Review: Tragedy: a tragedy (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Tragedy: a new theatrical experience

     
     

Paul Miller and Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
   
   
Tragedy: a tragedy
  
  
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?

Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.

Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.

That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.

The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.

I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.

The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

  
  

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Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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REVIEW: Shining City (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

God is elusive in Redtwist’s captivating ‘Shining City’

 
 

Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City' - photo Andrew Jessop

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Shining City
  

Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Joanie Schultz 
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There is a moment in Redtwist’s Shining City where, lurking behind a door, a split-second spark of divinity is revealed. It is bloodied, silent, and is at once horrifying and reassuring.

To call Conor McPherson’s play a “ghost story” would imply it provides some answer to the nature and existence of another world or its inhabitants. But in the streets and isolated dwellings of McPherson’s Dublin, there is no such certainty. Even when an apparition is in plain sight, its significance, meaning and reality is just painfully out of Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopreach.

This play is rather, for all its melancholy and despair, a love story.

Set in an upstairs therapist’s office, Shining City chronicles the sessions of middle-aged widower John (the superb Brian Parry), and his ex-priest doctor, Ian (John Arthur Lewis). After the sudden death of his wife, John has begun to see visions of his spouse, moving him out of his home and into a local inn. Ian, wrestling with his own losses, has just left the woman he abandoned the Church for. The mother of Ian’s child, Neasa (Cheryl Lynn Golemo) struggles to exist separated in the unwelcoming company of Ian’s family. Two months flash between each scene, and as time goes on, the three slip further away from any assurance of who they are or the morality of the decisions they’ve made.

Each of these characters are, in one way or another, in limbo. They are all lost between homes, identities, loves, or sexualities, and seek escape in all the wrong ways. Director Joanie Schultz comments in her program note that she calls upon her own experience living out of a suitcase to relate an ambience of no refuge, which she accomplishes brilliantly in this production. Redtwist’s nearly claustrophobic performance space serves to amplify the overtones of each character’s underlying fear and wanting. Much of the action is relayed through long, patient storytelling, and just as John cannot escape his guilt and anxiety, we as the audience are seated almost in the hyper-realistic office right there with him, his deep-gravel, hypnotic voice only feet away. These characters are richly drawn, and this ensemble does great Cheryl Lynn Golemo and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopjustice to them, supplying flaws and sympathies to their humanity.

In the intimate setting, no detail goes unnoticed, and play’s production team has created a scrupulously complete environment, from the window’s view of a cathedral to the ideal selection of transitional music.

McPherson doesn’t appear to relish the hell he puts his characters through, making their struggle all the more real and painful to watch. It also makes their redemption that much more believable and satisfying.

Shining City’s finale may prove to be divisive for some audiences. I encourage them to take note of John’s declared realization when considering the play’s last image: it isn’t the fact of what happens that’s important, but instead the effect. Regardless of their conclusion, the effect–like this production–will be moving.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Kaelan Strouse and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessop

Production continues through February 27th – Thu, Fri, Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 3pm. No performance on Sun, Feb 6, but an add’l perf on Sat, Feb 26, 3pm.  The show’s running time is approximately 1:40 with no intermission. Tickets: Thursdays, $25; Fridays & Sundays, $27; Saturdays, $30 (seniors & students $5 off).  More info: www.redtwist.org/Tickets.html.

     
     

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REVIEW: Obscura (Red Tape Theatre)

 

A Nightmare of the Observed

 

Obscura at Chicago's Red Tape Theatre: (Left to right) Robert Oakes, Meghan Reardon, Lona Livingston, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

   
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Obscura: a voyeuristic love story
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I guess that I will call it synchronicity. Before I went to see Obscura at Red Tape Theatre, I read a story about Franz Kafka and the present day battle over his unpublished papers. Kafka has always been both fascinating and terrifying to me. Obscura: a voyeuristic love story delves into several layers of the bureaucracy that threatens to delete the remnants of humanity. It is darkly funny, emotional, and simmering below the surface is the threat that this can happen to you the observer. It haunted me like Kafka.

(Left to right) Lona Livingston, Meghan Reardon (legs), Nicholas Combs, Robert Oakes.  Photo by James PalmerWhen entering the theatre, you walk down a runway to your seat.  The runway is lit up and a part of the play’s set. The effect is that you feel like a trespasser in someone’s yard because upstage from the runway is the cutaway of a dreary apartment building. The actors are already on stage going through the motions of their characters. Meghan Reardon as Salvia is obsessively mixing brightly colored potions and doing an inventory of the ingredients. Lona Livingston as Mrs. Craw the landlady is cleaning and checking on repairs. Nicholas Combs as Ned is suffering over a typewriter in a tiny garret crowded with so many books that he sits on a stack of them. Robert L. Oakes as Rodney seems to be the most menacing character of all. Rodney sits in a spare and utilitarian room with only a calculator and a desk. He pores over data with the preciseness of an actuary.

All of the characters have something to hide and yet cannot keep it from the unseen bureaucracy. Rodney is spying on Salvia and sending her green letters that send her into a panic. Salvia hears Ned coughing all night along with the clacking of the typewriter and offers him a remedy from her collection of potions. The offer is a timid ruse to get to know another human being and yet she does not want to reveal herself. Ned is surprised when the girl he has been watching through the peephole speaks to him and quickly makes up a story about what he is writing. He cannot reveal that he has written nothing for all of his efforts and makes up an absurd circus story that enchants Salvia. Enter into this Mrs. Craw who breaks into the tenants apartments and burrows through their belongings on a regular basis.

These characters are at odds with each other while trying to connect at the same time. It makes for fantastic tension and sardonic humor. They are all in a hidden hell with the rules for escape being doled out in coded fragments. They barely seem human until the lustful sounds of wild sex emanates from a hidden apartment’s walls. A metaphoric mass orgasm breaks the fever under which they have suffered and the bureaucracy also goes berserk. Their humanity starts to emerge and they tentatively try to connect with each other.

Chicagoan Jennifer Barclay is the playwright for Obscura, and she spins quite the tale with some Brechtian influences as well. I acquired feelings of prewar decay from the characters, the set, and the dialog. Director Julianne Ehre has pulled off a feat reminiscent of Orson Welles, director for an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial”. This tale could have happened at any time in this century or the one we just left and that is what is so surreal. The apartments look as if there has been a war. Accordingly, we know that there is always a war somewhere on this planet, with certainly a domino affect tangentially leading right back to us.

It is funny and frightening when Rodney picks up his telephone to inquire about the green letter he has received. He has been the observer and finds himself on the other side of the pinhole with his life upside down. He is put on eternal hold by a robotic voice and is kept on tethers by an intermittent human who sends him to another extension. Music from “Oklahoma!” plays in the background. Hell is ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ on continuous loop.

(Left to right) Meghan Reardon, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

The character of Mrs. Craw – and her snooping – is the connection for everyone. She is seemingly trapped in her own painful past and justifies her intrusions by reasoning that she’s really caring for people. I found the denouement between her and the Stranger (played by Chris Carr) to be the one part that’s too neat and openly emotional. It is one layer too much for the irony of the rest of the writing. Mrs. Craw has survived a war; the connection between her and the Stranger should be more of a shock instead of the maudlin feel that comes across. Perhaps Ms. Barclay was attempting to humanize everyone to show that bureaucracy does not have to win.

In any case, that small flaw is no fault of the cast. They are all very good and did a brilliant job of pulling me into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Special kudos goes to scenic designer William Anderson. The visual of an urban apartment building is perfect down to the use of the concrete floor outside of Rodney’s sparse apartment.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Obscura –A Voyeuristic Love Story runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until October 23rd. There are additional shows on October 16th and 23rd. For more information go to www.redtapetheatre.org.

   
   

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REVIEW: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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REVIEW: The Love of the Nightingale (Red Tape Theatre)

This eerie ‘Nightingale’ sings a refreshingly resonant tune

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 1

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
The Love of the Nightingale
  
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
directed by
James Palmer
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
(map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not going to lie, my expectations weren’t so high when I entered the space for Red Tape Theatre’s newest production, The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The last (and admittedly, only) show I saw by them, last season’s Enemy of the People (our review ★½), was pretty weak. That said, I was completely blown away. Directed by Artistic Director James Palmer, Red Tape’s Love of the Nightingale was refreshing, bizarre, and remarkably resonant.

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 Nightingale explores the ancient Greek myth of Philomele who, as all those mythology buffs out there will tell you, was transformed into a nightingale after some pretty traumatic experiences. And given that it’s written by Wertenbaker, you can bet the whole story is given a feminist twist. Palmer and his enormous cast explode the story into life, ripping it from its ancient Greek context and filling it with anachronism and theatricality. Set designer William Anderson builds a completely new space within the heart of the gym in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The set is its own little world, encircling the audience and featuring plenty of hidden drawers, doors, and other surprises. Palmer’s production is intensely physical, demanding the actors throw all they got out on-stage, just a few inches from the audience.

The story tells of the relationship between Philomele (Meghan Reardon), her sister Procne (Kathleen Romond), and her brother-in-law and King of Thrace, Tereus (Vic May). For those unfamiliar with the Greek myth, Procne asks her husband, Tereus, to bring her little sister out to Thrace for a visit. He sails over to Athens to pick her up, but things get a little heated on the trip back. Through a brilliant choice, the play is shaped and revealed by an almost silent dollmaker/carpenter/puppetmaster (Robert Oakes), who seems compelled to tell this unsettling story to us.

The dream team of designers Palmer amassed has concocted a marvelous world. Ricky Lurie’s modern-dress costumes are stunning, reveling in the uncanny style Palmer has set out. The suits and dresses are bright and colorful, contrasting sharply with the terrifying depths the play plunges towards. Anderson’s set is simple enough REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 to hold all of the different scenes required in the text, yet exudes its own bizarre essence. This is all pushed by Palmer, who moonlights as lighting designer, and his fetish for flickering fluorescents. The show is eerie and surreal, sometimes a dream and sometimes a nightmare.

Although the performances are at times outdone by the incredible design, there are some choice actors here. Romond’s tortured Procne is excellent; although the character doesn’t feature much in the original myth, here we’re entranced by her struggle. As Philomele, it takes Reardon a scene or two to hit her stride but she gets there, especially as the play gets heavier. May does great work as well, finding both Tereus’ sliminess and his royalty. For such a small stage, the cast is massive. However, they all fit the play extremely well, and everyone out there is required for the world to work as well as it does.

Much of the chorus is used in choreographed movement that surrounds the audience, trapping them into Philomele’s tragic tale. However, sometimes the movement pieces overstay their welcome and reach into repetitive territory, then our interest flags. The play calls for plenty of brutality, but Zack Meyer and Claire Yearman’s fight choreography doesn’t really hack it. It works well technically, but doesn’t have the piercing specificity the rest of the show has.

From their The Love of the Nightinggale, it is clear Red Tape has an aesthetic that works for them. Hopefully, they’ll expand and explore more of what made this play great. If Red Tape keeps churning out work like this, they’ll become a tiger of the storefront scene.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2

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REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

 FarnsworthInvention_130

 
TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

FarnsworthInvention_178 FarnsworthInvention_248

Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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