Review: Slaughter City (Jackalope Theatre)

  
  

Disciplined, persuasive production nobly delves into tough subjects

     
     

Ryan Heindl in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

  
Jackalope Theatre presents
   
  
Slaughter City
    
  
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kaiser Ahmed
at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Naomi Wallace is a committed playwright. She wants her audiences to be equally so, to meet her stories more than half way. Poetic vignettes that defy any consistent time frame, these two hours and twenty minutes of archetypal scenes focus on a packing house in a Brechtian-like factory called Slaughter City.

Ryan Heindl and Kristin Anderson in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope TheatreBut that’s as much focus as you get. Mostly the play offers glimpses of the ongoing struggle of the labor movement to be honored, as in fairly compensated, for the work that made America, not just plutocrats, prosper. Wisconsin is only the latest scene of a battle for the soul of America, which is the decency it shows its workers. Fittingly, Jackalope Theatre’s disciplined and persuasive production does it justice.

Wallace offers scenes and work songs of workers and some scabs agitating for a new contract in a slaughterhouse that gives them 20-minute breaks, scars from numerous cuts, premature arthritis, blood poisoning—and meager wages. Presiding over this most recent struggle are avatars from past ones: Cod is the androgynous Irish descendant of a woman who jumped to her death to avoid the flames in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers behind locked doors over a century ago. In a deal with the devil, namely, the symbolic Sausage Man, emblematic of management, Cod survived but now must engage in every labor conflict from 1910 to the present. (Alas, it’s too nebulous, quixotic and precious a concept to really strike home.)

The specific workers in this latest showdown matter more. They slice up imaginary meat as their boss, Mr. Baquin, practices sexual harassment, improbably insisting on cleanliness despite the abattoir’s appalling conditions. The kill-floor is a seething pit of racial tension, class conflicts, and clandestine romance. All the time these exploited toilers must decide between the kind of solidarity that Cod embodies or the way of death suggested by the Sausage Man.

Kaiser Ahmed’s painstaking (and pains-giving) staging delivers memorable performances—Ryan Heindl’s doomed dyslexic kid, Kristin Anderson’s feisty rebel, Warren Feagins as a guilt-ridden supervisor, Anne Sears as an innocent fire victim, John Milewski as the twisted owner, AJ Ware as conflicted Cod, and Jack McCabe as the sinister Sausage Man. (I’d add Katherine Swan to the list but, lacking any projection, her mush-mouthed Maggot dropped too many lines to register on the stage.)

Discursive and fragmentary, Slaughter City hardly invites its audience to any feast of reason. Like Brecht, Wallace means to keep us at a distance. It’s not clear why: The choice between Cod and the Sausage Man is too obvious for this kind of detachment. Notwithstanding the play’s confusing concepts, Jackalope’s commanding dedication to a difficult story and subject deserves accolades, particularly during hard times where yesterday’s advocacy damnably doesn’t seem to work.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Butchering the carcasses in "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

Slaughter City, by Naomi Wallace, continues at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 4th, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:30pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-340-2553) or online here.  For more information, visit www.jackalopetheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Cold Cold Feet (Diamante Productions)

  
  

Parade of nuptial mayhem brings nonstop laughter

  
  

(L to R) Florence Ann Romano (Monday), Laura Rush (June), Michael Woods (Carl), and Jennifer T. Grubb (April). Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

  
Diamante Productions present
  
Cold Cold Feet
  
Written and directed by Tony Fiorentino
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Unwritten vows, sexual addiction, stripper trio, dove droppings:  when potential disasters threaten to crash his wedding, a groom calls it quits.  Diamante Productions presents Cold Cold FeetOn the eve of his nuptials, Benny is freaking out.  As his brother Carl tries to get him to the church on time, the strippers arrive for a belated bachelor celebration.  While Benny enjoys whipped cream covered shenanigans in the bedroom, Carl stalls the wedding party in the living room.  The pimp, the sister, the mother, the priest, the bride, the dove choreographer… everyone wants to know what the delay is.  An anxiety-ridden Carl satisfies each with a different story.  Multiple charades play out in escalating absurdity.  Cold Cold Feet is a hot hot comedy!

Playwright and director Tony Fiorentino has revamped his popular 2006 production.  Based on his own ‘always a groomsmen never a groom‘ experience, Fiorentino creates familial wedding chaos. Within that world, he uses clever dialogue and characters to make the farce even wittier.  Serving as the director, he ensures the execution of the continuous double entendres nails the comedic moment.  The show starts slow with a mean-spirited banter that doesn’t quite build the brotherly bond. Cue the strippers! Start lying!  Once the parade of mayhem begins, the laughter is unstoppable.  The entire ensemble adds to the punch line with deadpan deliveries and slapstick timing.

Joe Bianco (Benny, front), Jennifer T. Grubb  (April, left), Ann Romano (Monday, center), Laura Rush (June, right) and Michael Woods (Carl, back). Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

Leading the burlesque antics, Michael Woods (Carl) is hysterical as the double-talking fibber.  Woods races around the subject and the room in a zany frenzy.  Joe Bianco (Benny) transforms from nervous to out-of-control to sincere with charm.  Bianco comes across as a tool until he endears with a sweet how-I-met-my-bride story.  The strippers aka “The Time of Your Life” are frolicking, kind-hearted whores. These exotic dancers know how to have fun.  Laura Rauh (June) plays it perfectly dim-witted. Florence Ann Romano (Monday) is an energetic spitfire.  And Jennifer T. DGrubb (April) whips it good as an artist.  Their pimp, Rob Grabowski (Harvey) is the imposing enforcer humbled with intestinal issues. His interactions with Brigitte Ditmars (Mary) and Marie Goodkin (Wanda) are hilarious potty humor.  With misinformation and mistaken identities, Ditmars and Goodkin forcefully go off on Grabowski with riotous results.  Playing funny caricatures, Mike O’Brien (Father Murphy) is a gentle, flask-toting priest and Joel Thomas (Nigel) is an over-the-top dove choreographer.  The bridezilla, Kieran Welsh-Phillips (Lindsay) kicks ass in the final scene.  Welsh-Phillips plays it with tough love, bringing a satisfying end to the jittery hijinks.

Roger Wykes (Scenic Designer) places the story in a Vegas hotel suite.  It’s a large room with exits to a terrace, bedroom, bathroom and hallway.  The multiple doors add to the almost-got-caught tomfoolery.  Costume Designer Emma Weber dresses the cast up in an array of Viva Las Vegas wear.  The sexy underwear and not-so-sexy poker style boxers contrast nicely with the church attire. What happens in Vegas…?  A groom gets tripped up on his way down the aisle.  His family gets caught up in his pre-wedding caper.  Cold Cold Feet engages with a commitment to comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Marital mayhem abounds in Diamante Productions

Cold Cold Feet continues through June 5th at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online HERECold Cold Feet has a running time of ninety minutes with no intermission.

Photos by Michael Brosilow 

  
  

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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: Jenny & Jenni (Factory Theater)

     
     

Funky Freestyle Aerobic Friendship

     
     

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The Factory Theater presents
   
Jenny & Jenni
   
Written by Shannon O’Neill
Directed by Laura McKenzie
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston  (map)
through Dec 18 |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Heaven only knows what drugs inspired Shannon O’Neill’s disco-fevered aerobic dance flashback, but Jenny & Jenni, a new comedy produced by The Factory Theater at Prop Theatre’s space, throws down a litany of 1970’s zaniness like no other. The show begins with the claim that—forget Jane Fonda–these two fictional exercise queens were the real start of the 70’s workout craze. Jenny (Shannon O’Neill), spelled normally with a “y,” and Jenni (Christine Jennings), spelled weirdly with an “i,” are high school rejects with crappy, self-absorbed and neglectful parents. They find each other and take the audience on a ride through every absurd 70’s trend with all the Jenny and Jenni posterhyped-up positive outlook of your favorite 70’s sitcom.

Laura McKenzie directs this picaresque ode to the evolutionary beginnings of jazzercise, spandex, and headbands. The show comes in under two and a half hours but for all that, McKenzie runs a tight, organized and whipsmart ensemble. Even transitions between scenes are choreographed with military precision to keep energy up and the fun going; the cast drives the show from beginning to end at an exacting pace. 70’s tunes dominate the dance/aerobic choreography of Donnell Williams, so rest assured the actors are feeling the burn while they joke about feeling it.

By far, the comedy standouts are Nick Leininger, taking on roles such as a smarmy Health Teacher and an encounter group leader, among others. William Bullion makes yet another deadpan funny fringe appearance as Riggins, the principal of Jenny and Jenni’s high school, who is absolutely plum loco about Scottish heritage. High school archenemy Lola St. James (Aileen May) and her gang of mean girls (Kathryn Hribar, Elizabeth Levy, Kim Boler and Sarah Scanlon) try to keep Jenny and Jenni down but Mr. Riggins gives them their first big morale boost to hit the road and build their aerobic workout dream.

Jenny & Jenni has a wild assortment of hilarious scenes. There’s the Scottish Highland Dance competition with Mr. Riggins and his stiff, proper Scottish sidekick, Aidan (Ted Evans). There’s the hallucinogenic drug scene, when, Jenny and Jenni posterdemoralized, Jenny and Jenni lose track of their dream and go off on wild benders of their own. There’s the encounter group session—a scene that deserves its own award for bringing back hysterical reminders of the prevalence of Me Generation pop psychology. There’s the reintroduction of Kathryn Hribar as Crazy Person, which single-handedly manages to amp up the crazy quotient for the whole second act.

The show could still use a strong editorial hand. The aerobic dance-off between Jenny and Jenni’s entourage versus Lola St. James’ Studio 54-style entourage veers into train wreck territory and loses its comic impact. Plus, the show tries for a sweet and happy ending with a reformed Lola seeing the error of her ways. The transformation is neither emotionally convincing nor even necessary, comically speaking. As for the friendship between Jenny and Jenni, O’Neill and Jennings have a wonderfully simple, understated and convincing bond but more humor could be made of their fabulously bizarre, mutual desire to get down and boogie-oogie-oogie.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
      
     

DSC_8061

Ensemble

Wm. Bullion, Kim Boler, Matt Engle, Ted Evans, Kathyrn Hribar, Christine Jennings, Nick Leininger, Elizabeth Levy, Aileen May, Shannon O’Neill, Sarah Scanlon

Production and Creative Team

Directed By: Laura McKenzie
Written by: Shannon O’Neill
Produced by: Manny Tamayo & Timothy C. Amos
Scenic Designer: Ian Zywica
Sound Designer: Brian Lucas
Lighting Designer: Jordan Kardasz
Costume Designer: Emma Weber
Technical Director: Dan Laushman
Choreographer: Donnell Williams
Props Master: Josh Graves
Stage Manager: Allison Queen
Asst. Stage Manager: Christina Dougherty
Graphic Designer: Jason Moody

Original Music By: Laura McKenzie

 
 

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REVIEW: Drum Circle Pandora (Quest Theatre Ensemble)

 

Come To The Circle!

 

 IMG_4272

   
Quest Theatre Ensemble presents
   
The People’s Drum Circle Pandora
  
Conceived and Directed by Andrew Park
at
St. Gregory’s Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory (map)
thru September 19  |  tickets: FREE  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Quest Theatre Ensemble has created a community experience in the truest sense of the word with Drum Circle Pandora. This is actually theatre of the people where in the audience is encouraged to participate in a celebratory manner. Many theatres try too hard to draw the audience into an alternative reality for a short time.  Quest, however, provides a dizzying array of percussion instruments for the audience to use, allowing participants to create the production on a primal level.

IMG_4320 The first act is the drum circle part of the evening. Drum circles invite people to release emotion and raise inner consciousness through communal drumming and singing.  Quest expertly uses this vehicle, then, to create an open and receptive audience-experience.  The audience is first given a lesson in achieving different sounds from the drums by cast member Aimee Bass, aka ‘Sister Drum’.  Bass is accompanied by Kim DeVore, aka ‘Sister Didge’.  Bass and DeVore are exceptional musicians; their charismatic presence adds color and intensity to the music emanating from their chosen instruments.

Act two, which adds an electric ensemble to the first act performers, is centered on the myth of Pandora – but with a twist: Pandora was not responsible for all of the evils of the world. Instead, by opening the box, Pandora illuminated what was already there. This makes it possible for humankind to see that the perception of evil comes from within as does all good and hope. Creator Andrew Park provides a Greek Chorus of Brother Sun and the Sunshine Girls to accompany Pandora’s journey. Jason Bowen plays the role of Brother Sun with great humor and a touch of lusty naughtiness.

In the tradition of musicals such as Hair and O Calcutta, songs are anthems to moral restraints breaking free. But Pandora instead explores the responsibility that springs from that freedom. The quandaries are still the same in every era. How does humanity ignore what we have wrought? There is poverty, war, and environmental ravages, but people choose not to put light on the situation. While the entire cast does a wonderful job of dancing and singing, Angelica Keenan does a star turn in the title role. Her skills as a dancer are excellent. One unfortunate exception, however, is a dance she performs while wearing boots, a clunky costume choice that literally hampers the beauty of her movement and the gravity of the scene. Ms. Keenan is paired with Merrill Matheson as her spouse Epemethious. Matheson is excellent in portraying societal denial with the personas of businessman, husband etc.

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A wonderful ensemble featuring music in arena rock style enhances the song productions, harkening back to the Rick Wakeman days of the group Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer in their heyday. The addition of a didgeridoo by Ms. DeVore adds a sinister and primordial shading to Act 2. The music underscores the archetypal essence of the Pandora myth, i.e., women are usually to blame for the downfall of man in patriarchal tales. There was Eve and her apple, before her Lillith and concurrently Pandora. Drum Circle Pandora seeks to put an equal spin on how it all went down and how everyone must look at what we create in full light as the ultimate solution for harmony, prosperity, and good stewardship of the environment. In the process, Quest creates a timely tale, especially considering the state of the world at the moment.

A special mention must be given to the production’s set design and scenic artistry. Nick Rupard and Julie Taylor have done a fabulous job of alternating cyc walls and moveable scenery. Whether it is sunflowers or destruction, the sets are lush, giving added depth to the action. The masks and puppetry by Megan Hovany are exceptional as well. Drum Circle Pandora is a rich and crazy carnival for the eyes and ears. You will be singing the theme song ‘Come To The Circle’ long after you leave the theatre.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

IMG_4300 The mission of Quest Theatre Ensemble is to provide free access to theatre for everyone. The productions are free of charge but donations are welcome  – and will certainly help the company buy more instruments and to help spread the word about the production. Drum Circle Pandora is best for ages 12 and up, as some scenes are quite intense.  Also, other than the drumming, I’m not sure if kids younger than 12 will understand the premise (though I’m speaking from a mother’s perspective).

Drum Circle Pandora runs every Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Admission is free but reservations are encouraged and honored. The theatre is located at Quest’s Blue Theatre – 1609 W. Gregory. It is in the St. Gregory the Great School building that is accessible by CTA. Go and get your drum on as the summer wanes!

 

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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.

 

Harmon Logan JK 4800
Harmon Logan Begale Katz Scanlon JK 4649 Katz Black JK 4551

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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REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

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Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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