Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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Review: Romeo and Juliet (Babes With Blades)

  
  

A tale of lovers missing its heart

  
  

Gillian N. Humiston (Romeo) and Ashley Fox (Juliet) in Babes With Blades' Romeo and Juliet

  
Babes With Blades presents
  
Romeo & Juliet
       
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Brian DeLuca
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Babes With Blades has pulled out the production stops for a visually strong and sumptuous all-woman Romeo & Juliet. The rough around the edges, yet classically suggestive scene design (Bill Anderson; Jason Pikscher and Stephen Carmody, brickwork) graces Raven Theatre’s studio space with a versatility that still hints at architectural grandeur. Meanwhile, Ricky Lurie’s costumes, inspired by Italy’s late 19th-century Liberal Period, imaginatively strike the production’s gender-bending balance—functional enough to readily support the cast for their legendary BWB combat scenes and convey class distinctions and individual character.

Eleanor Katz and Amy Harmon - Babes With Blades' Romeo and JulietThen there’s the always-exciting stage combat (Libby Beyreis), in which the gals pack swords, rapiers and pistols into the street warfare between the Capulets and the Montagues. Brian DeLuca’s directorial vision suggests cyclically repeating historical patterns of social and legal breakdown—a solid and sophisticated touch for revisioning Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers.

All the same, there’s no substitute for classical Shakespearean training and experience, especially so far as Romeo (Gillian N. Humiston) and Juliet (Ashley Fox) are concerned. Humiston’s performance is weak to begin with, but as death stalks the lovers and emotional stakes are raised, her performance degenerates into shrill and unwatchable histrionics. Fox fairs better when paired with her Nurse (Eleanor Katz) or facing up to an implacable parent, Capulet (Maggie Kettering), determined to marry her off to Paris (Delia Ford). Shakespeare’s tale of impossible, adolescent love struggling to find expression in a landscape strafed by turf wars needs stronger stars than this show has on hand. Sadly, an otherwise thoughtful and well-paced production misses out at its critical center.

Gillian N. Humiston and Delia Ford in a fight scene from Babes With Blades' 'Romeo and Juliet'Ford JK 7381

That leaves the older cast members to carry the show. By far, Katz delivers the strongest, earthiest, most nuanced performance; Kettering’s Capulet is a force to be reckoned with and Katie Horwitz as Friar Lawrence comes across solidly like a frustrated surrogate parent, trying to keep the kids on track long enough to have it all work out. Amy Harmon has the swagger to give her Mercutio street cred, but could use a little refinement on his monologues. Shakespeare knew that lower class didn’t always mean lower IQ, and Mercutio’s accelerated imagination and verbal agility would make him a rap star if he were discovered today.

Fox and Humiston do pull off their final death scene together but, by the time they do, the audience has missed the heart of the story for too long. Romeo & Juliet was spawned from an era of real traditional marriage—from a time when marriages were set up like business partnerships. What did love have to do with it? Shakespeare’s audience came to see pure, unbridled love daring to violate social constraints. But in the world of art, we know it takes massive skill and discipline to make it that love look raw, spontaneous, free and new.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Gillian N. Humiston and Ashley Fox as Romeo and Juliet, presented by Babes With Blades

 

Artists

Cast

Gillian N. Humiston*, Ashley Fox, Megan Schemmel, Delia Ford*, Amy E. Harmon*, Eleanor Katz, Maggie Kettering, Katie Horwitz, Rachael Miller, and Kim Fukawa*. 

Production Team

Brian LaDuca (Director); Wyatt Kent (Assistant Director); Bill Anderson (Scenic Design ); Leigh Barrett* (Lighting Design ); Libby Beyreis* (Violence Design); Ricky Lurie (Costume Design); Harrison Adams (Sound Design); Kjers McHugh* (Stage Manager); Dustin Spence (Producer).

* = Company member

  
  

REVIEW: The Sound of the Yellow Flower (Strangeloop)

 

Characters fail to connect in Belarus drama

 

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"

   
Strangeloop Theatre presents
  
The Sound of a Yellow Flower
  
Written by Dustin Spence
Directed by
Letitia Guillaud
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 N. Cortland (map)
thorugh October 3rd |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Dustin Spence’s The Sound of a Yellow Flower revolves around four characters in post-Soviet Union Belarus looking for liberty, justice, and love in their unstable country. Years after violinist Sasha (Rich Logan) and military colonel Nikolai (Mark A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"Pracht) help usher in an era of independence for Belarus, they are faced with the question of what comes next. Nikolai wants to see Sasha takes a position of political power, but Sasha wants nothing to do with it, having married Zoe (Samantha Garcia), an American activist working to expose the injustices done by the current government. Nikolai’s relationship with heroin-addicted prostitute Natalia (Meghan M. Martinez) ends up bringing the four together in an explosive, tragic climax, but Spence’s script fails to capture the setting and the scenes have an unnatural build to them that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage.

Language becomes a hurdle in establishing the play’s foreign setting, as little is done to de-Americanize the dialogue beyond the actors adding eastern European dialects. The opening scene has musician Sasha and Nikolai speaking in semi-broken English, but thankfully it is quickly done away with as it makes no sense to have two educated characters speaking ungrammatically in their own language. The profanity-laced dialogue has an almost-Tarantino stylization that feels out of place in the European environment, but the two actors are able to make the action interesting enough to keep the focus.

Zoe speaks in a thicker accent to show her unfamiliarity with the language, but ends up sacrificing a lot of diction in the process. The playwright doesn’t provide much exposition regarding the current socio-political climate of Belarus, and losing Zoe’s expository lines due to her accent diminishes the clarity of the plot. Dialects prove a further hindrance when the characters become enraged, as the actors often lose their accents in the explosion of emotion.

Sound of the Yellow Flower 3 Sound of the Yellow Flower 1

These sudden fits of rage occur throughout The Sound of a Yellow Flower, as most of the scenes quickly and without warning turn into screaming matches between the characters. Intensity is fine, but without any proper buildup the emotions feel empty. The relationships aren’t given the time to develop completely, making the connections between characters feel artificial. When it doesn’t feel like there’s any danger in watching a hooker get choked, there’s something wrong.

When these jumps into fury are avoided, the play gains actual depth, like a scene that juxtaposes one of Nikolai’s first nights with Natalia with the first meeting of Sasha and Zoe. The actors are given the time to create intimate moments with each other, and the relationships benefit greatly from the newly established chemistry. The scenes that follow are a return to form, but the brief glimmer of love provides a bit of hope for the tragic characters before their lives fall apart.

      
      
Rating: ★★
  
   

Sound of Yellow Flower poster 2

  
  

 

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REVIEW: A Gulag Mouse (Babes with Blades)

Old-fashioned thrills, new-fashioned heroines

Repin Wolf JK 6401

 
Babes with Blades presents
 
A Gulag Mouse
 
by Arthur M. Jolly
directed by
Brian Plocharczyk
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about A Gulag Mouse feels like an old-fashioned, post-World War II thriller. Showing now at Trap Door Theatre, this award-winning original play by Arthur M. Jolly is densely packed with dark suspense, non-stop tension, well-timed action scenes, Spence Humiston JK 6252and black humor precisely placed and played for all its grim power by the cast. Only . . . only . . .

Only – its story is set in the Soviet Union after WW II–perhaps not a plotline chosen for development in Hollywood during those dangerous post-war years. Only – it has an all-women cast, trained by the intrepid Babes With Blades, the production company that “showcases the strength, vitality, and proficiency of women in the art of stage combat.” Yet another reason why this story would not have come out of Hollywood after the Second World War. With the war over and men coming home, media moguls in America quickly shifted film and television iconography from Rosie the Riveter, and other powerful women’s roles, into the docile, domestic goddesses of the 1950s–something to think about, as you gaze at the Russian versions of Rosie smiling from the period Soviet posters integrated into the set design (Jeff Lisse).

Playwright Arthur M. Jolly won the Joining Sword and Pen 2009-2010 competition for this work, an award sponsored by Babes With Blades to generate good, solid playwriting for fighting women actors. BWB also workshops with its playwrights to achieve the right balance of drama with action and Managing Director Amy Harmon, who plays the role of Masha, informs me that playwriting quality has definitely gone up since they first held the competition in 2005-2006.

The playwriting shows real quality. It’s still a dark, noir-ish thriller, but it’s a thriller with a brain, showing historical and cultural sophistication. Its language leans toward the melodramatic side, but so does a lot of that old thriller stuff, and the cast, wisely, does not over play it.

The young, beautiful, terrified Anastasia (Gillian Humiston) waits on a Moscow street for her husband Evgeny (Dustin Spence) to return from his service at the Eastern Front after the war. We soon learn the reason for her terror. Evgeny’s sadistic nature and abusive relationship with his young wife quickly reveals itself–exacerbated, undoubtedly, by the horrors he has had to survive. Svetlana kills Evgeny with the knife she has brought with her, but that simply propels her into the Siberian Gulag, where she faces greater dangers from her fellow female inmates.

The story shifts back and forth from mental to physical fights for survival between the women prisoners. But this is no Co-ed Soviet Prison Sluts. Both playwright and production take their subject very seriously, although there’s still honest fun to be had watching women battle each other. Overall, there’s an artistic cohesiveness to the storytelling that seemed lacking in the last Babes With Blades production I critiqued.  Director Brian Plocharcyk keeps a sharp pace with the cast, so there’s never a dull moment from dramatic scenes to fight scenes. Blocking alone informs so much of the characterization here, whether an inmate strolls arrogantly to the center of the stage or cringes defensively in a bunk.

Ford Wolf Repin JK 6339 Humiston Harmon JK 6627
Harmon Humiston JK 6748 Spence Humiston 2 JK 6510 Wolf Harmon JK 6288

Fight choreography (David Woolley and Libby Beyreis) also serves to inform the audience about a character, crafted to exhibit a woman prisoner’s willingness or reluctance to engage her opponents. Woolley and Beyreis do a lot with the limitations of Trap Door Theatre’s space—they go almost unnoticed in the course of the storytelling. Lighting (Leigh Barrett) and sound design (Adam Smith) add tension to the story and reveal its poignancy.

Babes With Blades is close, so close, to having it all come together perfectly. There’s still some unevenness in the casting and a bit of woodenness in the acting. All these fierce women actors need is just a little more technique to sharpen the spontaneity of their performances and they would have a devastating production on their hands. Powerful women actors in powerful roles doing physically powerful things on stage—it’s almost all there. And what is there, while not perfect, is definitely worth seeing. So whether you want to support the Babes in their endeavors or you’re just looking for a smart, thrilling ride, A Gulag Mouse will not disappoint.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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