Review: El Nogalar (Teatro Vista at Goodman Theatre)

  
  

A fresh, visceral update of Chekhov classic

  
  

Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

  
Teatro Vista i/a/w Goodman Theatre presents
  
El Nogalar
  
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Cecilie D. Kennan
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

‘”They’ve taken our Mexico. They’ve taken our days, our nights.”   –Valeria

Breakout Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho has taken Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and planted it in contemporary Northern Mexico. Change the cherries to pecans, keep the once-wealthy family and the rigid class divisions, hang on to willful blindness to a way of life changing and you have the Silver Age of Russia all over again. One notable exception: Madame Ranevsky and her household never had to contend with the violence spawned by drug cartels vying for control of their territory. Bracingly directed by Cecilie D. Keenan, Saracho’s adept variation takes Chekhov’s premise from the frying pan and throws it directly into the fire. The result is an exciting new work that speaks with immediacy and passion to our times.

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Yunuen Pardo - El NogalarDunia (Yunuen Pardo) and Guillermo Lòpez (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) maintain the house and land belonging to the once-prosperous Galvan family. Only the older daughter of the clan, distraught, anxious and overworked Valeria (Sandra Delgado), has stayed on to manage the property. Her mother Maité (Charin Alvarez) and sister Anita (Christina Nieves) have long lived up north in America, Anita attending various schools and Maité absorbed in an abusive affair with an American intellectual—a man who says “Mexican” like it’s a dirty thing. “You know he means other kinds of Mexicans,” says Valeria to her returning sister, hanging on to those little shreds of the past and class distinction that once defined her family. The past hangs on like a ghost they can’t shake and, in the past, their home played host to governors and senators. An upstairs bedroom contains a bed rumored to have held a former president of Mexico. Now, Valeria fights Dunia to keep the lights off during the day to save electricity and she desperately relies on Guillermo for physical protection and financial solutions.

Maité and Anita return to the shell of their family’s former ease and grandeur—a condition symbolically reinforced by the oversized, intricately detailed dollhouse that centers Brian Bembridge’s set design. Their friends, the old rich and influential families of Mexico, have fled. Only those too poor to leave, like Dunia and Guillermo, have stayed to endure the ravishment of their lives and futures by ongoing drug wars. Drug lords have grabbed surrounding lands and now set their claws on the Galvan’s land, which sports a once-glorious pecan orchard that Guillermo Lòpez worked in barefoot as a child.

     
Charín Alvarez and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar Sandra Delgado and Yunuen Pardo - El Nogalar
Charín Alvarez, Christina Nieves and Sandra Delgado Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

Pardo and Garcia do a brilliant job setting up the brutal and dangerous reality that informs their every action and choice. “Who would believe the news?” says Dunia about the kidnappings and slayings that are a constant occurrence, “It seems like a movie.” Lòpez tells her she talks too much and will no doubt end up dead in a ditch for it, but he himself seems ambivalent about his own tough pose. “Words are for idle people, people who don’t have to work for a living,” he mutters as he strokes a book that he longs to have the security and leisure to read and absorb, like his wealthy employer before him.

Yet, nothing heightens the dangers facing the Galvan family like mother Maité’s entrance. Here is a woman on the edge, who still dresses and acts like a jet-setter from a lost era of affluence. Alvarez subtly captures Maité’s mania and pushes it over that edge at precise moments, but never overplays it. Here is a woman with her head in the sand, with a manic faith in the belief that just acting the part of a jaded millionaire will pay her way and protect her from the losses to come. “Look at this place. It’s breaking my heart in two,” she says of the house and her dried out, untended pecan trees, yet we know she will never take responsibility for its neglect. Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves in El NogalarStill absorbed in a vision of herself from 20 years ago, she jogs the hills in tight mini-shorts heedless of the risk she’s putting herself in.

Young Anita also returns sorely unprepared for the world she’s come home to. An adolescence spent shifting from boarding school to boarding school has left her as ungrounded and as unconnected to her culture as can be. “I’m a half person,” she complains to Valeria, having only a little grasp of Spanish and a debutante’s understanding of the world. Of the three Galvan women, only Valeria seems to have developed the capacity to survive the loss of the orchard. Delgado deftly runs the gamut of overtaxed emotions that are Valeria’s lot, whether trying to contain her mother’s excesses or get her to accept the reality of their situation. Her crowning moment comes once the place is no longer theirs and she throws the keys that she’s worn as a chatelaine at her mother’s feet.

Saracho’s reworking of Chekhov is vivid in its dialogue and visceral in the chances that it takes. Teatro Vista’s cast renders earthier performances than one will find in a delicately balanced Cherry Orchard, but nothing that isn’t absolutely appropriate to time and place. Not only does the production never veer into overwrought territory, it instead awakens us to a version of ourselves under similar conditions. What could be a more enlightening evening in the theater than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Bert Matias - El Nogalar.

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Review: God of Carnage (Goodman Theatre)

   
   

‘God of Carnage’, worthy of worship?

  
  

(l to r) Alan (David Pasquesi) tries to comfort his wife Annette (Beth Lacke) as Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) continues to discuss the argument between their two children. Photo credit Eric Y. Exit

  
Goodman Theatre presents
   
God of Carnage
  
Written by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Rick Snyder
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $22-$90  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage must be a producer’s wet dream—four actors, one set, and a run time less than 90 minutes. Plus, it’s hyper-relevant to upper-middle class urban professionals. The overall vibe is very similar to Reza’s Art, especially in skewering yuppie lifestyles. It all worked out very well for the Goodman, which snagged the Midwest premier after the Broadway debut won a bevy of Tonys and Broadway in Chicago dropped it from its season. With all the encapsulating hype, Reza’s tight little play (translated and Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) is horrified as her civil get together turns into chaotic mayhem. Photo credit: Eric Y. Exittweaked for American audiences by Christopher Hampton) is sure to get some butts in the Goodman’s seats. And the production lives up to the hoopla, even though no one in the cast has the national name recognition as Jeff Daniels or James Gandolfini.

The idea Reza plays around with in her play is whether adults and children are really that different, especially when it comes to scuffling. One child whacks another in the face with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. We see the obligatory meeting of parents sans children. From the beginning, there’s the awkward conflict between parenting techniques. Add to that the fact that maybe no party is innocent. Of course, things quickly spiral out of control.

To direct this darkly hilarious piece, the Goodman selected Rick Snyder, the same who directed a terrific production of Art at Steppenwolf a couple of seasons back. His experience with Reza shows—he allows his cast to push the humor just enough before becoming too ridiculous.

In the end, God of Carnage is an actors’ show. The New York folks got that when they brought in Gandolfini, Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis. Snyder cast his own set of Chicago stage heavyweights: Mary Beth Fisher, Beth Lacke, David Pasquesi, and Keith Kupferer. The foursome has a great thrust and parry with each other—and this is a play where alliances constantly shift and no one is on any one else’s side for very long (even if they’re married to them).

Pasquesi is Alan, a high-profile corporate lawyer, and is married to Annette (Lacke). She’s bothered by his love affair with his Blackberry. The hosts, Veronica (Fisher) and Michael (Kupferer, in the role originated by Gandolfini), are victim to their own neurosis. Veronica writes books about far-away conflicts and buys books about art; Michael sells doorknobs (among other things) and recently tossed the family hamster out on the street. Things really pick up when the liquor starts flowing, a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Really, you end up feeling sorry for the unseen children most of all.

Unfortunately, it seems like Snyder holds back, which is the show’s biggest shortcoming. There could be more chaos. I was also hoping for more rolling-on-the-floor laughing moments. The Monday night opening came off as a little Monday-ish. Even in the craziest instants, when things are thrown around or thrown up—the play is a bit unsatisfying. The cast needs to be all-in all the time.

God of Carnage succeeds because it nails the savagery that we all understand. Reza posits that there may not be much of a difference between parks infested with roving gangs of kids or Brooklyn living rooms with cups of espresso and imported rum. She digs under the veneer of modern civilization, and even Veronica, modern civilization’s biggest champion, can’t prevent her passions from slipping out. To insult and question how a person raises their kids is asking for strong responses. But Reza, Snyder, and the cast commit fully to this explosive scenario, and we get to enjoy the fireworks.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

(l to r) Michael (Keith Kupferer) tries to rationalize the situation while speaking to Alan (David Pasquesi) Annette (Beth Lacke) and Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher). Photo credit: Eric Y. Exit

     
     

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Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Animal Crackers”

 Ludicrous yet loveable, “Animal Crackers” is rollicking good time

(clockwise from top) Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Ed Kross (Horatio Jamison/Zeppo), Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho), Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) and Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Goodman Theatre presents

Animal Crackers

Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Now extended thru November 1st (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

 (l to r) Mara Davi (Mrs. Whitehead) and Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit It’s pretty rare that a stage production can be described as both “brilliant” and “stupid.” Theatre quite often views itself as an intellectual pursuit (or at least it would like to), leaving the silly, ridiculous, and trivial to blockbuster movies. The Goodman’s mounting of the Marx Brother’s classic musical Animal Crackers, though, seems to be going for that idiocy much of today’s theatre is afraid to touch. It succeeds beautifully. With an intensely committed cast and under the energized direction of Henry Wishcamper, Animal Crackers is remarkably, refreshingly stupid.

A few coincidences also help make Animal Crackers oddly connected to our current world. First, the musical is premiering against Fake Steppenwolf Theatre’s current show exploring the history of the “Piltdown Man,” a hoax that claimed to be the missing link between man and ape. And both of these shows now have an interesting new relevance with last week’s announcement concerning the discovery of the oldest known human ancestor, “Ardi.” Now Animal Crackers doesn’t trouble  itself with Darwin, biology, or the scientific method; instead, it lambastes the scientific community and high society with a keen sense of farce that could only come Production_06from the Marx Brothers. There is a silent The Professor (Molly Brennan in the role created by Harpo), whose subject of study is never revealed, besides his penchant for chasing every woman in the room. Then there is the wise-cracking African explorer Captain Spaulding (Joey Slotnick with Groucho’s signature mustache and cigar), who claims that his retirement would be his greatest contribution to science. Along with the scheming musician Emanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody in Chico’s role), the group wrecks havoc among a group of painters, newspaper columnists, debutants, art collectors, and a few lovers. The musical wasn’t produced for over 50 years after the Marx Brothers’ Broadway original and is still a very rare sight for theatre audiences. Wishcamper’s revival proves that Animal Crackers still has spirit, even though the last Marx Brother died 30 years ago.

Production_05 Production_07 Production_09

The big question I had was if Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody would just be doing a simple imitation or inventing the characters anew. The end result is a hefty portion of both. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico are reproduced on stage, but the performers find plenty of new material within the script. At one point, Spaulding performs a Production_11sarcastic homage to last season’s O’Neill festival. At another point, The Professor whips out a rifle from his coat and shoots wildly at the orchestra and the ceiling, causing several plush ducks to fall onto the stage. Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody never miss a comic beat, and they will not hesitate to chastise the audience if there’s not enough laughter (“The Addam’s Family isn’t in town till November”). The work of clowning director Paul Kalina is very clear. There are hilarious comic bits with hats, playing cards, tables, stuff shoved into The Professor’s jacket, paintings, ladders, the list goes on and on.

  Production_03Wishcamper cast all of the parts with only nine actors, which swells the madness of the script to another level. The lovers, devious debutants, and other members of high society that are constantly insulted and/or hit on by Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody are all tightly performed. However, the play’s plot, which serves as more of a frame for the Marxs’ antics than a real storyline, becomes a bit tiring by the second act. Shaving the run time down would definitely help the show pop a bit more.

Wishcamper and his cast confirm that Animal Crackers can be much more than just a device for the original performers. With their spirited vitality, they thoroughly push the musical’s farce, ridiculousness, and, yes, even its stupidity.

Rating: «««

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