’s and, according to Aahku, sometimes memory cannot be trusted. It turns out that this is a rationalization fed to impressionable children to mask the horrors inflicted upon them. What is the truth? Who is your brother when it hits the fan?

Quinn is dropped off at Atwood while his still loving mother gets her life in order. He comes from a supportive family that wants him to have a good life, the kind of life advertised in the Sunday supplement magazine.

Quinn is brutally hazed by cadet Moose and his posse on his first day at Atwood. Zack Shornick is brilliant as the abusive and abandoned Moose. He blends fear, anger, and atavism in an explosive performance.

Equally brilliant is Corey Spruill as cadet Whitehead – the only other black kid at Atwood. Spruill quiet performance simmers and then boils over in a seething climax that breaks the heart from the shame of recognition. Whitehead has been at Atwood for seven years and doesn’t classify himself as anything other than a soldier. The moment that he allows vulnerability, the shell breaks completely.

Aahku’s structure for  Ghosts of Atwood is pretty straightforward. But in an effort to distinguish this work from similar stories like “Lord of the Flies” or “Taps”, he adds an esoteric quality to the ‘ghosts’. Imaging horrific abuse as a monster under the bed drives the fact that the cadets are really children. 

   

The ghost causes one child, Bobby, to be a chronic bed wetter at the mercy of Moose and the other boys. Jack Miggins is heartbreaking as Bobby, who should be playing baseball but is Moose’s unfortunate ‘bitch’. His breakdown recalls the demise of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The grownups in Ghosts of Atwood are stock military characters. The role of Hammer (Dan Loftus) is a disciplinarian handing out demerits for dirty dress whites and a paddling for unruly behavior. Loftus projects a martial image of paternal firmness. Niall McGinty plays the jolly wilderness guide Major Taggert. His folksy Mayberry demeanor adds a jolt to his character being revealed as a malevolent force.

Wardell Julius Clark plays the lead role of cadet Quinn. His character is seen as a teenager and then as an adult decades later still haunted by Atwood. Clark’s performance comes off as strangely tight and stiff even in light of his character’s memories. It’s given that Quinn is well spoken and in a military milieu but it doesn’t jibe with the more naturalistic method of the rest of the cast.

Actors James Holbrook and Jack Moore give excellent performances as boys who’ have molded into military life. Mr. Moore is chilling and funny as the perfect Drill Captain whose uniform is full of braids and medals. Mr. Holbrook also fits the military image as well. His character Waddelow is the cadet who gets to log in the demerits and inflict abuse unpunished for the most part. He has mastered the smug sneer and is physically menacing, which is perfect for the role.

I would be remiss to not mention the glorious Trinity P. Murdock as Nesta the Rastafarian griot/singer. He is a sort of Greek Chorus underscoring the present day Quinn’s post- traumatic memories and the means by which Whitehead coped with Atwood in the past. Whitehead believes in the Rastafarian idea of justice and resistance through Jah and sacramental spliffs. It is lost on naïve Quinn but remains a constant song in his adult memory through Nesta.

Ghosts of Atwood is designed well. The imaging of the ghost as an undulating black mist gives one the chills and provides for an appropriate visual metaphor of a child’s nightmare memories. The sparse dormitory and wood footlockers give an authentic old boarding school feel to the set.

I give kudos to the cast and Drill Team Choreographer Demetria Thomas for precision worthy of competition. Also, a special mention is given to Kevin Douglas for excellent fight choreography. These scenes are brutal and have to be precise and authentic to have the intended impact.

This is a production that should be on your list of shows to see this month. Ghosts of Atwood is a chilling and authentic exploration of the truth that society is not willing to remember. With resident director Andrea J. Dymond doing an exemplary job shaping and pacing the show,  Ghosts is a powerful indictment of what authority is willing to ignore or deny under the guise of ivy-covered utopias at the expense of the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ghost of Atwood runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until February 27th. The Greenhouse Theatre Center is located 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-404-7336 for box office information or check out the website www.mpaact.org

   
  

REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men (Raven Theatre)

Classic play focuses on shades of gray

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Raven Theatre presents:

Twelve Angry Men

 

by Reginald Rose
directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
through April 17th (more info)

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Reginald Rose, the author of the classic teleplay turned movie turned play Twelve Angry Men, was no stranger to controversy. He used his storytelling talents to take on big social issues—including abortion and McCarthyism—at a time when standing on the wrong side of such issues could be career poison. Still, despite his viewpoints, he managed to find work at all three major television networks, a feat rarely accomplished by even the most passive and innocuous scriptwriters of today.

12AM vert 1 I’m sure personal connections may have played some role in Rose’s success in light of his opinionated nature, but there’s no doubt that his ability to write moving and emotionally charged prose helped. After all, how easy is it to make twelve men arguing in a hot and muggy room compelling?

The Raven Theatre’s production of Twelve Angry Men takes Rose’s seminal work and gives it some updated twists in an effort to add a contemporary spin. No longer are we watching 12 angry white, predominantly middle-class men puff their chests. This cast is interracial, adding Latinos, blacks and even a man of Asian decent to the mix to provide new subtext for an audience that lives in a society that is far from post-racial but has moved beyond the days of sit-ins.

The play centers on the jury deliberation in a murder trial. A teenaged boy from the slums of the city stands accused of killing his father. If convicted, the boy will receive a mandatory death sentence. The jury of 12 take a show of hands to see who falls on the side of guilty and not guilty. While many are expecting an open-and-shut case, one lone juror (C.L. Brown) votes not guilty.

Incredulous scoffing follows, but once the man is given the floor to speak, he begins chipping away at the prosecution’s evidence. As holes are poked in the case, jurors begin flip-flopping. Still a few stubborn men hold their ground. Gridlock sets in, people reach their boiling points and personal prejudices reveal themselves.

Whereas the original play’s all-white jury was a stark contrast to the non-white defendant, the choice to use a multi-racial cast in this production softens the play’s focus on the issue of race. Instead, it conveys the message that bigotry is colorblind while playing up prejudice based on class. For example, the phrase “those people,” which is used frequently by the black bigoted Juror #10 (Reginald Vaughn), seems to refer to people from urban slums regardless of race. This neither improves upon nor detracts from the play. Rather, it merely infuses new meaning.

12AM horiz 1 Wrangling a cast of 12 actors is no easy task, but director Aaron Todd Douglas does a fine job of managing all the bodies. The juror table is long enough to give each actor some room to occupy his own space, allowing the audience to see the men as individuals rather than a dense mob. Subtle actions also convey characters’ masked emotions. For instance, as the play advances, jurors begin to pace, stand and move about the room with greater frequency, a sign of escalating tension.

Brown is astounding as the defective Juror #8. He is calm, cool and collected without coming across as smug, an easy pitfall for an actor playing the character. Dan Loftus as Juror #3, one of the hardest eggs to crack in the room, also does a stellar job. His final monologue is tense and heartfelt. He’s not a villain. He’s just proud to a fault, and Loftus makes sure never to muddle this distinction.

As impressive as the performances are overall, Juror #10’s melodramatics are cringe-worthy. Throughout the play he delivers his lines with the pacing of someone reading from a piece of paper. Only when he dials his anger to the highest setting is it convincing. The rest of the time the acting is fairly transparent. It’s a shame he has such a key role as the prejudiced juror.

Twelve Angry Men’s relevance relies on the context of the times. Raven Theatre has taken a classic and altered it for a contemporary audience. The jurors who remain married to their opinions for no rational reason might be compared to today’s “Party of No” attitude, while class may prove to be more of a hindrance than race. Despite some questionable acting, this production does a good job of bringing these themes to the surface.

Rating: ★★★

 

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