REVIEW: Devilish Children-Civilizing Process (Dream Thtr)

   
  

Naughty children demand gnarly punishment

 

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Dream Theatre presents
   
The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process
    
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Based on German tales by Heinrich Hoffmann
at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $12-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Are children little monsters? Do they need constant discipline in order to be molded into socially acceptable beings? Is terror a useful and appropriate tool to insure obedience and good behavior? Is a certain level of cruelty always necessary when raising children? Dream Theatre has long produced disturbing archetypal works by its Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu. But his new play, The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process, digs deep into the very foundations of what we like to believe is cultured order and proper education. Beneath the veneer of discipline lies violence to spontaneous playfulness, emotional well-being and childlike innocence.

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 031All of which is just fine with the cast. Directed by the playwright, they plunge with relish into their new production’s dark savagery, based on the 19th century collection of German cautionary children’s tales by early psychologist Heinrich Hoffmann. “Der Struwwelpeter” became a European classic in its day and served as the inspiration for the breakout 1998 musical, Shockheaded Peter. Anna Menekseoglu, who plays Pauline, remembers an English version of the book from her childhood—as a little girl, its illustrations absolutely fascinated her.

Little Karl, Age 3 (Judith Lesser) has been banished by her German father, referred to only as Vati (Chad Sheveland), to a dark and foreboding place because he misbehaves. Here, Vati tells him, he will learn to become civilized, to act like a gentleman, and earn the right to associate with the rest of world. Once abandoned, he falls under the instruction of the other abandoned, macabre and threatening children in the garret. They perform one story after another on the essential lessons that will make Karl, Age 3, ready for society—never suck your thumb, don’t be a crybaby, don’t run and jump about, don’t play with matches, etc.

Each cautionary tale is a minor adventure in horror. It is not enough to instruct. Karl, Age 3, must be terrified into learning his lessons. To this end, Dream Theatre employs simple stage effects, masks and some pretty traditional, but well-timed horror sound design (Jeremy Menekseoglu). The Tall Tailor (Annelise Lawson), who comes to cut off the thumbs of little boys and girls who won’t stop sucking them, is absolutely frightening. In fact, 19th century children’s costuming (Rachel Martindale) so perfectly complements the cast’s crisp and creepy German dialect it’s difficult not to think of the Third Reich and all its mind-blowing cruelty in the pursuit of the racially pure perfect order.

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Menekseoglu and company execute their demon-child roles with sadistic vigor and gruesome enthusiasm. Mishelle Apalategui’s monstrous glee as Romping Polly and Bil Gaines’ calm and sinister delivery as Conrad are particularly memorable. Anna Menekseoglu’s little pyromaniac, Pauline, is just a delight. Humor and play always lurk right beneath the horror, yet the most horrifying lesson for Karl to learn is that he is innately bad and that this place he cannot leave is what he deserves. For him, as well as the rest of us, it’s a relief to see another, more beneficent model of adult masculinity appear near at end of this play–to bring light, generosity and joy to an otherwise hopelessly benighted existence.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Devilish Children runs Thursday, October 28 through Sunday, November 21, 2010 with two additional Monday performances on November 8 & 15 at 8:00pm and a special 9:00pm performance on October 30. Performance times are 8pm on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays. Performance location is Dream Theatre, 556 West 18th Street, Chicago.

Featuring Annelise Lawson, Chad Sheveland, Judith Lesser, Bil Gaines, Rachel Martindale, Mishelle Apalategui, Anna Menekseoglu and Jeremy Menekseoglu

Design by Anna Weiler, Giau Truong and Jeremy Menekseoglu.

Based on the German cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

        
         

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REVIEW: Orestes (Dream Theatre)

Daddy’s Little Girl Is a Fighter, Not a Thinker

 

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Dream Theatre presents
  
Orestes
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street  (map)
through August 15th  |  tickets: $15-$18  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Under director and playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu, Dream Theatre rounds out its radical re-visioning of The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ monumental trilogy. Menekseoglu’s Orestes is definitely not The Eumenides, the last play of Aeschylus’ trilogy. By all  indications, Menekseoglu has composed Orestes specifically to contradict everything The Eumenides affirms.

Orestes 184AeschylusThe Eumenides is an origin story about the ancient Athenian patriarchal system of law and order; most scholars see in it the societal transition from vendetta to a system of litigation. In The Eumenides, the goddess Athena invents the 12-man jury system and the god Apollo defends Orestes against the charge of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. But Menekseoglu’s Orestes does not establish any kind of order. Instead, it reveals a dark, underworld Matrix-style order of perpetual tragedy, ruled over by the queenly mother of human misery, Pandora (Rachel Martindale). How interesting that eternal oblivion and human agony get to be maintained by strong, powerful, female figures!

Aeschylus’s The Eumenides begins in nightmare–the Furies drive Orestes mad at the urging of the restless, vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, Orestes’ agony ends in bright promise, hope and blessings for the Athenian polis. By contrast, Menekseoglu’s Orestes begins in nightmare—in a macabre tavern at the edge of Hell—and descends from there into its deepest, darkest, most bizarre center.

Dream Theatre can celebrate. Their production’s direct, simple yet fundamental set and lighting designs (Anna Weiler, Giau Truong, and Jeremy Menekseoglu) have created a vision of underworld unparalleled by small theaters in this city and would be the envy of any larger theater company, who are often surfeit in funding but lacking in imagination. Menekseoglu’s sound design perfectly complements and fixes the atmosphere of this comprehensive, multilayered vision of Hell. If the object of theater is to create an entire world on a finite stage, then Dream Theatre has done it and done it brilliantly.

What a mad, dark, lonely, and hopeless underworld it is. Despair begins long before the descent. Electra (Anna Weiler), spurned by men for the murder of her mother, Clytemnestra, prepares to enter Hell in order to redeem her brother Orestes, whom she compelled to carry out the crime. Just like Xena Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Electra is ready to fight every step of the way to rescue him. She is also prepared to take on all the guilt, if only Orestes can go free.

To that end, Electra waits for Persephone (Theresa Neef), the wife of Hades, to arrive at the tavern on the edge of Hell, little knowing that Cassandra (Alicia Reese) now accompanies her as her maid. For those in need of reminder, Cassandra is the woman that Agamemnon (Menekseoglu), Electra’s father, brought back from his ten-year war against Troy as his captive and spoils, only to be murdered by Agamemnon’s treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, during his assassination. (See our review for Dream Theatre’s first installment of the trilogy, Agamemnon, here ★★★)

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Orestes is a woman’s play through and through; a play written for Electra’s trial, not her brother Orestes’. Her entire underworld journey is her trial and the dark recesses of her mind are her only jury, reflected through her encounters with the characters she meets in Hell. Dream Theatre has successfully created the perfect surreal atmosphere, wherein in the physical space of Hell itself become fused with what is happening in Electra’s mind. The two become indistinguishable.

The play leads Electra to her final, dark encounter with the origin of all human tragedy, Pandora. Depending mightily upon the strength of the actresses who play these four roles, Weiler, Neef, Reese and Martindale hold this play’s fascinating center and bring its action to exciting fruition. What a pleasure to see so much dramatic emphasis given to women’s personal agency.  Yet, Orestes both is and is not an empowering play for women.

Both Neef and Martindale display amazing capacity to maintain regal focus in any scene. Persephone’s decadent drunkenness, caused by agonized resentment over having to return once again to her rapist husband, Hades, does not diminish Neef’s casually arrogant, elegant expressions of entitlement. Martindale’s Pandora, the play’s other queenly figure, may weep with suffering humanity for the suffering she has caused, yet casts an ominous shadow in her dark function to perpetuate tragedy eternally.

Only Cassandra, as a character, begins to weary. Mostly, she childishly and repetitively harangues Electra. She is glad Agamemnon is dead and glad Electra caused Clytemnestra’s death; she would willingly watch Electra kill them both again and again. All the same, she hates Electra for her bloody lineage.

Cassandra’s hatred of Electra is childishly absurd—sadly, the positioning of her childish absurdities is also dramatically weak. Likewise, the scene between Electra and the murdered, innocent children of Medea, Mermerus (Bil Gaines) and Pheres (Giau Truong) is terribly weak. They reside in Hell while their vengeful mother has been spirited away from just retribution by Hera, the (Bitch) Queen of the Gods.

Menekseoglu may be trying to do too much with too little.

On the one hand, the playwright is trying to have powerful female characters, while implicating the unseen hand, Big Daddy Zeus, in the midst of all this injustice toward women and children.  On the other hand, he has to acknowledge the dangers of matriarchal excess—hence the references to Hera and Medea. Part of Menekseoglu’s confusion lies in the violence that happens to children under adult order, patriarchal or matriarchal. Clearly, the attitudes that 21st century Americans have towards children are not those of 5th century BCE Greeks. Children, in that age, had no identity or agency apart from their families. They, even more than women, were persons without rights or status.

In ancient Athens, man was lord, kyrios*, of his household. Everyone else in the household, wife, children, and slaves, were under his control. Furthermore, under the practice of exposure, all children, once they were born, were submitted to their father for either approval or rejection. According to one source on exposure,

The household head, the kyrios, had the right to accept the children and could reject them based on gender, size of the family, physical deformity or frailty, economic considerations, legitimacy, or because they were the offspring of slaves. Disposal was arranged through exposure, a process that involved abandoning an infant to its death to the elements. This practice, rather than simply killing the infant, may have developed because it freed the household from bloodguilt, or because parents truly believed that they were placing their exposed infants in the care of the gods . . . In Sparta, exposure of physically weak or sickly infants was demanded by law and determined by the elders of the tribes rather than the household head.

Exposure was legally and socially acceptable; in no way would a father ever be charged with murder for exposing his child. Furthermore, even though exposure is a major feature in tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, it is often forgotten when modern theatergoers come across Euripides The Medea. Medea’s act of killing her children is not simply jealous revenge against Jason—she is usurping his authority over her children’s lives; through murder, she is taking back her children and claiming them as hers to kill. Some feminist scholars in the 1980s claimed Medea as a feminist icon and some playwrights, like Janet Burroway, have cunningly responded to that kind of misplaced heroine-worship. (See our review of Medea With Child here★★★★)

It’s clear that Menekseoglu doesn’t know about exposure, has forgotten it, or has curiously left it out. When Electra encounters her father Agamemnon in Orestes 237Hell, he tells her he wishes he had thrown her off a cliff instead of letting her live. Well, that sounds curiously, unintentionally anachronistic. The ancient warrior Agamemnon had a fatherly prerogative to dispose of his infant children as he willed. Both Electra and Orestes could have been exposed on Daddy’s orders and he would have been well within his rights. It’s doubtful their mother, Clytemnestra, would ever have raised a fuss, not because Clytemnestra was an evil bitch who hated Electra and Orestes, but because exposure was an option available to every husband. Surely, the ancient Electra would be fully aware of the husband’s prerogative of exposure once she came to marriageable age. Her husband would be kyrios of the household in which she lived, after all.

So much is deeply beautiful and mythologically correct about Dream Theatre’s excellent Agon Trilogy. But the playwright still needs to revise its final installment. Parts of Orestes are gettable to Classical Greek geeks but are still inaccessible to the average theatergoer. The play’s conception of justice for children, in relation to the powerlessness of women under patriarchal dominance, needs to be tightened up and brought alive between the characters.

Finally, it’s fine that Electra is a Daddy’s Girl and it’s fine that she is fighter, not a thinker. Hers is a life of violent action against her oppressors. Heroines acting out like Xena or Buffy are honestly a lot of fun. But Orestes could really use a powerful female figure more like the real life pagan philosopher, Hypatia. She was an intellectual capable of interrogating the power structures surrounding her. She certainly wouldn’t settle for being made the guilty party when so much patriarchal justice seems capricious and stacked against women and children. No wonder an early Christian mob had to kill her. Now, she was a dangerous woman.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Orestes, by Jeremy Menekseoglu, is playing  7/15-8/15 Thurs-Sats at 8pm, Sundays  7pm at Dream Theatre Company, 556 W 18th Street. Orestes features Anna Weiler, Theresa Neef, Alicia Reese, Annelise Lawson, Bil Gaines, Giau Truong, Rachel Martindale and Jeremy Menekseoglu    Tickets: 773-552-8616 or click here.

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*The familiar Greek Christian prayer “Kyrie, eleison” or “Lord, have mercy” is derived from kyrioskyrie being the vocative case.