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: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

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Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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REVIEW: The Last Daughter of Oedipus (Babes With Blades)

A New Sophistication for a New Kind of Savior

 Logan Black JK 4583

  
Babes With Blades presents
   
The Last Daughter of Oedipus
   
Written by Jennifer L. Mickelson
Directed by
Tara Branham
at
Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

It’s a good thing there’s an afterlife in The Last Daughter of Oedipus or we mere mortals could easily write off its heroine, Ismene (Kimberly Logan), as a failure at everything she attempts in life. With her new play, produced by Babes With Blades at Lincoln Square Theatre, Jennifer L. Mickelson totally revises Ismene’s traditionally meek and incidental role in Classical myth and literature. More importantly, Mickelson re-imagines her heroine within absolutely appropriate parameters of Ancient Greek religion. The characters of this drama thoroughly believe in the gods, in prayer, in Logan Begale JK 4848 ritual and in the less glowing side of Greek religion, the shadowy beliefs about the supernatural and the underworld. Classical geek alert: The Last Daughter of Oedipus is mythologically correct.

Her sister, Antigone (Sarah Scanlon), is dead and buried, making Ismene the last of her bloodline. Now a mournful Kreon (Michael Sherwin), her uncle, rules her dynasty’s city. Creon’s judgment has always been suspect and now crumbles under the guilt of the deaths of his son Haemon and Antigone. If only Ismene could break the original curse that has brought her family and city low, she might be able to rebuild Thebes after its terrible period of war and strife.

Ismene escapes Thebes to seek Theseus’ counsel at Athens, accompanied by her ruddy servant Zeva (Eleanor Katz). On the way, three Athenian women, Amaranta (Mandy Walsh), Cassia (Jasmine Ryan) and Alcina (Katie Mack) redirect her to the Oracle at Delphi. Theseus had just departed to march on Thebes and now Ismene must consult the Oracle in order to understand and break the curse before war breaks out in earnest between her city and Athens. All the while, dark dreams of her incestuous mother Jocasta and her doomed sister Antigone haunt Ismene, driving her onward but giving her no rest or hope. Soon it becomes apparent that Ismene’s dreams and visions are not just in her head but, rather, originate from the ancient Furies who act to fulfill the curse against her family.

Tara Branham’s direction reigns almost effortlessly over the smooth flow of action from fight scene to fight scene. Additionally, her incorporation of Mercedes Rohlfs’ movement direction with Libby Beyreis’ fight choreography truly inspires and evokes stronger veracity for the play’s supernatural elements. The dreadful Furies, Tisiphone (Moira Begale-Smith), Alekto (Amy E. Harmon), and Megaira (Sarah Scanlon), recall the Witches in Macbeth or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who could be leading the protagonist to truth and/or destruction.

The Last Daughter of Oedipus exhibits increasing theatrical depth for Babes With Blades, in both its writing and execution. Lighting (Leigh Barrett), sound (Stephen Ptacek), and costumes (Emma Weber) reveal a powerfully cohesive artistic vision. Furthermore, this play re-awakens, for modern audiences, the original purpose of tragedy in the city-state of Athens, which was to use familiar myth cycles to examine social and political challenges for the health of the state. Ismene’s final monologue before the end of the first act interrogates the sources of terror as much for our own times as for her own.

 

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Kimberly Logan brings intelligent desperation to her interpretation of Ismene. The role itself swings from feeling badly to feeling less bad to feeling profoundly bad before Ismene’s final redemption in the underworld. It’s up to supporting characters to realize the plays’ lighter side—to which end, Harmon’s turn as the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi makes for amazing and insightful comic catharsis. Here is a scene that both spoofs and takes seriously our era’s Goddess spirituality movements.

If there’s any fault to be found, it’s in pacing problems, which could easily be resolved in the course of the run. The cast has mastered Mickelson’s heightened language for intention and now needs to pick up the pace in some scenes for crisper realism. As for the fight scenes, standard to BWB productions, a bit too much control undoes the edge that makes for the realistic and thrilling danger of actors swinging swords around. The cast shouldn’t hurt themselves, but they’ve got to make it look like they could!

Of the very few venues in which Attic women actually held power, the exercise of religious offices and duties gave them the greatest social prestige and political influence. Hence, it’s only logical that Babes With Blades’ latest production sees Ismene battling with supernatural forces beyond her control. Yet, it is the their theatrical handling that displays the company’s increased sophistication in its mission to train women in combat roles and develop new dramas featuring fighting roles for women.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
 

Mack Logan Ryan Walsh JK 4304

      

 

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