REVIEW: Blackbird (Guild Theater)

 

Romance Interruptus or the Same Old Coitus Interruptus?

 

 Blackbird - Promo 004

  
Guild Theater presents
   
Blackbird
   
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Daniel Scott
at Stage Left Theatre, address (map)
through August 25th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless! Pitiless! That’s the only way.”
         —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I can’t tell you the extent to which I’ve anticipated reviewing Guild Theater’s production of Blackbird. The success of David Harrower’s 80-minute one-act has been legendary. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award, critical acclaim on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and then local fame generated by Victory Gardens’ superlative production last July, Blackbird was a well-established phenomenon before I stepped through the doors of Stage Left Theatre to see it.

That build-up may have been a little too much for Guild Theater’s Spartan, no-frills rendering. But the problem lies more in Harrower’s basic plot premise and not so much in Daniel Scott’s careful direction or the sincerely wrought performances of David Schaplowsky as Ray and Cassandra Cushman as Una.

A young woman confronts a middle-age man at his workplace; he shows deep anxiety at her presence there and repeatedly asks her to leave. She persists in interrogating him with fragments of past events. It soon becomes clear that they know each other from long ago and the young woman is pursuing with him her unfinished business over a failed relationship. The nature of that relationship reveals its shock, scandal and gravity once the audience learns this couple’s “affair” began when he was 40 and she was 12.

Now as to the “true” nature of their relationship: was it true romance for the both of them or was it child abuse? Was it undeniable passion or overwhelming perversity? Was her interest in him bold, precocious sexuality or was it the vulnerability of childhood loneliness, chaffing under parental oppression? Was his interest in her an inappropriate love he could not master or was it cold, calculated exploitation?

The audience has nothing to rely upon except the fragmented narratives and traded accusations of two unreliable characters. Only one other character enters briefly at the end. The rest is “He Said, She Said,”–only Una was prepubescent when the deed was done. Harrower’s script dangles the audience between the play’s thematic moral absolutes. Is Una a damaged young woman whose innocent childhood was blighted too early, or a bold, sexually rebellious girl whose sexual transgressions went waaay beyond conventional understanding? Was she “asking for it”?

Is she still asking for it by stalking Ray with her confrontation? Is her confrontation about achieving closure or is it about reopening their relationship now that both of them are adults, legally speaking? Is Ray a lying, seducing cad without any moral compass or a repentant sinner striving to adhere to his new, principled life? Can he resist Una’s disturbingly needy bid for his attention and love or will his resistance collapse under replayed memories, emotional immaturity, and unbalanced psychological patterns re-emerging from the depths? Will mad, unbridled and perverse love win again against decency, mental health and morality?

Thus the thematic and ethical juggling of Blackbird leads to its inevitable climax. Or should I say, climax interruptus? Both Cushman and Schaplowsky build deeply sympathetic, if troubling, characters. Scott’s direction emphasizes absolute naturalness and that fits Stage Left’s intimate theater space to a tee. Schaplowsky in particular brings searing emotional exposure to Ray’s troubled soul. Cushman strives to bring psychological verity to Una’s troubled state and Scott’s direction certainly gives the actors the space to grow into these parts. The trouble is that these characters’ troubled souls are dragging on the dramatic pace and Guild’s production lacks the drive that can keep an audience guessing at which moral conundrum will come up next.

Unfortunately Blackbird’s problems are larger than slower-than-necessary, if thoughtful, performances. Essentially, Blackbird is pornography dressed up to look like social consciousness—dressed up perhaps because it thinks its audience will always be polite company. Bad enough that Harrower’s play begins with that stereotypical porn canard—the woman who falls in love with her (statutory) rapist—the whole point of this play’s sojourn is to precisely end up with our star-crossed lovers’ final sexual encounter, which is then immediately thwarted by the entry of Girl (Marrissa Meo – recently seen in the highly-successful 7-month run of Red Twist’s Pillowman). That’s the moment Una and Ray’s psychologically illicit tryst finally falls apart. It’s porn with a conscience but, for all its other stereotypes, Harrower might as well have brought in a character playing the Pizza Guy for good measure.

Let’s be fair. Much more precisely, Blackbird is an almost comically complex melodrama. Comedy, melodrama and pornography are all genres that depend on types for dramatic action more than full-fledged, three-dimensional characters. Those types are put into situations and those situations play out in fairly predictable ways. Blackbird’s ultimate sexual encounter is telegraphed long before the end. One can feel manipulated by all the play’s twisty steps along the way, but ultimately, we’ll get to the porn ending when the woman finally shows she’s wanted her rapist all along. Since they are so true to porn type, can any real connection be built between the audience and these characters? Ray and Una themselves cannot seem to relate to each other beyond type, whether that type is victim and predator or Naughty School Girl and Teacher.

Making it real, making both these characters real enough for the audience to truly care what happens to them, that is the burden that theater artists must bare. Any theater company taking on Blackbird has to battle against the romantic porn fantasy that Harrower sets up at the beginning.

The real pornography of Harrower’s play, however, is not the sex that almost happens between Ray and Una or the sex they had long ago. It’s their wallowing in shame, regret and stifled yearning—that’s the real spectacle put up for our enjoyment. Since few realistic insights about child abuse or under-aged sex can be found here, you’ll excuse me if I turn to the more pleasurable entertainments of “Debbie Does Dallas”.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Blackbird features Guild company members Cassandra Cushman and David Schaplowsky, along with Marissa Meo, and is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Scott. Performances will be at 8pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, August 16-18 and 23-25 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago, IL (map). Tickets are $15 and $10 for industry; reservations may be made by calling (312) 613-8885 or emailing guildtheaterprods@gmail.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door with cash only. The box office will open at 7:30 on the days of the performance.

REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

Strawdog and Brecht a wicked good combo

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

 
Strawdog Theatre presents
 
The Good Soul of Szechuan
 
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
David Harrower
Directed by
Shade Murray
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 29th  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Bertolt Brecht believed epic theatre would reveal society’s immorality and incite virtuous action in its viewer. The genre is formulaic by nature, and in the wrong hands, epic theatre is just tedious. The techniques intended to alienate the audience – actors playing multiple characters, unrealistic settings, costumes and props in plain sight, the occasional musical interlude – do just that, but have the potential to disinterest more than disaffect. It takes a skilled ensemble to find emotional resonance when a script intentionally creates a hurdle in the actor’s connection with the audience, but Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.comStrawdog Theatre’s cast and creative team use the conventions of epic theatre to enhance David Harrower’s gritty translation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The updated language pulls Szechuan into the present, turning the city into a modern industrial metropolis filled with selfish people that hate their lives as much as they each other. The dialogue should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been on the CTA, with the characters indulging in profanity-driven whining as prostitute protagonist Shen Te (Michaela Petro) tries her hardest to appease their demands. Modernizing the language has the potential to push the style into realism, but there is enough stage business and audience participation to keep the theatrical artifice at the forefront. As patrons are seated, a house band plays rousing folk-rock while actors warm up on stage and interact with unsuspecting members of the audience. Make no mistake, these are actors putting on a show, not actually the characters they portray. So it’s still epic.

From the orgasmic chants of “Shen-te, Shen-te, Shen-te!” that signal the main character’s entrances to the ethereal strings that soundtrack the Gods’ (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, Anita Chandwaney) scenes, music is used to quickly establish tone and give the actors added support. Intended as one of those pesky alienation techniques, the musical numbers have such energy and passion that it is difficult to not feel moved, especially when the entire ensemble raises their voices together. The actors double as the band, and their vocal quality is matched by clear and confident accompaniment that showcases the various instrumental talents of the cast. The only song that never really clicks is “The Song of Smoke,” a headbanger sung by Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts) that lingers a little too long and stretches the character’s fury past its breaking point.

Director Shade Murray is adept at tragicomedy, and he finds the humor in Harrower’s downtrodden Szechuan. When Shen Te can no longer handle the greed of those she aids, she creates Shui Ta, a brash male alter ego. Shui Ta’s tracksuit and gangster swagger are laughable, but when Petro puts on her ass-kicking boots she does not play around, especially when she pulls out a brick of heroin. The exaggeration of her costuming and behavior strike a comedic chord as her actions take her deeper into darkness, creating laughs that are tinged with uneasiness. Most of the humor comes from the characters acting despicably – the aggressive disrespect of Shen Te’s houseguests, the flippant bitchiness of her landlord Mrs. Shin (Shannon Hoag) – and each laugh is another reminder that this is a performance, forcing the audience to question what exactly is so funny.

In the end, it’s another Brecht show with another Brecht message: Capitalism makes people do bad things. The biggest problem with epic theatre is that after a while it’s just not fun to watch people struggling, but when a company is having as much fun as Strawdog does in The Good Soul of Szechuan, the dark corners of human depravity don’t seem that bad a place to be.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

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Chris Jones announces 10 best plays of 2009

The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009

For the complete description, explanations and reviews of these plays (and others), be sure to visit Chris Jones’ excellent blog: The Theater Loop


1. The Arabian Nights by Mary ZimmermanLookingglass Theatre  (our review)

 

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2. The History Boys by Nicholas HytnerTimeline Theatre 

 

3. The Overwhelming by J.T. RogersNext Theatre 

4. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer DiazVictory Gardens (our review)

chaddeity2

5. Blackbird by David HarrowerVictory Gardens (our review)

 

6. Cabaret by Kander and EbbDrury Lane Oakbrook (our review)

 

7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean GraneyCourt Theatre (our review)

 

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8. Graceland by Ellen FaireyProfiles Theatre (our review)

 

9. Oh Coward!devised by Roderick CookWriters’ Theatre (our review)

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10. Stud Terkel’s Not WorkingSecond City e.t.c.

 

Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”

Desire Under the ElmsGoodman Theatre

Little Foxes Shattered Globe Theatre 

Miss SaigonDrury Lane Oakbrook

Old Glory Writers’ Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass Teatro Vista Theatre

Rock ‘n’ RollGoodman Theatre

Top Dog/Underdog American Theater Company and Congo Square Theatre

 Twelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theatre 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Marriott Theatre

Review: Steep Theatre’s “Kill the Old, Torture Their Young”

Out of Place, Out of Time

kill-old

Victory Gardens presents:

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young

by David Harrower
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The success of Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre this summer has exposed Chicago to the work of Edinburgh born playwright David Harrower. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young, onstage at Steep Theatre, is Harrower’s second play, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998, fresh from his breakout success with Knives in Hens (1995).

“Kill the Old, Torture Their Young” is also the name of a song by Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative grunge band, which also had its beginnings in the mid-90s under the name Screwfish. Interestingly enough, Harrower bookends his play with monologues from a nameless Rock Singer (Derek Garner), commenting on modern alienation from an airplane in flight. But any connection between the two may have more to do with the 90’s explosion of Scottish culture than anything else. It’s not that the playwright might be familiar with Biffy Clyro; it’s that the band’s lyrics, too, are chockfull of the alienation and dislocation that inform Harrower’s central themes.

Steep Theatre’s production dislocates Kill the Old, Torture Their Young even further, from its cultural and historical roots. Placing the action in America, the actors do not engage in Scottish dialect; nor is there much of a strong nod to the 1990s postmodern use of multiple narratives–experimentation that ultimately influenced major commercial films like Magnolia. Director Katherine Walsh’s choices would be more than excusable with a stronger cast, with better timing to pull off all the nuanced humor of Harrower’s writing. However, given the unevenness of performances and lack of a cohesive ensemble, this production loses its bearings in more ways than one.

What also goes missing is daring punk/grunge energy that would better inform the rage of a character like Darren (Niall McGinty), a man whose thwarted ambition to become an actor results in otherwise inexplicable violence. Much like the Scottish novel Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, made into a major motion picture, Kill the Old, Torture Their Young contains an underlying current of rebellion against alienating daily capitalist existence. That rage, unfortunately, goes largely unexploited and un-acted on in this production. Sadly, characters in this production seem to share only common resignation to the dreary, meaninglessness rhythm of their commodified lives.

That being said, a few performances create interest. Jim Poole’s quiet and stirring portrayal of Steven stands out, as the manager who could film the city he loves better than Robert (Peter Moore), the famous documentarian hired to do the job. Nice moments are created between Robert and Heather (Julia Siple) in a hotel room together. Paul (Leonard Kraft) and Angela (Bronwen Prosser) make a realistic pair of lost souls, who will likely stay together even if one doesn’t know what to do about the other. James Allen’s chagrined Birdwatcher and Patricia Donegan’s random Woman in Robes add badly needed humor and spice to the proceedings.

Rating: ««

 

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Kathryn Walsh
Asst. Director: Alex Hugh Brown
Prod. Manager: Julia Siple
Scenic Design: Dan Stratton
Lighting Design Samantha Szigeti
Costume Design: Melissa Torchia
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Choreographer: Joey de Bettencourt
Stage Manager: Jen Poulin
Cast: James Allen
Patricia Donegan
Dereck Garner
Leonard Kraft
Niall McGinty
Peter Moore
Jim Poole
Bronwen Prosser
Julia Siple

Review: Victory Garden’s “Blackbird”

 

Blackbird confrontation

Blackbird

a play by David Harrower

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The much anticipated dramatic play Blackbird, staring William Peterson and Mattie Hawkinson is indeed quite disturbing; it gives humanity to both a child molester and his victim as their characters are presented on stage un-judged by the author David Harrower.

blackbird_mattie&william David Harrower has written a soul-stirring play that shows the complexity of human emotions and the struggle we have with guilt and being honest with ourselves. David Harrower does not try to justify Ray’s action nor is in favor of abolishing the age limit for sexual maturity, he sees his work as more of a metaphor for questioning other social norms. Harrower lets the characters stumble through their emotions, not demonizing or giving false purity to either character. Both characters show their humanity, with flaws and wrongful desires along with kindness and love. How horrible a crime was committed is left to the audience to think about and decide, Ray and Una struggle on stage to find that out for themselves.

Fifteen years ago when Ray was in his forties, he befriended a twelve year old girl Una. After serving three years in prison for child abduction, he has painfully put together a new life. After seeing a picture of Ray in a magazine at her doctor’s office Una has come to confront her past assailant. In Ray’s empty office cafeteria the emotional confrontation between them goes in unexpected directions as the molester and victim meet, or possibly it is past lovers meeting again.

blackbird_arguing William Peterson sucks the life out of his character to portray a beat-down Ray just fighting to get from day to day. Peterson’s ability to darken his emotions and stumble with the confidence to express himself is extraordinary. The choices Ray made in his past were absolutely wrong, but what was his motive? How did he let himself form a relationship with a twelve year old girl? William Peterson captures Ray’s inner struggle with the guilt of his actions and the justifications he believes means something.

William Peterson is a star, but this show belongs to Mattie Hawkinson.

Ms. Hawkinson, capturing her character’s poised and nervous state, came on to the stage as Una and through out her personal conversation with Ray keeps the audience glued to her with their attention. With just two characters in most of the play, Mattie proves that she belonged on stage with the best of them. After watching my favorite actor (William Peterson) the first comment I had when I left the theatre was “Get ready for Mattie Hawkinson.” This should be a break out performance to a great career.

blackbird meetingThe set, a cold, desolate cafeteria, was designed by Dean Taucher, and he presents a set that, thought simplistic, is actually very detailed. The remains of coworkers’ lunches are left strewn about, just another mess in the typical unfinished cleaning-up that takes place in a cafeteria. The room that earlier in the day was busy with people and filled with life is now completely empty until the next morning, like the void that fills both Una and Ray’s heart since their earlier relationship. The setting never leaves the office cafeteria and the time of the day expels a creepy lonesome feeling. It seems strange a victim of a sexual crime would meet her predator there.

Blackbird won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of a Tony Award) for best new play in 2007, beating out tough competition with plays such as Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” and Tom Stoppard’s” Rock and Roll.” Making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens, Director Dennis Zacek allows the unique text and talented actors carry the one act conversation.

Blackbird possesses that unique quality found in theatre of presenting a topic that forces the audience to an uncomfortable edge, as their skin crawls with the thought of empathizing with ideas that go against their moral core. It forces you to question the most reviled actions in society, leading one to question personal crimes you have committed and how it would play out if you were confronted with the past fifteen years later.

Rating: «««½

Where: Victory Gardens Theatre
When: Thru – Aug 9, 2009
Tickets: $30-$58, Box Office: 773-871-3000

 2818Fe

 

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