Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: My Filthy Hunt (The Right Brain Project)

     
     

‘My Filthy Hunt’ sells itself on grit, but offers better

     
     

Elizabeth Orr, Bries Vannon, The Right Brain Project, My Filthy Hunt

   
Right Brain Project, i/a/w Horizon Arts and Richard Jordan Productions presents
   
My Filthy Hunt
      
Written by Philip Stokes
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru March 19  | 
tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In the first minute of Philip Stokes’ curiously-titled My Filthy Hunt, four brooding actors stare down the audience, strip to their skivvies, then bounce around while manically accompanying some blaring rock.

From this unpromising start comes a thoughtful, engaging, sensitive play about devastation and recovery.

Though it doesn’t “spit in the face of theatrical convention” as the show’s press release–and indirectly, the grim, tawdry posters– suggest, it’s probably Erin Elizabeth Orr, Greg Wenz, Right Brain Project, My Filthy Huntbest that it doesn’t. “In-yer-face theatre” is challenging in the era of anything-goes art, and dependence on shock to elicit attention usually comes at the sacrifice of actual substance. These artists have something to say, and though the source-material may allow it to in lesser directorial hands, the message doesn’t get muddied with an initiative to offend.

Even when delivered by players in their underpants.

Four strong, detached monologues follow the opening, each centering on sexual or emotional insecurities. The cast (comprised of Erin Elizabeth Orr, Emma Peterson, Bries Vannon, and Greg Wenz) is animated and earnest, finding the anguish and humor in each speech.

When those concepts overlap, such as when a young man relays his attempt to commit suicide with a bottle of fish oil supplements, the ensemble is at its best. Likewise, a woman’s lament about the more sinister side of growing up attractive is touching and thought-provoking.

The latter-half of this one-act is where director Nathan Robbel’s focus on specificity really shines. The quartet responds to a tragedy with a tightly-woven, almost Pinter-like scene of short-fused call-and-response dialogue. It’s almost musical. The details of the event are left mostly in the background, but they’re unimportant. Elements of loss are universal, and these actors convey them with empathy and authenticity. One shouts out for donuts, and we see the nonsense that can overtake us in moments where reality becomes incomprehensible.

Stokes’ text is composed with a careful hand, exploring dark issues with a sense of maturity and restraint. His otherwise talky play is made visually fascinating by Robbel’s movement work–always enough to heighten the stories without distracting from them.

Robbel makes playful, decisively physical use of The Right Brain Project’s tiny (it’s a stretch to call the space a black box) Ravenswood theater. Though sight-lines are at times an issue, the production team embraces the opportunity for smart minimalism. There are no props save for some cell phones and one well-used coat rack, and many of the emotional and thematic shifts are indicated through Michael C. Smith’s resourceful lighting design.

Good theatre doesn’t require much to be compelling. My Filthy Hunt is an argument for how.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bries Vannon, Elizabeth Orr, Right Brain Project, My Filthy Hunt

My Filthy Hunt continues through March 19th (8:00pm Thursdays – Saturdays, 7:00pm Sundays), with an additional industry performance scheduled Monday, March 7th. Admission is a suggested donation of $15. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling the RBP box office at 773.750.2033, or by emailing requests to tickets@therbp.org. For more information, please visit www.therbp.org.   All photos by Nathan Robbel.

     
     

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