Review: UIC Theatre’s “Stars in the Morning Sky”

 Touching, if limited, performances in “Stars In the Morning Sky”

stars pub 4 UIC Theatre presents:

Stars in the Morning Sky

adapted by Peter Christensen and Yasen Peyankov
directed by Lupa Lopatina Solomon
thru November 22nd  (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

stars pub 1 Lupa Lopatina Solomon last directed Stars In the Morning Sky with co-director and translator Yasen Peyankov as a member of the now-defunct European Repertory Theatre. A retelling of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths by Russian playwright Aleksandr Galin, the play depicts the desperate lives of women in prostitution at the opening of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In an attempt to present a clean face to the world, Soviet authorities have rounded up the city’s sex workers and deposited them on the outskirts of the city in rundown barracks that once served as a mental hospital.

Solomon has honed a well-integrated student production; the cast is a fairly even and cohesive ensemble, set with strikingly imaginative lighting (Carl Ulaszek) and sound (Lea Palmeno) design. At this stage in their craft, all of the students deliver on their characters’ intentions and motivations, while not all face the same challenges. In a play that would test the limits of mature, professional actors, some fall short like horses that have been handicapped from the starting line-up.

Erin Yucus and Rashida KhanBey carry the additional burden of playing older women with more arduous and twisted histories than the rest. Valentina (Yucus) is a hardened Soviet style worker who runs the barracks that house the temporarily homeless whores. Ana (KhanBey) is an older, alcoholic prostitute who, while merciless about her own self-appraisal, acts with instinctive motherliness toward the younger women hauled in. While both actors convey women under lifelong hardship, both also sink heavily into their portrayals with little nuance, suggesting the need for greater life experience as well as technique. Ironically, their characters’ significant moments of sorrow lack the depth to be realistic.

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By contrast, those cast members with roles within their age range fair better. Jessica Roach’s Lora is believably flighty and childlike in her idealism, while Zarinah Ali’s Klara virtually dominates the stage with insouciant energy. Perhaps Carolyn Molloy is the most seriously tested of all the cast, since her character, Maria, becomes assaulted in an attempt to leave the barracks. It’s a role that Molloy unabashedly takes on but also at moments loses her bearings, slipping in and out of convincing interpretation.

UIC Theatre’s production is most successful in creating ensemble and maintaining even, progressive storytelling. The last moment of the play where the tech crew revolves the stage is the only disturbance in the fourth wall and it is worth the payoff—it reveals the banished women waving to the city in pride over the Olympics they have been denied. With all it shortcomings, this production still shows its power to touch the audience.

stars pub 8