REVIEW: Kennedy’s Children (Promethean Ensemble)

  
  

Kennedy’s Children, all grown up

 

 scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath

       
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
   
Kennedy’s Children
   
Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Dec. 5   |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In a theatre world where children of the ‘60s are being edged out by Millennials, Robert Patrick’s 1974 eulogy for the Kennedy era, Kennedy’s Children, seems a tad dusty. It touches on over-exploited “what did the flower children really achieve” themes, but can keep its freshness more often than not. Although the play—more of a series of monologues, really—could easily fall into becoming another diatribe bemoaning the 1960’s, Patrick’s skilled use of language and narrative saves us from that fate. Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, directed by Terry McCabe, sees a link between the disillusionment of the 70’s and the disillusionment of post-“Yes We Can” America. The connection is there, although the relevance is clouded by the history lessons. Promethean’s production never escapes being a period piece, but it’s one that still resonates.

Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2 McCabe and his team don’t mess with Patrick’s script at all, refusing to deconstruct, overanalyze, update – or whatever the kids are doing this season. Instead, they opt for a straightforward production that presents the play much like it might have been seen in the tiny off-off-Broadway venues Patrick loved so much. On a dreary night in 1974, Valentine’s Day (an absurdly specific choice that is not utilized enough as it should be by the text), five world-weary souls take over a dive bar in a dingy section of New York (pretty much any part during the ‘70s).

Taking turns, the quintet orate their tales, thoughts, and philosophies straight to the audience, never acknowledging the others on-stage (apart from hailing down the silent bartender, of course). There’s the Marilyn Monroe-fixated Carla (Devon Candura), a starlet who never made it and never will, even though she’s slept with enough producers. Then there’s Mark (Nick Lake), a drug-addled, slightly insane Vietnam veteran who reads letters to his mother and entries in his diary. Of course, Patrick includes a hippie past her prime, Rona (Anne Korajczyk). The most autobiographical character is Sparger (Tom Weber), a gay performer who’s worked in just about every back room, church basement, and community center. The play is rounded out by Wanda (Shawna Tucker), an aging schoolteacher with a Kennedy obsession.

As you probably guessed, this isn’t a very uplifting experience.   Kennedy’s Children is sort of about Kennedy, but it’s really about a collective consciousness, one that’s been battered and bruised into depression. It’s not surprising that the play dabbles in over-the-top disenchantment and cynicism. Maybe when Kennedy, King, and Hendrix were recently buried Patrick’s tribute tapped into unspoken ideas, but by now a lot of the ground has been covered multiple times. That’s not to say this play should be tossed in the garbage. The first half is clunky and exposition-heavy, but the stories heat up in the second act, causing the whole production to suck in the audience.

 

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 5 Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 4

This play needs outstanding performances to survive, and McCabe’s cast is up to the challenging, direct-address style piece. Tucker is the highlight of the production, lending her portrayal of Wanda some skittish neurosis and just a dab of blind hope. If any character is constructive, it’s Wanda, who went out to teach children, inspired by the memory of the fallen president. Weber and Candura are also engrossing; they’re prone to tragedy and histrionics, but so are their characters. Korajczyk and Lake are weaker performers. Korajczyk revels in Rona’s cynicism too much, and Lake pushes the crazy too hard.

In the end, McCabe’s search for relevance is successful. I’m not a child of Kennedy, but Patrick’s sad stories still struck a nerve. The bar patrons’ mopeyness teeters on self-indulgent, but the disappointment rings true.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2

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REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

springawake1

 
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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