Review: Dracula (Idle Muse Theatre)

  
  

“Twilight”, eat your heart out!

  
  

Edward Harch as Dracula and Nathan Thompson as Renfield in a scene from Idle Muse Theatre's 'Dracula'

   
Idle Muse Theatre presents
   
Dracula
   
Adapted by Steven Dietz
Directed by
Lenny Wahlberg
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Idle Muse Theatre has captured the quintessential gothic vibe. Their production, Dracula, now at Side Project Theatre under the direction of Lenny Wahlberg, is traditional, to say the least. It slays because it is dutifully faithful to Bram Stoker’s vision and language, resonating with deep Victorian observations on human passion and the human condition. “Great men, like galaxies, end in dust,” quotes the supreme vamp himself, as he plays host to his unsuspecting guest, Jonathan Harker (Chris Waldron). Abraham Van Helsing (Brad Woodard) is the equal to the Count (Edward Karch) in weighty sentiments, especially when he warns John Seward (Brian Bengtson) not to reveal their secrets to “God’s madmen”—that is, just about everybody.

Edward Karch as Dracula in Idle Muse Theatre's production of 'Dracula'Gothic fetish aside, the real joy lies in witnessing Wahlberg’s young cast wield Stoker’s lush, dark language like mature, seasoned pros, adding those necessary flashes of humor at their critical moments. Of course, it helps to have Renfield (Nathan Thompson), the lunatic in Dr. Seward’s asylum, as your guide. Thompson maintains total and fierce control over Renfield’s twists, zipping from raving lunacy to childlike pleas–“May I have a kitten?”—never mind that Renfield, in possession of a kitten, is not an innocent thing.

But Renfield’s master also strikes a silent, controlling and imposing presence. As Dracula, Karch conveys the original deadliness of the vampire of vampires with icy elegance. The Count has aristocratic pedigree and a living recollection of history but he is much closer to Nosferatu in raging animalism. Here is fresh relief from the mooning, insipid vampires of “Twilight” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. The original Dracula makes them all look like pussies. Here is sex as danger, real danger, danger for the both physical body and the immortal soul.

Idle Muse’s production starts off very strong. The sensual and witty Victorian friendship between Mina Murray (Alex Fisher) and Lucy Westenra (Stacey Sublette) is established immediately, along with Mina’s powers as an uncommonly independent woman and Lucy’s driving romantic passions. In fact, it’s rather sad that one of them has to get staked—Fisher and Sublette really make a great team. Meanwhile, Chris Waldron’s portrayal of Jonathan Harker is dead-on as the fresh-faced Englishman who has no clue what awaits him in Transylvania. Bengtson’s Seward may be a little on the stiff side, but in some ways that’s apt for a character that is all ideals and naïve faith in science and rationality. Woodard, for his part, gives us a younger, more vigorous Van Helsing than we’re accustomed to from film—but that too, is a very good thing. With only a little more knowledge of vampire lore on his side, his hunt for Dracula proceeds almost on equal footing with Seward and Harker.

Where the play begins to wobble a bit is in the second act. Fisher is wonderful as the bitten Lucy but getting to the final showdown proves too much for Steven Dietz’s adaptation. Stoker’s novel has Dracula’s demise take place on a racing wagon with Lucy’s three suitors delivering the strategic deathblows. Nothing like that can take place at the Side Project’s storefront space. But the company might want to look into other special effects to stage the death of the Count. Spectacular evil deserves a spectacular end. That is the way we mere mortals honor it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Nathan Thompson as Renfield in a scene from Idle Muse Theatre's 'Dracula'.

 

Artists

 

Cast

Alex Fisher as Mina Murray
 Chris Waldron as Jonathan Harker
Stacey Sublette as Lucy Westenra
 Brian Bengtson as John Seward
Nathan Thompson as Renfield
Brad Woodard as Van Helsing
Eddy Karch as Dracula

Ensemble: Mara Kovacevic, Liz MacDougald and Matthew Gibson

Creative: Lenny Wahlberg (Director), Evan Jackson (Assistant Director), Greg Poljacik (Fight Choreographer)

 

  
  

REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Sherlock Holmes Chicago Idle Muse review

The Game’s Afoot

 

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 1

   
Idle Muse Theatre presents
   
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure
  
By Arthur Conan Doyle and William Guilette
Adapted by
Steven Dietz
Directed by Evan Jackson
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through August 22  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Idle Muse Theatre’s production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure makes it clear that it is different. They do their best to avoid falling back on any typical depictions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius. Don’t expect huge smoking pipes and capes or any neurotic antics a la Robert Downey, Jr. Director Evan Jackson Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 2 succeeds in coming up with his own spin on the Victorian-era play by Doyle and actor William Guilette, cleverly adapted by Steven Dietz. Luke Hamilton’s dapper Sherlock injects cocaine (a trait from the novels often overlooked in adaptations) and the space basks in steampunk nostalgia. Jackson and his team make bold choices, of which a fair amount fail, but they are able to keep the storm of suspense gathering on the tiny side project stage.

The ambitious play dramatizes Holmes’ last adventure, one where he faces his mortality at every twist and turn. It starts with Dr. Watson (Nathan Pease) eulogizing about his comrade. Then we’re thrown into the thick of the final case. The King of Bohemia (Brian Bengston) wants the duo to retrieve a salacious photo of him and Irene Adler (Elizabeth MacDonald). This seemingly inane investigation heats up when another long-time Doyle character, Professor Moriarty (Nathan Thompson), is linked to the caper. By then, as the saying goes, the game is afoot.

Dietz’s adaptation captures Doyle’s snappy sense of wit and intelligence. Holmes and Watson wax philosophical and, occasionally, poetical. There’s an authenticity that runs through the piece; it’s neither over-contemporized nor over-researched. The major flaw with the play is that it’s too neat. Dietz takes a Hollywood approach to the plot, bringing together all the major players of the series for one last hoorah. Moriarty and Holmes are simply painted as the villain and hero of this story, a stale aspect of this otherwise deftly-written show.

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 5 Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 4

Sans goofy hat, Hamilton is remarkably charming as Holmes. With a script that meditates on death as much as this one, you need an actor who can humanize a character like Holmes. Hamilton finds all of it, layering on anxiety, love, and fear into Sherlock’s calculating psyche. He and Pease have fine chemistry, brotherly yet sometimes catty. The mousy Pease takes awhile to warm up to his long addresses to the audience, but he grabs control by the second act. MacDonald plays well against the two men. Her Irene Adler can be as cold as Holmes, a great choice for the character. The weak spot of the cast is Thompson, who ruins the quick pace with his pause-prone take on Moriarty. With such an atypical take on Sherlock, it’s a shame Moriarty is portrayed so two-dimensional. Thompson comes off as stock “slimy evil genius,” a choice that gets boring pretty quickly.

Moriarty’s reptilian essence is one of several missteps Jackson makes. For example, the supporting cast lacks the clarity of Hamilton and Pease. And the ending is marred by a deflating bout of stage combat, one that would have been better left to the imagination than illustrated.

Idle Muse definitely wins some, too. Dennis Mae’s set, which includes a maze of copper piping, is wonderful and flexible to all sorts of environments. Place is noted by beautiful etchings hung from the grid. And the production sits firmly with Idle Muse’s ‘poor theatre’ mission statement. The industrial world presented here feels both modern and old, a statement that could describe most of the production. However, it’s the commitment to honesty that really drives this show forward. While the mystery is kind of easy, we still want to follow Holmes along. Like Doyle’s books, it’s not really about the case, but the detective.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 3

       
       

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Review: “Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw”

 Three sisters in search of a narrative

MacB and MacD and Banquo

Idle Muse Theatre presents:

Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw
by Evan Jackson and Tristan Brandon
directed by Evan Jackson

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Three SistersThe witches in Idle Muse Theatre’s Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw are certainly women on the verge. But on the verge of what, that is the question. Director Evan Jackson and co-writer Tristan Brandon have created a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, wherein the witches are the benign protagonists of the story. They perceive and pursue the events of the original play through visions and forces that displace the original narrative through space and time. The question is do they have any agency of their own or, at least, any agency that is clear and distinguishable to the audience?

Jackson and Brandon heavily depend upon the audience’s familiarity with the original play. They use the lines of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, only re-ordered as dialogue between the witches and other characters. I must say that, before this, I did not realize how much the original drama depended on the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language—and not simply in the pentameter of each line for each actor, as I had been trained, but also from character to character and scene to scene. All that is disjointed here–and it could be disjointed to a purpose, if such a purpose could be discerned by the audience.

MacB and Lady Let it be said that it takes audacity to put on a production like this; creators and cast can celebrate the risks that they are daring to take with a classic. Involving the witches as visionary onlookers and unwitting interlopers in the events of “the Scottish play” turns the tale on its head, compounds the evil that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are willing to engage in, and plunges the narrative into unremitting darkness. It breaks down the barriers of traditional Western storytelling–indeed, Western identity itself. It suggests that there exists no distinction between forces that influence us and the forces that we are in influencing others.

Jackson and Evans have stumbled inadvertently into Surrealism—the problem being that the operative word here is “inadvertently.” The witches are still following a timeline of their own. They do seem to make choices regarding how they will react to the visions they have seen. Sadly, too many times, the audience can lose the thread of the motivations for their actions or misperceive altogether that certain choices are being made when they are not. That’s not a good conundrum to throw an audience into. Tensions that the actors strive to build and release with a purpose, in the course of the production, are lost. The entire effect of the production comes close to disintegrating.

MacD It must be said that even a Surrealist rendering of this work still requires the training to speak Shakespeare’s words. Macbeth (Robert Negron) directs his final “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to Morgan, the First Witch (Elizabeth MacDougald) with black futility and poignancy. Macduff (Bradley Woodward) effectively conveys the anguish at the loss of his family—no small achievement, when we have not seen it occur at this point in this production. But the dagger scene and Lady Macbeth’s (Stacy Sublette) sleepwalking scene still haven’t the consistency and power they would need even in the original. Other moments are truly inspired, such as the ritual the witches engage in prior to the end of act 1–you can feel the energy building in the playhouse.

Audiences should prepare for a challenging, incomplete, and uneven work. Can an argument be made here for potential—that is, the hope and promise of this play lies in what it could potentially be? To improve on it, perhaps the creators would have to resolve the question of what effect we can have, if any, against the darkness that surrounds us. Truly a question for our time, whether one does Macbeth in more traditional ways or not.

Rating: «½

 

Second Witch

Second Witch and Murderer