REVIEW: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Polarity Ensemble)

  
   

This ‘Journey’ lacks propulsion

 

 

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Polarity Ensemble presents
    
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
    
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by
Susan Padveen
at
Josephinum, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $10-$19  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, one of the most important plays in the American canon, is a marathon experience. Four acts, four actors (mostly), and enough substance abuse to melt your liver. Clocking in at almost four hours, the bulky play is rarely done. Polarity Ensemble has bravely engaged with the monster, opening their season with the highly-biographical play. The spark driving this production is dim, causing the world to feel artificial. Considering the challenges, however, Polarity and director Susan Padveen should be commended.

Long Days Journey - Polarity 011Long Day’s Journey can be seen as O’Neill’s love letter to the theatre. Alternatively, it could also be seen as a suicide note.

The play is based on O’Neill’s family life, one that is accustomed to second-rate hotels and late night trains. The father of both the real-life O’Neill and Edmond, his doppelganger in his story, played the lead in a perpetually touring production of The Count of Monte Cristo for thousands of performances. In Long Day’s Journey, the stress of the road has shredded apart Edmond’s family, along with cheap doctors, alcoholism, and a mother with a nasty morphine addiction.

Somewhat surprisingly, the play reads like a living, breathing text rather than a starchy closet drama. O’Neill never saw the play staged. He finished it, threw it in a vault, and said it could only be published a quarter-century after his death. His wishes were subverted, though, and the play saw the light of the day only three years after he was buried. It was met with enormous acclaim, won Eugene a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and now is required reading for any lover of American theatre. O’Neill’s memories are made watchable because of his charming wit and penchant for writing scorching conflicts which are constantly poked and resuscitated.

After sitting through that crushing diurnal cycle at Polarity’s space, you aren’t left snoring. But you aren’t left electrified, either. The cast shies away from the play’s essential weightiness. They never look comfortable just letting themselves sit immersed in the Tyrone’s dysfunction. The actors can’t get across the giant, swerving egos the script requires.

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Kevin Kenneally is patriarch James. The role is perhaps the most difficult in the tale. He has probably the most stage time, and the hardest journey: watching the aftershocks of a family he had a major hand in destroying. Keanneally cannot plug into the raw power needed for James. For the most part, Keanneally steers his James well. But when the cards are down and pretenses have broken apart, he often retreats into vulnerability, as opposed to struggling to paint over his sensitivity with anger and disappointment.

Caroline Dodge Latta as James’ wife, Mary, fares better. She particularly shines in the last moments, where she brings down the house with one of my favorite monologues of all time. The two brothers are the most interesting piece of the cast. Bryan Breau’s Edmond and Eric Damon Smith’s whiskey-soaked Jamie spar with zest, even if some of the stakes aren’t high enough.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is a powerhouse play. Requiring thorough, battle-ready actors, the experience should be a punch in the throat. Padveen’s production is not a powerhouse. The lying isn’t believable enough, the delusions aren’t thick enough, and the family’s utter inability to communicate isn’t fully fleshed-out. The volatility needs to be wrenched up. O’Neill allows little room for tepidness.

That being said, Polarity could have done much, much, much worse. The major themes all bleed out, leaving plenty to ponder after the night finally arrives. Padveen’s production sucks the breath from you. But O’Neill’s incendiary script can knock you cold.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
       
     

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

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Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters

 

by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.

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REVIEW: Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape (Goodman Theatre)

Masterful production suffers from too large of performance space

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Goodman Theatre presents:

Hughie / Krapp’s Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill
directed by
Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver
through February 28th (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Hughie_06Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape are the results of two Nobel Prize winning playwrights exploring the idea of loneliness. Both works dive headfirst into aching, despondent, cringe-worthy isolation—not sexy loneliness or quirky loneliness, but the brand of depressing loneliness caused by years of self-inflicted solitude. Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill, neither of whom is known for their sunny view of life, are masters in illustrating this theme in their plays. Pairing up the American O’Neill and the Irish Beckett was a bold decision, but the Goodman’s choice to put these plays together makes a lot of sense. Especially when you add to the mix adept directors Robert Falls and Jennifer Tarver and have the two plays carried by one Brian Dennehy. The finished product steals the breath away from the audience by the end, like if we had just witnessed a star implode on itself.

Although both plays could conceivably be described as one-man shows, they are both actually powerful, two-person dialogues. Hughie takes place long after midnight in a fleabag hotel lobby. The hotel’s night clerk (Joe Grifasi) stands alone behind the counter. Enter the drunken Erie Smith (Dennehy). Although the conversation is decidedly one-sided, the night clerk’s presence is essential to Erie’s booze-fueled tirade. Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-person show, but the sole character, also soaking in alcohol, is still having a dialogue. Instead of chatting with another flesh and blood human, Krapp (Dennehy again) interacts with himself, 30 years earlier, through an ancient tape player. Having the characters discourse with someone does the opposite of brightening the situation; the exchanges highlight the fact that these characters are completely starved for an authentic human connection. These plays are definitely not for the easily disturbed. After viewing, some bourbon and Prozac might be necessary to help you fall asleep.

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Hughie, arguably the weaker of the two, is more plugged in to the real world. It’s fascinating to watch Dennehy rattle off stories of past friends, female conquests, and gambling victories. He mostly rambles about his only confidant in recent memory, the former night clerk, Hughie. Falls’ staging is brilliant. He is able to create viable stage pictures with only one moving actor, yet the production never feels unmotivated or scattershot. Grifasi is spot-on as the spaced-out clerk. Dennehy owns his role, layering bravado and self-assurance on top of Erie’s agonizing stabs at companionship.

Beckett is a much different writer than O’Neill, and requires a distinct approach in all aspects. Dennehy’s Krapp is a 180-turn from Erie. He’s a clown—a very lonely clown that let the opportunities of relationships slip by years ago. This production, directed by Canadian impKrapps_06ort Tarver, snaps together. Every second on stage is fraught with purpose. Dennehy’s dealings with a banana, his tape player, or his door are all significant. It also contains one of the most genius directing choices of this entire theatre season. Whenever Krapp leaves the main room to fetch a drink, he leaves the door open. The only movement on stage is the swinging light pull. There is something so Beckett, so existential, about that moment.

Hughie tends to drag a bit and the powerful silences of Krapp’s Last Tape are often interrupted by coughs and shifting, which is more of a comment on the audience than the production. The Albert stage seems a bit large for these plays. The size works for capturing the crushing, Atlas-scale solitude, but the anguished details are occasionally lost in the abyss. Still, the double-bill is remarkable. Nothing is overblown or glossed over; all aspects of both productions are painstakingly devised. Even the show is just over 90 minutes, you’ll have plenty of fodder for hours of therapy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

The Design Team for Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape includes Eugene Lee (Sets), Patrick Clark (Costumes), Robert Thomson (Lights) and Richard Woodbury (Sound). Joseph Drummond is the Production Stage Manager, and T. Paul Lynch is the Stage Manager.  All photography by Liz Lauren.

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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Chicago theater tidbits: New Leaf Theatre, Masha Obolensky, Goodman

Centerstage Chicago: Sarah Terez Rosenblum reviews “Touch” at New Leaf Theatre. (runs Jan 7 thru Feb 14)

TheatreinChicago.com reports on the upcoming world premier of playwright Masha Obolensky’s “Not Enough Air”, directed by Nick Bowling; produced by Timeline Theatre. More at BroadwayWorld.com. (runs Jan 24 thru March 22)

Chris Jones reviews “The Emperor Jones”, by Eugene O’Neill, now playing at The Goodman Theatre (awarding it 3.5 stars).  Jones interjects an interesting sideline regarding O’Neill’s underlying racism through his use of exaggerated stereotypes:

Eugene O’Neill wasn’t the only 20th Century American playwright to be afflicted by the scourge of racism. He was just the best of them.