Review: The People’s Four Seasons (Quest Ensemble)

     
     

Quest joyously reminds us of warmer weather ahead

  
  

Quest Theatre - Four Seasons - Photo Credit: Jeremy Lawson

  
Quest Theatre Ensemble presents
  
The People’s Four Seasons
 
Written and Directed by Andrew Park
Music by
Scott Lamps
at
The Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: FREE  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The four seasons (in temperate parts of the world, anyway) have served as a muse ever since those first cavemen artists noticed that outside became cold, then hot, then cold again. The seasons inspired Vivaldi and they inspired Frankie Valli. Quest Ensemble, with their plethora of puppets, enlisted Scott Lamps to compose a musical dedicated to the cycle of nature.

Quest Theatre - Four Seasons - Production Image 3Written and directed by Andrew Park, Quest’s The People’s Four Seasons (which skews more towards early 20th Century operetta than modern musical) mostly rehashes commonly-espoused thoughts and beliefs. Spring brings babies and winter brings death. But with a spirited cast, ingenious design, and decent songwriting, The Four Seasons bursts with life. While in the final throes of winter, it is nice to be reminded that warmer times will come at some point, like they always do.

Park puts a sometimes-clunky frame on his celebration of nature. We watch the seasons change through the eyes of an old man. The stage is split into two areas; one of whimsy and one of stark reality. With his daughter’s assistance, the man is making the hard move from the house he grew up in to a retirement home. He is oft distracted by a tree just outside the window, which serves up plenty of pregnant memories. These music-laden memories are played out for the audience on another portion of the stage.

He remembers the tree from his spring birth—apparently he has one of the best memories in the world. We watch how the man’s life changes, just like the seasons do. A younger version of the man builds a house as we watch a massive spider spin a web. Though the narrative is a bit pedestrian, it still works. Quest hits a nice balance for the audience. There’s enough substance for adults to sink their teeth into and plenty of theatrics for children. Of course, there were plenty of children-at-heart with mouths agape.

I found myself wishing Scott Lamps’ score was vaster. We get a piano and a quartet of singers, a fuller arrangement could really make the show pop. The lyrics are straightforward (“I’m thankful/for you” repeats the autumn song) and fairly catchy.

However, it’s The Four Seasons simplicity that shines. Even though the story is nothing new, it still digs at your heart, inducing giggles and tears. Quest Ensemble has this secret nailed down. The brilliant puppetry, unafraid to show the strings, makes this show far more complex and fascinating than mere children’s theatre. The puppeteers bring bees, birds, and a myriad of other creatures to life. The tale is as much about the natural world as it is about the characters that ground it.

Quest Theatre Emsemble - The People's Four SeasonsThe singers acting out the man’s memories spout energy. The memories lean towards the sentimental, but who doesn’t remember their life with a little embellishment? Performers like Laura Deger, Jason Bowen and Kent Joseph dive into Parks’ style. Others, like Beth Allin, occasionally struggle to maintain presence and risk losing the audience during solo numbers. When several actors are on-stage, though, everything sails along merrily.

The most exciting aspect of Four Seasons is the joy it exudes. I left the theatre into the February cold with a renewed sense of hope. Quest is the self-branded “People’s Theatre” and therefore charge no admission. The Four Seasons fit right into their mission, telling a story common to us all. In less innovative hands, the play could easily be grade-school pageant quality. Yet, Park and Quest’s sense of wonder appears in the execution. They have created a celebration of life, one that envigors and consoles.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Quest Theatre Emsemble's 'The People's Four Seasons', by Andrew Park and music by Scott Lamps.

    
    

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Review: My Filthy Hunt (The Right Brain Project)

     
     

‘My Filthy Hunt’ sells itself on grit, but offers better

     
     

Elizabeth Orr, Bries Vannon, The Right Brain Project, My Filthy Hunt

   
Right Brain Project, i/a/w Horizon Arts and Richard Jordan Productions presents
   
My Filthy Hunt
      
Written by Philip Stokes
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru March 19  | 
tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In the first minute of Philip Stokes’ curiously-titled My Filthy Hunt, four brooding actors stare down the audience, strip to their skivvies, then bounce around while manically accompanying some blaring rock.

From this unpromising start comes a thoughtful, engaging, sensitive play about devastation and recovery.

Though it doesn’t “spit in the face of theatrical convention” as the show’s press release–and indirectly, the grim, tawdry posters– suggest, it’s probably Erin Elizabeth Orr, Greg Wenz, Right Brain Project, My Filthy Huntbest that it doesn’t. “In-yer-face theatre” is challenging in the era of anything-goes art, and dependence on shock to elicit attention usually comes at the sacrifice of actual substance. These artists have something to say, and though the source-material may allow it to in lesser directorial hands, the message doesn’t get muddied with an initiative to offend.

Even when delivered by players in their underpants.

Four strong, detached monologues follow the opening, each centering on sexual or emotional insecurities. The cast (comprised of Erin Elizabeth Orr, Emma Peterson, Bries Vannon, and Greg Wenz) is animated and earnest, finding the anguish and humor in each speech.

When those concepts overlap, such as when a young man relays his attempt to commit suicide with a bottle of fish oil supplements, the ensemble is at its best. Likewise, a woman’s lament about the more sinister side of growing up attractive is touching and thought-provoking.

The latter-half of this one-act is where director Nathan Robbel’s focus on specificity really shines. The quartet responds to a tragedy with a tightly-woven, almost Pinter-like scene of short-fused call-and-response dialogue. It’s almost musical. The details of the event are left mostly in the background, but they’re unimportant. Elements of loss are universal, and these actors convey them with empathy and authenticity. One shouts out for donuts, and we see the nonsense that can overtake us in moments where reality becomes incomprehensible.

Stokes’ text is composed with a careful hand, exploring dark issues with a sense of maturity and restraint. His otherwise talky play is made visually fascinating by Robbel’s movement work–always enough to heighten the stories without distracting from them.

Robbel makes playful, decisively physical use of The Right Brain Project’s tiny (it’s a stretch to call the space a black box) Ravenswood theater. Though sight-lines are at times an issue, the production team embraces the opportunity for smart minimalism. There are no props save for some cell phones and one well-used coat rack, and many of the emotional and thematic shifts are indicated through Michael C. Smith’s resourceful lighting design.

Good theatre doesn’t require much to be compelling. My Filthy Hunt is an argument for how.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bries Vannon, Elizabeth Orr, Right Brain Project, My Filthy Hunt

My Filthy Hunt continues through March 19th (8:00pm Thursdays – Saturdays, 7:00pm Sundays), with an additional industry performance scheduled Monday, March 7th. Admission is a suggested donation of $15. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling the RBP box office at 773.750.2033, or by emailing requests to tickets@therbp.org. For more information, please visit www.therbp.org.   All photos by Nathan Robbel.

     
     

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REVIEW: Hesperia (Right Brain Project)

An Exploration of Love and Trust

 

     IanDaisy03

   
The Right Brain Project presents
  
Hesperia
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through August 14th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The Right Brain Project is staging an intriguing production called Hesperia. This show exposes how love, friendship, and trust transcend class and social mores. The playwright, Randall Colburn, takes these themes and puts them smack dab in post-modern America, offering up some interesting musings on what happens to those who buy into the American Dream and the underbelly of that dream.

Right Brain Project's "Hesperia" by Randall Colburn In the opening scene we are introduced to Claudia and Ian played by Natalie DiCristofano and Billy Fenderson respectively. Ian has shown up at Claudia’s door in the small town of Hesperia not far from where they grew up. Ms. DiCristofano is a sylph-like beauty that exudes vulnerability and a hard edge at the same time. The character of Claudia is has come to this town to shake off her past as a porn actress. She is now a born again Christian and engaged to marry the youth minister at the local church. Billy Fenderson also has a wonderful edge as a man who is trying to escape the past but perhaps got in deeper than he should have.

Claudia and Ian are childhood best friends and were partners in porn apparently working only with each other. The porn career for both of them seems to have been done on a lark or a childish dare that got out of hand. Claudia has escaped, but there are thugs on Ian’s trail. Being saved or born again is an escape for both characters – but who really takes it to heart is the lingering question for both of them.

Claudia is engaged to Trick whose real name is Trevor. The nickname is a result of youthful horsing around with language. It is an interesting choice for the character considering his fiancée’s former profession. (I wonder if the playwright was going for homage to Tennessee Williams with the double entendre.) Nick Freed plays the role of Trick with an endearing innocence and country boy energy. He keeps the energy level high, especially when drilling young Aaron for the state Bible Bee. It is a finely balanced portrait of fundamentalist America without the judgmental sneer that is evident in other works, and Nick Freed embodies the innocence and the frustration of having been anointed in the ministry. Trick tells Claudia that his gift is discernment that comes into play when Ian shows up and tries to reclaim his small town past. Trick accepts without judgment and with a trusting open heart. Claudia knows better in spite of her innocent past with Ian.

 

ClaudiaTrick01 Hesperia06

Trick fixes Ian up on a date with a nice girl from church named Daisy, played by Katy Albert with a refreshing country girl sexiness, looking clean scrubbed and apple cheeked like a 50’s Ladies Home Journal girl. Daisy is instantly smitten with the new boy in town, no doubt unaware of his extensive experience. Albert and Fenderson have good chemistry; the post date with the two of them is timed perfectly and staged with a voyeuristic flair. The sex scene is done well, with an edge of discomfort and shame. Surprisingly it’s Trick that feels the shame while Daisy wants him to stay.

The one chink in the play is the character of Aaron. It’s played well by Danny Mulae, but feels like a throwaway device for shock effect. Aaron finds a DVD of Claudia and Ian’s early work. The interaction between Ian and Aaron feels somehow false. Trick’s character alludes to Aaron starting to show interest in sex and then the boy comes off like the “bad seed,” interrogating Ian about the film. Also, some of Mr. Fenderson’s lines get lost due to either odd staging or poor enunciation.

This drawback really should be remedied because Ian’s character is open for judgment and it could be made clearer regarding why he should not be judged harshly. By the time the wedding of Trick and Claudia takes place Ian has been picked up by the thugs calling for him from California. Everything falls into place for Claudia, but did she turn on her former best friend or did he willingly return to his former life:  The matter is not easily resolved in a neat package, which is more realistic than Ian settling down with Daisy and popping out the kids. It is also Hesperia Photosatisfying that Trick and Claudia don’t have an instant sexual connection on their wedding night. Claudia has more experience but doesn’t want the same feelings from before. It is honest, painful, funny, and wonderful to observe.

Throughout the production the actors are confined to a small stage with seating around the perimeter, remaining on stage during other scenes. The actors remain in character with the emotional impact from the previous scene remaining fresh. This is a contemplative work that requires that the audience focus on the actors’ subtleties. The sparseness of the stage is a good choice as is the audience seating. I don’t know if it was deliberate but the backless seats caused me to be more in tune with the play. It took effort and concentration to sit comfortably as well as watch the stage. It is an integrative approach at best, and I felt for the actors having to be still and not drown in sweat without a stage exit. Here’s my heartfelt wish for a better air conditioner-you all deserve one!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Hesperia plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm through August 14th at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood. The theatre is easily accessible by CTA or Metra. Call 773-750-2033 or go to www.therbp.org for tickets or more information.

IanDaisy02

 

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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