Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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Review: The Master and Margarita (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

Strawdog explores intersection of religion, magic, insanity – and actors

  
  

(From L to R): Kyle Gibson (Ivan), Tom Hickey (Woland) and Rob Thomas (Berlioz) in Strawdog's "The Master and Margarita". 
Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Master and Margarita
   
Adapted by Edward Kemp
Based on novel by
Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

As artistic differences threaten the theatrical production of Pontius Pilate, Satan arrives in town to set the record straight. Strawdog Theatre presents The Master and Margarita. In anti-religion Moscow, a writer works feverishly to create a masterpiece play. His girlfriend Margarita believes he is ‘The Master’ and is willing to do anything to support his writing. The government’s theatrical department interferes with his show. They want to ensure Pontius Pilate discredits Jesus’ existence. Satan and his cronies visit for a little civilization observation. They also want to get their magic show on the stage. Arrested, committed, beheaded, the poor souls of Russia are in chaos. When Satan sheds insight into mortals’ psyches, the balance of life has a peaceful neutralization. The Master and Margarita blurs the division between magic and religion, imagination and psychoses, theatrical and actual, life and death.

Dennis Grimes (Master) and Justine C. Turner (Margarita) in Strawdog's 'The Master and Margarita'. Photo by Chris Ocken.Is it a play about a play about the historical decision maker Pontius Pilate? Or is it the full blown hallucination from an asylum inmate? Is it pro-religion or just anti- being anti? The Master and Margarita is for certain an epic of biblical portions. On a primarily stark set, crowd scenes are choreographed using cast as colorful and changing scenery. The large ensemble is white-faced (make-up designer Aly Renee Amidei) and sometimes black-masked. (Special nod to Amidei for the Centurion’s makeup: I was transfixed.) The mass unified look effectively emphasizes the alternating mood from theatrical to threatening to comical to spooky. Costume designer Joanna Melville goes hellish, dressing up an underworld ball in goth prom attire. The vibrant swirl of activity is non-stop. Under the direction of Louis Contey, the multiple themes and scene transitions flow smoothly and briskly into the next.

A plethora of Russian names, myriad of actors playing numerous roles, and the whitening effect add to a quandary of identification. Among the easily recognized, the damned bunch are hilarious misfits. Tom Hickey (Woland aka Satan) leads with smug wisdom and a surprising twisted kindness. Anderson Lawfer (Behemoth) is hysterical as a talking cat. Without even that many lines, Lawfer drawls the funny out with a bow tie without pants comment. Double-vision, Danny Taylor (Fagott) has a comedic and mysterious allure. Anita Deely (Azazello) is the non-nonsense assistant from hell. As the enduring lovers, Dennis Grimes (The Master) is a gentle martyr-type and Justine Turner (Margarita) is his strong lovely rescuer. The entire ensemble are convincing as actors playing theatre types, actors playing crazies or actors playing people going to hell… or maybe there isn’t a distinction.

The first act is a bubbling manifesto of intriguing confusion. The intermission is a pause from the frenzy to admit uncertainty to the point of the show. At some point in act two, there is an ‘A-ha moment.‘ All the dots connect for art open to interpretation. To sum it up, the cat said it best in one of the final scenes, ‘now, I get this play!’ What the cat said!

     
     
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Guests at the Ball of the Damned, a scene from "The Master and Margarita". Photo by Chris Ocken

The Master and Margarita continues through April 2nd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm. There is no performanceSunday, April 3. Tickets are $20 with group, senior and student discounts available. Tickets may be ordered by calling 773.528.9696 or by visiting www.strawdog.org.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

     
     

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REVIEW: Alien Queen (Jonny Stax @ Circuit Night Club)

     
     

Update: 3 shows added – Jan 8, 15 and 22 at 8pm!

Queer encounters of the ‘Alien’ kind

     
     

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 002

  
Jonny Stax presents
   
Alien Queen
   
Created and Directed by Scott Bradley
at
Circuit Night Club, 3641 N. Halsted (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Did you ever think that the music of Queen could be perfectly paired with the “Alien” movies and re-energize the franchise with queer sensibility? That one never dawned on me, either. But Scott Bradley has spawned Alien Queen, a musical comedy review that clearly reflects the cunning and twisted mind of a creator/director unabashedly obsessed with gender transgression, sticky substances, and the ultra-queering of Sigourney Weaver. And that’s saying something, since Weaver, as lustable butch Ellen Ripley, won the hearts of every Eighties lesbian and bi woman once the first “Alien” film emerged to boffo box office reception in 1979.

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 005Ryan Lanning, playing Ridley, could also seduce sapphists (of the fluid sexuality variety) as long as he keeps the wig on and keeps exhibiting the cool toughness of everyone’s favorite Alien hunter–“Killer Queen” introduces us to her, still in her pod in suspended sleep. There is that penis thing, which could cockblock the adoration of Kinsey 6 dykes and certainly the audience for the show at Circuit Night Club seemed fairly gay male dominated. But hopefully, after much critical acclaim, a stronger dyke contingent will join the in revelry.

For one thing, Alien Queen is terribly sophisticated in what it does. In fact, for a comedy review, the cast’s performances tend to be on the side of understatement. Deadpan delivery overrides exaggeration and over-the-top theatrics. This production displays professionalism in that it shows as much homage to Freddie Mercury’s music and to the Alien-franchise as it engages in parody or spoof. Behind the laughs is a lot of love for the material.

Bradley and partner-in-crime Executive Producer Jonny Stax seem pretty happy to let the dry movie script spoof itself. They leave Anna Glowacki’s alien and astronaut costuming – supplemented by the alien puppet designs of Jabberwocky Marionettes Productions – to boost dramatic spectacle for the audience. You haven’t seen aliens till you’ve seen them break out of a human’s stomach, in puppet form, to sing “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Anne Litchfield impresses with the first introduction of a full-grown alien costume. But few sights beat Bradley dressed as the mammoth alien queen herself, pumping out eggs for her alien subjects while singing “Get Down, Make Love.”

            
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Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 016 Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 010
   

Music Director Nicolas Davio keeps the show rockin’ while Jyl Fehrenkamp’s choreography has to make do with the limits of the stage at Circuit. But the cast kicks it very well and then does it all over again in alien costumes. (There’s got to be a Jeff award for that, right?) T. L. Noble makes the most of Circuit’s environs, skillfully creating an otherworldly lighting design in which the crews of Ridley’s respective ships seek out and are destroyed. And destroyed they are, one by one, to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust.” As stupid marines about to die horribly, Kieran Kredell (Valdez) and William A. Barney (Hunks) take the cake. After all the idiot humans Ridley has to deal with it’s almost a relief and a celebration to see the aliens take over.

As for why Scott Bradley would want to set himself up in a role playing Ridley’s alien nemesis, that I leave others to psycho-analyze. The result is smart, polished gender-bending fun.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 014

 

     
     

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REVIEW: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Lifeline)

 

Fun for kids of all ages

 

 Click, Clack, Moo - Lifeline Theatre  006

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
  

Adapted by James E. Grote
Music by George Howe
Directed by
Shole Milos
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through December 5  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I had my favorite associate reviewers with me for the Lifeline Theatre’s production of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. My niece Lexi and my nephew David are great barometers of what is funny without the filters of adulthood. Fortunately, this excellent show was a gem of comic timing and great music – even as I wear my grownup glasses.

Click, Clack, Moo - Lifeline Theatre  004 The story is simple and universal. Cow 1, Cow 2, Hen, and Duck want better accommodations. The cows and the hen are freezing their respective hides and feathers off in the barn. Duck is bored with the lily pad and wants to spice up his pond. The animals have a barrier in communicating with Farmer Brown and then the hilarity ensues.

Understudy Mallory Nees, who was fabulous in The Blue Shadow (our review ★★★), also at Lifeline, played Cow 1. She is the more logical of the cows and tries to find a sensible way to get through to farmer Brown. Lakhiyia Hicks plays the role of Cow 2. Her character wants to give Farmer Brown a knuckle sandwich until Hen reminds her that she doesn’t have traditional knuckles. Christina Hall plays hen with great aplomb and gleefulness. Hicks and Hall have a wonderful banter about chicken breath and cow mouth that had the audience in stitches. Yes, it’s juvenile. But it’s funny!

Ryotaro Shigeta plays the role of diplomatic Duck. Shigeta is charming and ebullient in the role. Duck has a great secret weapon in the super high definition remote control that drops from the ceiling. The remote allows us to translate cow, hen, and duck talk. It also rewinds the characters and pauses. Derek Czaplewski plays the hapless Farmer Brown who lives the sounds of the farm and is greatly disturbed when the animals become revolutionaries for warmth in the barn.

Farmer Brown makes the mistake of storing some old books and a typewriter in the barn where the animals live. Cow 2 sees that the books are by Karl Marx, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and George Orwell. She is called to revolution and wants to get Farmer Brown off of the farm so that the animals can take over like in Orwell’s book. Cow 1 tells her to read the whole story because it might not be as great as that seems. It’s a great lesson for kids in getting the whole story and communicating so that everyone involved can understand. It’s funny on an adult level because we know how Orwell turns out. It’s funny on a kid level because Cow 2 is just funny pumping her fist in the air and declaring ‘power to the animals!’

 

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Hall’s hen is really sweet as she wonders what happens to her eggs. It is another great lesson in knowing your worth and the value of your work for children.

The musical numbers are smooth and well choreographed. The song ‘An Electric Blanket Looks Like Home’ is done in 60’s girl group style. The music is cool and the dance moves are worthy of a Supreme or Vandella.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type is from a series by author Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin. It is in the series that Lifeline has continued from Dooby Dooby Moo, and Duck for President.

Illustrator Lewin was on hand to sign the books on Sunday and the cast was most accommodating in signing autographs in person. Once again, Lifeline has done a stellar job of bringing the theater experience to people of all ages. I am a firm believer that children should be exposed to the theater more than the movies. There is real magic in this production. It is the magic that allows a child’s mind to roam in  imagination rather than be stifled and homogenized by impossible special effects. Click, Clack, Moo - Lifeline Theatre  004Lexi and David gave it their definite seal of approval. This miracle came in the form of one full hour of rapt focus and laughter.

Of course it should be said that David has deemed me the best auntie in the world. That is a comment that one doesn’t hear often and it isn’t doled out all willy-nilly.

They loved the brightly colored set, the great music, and dancing. Most of all, they love the theater experience in our own backyard of Rogers Park. It is a cool thing to read about something on your oat O’s box and then to see it live. Kudos to Lifeline for an amazing and fun show that shows the value of follow-through, problem solving, and cooperation. The play is an hour long and will hold your child’s attention as well as yours. I recommend this play even if you don’t have a grade school kid to take along. The double entendre is more than worthy for a laugh and memories of urban studies or political science classes. Come on and raise a hoof for a warm barn and bovine rights!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
     
     

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Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type runs on Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 11am and 1pm through December 4th at Lifeline Theatre. The theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood in Rogers Park USA. Visit www.lifelinetheatre.com for more information. Moo!

 

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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

hollowlands logo

Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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