Review: Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theatre)

     
     

Bleak, desperate tale remains with you long after blackout

    
   

Louise Lamson, Lisa Tejero and Philip R. Smith - in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Ethan Frome
        
Adapted and Directed by Laura Eason
from novel by
Edith Wharton
at
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20 – $63  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Everything about Ethan Frome is cold and stark. The bare branches of the skeletal trees framing the set. The sharp angles of rough-hewn planks representing a New England farm. The minimalist dialogue. The loveless marriage of the piece’s titular anti-hero. The very name of the town where the story plays out: Starkfield.

From set designer Daniel Ostling’s austere evocation of Massachusetts in winter to actor Philip R. Smith’s depiction of the taciturn Ethan, the world of Edith Wharton’s turn-of the-century tragedy is chilly and severe. That harsh sensibility wholly informs Laura Eason’s adaptation of the classic, a terse, 90-minute telling that captures the chill as well as the relentless longing and frustration that define Frome’s life.

Dan Ostling's bleak, powerful set in Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean WilliamsIn creating a world that’s as bleakly spare as a frozen field, Eason (who also directs) gives Wharton’s prose a memorable impact. But that austere ambiance also serves to distance the audience from both story and characters. With Ethan Frome, you’re watching tragedy unfold from afar, as a spectator separated from the action by a scrim of frost. The effect creates a staging that is powerful but muted. Ethan’s troubles come to life from a distance, seen through a metaphorical lens lightly coated in rime.

The production moves at a slow, matter-of-fact pace that matches the temperament of Ethan himself, a New England family farmer of few words. Up until the penultimate scene – a wind-whipped catastrophe staged with such simple and simply beautiful force that it will leave you breathless – the story is one where torrents of emotion are cloaked in small, seemingly inconsequential gestures and almost monosyllable dialogue. The plot is more feeling than doing, and those feelings – roiling blizzards of love, rage, sorrow and yearning – are trapped like the whirling flakes beneath the dome of a snow globe.

Ethan (Philip R. Smith) initially seems more shadow than substance as silently shuffles across a murky stage, one lame foot dragging behind him. His limp and striking, lonesome figure arouses the curiosity of Henry Morton (Andrew White), the out-of-towner whose pensive narration of Frome’s story bookend the story.

Through Henry‘s recollections, we see that Ethan’s quiet life has been defined by sickness and by the women in it. Coming in from a hard day hauling lumber, he’s faced with a dark house and the wailing, disconsolate wailing of his dying mother. He longs, Ethan murmurs, to hear other voices in the home. He gets his desire when Xena, (Lisa Tejero) arrives to care for Ethan’s mother and then marries him after the old woman dies.

But as Tejero makes implicit in Xena’s unsettling transformation from benevolent helpmate to hypochondriac domestic dictator, the one-time nursemaid soon becomes as onerous a burden as the timber Ethan hauls. Tejero makes Xena’s sickly dominance complete; her character is so noxious as to be slowly drowning Ethan in his own home. In Smith’s fine performance, Ethan’s helplessness and increasing hopelessness become almost palpable. His words are soft-spoken and sparse. His eyes are wild with desperation.

     
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louise Lamson and Erik Lochtefeld in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Into this oppressive atmosphere comes Xena’s young cousin Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), a lively, generous woman whose youthful vitality, curiosity and kindness stand in direct contrast to the prematurely aging, forever sickly and self-absorbed Xena. The romantic triangle that results is not surprising. The controlled intensity with which it plays out is memorable, Lamson as luminous as early spring, Tejero the personification of dour, gray winter.

The contrast among the three principals is subtly emphasized in Mara Blumenfeld’s deft costume design. Mattie sports a scarf the color of cherry blossoms, Xena dresses in drab blacks and grays, Smith’s worn, earth-colored trousers speak to Ethan’s rich love of the land. Color, or the lack thereof, plays a similarly key role throughout the production. The fate of Xena’s ruby-red pickle dish is a tragedy in miniature reflecting the larger destruction of entire lives.

That wind-whipped destruction comes tangled in a moment of wild and breathless joy as Eason’s hurtles toward the drama’s ultimately sobering conclusion. The freeze-frame tableau toward the end of Ethan Frome – a bright pool of cherry-colored blood starkly outlined against the haze of winter whites – is apt to remain with you long after the final blackout.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
       
    

Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

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Wednesday Wordplay: Mary Tyler Moore and Oscar Wilde

mary-tyler-moore

 

Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges make life worth living.
           
Mary Tyler Moore

 

 

The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business. You’ve got to keep on working that talent. Someday I’ll reach for it and it won’t be there.
            — Irving Berlin, 1958

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
            — Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

 

Oscar Wilde

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
           
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

 

Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.
            — Amy Lowell

For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
            — Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mayor’s banquet speech, 1954

 

diane-houston 

Only some people get what they want. Those are the people who show up to get it.
            — Dianne Houston, Take The Lead, 2006

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
            — Amy Bloom

May I never miss a sunset or a rainbow because I am looking down.
            —
Sara June Parker

 

george-burns

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
            — George Burns

 

 

   
   

REVIEW: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

Low Budget, Highbrow Hijinks

 

 
Chicago dell’Arte presents:
 
The Literati
 
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When you walk into the RBP Rorschach Theatre, the first thing you will notice is the lack of chairs. Instead, a dozen or so pillows are strewn about the floor where audience members are instructed to sit. It makes for some leg cramping, but it also pulls you back to preschool story time. And that’s basically what you are about to see, a highbrow version of children’s theatre. Fortunately the end result is far from elementary.

This certainly fits with Chicago dell’Arte’s mantra: “Art for the sake of everyone.” The trio of performers—who also wrote the show—didn’t have to tackle 25 of literature’s most revered works in a manner that is both easily digestible and entertaining. They could have force fed Great Expectations, Frankenstein or Don Quixote down our throats, reenacting each tale with painstaking authenticity. But with The Literati, the interactive series of fives plays within a play, Chicago dell’Arte wisely tempers the academic and the artistic with the comedic.

On paper, the show sounds a bit complex. The company has created 25 short plays based on 25 great works of literature, including the three aforementioned tales. The plays are divided up into categories such as “Epics” and “Classics.” Audience members are plucked from the audience and are instructed to roll a die. The number on the die corresponds with a play under each category. Whatever is rolled forms the lineup for the night.

Each short play utilizes a different form or genre of storytelling. For example, when the group performs Charles DickensGreat Expectations, the trio adds a sci-fi twist, casting cold-hearted Estella (Ned Record) as a robot. Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is played as a rock opera, which includes the song “Hot Cousin.” The show I saw ended on Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale Les Miserables. Chicago dell’Arte plays the piece as a French farce with police inspector Javert chasing protagonist Jean Valjean Benny Hill style.

Layered on top of the mini plays is a larger meta piece. Company member Derek Jarvis is the jovial but serious master of ceremonies who introduces to the audience the concept of the show. It is his mission, as he states, to synthesize the academic and the artistic. Meanwhile, company members Nick Freed and Ned Record assume the roles of goofy, childlike rogues who debase Jarvis’ lofty aspirations.

With a strong understanding of the source material and brilliant acting chops, Chicago dell’Arte pulls off this marathon of a show. What is most impressive is how there never once is a delay or downtime between pieces. The three manage to weave an uninterrupted narrative throughout The Literati, working in smooth transitions from classic to classic, while casually returning to the meta play throughout.

The show has longevity. Because of the format, there is only a 4 percent chance that any two performances will be exactly alike. There also is a fair amount of improvisational banter throughout, so it is hard to imagine that any classic will have a completely identical retelling from performance to performance.

The Literati might not be staged in a fancy theater, but what it lacks in seating, it makes up for in creativity, talent and heart.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Literati runs April 9th to May 1st (Thursday through Sunday). Run time approximately 90-minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Ticket price: $15 (suggested donation).  Performances: Thursdays, Friday and Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday at 10:30pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Location: RBP Rorschach, 4001 N Ravenswood.

 

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