Review: Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Project 891 Theatre)

  
  

Project 891 gives us sly, subversive, down-low Joe Orton

 
 
  Tracy Garrison, David Schaplowsky Aaron Kirby, David Schaplowsky  

Project 891 Theatre presents
 
Entertaining Mr. Sloane
  
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ron Popp
at
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre Company loves to take little trips down memory lane. What they’ve struck upon with Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a period piece wherein audiences may recall the subversion that “gay” once was–and that queer deconstructive politics constantly tries to resurrect. Ron Popp’s direction belies a delicate understanding of each character’s psychological state, yet unstintingly serves up gay transgression in its original down-low incarnation–with all its seedy, low-rent perspective intact.

Tracy Garrison, Aaron Kirby, David SchaplowskyAs such, Project 891’s rough and simple production reinvigorates an interrogation of the pretensions of middle class respectability from a queer position. It is as refreshing as it is dangerous. All the same, be prepared for this production’s emphasis on the emotional more than farcical elements of Joe Orton’s dark comedy. Whether Popp has given us a kinder, gentler slant on Orton’s work is a question worthy of debate—it certainly goes for quieter laughs and for deeply nuanced performance.

Kath (Tracy Garrison) rents out a room to young Mr. Sloane (Aaron Kirby), a self-confessed orphan, in the hopes of someday being able to afford a rest home for her father, Kemp (Gary Murphy). Garrison immediately sets up Kath’s emotional, as well as sexual, neediness in her negotiations with Sloane. Fear of scandal and censure from the neighbors motivates her cover story as a widow—she is actually an unwed mother who had to surrender her child, who would now be Sloane’s age. Garrison accurately conveys the mentality of a woman who has always had to settle for very little, yet persistently, yearningly inches for every little bit more. Her psychologically incestuous attraction to Mr. Sloane only enhances her thinly veiled desperation and wittily contrasts with her neurotic observance of propriety.

Kirby possesses all the handsomeness and charm his role requires. Rather than digging into the salaciousness of his character, however, he projects sly and equanimous content in letting others project their desires upon him. Besides his chemistry with Garrison, it’s a pleasure to watch his Sloane play sexual straight man (if that word can be used) to Ed (David Schaplowsky), Kath’s closeted brother, who shares her obsessions with propriety and terror of social opprobrium. Shaplowsky is never more hilarious than when Ed insists upon the purity of manly virtues, excoriates the conniving lusts of women—particularly his sister—or when he becomes shocked at evidence of Sloane’s coitus with her. In addition, he renders some truthfully tender moments for Ed, in surprising and sympathetic contrast to his usual closeted, social-climbing, misogynist douchebaggery.

Aaron Kirby, Tracy GarrisonGarrison, Kirby and Shaplowsky make a cunning ménage a trois. The trickier part seems to be to integrate Murphy’s performance as Kemp, “the Dada,” into the whole proceedings. Kemp’s initial encounter with Sloane drags and seems leaden, even with its revelation of the terrible secret Kemp has over him. Also, Sloane’s attack on Kemp needs far edgier veracity, both in fight choreography and Sloane’s sudden expressions of psychopathology. This production is terribly interesting, in that it makes a case for Sloane’s pathology being the result of his hypocritical environment—but that cannot be allowed to dull the shock of violence that Orton’s script demands.

Plus, other basic flaws in execution, like dialect slippage and technical trouble with lighting on opening night, keep this production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane from being a truly superlative one. Hopefully, there will be corrections in the course of the run–its delicate and nuanced aspects are truly worth seeing. By the time Ed and Kath have sealed the deal on Sloane, we pity him, for all his murderous tendencies. Old age and treachery shall always overcome youth and skill. Indeed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

    Tracy Garrison Aaron Kirby, Gary Murphy   

Entertaining Mr. Sloan continues through March 27th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8P and Sundays at 2P. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online. Go to project891theatre.com for more info.

[http://youtu.be/lu6Nk75zM5o]

           

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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: Charley’s Sonata (On the Spot and La Costa)

Cliché-ridden family drama never finds the beat.

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On the Spot Theatre Company and La Costa Theatre present
 
Charley’s Sonata
 
Written and Directed by Mike Brayndick
Original music by Stephen Gawrit
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through May 23rd  |
  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

The writer-director is a dangerous animal. A writer’s primary task is to provide the foundation of the play, establishing style, creating plot and characters, and putting words in the actors’ mouths. Everything starts with the script. The director takes these elements and gives them life, coaching actors and working with a design team with the ultimate goal of enriching the source material. Manipulating these factors garners IMG_4600 an emotional reaction from the audience, and the director builds the connection that will determine the play’s success. It takes a massive amount of work and skill to do both well, but the main reason these roles are kept separate is because they create a system of checks and balances. The writer protects the integrity of the script, the director protects the integrity of the stage. When two become one, it can get ugly, and Charley’s Sonata ain’t pretty. The script lacks focus, struggling to balance multiple storylines about stereotypical characters, and the directorial choices are simply illogical, from unnecessarily long scene changes to the general overacting of the ensemble.

Charley (Stephen Gawrit) is the developmentally challenged son of Jonathan (David Schaplowsky) and Carol (Jennifer Young) who disappears on a family vacation in London. The events of the day Charley vanished are intertwined with various plots occurring four years later, when Jonathan and his daughter Miriam (Emma Brayndick) return to London for the reading of a relative’s will. Jonathan and Carol’s struggling marriage, Miriam’s romantic troubles, cousins Edwin (Daniel Ochoa) and Janice’s (Sandria-Jane Dajani) issues with Edwin’s mother Patricia (Janet Magnuson), and side stories involving who gets the inheritance and Patricia’s super-weird relationship with Charley are all covered, and the result is a jumbled mess that feels only half finished.

Charley’s Sonata has as much emotion as the title character’s tinny Casio. Relationships don’t feel organic, especially Miriam’s out-of-nowhere romance with a British boy and his subsequent infatuation with her; the stakes aren’t fully realized, one of the key factors that separates acting from line-reading. The cliché-ridden dialogue becomes a chore to get through – I’ve only been to London once, but I don’t think I ever heard anyone say “gov” – making the conflicts feel derivative and the production just plain boring. The show’s momentum is further diminished by the numerous lengthy scene changes, most of which are completely extraneous. At one point it takes almost an entire minute for one potted plant to be placed, which serves absolutely no purpose other than suggesting Edwin and Janice are redecorating, which is still pointless. It’s wasteful and inconsiderate to the audience, who pays to see characters interacting, not set pieces getting moved around.

 

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Granted, the character interactions also leave something to be desired. The actors struggle with the dialect, jump on each other’s lines, and occasionally even forget the name of the character they’re talking to. Schaplowsky and Dajani provide the most enjoyable performances, the former showing a genuine love for his family and fear for their future, and the latter giving some great comic relief with a spot-on dialect. Considering the amount of time spent focusing on it, Charley shows few signs of a developmental disorder other than the occasional breakdown of a contraction (“don’t” becomes “do not”, “won’t” becomes “will not”), and while Gawrit does a fine job performing Charley’s monologues, they are so eloquent that it becomes difficult to believe the character’s circumstances. Why doesn’t Charley just pick up a phone and call his parents? The whole plot hinges on Charley not being able to take care of himself, but he somehow finds a way to leave his parents a recording of his sonata while lost in a foreign country. It just doesn’t make any sense. Did he have a disc burner in his back pack? Why didn’t he send them an e-mail? These inconsistencies are what hurt the play the most, and while the cast is committed to their work, it’s hard to build a solid product on a faulty foundation.

 
 
Rating: ★½
 
 

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