Review: That Was Then (Seanachai Theatre)

     
     

A jilting dinner party with Seanachai

     
     

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Seanachai Theatre presents
  
That Was Then
  
Written by Gerard Stembridge
Directed by
Carolyn Klein
at
The Irish American Heritage Center (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The style-smashing populist playwright Bertolt Brecht thought there should be more drama written about economics, the stuff that effects real people at all times—he pined to write a play about fluctuations in grain prices. Yet finding conflict and character in dollars and cents can mean pretty dry theatre. It seems audiences prefer more exciting fare—romance, tragedy, dysfunctional marriages. However, every so often, a play comes along that can masterfully blend people and their circumstances, making something striking and palatable. Gerard Stembridge’s That Was Then, enjoying its Midwest premier by Seanachai Theatre Company, takes on financial trends, nationalism, alcoholism, and love with stunning grace and humor.

On paper, the ideas behind That Was Then sound about as dramatic as stock market analysis. Stembridge focuses on the Celtic Tiger years of the ‘90s, when the Irish economy roared forward and Ireland went from being one of the most impoverished nations in Europe to one of its richest (…and now the country suffers from double-digit unemployment). We watch two dinner parties unfold simultaneously, one before the boom and one after. It’s a Byzantine structure, but Carolyn Klein’s steady direction keeps it from toppling over and the hugely talented cast leaps right into Stembridge’s complex world.

On one half of the stage is the home of Noel (Ira Amyx) and May (Molly Glynn), hard-working Dublinites. The other chunk of the stage belongs to Julian (Joseph Wycoff) and June (Sarah Wellington), a sleek English couple with a talent for, uh, unconventional finance. Noel invites the British couple over for dinner and to ask for a substantial loan. The invitation is returned five years later by Julian and June, who now need to ask the wealthy Noel for help. Drinks are poured, Irish-English tensions rise, and both couples find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

The lightening fast pacing is where That Was Then’s comedy is born. In an instant, we watch Noel transform from a drunk and crude brute to the upstanding sophisticate (one who invests in boy bands and buildings) he becomes. Julian and June go from haughty members of the upper class seeing how the other half lives to a couple on the brink of nervous breakdown. The leaps in time are surprisingly well-orchestrated—there were only a handful of moments where I was wondering whose party I was attending.

Every Seanachai show I’ve seen has been remarkably well-acted, and this one is no different. Amyx is hilarious as the brash Irishman and as the civil businessman. Wellington and Wycoff have a great chemistry playing and plotting off of each other. As the much-maligned May, Glynn possesses strength and humility. By the end, she becomes the most endearing character.

It’s fascinating to watch the difference between Julian’s and Noel’s marriages. Julian and June are on equal footing, even in running an unscrupulous business together. But Noel, even though he loves and cares for her, constantly harangues and belittles May, and refuses to let her know anything about his work. Seanachai bills Stembrudge’s play as a dark comedy, but it delves deeper than that. And if there is a victim in all this loaning, scheming, and spending, it is May.

For a story that plays on modern events that I’m not very familiar with, prejudices I don’t share, and countries I’ve never visited, I feel That Was Then is very relatable. I might not get the Michael Flatley jokes or completely understand the fiscal situation, but Stembridge writes universal themes and layered characters with wit and charm. The style is ingenious and captivating. Seanachai plucks drama out of global economics.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai Theatre)

Dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm

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Seanachai Theatre presents:

Dancing at Lughnasa

 

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Elise Kauzlaric
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox
through April 4th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is the deftly-written female roles. The story concentrates on the interactions, loves, and private catastrophes of the Mundy sisters, five adult women who live together in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg. Friel visits this made-up town in several of his plays, including his smash hit Translations, and here he shows a period directly before massive changes swept over Ireland and the world. Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s ode to nostalgia. It exudes the bittersweet feeling that come along with fond memories of a perfect instant in time, a moment followed by years of strife and hardship.

Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 1 Friel’s play gets a delightful treatment by Seanachai Theatre Company, a group that focuses on producing classic and cutting-edge Irish drama (their home base is the Irish American Heritage Center). I’m about as Irish as a Shamrock Shake, but I was able to relate to this heart-wrenching production, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, on a visceral level. It explores themes that are familiar to us all: the sometimes devastating effects of change and the crystal-clear beauty of a perfect memory.

The 1990 play is set in the summer of 1936. Friel’s world is rife with tension; we’re watching the events directly preceding the bubble popping. In this Ballybeg, the Church is confronted with pagan practices (the play’s action takes place around the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa), the industrial revolution is transforming rural life, and the problems of the world, problems which would explode in a few years, are creeping into the remote corners of Ireland.

The narrator, Michael (the charming Kevin Theis), was seven at the time, but now tells us the story as a middle-aged man with the advantage of knowing what happens next. Not a whole lot of action actually occurs in the play, but we stay riveted to every scene because Michael tosses us tidbits of future adversity.

Even though they are all adults, the Mundy sisters range a great deal in age. They are all unmarried and they all work very hard to keep themselves afloat. The oldest is Kate (a powerful Barbara Figgins), whose motherly leadership and strict Catholicism is equally resented and needed by her sisters. Her middle-aged peer is Maggie (Sarah Wellington), who fills the house with jokes, dancing, and soda bread. Rose (Anne Sunseri) and Agnes (Carolyn Klein) are both in their 30s and have a very special bond with each other. Michael’s mother Chris (Simone Roos) is the youngest, and allows herself to be strung Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 2along by Michael’s charismatic yet deadbeat father, Gerry (Philip Winston). The five sisters have to deal with a new addition to the household, Father Jack (Don Bender), their elderly uncle who just returned from a long mission trip to Uganda, where he has contracted malaria and left his Catholicism behind.

The actresses have a great connection with each other, filling the house with lots of love and lots of hostility. Wellington shines the most—she is lovely, vibrant, and fun, yet can still find Maggie’s vulnerability and loneliness. The script says that Rose has a developmental disorder, but this doesn’t come across in Sunseri’s performance, she just seems like the youngest sister (which might be a choice by Kauzlaric). This isn’t a huge problem, but it muddles a later scene involving possible sexual abuse. Beyond this issue, the five women capture the sibling relationship wonderfully. Sometimes they are sweet as honey, sometimes they can’t stand to be under the same roof.

Alan Donahue’s set handles the play well, but Sarah Hughey’s lights are clunky and disjointed. This Dancing at Lughnasa does not skimp on the dancing and music, all of it adding to the joy and drama of the piece.

Even though every aspect of this show is Irish, it hits on something we all know. Seanachai’s production is gorgeous and tragic, dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

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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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