Review: Roadkill Confidential (Dog and Pony Theatre)

  
  

Video work adds little to self-indulgent, tedious concoction

  
  

L to R: Melanie (Heather Townsend) stumbles into Trevor's (Lucy Carapetyan) studio in the woods in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential May 4-June 4 at The Building Stage. Photo by Timmy Samuel.

   
Dog and Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Roadkill Confidential
   
Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Devon DeMayo
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Dog and Pony’s Roadkill Confidential just might be the weirdest amalgamation of pretentious meaninglessness we’ve encountered on a stage. Ever. Despite what the various program notes would have you believe, playwright Sheila Callaghan’s work is neither bold nor invigorating. It is simply a tedious barrage of grainy, often visually indecipherable video footage looming over a messy and ultimately pointless pastiche of verbal non-sequiturs and bizarre, modern dance-like interludes that seem to have no connection with the rest of the production.

FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) perform the "We Sense Each Other Dance" in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel In its sporadic moments of quasi-lucidity, Roadkill Confidential seems to be attempting some sort of satircal commentary on the everyday violence that consumes the world at large and/or humankind’s increasingly numb reaction to said violence. But the production comes across more confused than satirical. The video footage isn’t the only element of the production that’s mostly unintelligible. Roadkill Confidential also lacks a coherent narrative. Finally, director Devon De Mayo seems unconcerned with connecting the audience on any level whatsoever. The drama lurches along from one outlandish scene to the next without offering a single moment of emotional truth for the audience to latch on to.

Obviously, a traditional narrative and conventionally empathetic characters aren’t necessary for a play to work. From Ionesco to Beckett to Brecht and beyond, theater of the absurd and alienation can resonate with formidable power. But Callaghan’s absurdity seems to stand for nothing beyond its own self-indulgence.

The story, such as it is, centers on Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan), a churlish artist who specializes in creating sculptures made from roadkill. As charactere go, Trevor is two-dimensional, running the emotional gamut from A to B, or rather, from bitchy to bitchier. She is prone, as are the others on stage, to sudden outbreaks of stylized movement – rhythmic gyrations portrayed with an angst-ridden, dead seriousness but that read more like a parody of modern dance.

Trevor is being tracked by a one-eyed fellow known only as FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers), who believes the artist may be using her sculptures as weapons of germ-warfare. In between FBI Man’s rambling ruminations on high-tech surveillance gadgets and his own unflagging patriotism, Callaghan introduces Trevor’s tweedy partner William (Dan Smith), her seemingly brain-damaged stepson Randy (Andrew Goetten), and the fractured family’s uber-perky, socially clueless neighbor Melanie (Heather Townsend).

     
FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) pauses dinner between Randy (Andrew Goetten), Melanie (Heather Townsend), and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) to share surveillance equipment in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on screen) interrupts FBI Man's (Sorin Brouwers) surveillance in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel

Among the five of them, there’s not a note of authenticity or a single moment that generates anything akin to empathy. What drives Trevor’s surly fascination with dead animals is anybody’s guess. As is the genesis of Randy’s bizarre obsession with cutlery. Combine the disconnected interludes of surreal, Isadora Duncan-on-absinthe undulations with the dearth of relatable humanity with video footage so muddy it looks like abstract art and you’ve got a show offers audiences very little incentive to stay interested.

Although to be sure, there is one video segment that clearly captures something recognizable, and recognizably part of the story: It is footage of a dog chained to a wall and left to starve as part of a gallery exhibit. It’s safe to assume no animals were actually harmed in the creation of Roadkill Confidential. Even so, the images of the purportedly starving mutt seem utterly gratuitous in their cruelty, an ugly, manipulative attempt by the playwright to be shocking. Equally ugly: A scene wherein Trevor, hands dripping with blood, wields a knife over a squirming, barely living squirrel (or something) and tells the struggling creature that she’s about to inflict pain that’ll hurt plike a “motherfucker.” Call me overly sensitive, but I see nothing worthwhile about watching small animals tortured to death, even when it’s only pretend.

As for Trevor’s final art project, it’s so beyond the pale as to beggar description. But just when you think Roadkill Confidential couldn’t get anymore pointlessly strange or manipulative in its attempts to be edgy and innovative, Callaghan introduces a musical number involving another dying creature Trevor has drafted into her artwork.

Successful plays don’t need likeable characters or traditional plots. It is quite possible to fuse traditional dramatic action with dance and video and come up with a compelling multi-disciplinary artistic hybrid. But Roadkill Confidential, in its strenuous attempts to be push the envelope of edginess and provocation, only succeeds in being tedious. It’s not innovative so much as it is inane. And in the end, uninteresting.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

L to R: Randy (Andrew Goetten), Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on table) and William (Dan Smith) flashback to fame time in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo: Timmy Samuel

Roadkill Confidential continues through June 4, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. All previews plus Thursday and Sunday performances are pay-what-you-can. For tickets, call The Building Stage box office at 312-491-1369 or visit www.dogandponychicago.org.     (All photos by Timmy Samuel)

     

     
     

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Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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REVIEW: Three Sisters (Piven Theatre Workshop)

   
   

Chekhov’s naturalist classic enjoys lively revival at Piven

 

Nofs-Snyder, Underwood, Batista - H

   
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
 
Three Sisters
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Adapted by
Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Joyce Piven
at
Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
thru November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

For sisters Olga (Joanne Underwood), Masha (Saren Nofs-Snyder), and Irina (Ravi Batista), the road to Moscow is long and bumpy in Piven Theatre’s finely acted, elegantly directed production of Chekhov’s naturalist classic Three Sisters. Tethered to their provincial town by occupation, spouse, and status, they struggle to find the meaning in their tiresome existence, dreaming of a utopian Moscow that is just out of reach. As their hopes fall apart around them, they learn that the only people they can trust are each other, and the three actresses develop the relationship between the Smith, Barnes, Nofs-Snyder - Vwomen beautifully. Under the guidance of director Joyce Piven, the relationships between the sisters and the men around them come to life, creating believable drama that is thick with emotion.

For Olga and Irina, the oldest and youngest, returning to Moscow is not near the fantasy it is for their middle sister Masha, in a loveless marriage with tenuous schoolteacher Kulygin (Brett T. Barnes), and Nofs-Snyder’s melancholic portrayal of Masha captures the sense of helplessness that defines the character. When the handsome Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin (Daniel Smith) enters Masha’s life, she is given a reason to live, and their romance smolders despite Smith’s distracting dialect. The first kiss between the two is one of the highlights of the production, a wonderfully awkward moment filled with hesitation that erupts into lust as the creaking of the wooden sofa breaks through their sensual silence.

Masha is the heart, Irina the soul, and Olga the mind of the play, allowing these core elements to dictate the direction of their lives. Meanwhile, their brother Andrei’s (Dave Belden) wife Natasha (Amanda Hartley) lacks all three, and she sucks them from her husband as the story progresses. A petulant, anxious ice queen with a superiority complex and unhealthy levels of self-righteousness, Natasha is played with villainous gusto by Hartley, who fearlessly depicts the character’s power trip once she marries Andrei. Her treatment of house servant Anfisa (Kathleen Ruhl, mother of adapter Sarah) is appalling, and creates great conflict with Olga, who cherishes Anfisa like a member of the family.

Ruhl, Batista - HDirector Joyce Piven uses the space beautifully, crafting spatial relationships to build tension between characters that explode when they finally come together. Solyony (Jay Reed), the play’s most combustible character, hates everything and never backs down from an argument, his intense misery venturing into comedic territory in its exaggeration. His love for Irina, a love shared by Baron Tuzenbach (Andy Hager), is unreturned by the youngest sister, who is more concerned with discovering fulfilling work than a man. Batista gives an emotionally resonant performance, especially as Irina begins to understand the kind of work available to her in town, but there’s a maturity in her voice and carriage that takes away from the character’s youthful energy. There is an early moment when Vershinin describes the sisters’ old home in Moscow and the older two’s faces become teary-eyed at the memory while Irina struggle to recapture the image, likely too young to truly remember. It’s a small moment, but it helps solidify her position in the trinity.

It’s a good time to be a Chekhov fan in Chicago. Goodman’s The Seagull (our review ★★★★) as the theatrical theory and situational humor, while Three Sisters eloquently showcases Chekhov’s philosophical genius and occasionally nihilist world view. As the lights go down on the three sisters standing united against the world, it’s like they are watching Moscow burn before their very eyes. The power of these three women together is the play’s beauty, the reality of their circumstance its tragedy.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Smith, Nofs-Snyder - H

Cast:

Ravi Batista* (Irina)
Saren Nofs-Snyder (Masha)
Joanne Underwood (Olga)
Brent T. Barnes (Kulygin)
Dave Belden (Andrei)
Marcus Davis (Fedotik)
Kevin D’Ambrosio (Ferapont)
John Fenner Mays (Chebutykin)
Andy Hager (Tuzenbach)
Amanda Hartley (Natasha)
Jacob Murphy (Rode)
Jay Reed (Solyony)
Kathleen Ruhl (Anfisa)
Dan Smith (Vershinin)
Susan Applebaum (Understudy – Anfisa)

 

Production Staff:

Producer: Jodi Gottberg
Production Stage Manager: Wendy Woodward*
Scenic Design: Aaron Menninga
Technical Director: Bernard Chin
Lighting Design: Andrew Iverson & Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Costume Design: Bill Morey
Composition & Sound Design: Collin Warren
Sound Engineer: Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Properties Design: Jesse Gaffney
Asst. Director & Dramaturg: Stephen Fedo
Asst. Stage Manager: Chad Duda
Asst. to the Director: Skye Robinson Hillis
Costume Assistant: Melissa Ng
Production Intern: Nathaniel Williams

* Member, Actors Equity Association

Nofs-Snyder, Batista, Underwood - H