REVIEW: Bus Stop (The Den Theatre)

  
  

Love, Apple Pie and a Cup of Joe

 
 

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The Den Theatre presents
  
Bus Stop
  
Written by William Inge
Directed by
Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen
at
The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Some people will want to step into The Den, a newly established Wicker Park theater venue founded by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen, for the sheer joy of steeping oneself in pure, unadulterated Americana. William Inge’s Bus Stop will wrap up on January 22, so there’s still time to catch a vision of bygone America in the loving care of a solid cast carrying out intricate, commendable ensemble work. The Den’s waiting area has a comfortable and homey feel, but step inside the theater space and be greeted by the same pleasurable warmth evoked by Caleb McAndrew’s set design. Only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee could complete the perfection of its mid-Twentieth Century rural diner.

Bus_Stop-122Another significant advantage of the new stage space is that it’s set in deep enough to give well-rounded, 3-D perspective to Martin and Mortensen’s direction. Actors play a scene in one area, up or downstage, without interfering with the relationships of other characters continuing on speechlessly in another. Characters move apart to give each other needed, but uneasy, space – only to rejoin once détente is established, verbally or nonverbally. Bus Stop is Inge’s meditation on love, after all—what brings people together and pushes them apart. So, when it comes to maintaining realistic emotion between the transient souls showing up at Grace’s Diner, give them land, lots of land, under starry skies above. The rest is left up to the cast’s impeccable timing—Martin and Mortensen’s direction keeps the pace real and each scene as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting.

Here Grace, played robustly by Liz Zweifler, comes across as the coffee-refilling mother of all waitresses. Elma (Elise Walter), her earnest, college-bound, naïve employee, learns the romantic ways of men and women never far from Grace’s protective wing. Parts of Bus Stop were surely scandalous in their day. Yet, considering the rapid-fire way kids are thrown into sexual maturity by our internet age, the whole play seems preserved in amber innocence through Elma’s enduring optimism about the human race, Grace’s common sense take on sex and marriage and Will (Ed Smaron) the sheriff’s watchful eye, weather-beaten sage demeanor and looming physical presence.

Into this quasi-family spill the bus driver, Carl (Karl Pothoff), and his hodge-podge collection of passengers. Here they must ride out Kansas’ worst snowstorm in years until the highway can be cleared. Cherie (Arianne Ellison), a low-end nightclub singer, is on the run from Bo (Brian Kavanaugh), a rodeo cowboy who basically forced her onto the bus to take her to his ranch in Montana. His pal, Virgil (Will Kinnear), and the sheriff have to talk him down from going through with his kidnapping plans, which he has made under the astonishingly naïve presumption that a one-night stand with Cherie means everlasting love.

Even in 1955, when Bus Stop first opened, Inge’s premise must have been notoriously hard to sell. The intervening years have not made it any easier. Bo may now be the hardest character to play sympathetically in Bus Stop. Indeed, if Kavanaugh can’t quite reach the credibility necessary to convey it, it’s not for want of trying. His technique is fine, his body language rough and tumble enough to suggest a life of hard work and hard play, but his portrayal of the character’s mentality is still just short of the full-on bullheaded ignorance and cocksureness to make his presumptions about Cherie absurdly real.

Thankfully, scenes between Bo and Virgil become grounded through Kinnear’s low-key, almost Zen-like approach to Virgil. Arianne Ellison’s interaction with Kavanaugh also provides a firmer foundation, giving Cherie a lot of pin-up girl charm and helplessness in the face of Bo’s advances.

Ellison also realistically rounds out Cherie’s quiet, pining confessions to Elma with her need for love and respect, her waning faith in getting either. What’s more, throw away every memory of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the movie version. Ellison brings authentic goods to Cherie singing “That Old Black Magic” during the diner’s impromptu variety show. She really is a small town girl with a pretty face, a nice body and a little talent, struggling her way through an American songbook classic. The whole scene is transformative, actualizing the emotional connections between Cherie and Bo, so that their rapprochement at the end of the play rings with clarity and vitality.

Set designed by Caleb McAndrew for Bus Stop by William Inge - The Den Theatre ChicagoElma’s connection with Dr. Lyman (Ron Wells) builds and proceeds without a hitch—due, in no small part, to Walter’s ability to express unadorned curiosity and excitement blooming under Lyman’s attentions, as well as Wells’ instinctive ability to depict a love-lost man contemplating life from the bottom of a glass. Lyman’s drunken breakdown during his Romeo and Juliet scene with Elma hits with profound and poetic truth. So does his first act finale monologue where, sauced beyond any ability to remember what he’s saying, he admits to his own cowardice and selfishness. Wells’ portrayal of Lyman’s self-loathing leaves an indelible memory.

Pothoff and Smaron admirably fill in the rest of the play with their own variations on masculinity. Carl and Grace delight with their gentle, no-nonsense flirtation, their assignation an open secret that Will charmingly scores laughs on and Elma accepts without judgment. Inge’s presentation of American sexuality–with its sympathetic portrait of Lyman, its acknowledgment of Bo’s sexual immaturity versus Cherie’s experience, and its acceptance Grace’s extra-marital dalliances–definitely reveal a country ready to peal back assumptions on gender roles and Victorian sexual morality.

But in another sense, the play is a snapshot of sexual and relationship innocence we can never and probably should never return to again. Grace may celebrate Cherie leaving with Bo in the end, but no one today can be that celebratory about a man so completely clueless about a woman’s rights over her own person. A guy like that might have as much propensity for battering as good old boy fun–and that’s something that today’s audiences can’t ignore, for all the nostalgic yearning that Bus Stop fulfills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Bus Stop runs Dec. 3 – Jan. 22, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. NO SHOWS Dec. 23-26, 31, and Jan. 1. The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Floor in Wicker Park.

 

     
Bus Stop at the Den Theatre Chicago - poster

 

Cast

Arianne Ellison
Brian Kavanaugh
Will Kinnear
Ed Smaron
Elise Walter
Ron Wells
Liz Zweifler

     
     

 

REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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