Review: At Home At The Zoo (Victory Gardens Biograph)

 

A fascinating evening at the ‘Zoo’

 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
At Home At The Zoo
  
Written by Edward Albee  
Directed by Dennis Zacek
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Halsted (map)
through October 31  |   tickets: $35 – $50 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“You are very good in bed,”  a wife tells her husband with imploring sincerity during the Edward Albee’s  Homelife, “I just wish you’d be bad once in a while.”  So goes the one-act piece’s conversation of domestic crisis,  an emotionally complex and elegantly worded discourse between a long-time couple, deeply in love with each other and deeply restless within lives of sheltered security.

By pairing Albee’s new work Homelife with his career-launching The Zoo Story, the Victory Gardens Theater creates a mostly fascinating evening.  Alone, The Zoo Story is a harshly compelling, self-contained  cryptogram of a play – nasty, brutish, violent and short and embedded with disturbing questions about the origin of its violence. Seen with Homelife, The Zoo Story receives a rich, contextual background that makes the piece blaze with heightened immediacy.

To see The Zoo Story is to recoil in shock as an encounter on a Central Park bench moves from civilized pleasantries to bestial bloodsport. The Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Laurentransition is both inexorable and unexpected. With a final, stabbing climax, Albee makes his audience confront more than a few scary concepts. Among them: The tragic fruit of incurable isolation and the disquieting notion that for some people, the world will always be an unwelcoming and awful place. Then there’s the whole idea that no matter how well you insulate yourself – no matter how carefully you cocoon yourself with the trappings of a stable home and family and career – you cannot protect yourself from random outbreaks of life-altering chaos. Your well-appointed home, loving wife and pleasant career can’t save you from mayhem.

Directed by Dennis Zacek, both Homelife and The Zoo Story (produced together as “At Home At The Zoo”) make for a provocative production. The primary problem with the evening is that Homelife is more of a prolonged set-up for The Zoo Story than a drama that can stand on its own. Even so, the issues of the upper-middle class white couple Peter (Tom Amandes) and Ann (Annabel Armour) are delivered with sharp-shooter precision straight to the core of the heart.

Armour’s Ann captures the yearning dissatisfaction of someone trapped in a gilded cage, a spirit so completely tamed that only a flickering spark of its original self remains. That spark, however, is enough to ignite a wildfire of discontent.  When Peter protests that the couple long ago made a decision to live their lives as a  “pleasant journey,” and to “stay away from icebergs,” Ann counters that decades within that safety have left her pining for something “you can’t imagine,” something “terrifying, astonishing, chaotic and mad.”  That yearning is exquisitely rendered by Armour. Live your life as a placid and wholly secure voyage, Ann notes, and you never even really die – you just sort of “vanish.” There’s undeniable terror in that view of the end: Is there anything more scary than the prospect of reaching the end of your life only to realize you’ve never fully lived it? In Homelife, Albee convincingly argues that there is not.

Yet for all the incendiary dialogue of  Homelife, “A Home At The Zoo” doesn’t fully start clicking until its second act with The Zoo Story, when Marc Grapey bursts onto the stage as the unbalanced Jerry. He’s a hilarious loose cannon as the sort of crazy New Yorker whose tone of voice falls just short of overt menace  and whose overall presence is both clownish and embedded with an unmistakable threat of implicit danger.

Tom Amandes - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer2 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 2
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 4 Tom Amandes  - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer

Albee’s contrast between Peter and Ann – a couple so sheltered they’ve lost all track of their own, authentic cores  – and Jerry, whose raw exposed soul is buffeted on all sides by the world’s unkind wildness – is striking and vividly depicted by this pitch-perfect ensemble.

As Peter, Amandes is the very soul of quiet desperation – until he’s not. When Peter finally unleashes the primal howl that he’s squelched for years, the moment is one of supreme destruction and catharsis.  Armour’s Ann is equally powerful in a more subtle manner, mining deeply rooted dissatisfaction and plumbing the fearsome depths of subconscious with intense bravery and dogged effort. And then there’s Grapey, spinning a world of lucid delirium (not as paradoxical as it sounds) and forcing Peter to let loose the great and terrible beast within.  It’s a powerhouse performance, a whirlwind of tragedy and comedy, of inconsolable sorrow and impish playfulness.

Zacek sees that the cast makes the most of Albee’s profound and lacerating dialogue, shaping the trio into a tight-knit ensemble leading its audience into confrontation with some of the darkest pockets of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 3 Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Lauren 2

American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

tobacco road 1 tobacco road 2

Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

tobacco road 3

   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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REVIEW: Jacob and Jack (Victory Gardens)

Fun and witty, with a shmeer of the absurd

 Jacob-and-Jack07

  
Victory Gardens presents
 
Jacob and Jack
 
Written by James Sherman
Directed by
Dennis Zacek
at
Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$48   |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Jacob-and-Jack06‘You must be a good actor. You’re not good-looking enough to make it in L.A. unless you were a good actor.’ Victory Gardens presents the world premiere of Jacob and Jack.  A successful commercial actor returns to Chicago for a Yiddish theatre tribute to his grandfather. Thinking it’s only a staged reading for his mother’s ladies club, Jack has not rehearsed. Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the  ingénue and the theatre sells out.  In a parallel dimension set in 1935, Jacob is preparing for his theatrical moment.  Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the ingénue and the theatre does not sell out. Seventy-five years apart, Jacob and Jack are challenged with a stage actor’s pay, ego and libido. Jacob and Jack is a comedy transcending time. The humor is beautifully showcased in the similarities and differences between past and present theatre. It’s witty with a shmeer of the absurd.

The stage at Victory Gardens has been transformed into three connecting dressing rooms. Mary Griswold (Scenic Designer) has created a backstage peek at the actors’ preparation quarters. They are sparse and dingy and sadly imaginable as exactly the same in 1935 or 2010. Griswold also gives flashes of theatre excitement with partial views of the recognizable marquees for Chicago, Palace and Merle Reskin hovering over the non-glamorous backstage onstage. There are five doors that are used to transition the scene from past to present. Since three of the actors change character but not costume, the doors help the conversion. Director Dennis Zacek uses the opening and shutting doors to add a slapstick element to the amusing chaos.

Photo by Liz Lauren Photo by Liz Lauren
Jacob-and-Jack01   Photo by Liz Lauren

Zacek assembled six phenomenal actors to play twelve different parts. The actor’s duality is recognized in physical and vocal distinctions. In the title role, Craig Spidle (Jack/Jacob) plays up the schmuck as Jack and chutzpah as Jacob. ‘I work in television so I don’t have to rehearse,’ versus ‘I am upstage and you are down, down downstage.’ Either role, he is hilarious, whether cowering under the table or beating his breast in arrogance. His wife in both worlds, Janet Ulrich Brooks (Lisa/Leah) reacts to the philandering with sarcastic jabs of vulnerable disgust as Lisa and solid resignation as Leah. Her funniest moments are perfectly timed bursts of surprising reaction. Laura Scheinbaum (Robin/Rachel) is delightful as both the contemporary confident MFA actor and the anxious deli discovery destined for the stage. Roslyn Alexander (Esther/Hannah) charms as the no-nonsense mother of Jack and the suspicious, protective mother of Rachel. When she breaks out into song, she is everybody’s bubeleh. With the broadest ranges between Jewish immigrant and American stereotype, Daniel Cantor (Ted/Abe) and Andrew Keltz (Don/Moishe) deliver rich versions of both their roles.

Oy, a mecheieh, chochemas! Playwright James Sherman and Director Dennis Zacek have devised a comedic shtick with hilarious results. Sherman has delivered a farce honoring not only the Yiddish theatre but also highlighting the struggles of contemporary theatre. It’s a wonderful reminder that an actor struggles to deliver his ‘gift to you!’ Mazel tov! May you enjoy success from your kishkes! Ahf mir gezogt!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

Photo by Liz Lauren

 

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Olympia Dukakis reads for American Blues

By Leah A. Zeldes

Olympia-Dukakis Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis appears in Chicago Monday, Nov. 16, to read from an upcoming American Blues Theater production. The reading, a passage from ABT’s spring 2010 show, "RIPPED: The Living Newspaper Project" by Eduardo Machado and Rick Cleveland, takes place during a benefit for the newly-reconstituted troupe. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, will also read.

Highlights of benefit, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Bridgeview Bank, 4753 N. Broadway, also include live blues by Chicago band The Skirts, an auction of such items as local theater tickets and a walk-on Broadway role, food and drinks. Tickets are $75, $125 for VIP admission, which includes an earlier reception with Dukakis.

Dukakis, whose film credits include Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Moonstruck, for which she was named Best Supporting Actress, is a long-time friend of ABT ensemble member Carmen Roman. "I’ve watched this company continuously produce incredible, groundbreaking work," Dukakis said. "The 2009/10 season is no exception. I’m honored to be a part of their benefit celebration, and fully support this inspirational Chicago ensemble."

"Starting from scratch without staff and absolutely no money has certainly been a challenge," said ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside, part of the company’s executive/artistic/administrator triumvirate, along with Roman and Heather Meyers.

In March, 23 members of the ensemble left American Theater Company, leaving behind a $1 million annual budget and taking back the American Blues name under which that company formed in 1985. The group, which comprised most of ATC’s actors, departed over differences with its artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, who was hired two years ago from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paparelli had reportedly expelled several members of the company and allowed members increasingly less influence on theatrical decision making.

American Blues Theater members include Cleveland, Dawn Bach, Ed Blatchford, Matthew Brumlow, Kate Buddeke, Casey Campbell, Dennis Cockrum, Lauri Dahl, Tom Geraty, Cheryl Graeff, Lindsay Jones, Kevin R. Kelly, Ed Kross, James Leaming, John Mohrlein, Jim Ortlieb, William Payne, Suzanne Petri, Tania Richard, Editha Rosario, John Sterchi and Stef Tovar.

"I believe the work of the ABT ensemble is vital and important to Chicago’s theater community and our city as a whole," Zacek said.

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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Review: "Relatively Close" at Victory Gardens

Review written by Jackie Ingram.

RelativelyClose3 Victory Gardens’s Relatively Close, written by James Sherman and directed by Dennis Začek is – by all judgments – an excellent production. The theatre is beautiful, so forget about bringing your binoculars, because from any seat you have a great view of the ingenious set, designed by John Stark. Relatively Close takes us into the lives of three sisters, domineering Jan (Penny Slusher), sexy Beth (Laura T. Fisher), and shy Marlene (Wendi Weber).  The sisters must decide in one week how to settle their deceased parent’s summer home. The sisters and their husbands, a doll, and what seems to be an angry teenager completes the fresh, hilarious, and very talented cast. The relationships are easy to relate to and you are slowly pulled into their web of bantering, lies, hip-hop, electrifying rhythmic poetry, Lily, and the lust for another sister’s husband. The unexpected twists and turns keep you guessing right until the end. Do yourself a favor – to get the entertainment pleasure of this show you must see it for yourself. It is funny and heartwarming and you might just see a little bit of your own family on stage. This show is truly a must see event.

Rating: ««««

The three sisters for 'Relatively Close' - Penny Slusher, Laura T. Fisher, and Wendi Weber)

The cast of 'Relatively Close'

 

Production Relatively Close
Producers: Victory Gardens
Playwright James Sherman
Directed By: Dennis Zacek
Starring: Usman Ally (Yousef), Daniel Cantor (Ron), Laura T. Fisher (Beth), David Gonzales (Dylan), Penny Slusher, (Jan), Wendi Weber (Marlene), Dexter Zollicoffer (Arthur)
Set Design: John Stark
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Lighting: Julie Mack
Sound: Andre Pluess
Stage Manager: Tina M. Jach
More information: www.victorygardens.org