REVIEW: Blood Wedding (Oracle Theatre)

 

A Spooky Spanish Time at Oracle

 

 

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre 2

  
Oracle Theatre presents
   
Blood Wedding
   
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by
Ben Fuchsen
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: by donation  |  more info

Not often do classic canonical plays get featured as a Halloween fright fest. Yeah, ghosts and witches show up in many lists of characters, but they’re usually too heavily laden with symbolism and plot development to cause any nightmares. So Oracle Theatre is going out on a limb this year with their Halloween offering, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The results are mixed. Although Lorca’s lush language evokes plenty of chills, director Ben Fuchsen’s production lacks clarity and cohesiveness.

Lorca, one of the key purveyors of tragedy in the 20th Century, lived a pretty tragic life himself. A gay writer in Spain between the wars, he found himself spurned by men like Salvador Dali as well as facing the stresses of immense critical and commercial success at a young age. He ended up face down in a ditch somewhere, silenced by Franco’s Fascists in 1936. Yet his unsettling plays, many of which seem directly inspired by Sophocles or Euripides, have enjoyed popularity the world over. Blood Wedding is Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatreone of the best known. It follows a pretty standard storyline: longstanding feuds between families, nuptials, infidelity, murder, etc. What makes the piece stand apart is Lorca’s gorgeous poetry and his inclusion of vengeful supernatural forces in this very human story. The Moon, angry that man shuts their windows at night (and therefore shun him), decides to join Death in the manhunt for the runaway bride and her lover. Something much heavier than simple jealousy is going on.

Oracle mines the otherworldly elements of Lorca as much as they can. Instead of a small scene in the latter half of the play, Fuchsen places the Moon (a nearly-nude Justin Warren) and Death (Sasha Walloch clad as a flamenco dancer) in almost every moment. The duo brings a sinister vibe to the whole piece. They conjure all the spookiness in the production, wielding bloody, spine-chilling noises, and frenetic movements.

As their supernatural characters, Warren and Walloch take on all the supporting roles as well. This is where it everything starts to get muddled. We start wondering who is who—is Walloch playing Death now, or a servant woman, or Death pretending to be a servant woman? The concept is engaging, but the execution needs retooling.

The production could really benefit from a plot synopsis in the program. This is due to the fact that the cast focuses on creating atmosphere over storytelling. With its myriad of metaphors, Blood Wedding’s mood is intoxicating, but it’s impossible to stay engaged in that world when you’re just trying to keep up with the story. The style also fluctuates—some actors (like Sarah Pretz, who plays the ominous Mother), stick with heightened realism. Others, Alexander Gerber, for example, who portrays the unwitting (and slightly goofy) Groom, choose to face the audience and speak their lines with an expressionist slant. Both work for the piece, although the realism is far more grounded. The problem is that the stylization isn’t consistent, causing more plot and character confusion.

When you just sit back and let the show flood over you, there’s some great stuff. James Ogden’s gloomy set, consisting of several lacy screens, is appropriately creepy and smartly used. The statuesque Pretz commands the tiny Oracle stage like a captain on a ship. And there were two solid moments that terrorized me. Most of all, Lorca’s tremendous poetic skill, translated here by Michael DeWell and Carmen Zapata, is delicious and heartwrenching all at once.

Oracle is no stranger to the Halloween show. They’ve put up some well-received haunted house-style experiences in the past. I’m not completely sold Lorca can be repackaged as a Halloween treat, but the cast definitely puts forth tons of effort. But with more plot clarity, the production could earn a whole lot more screams.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre - poster

REVIEW: Hard Headed Heart (Blair Thomas and Co.)

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

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Blair Thomas & Co. presents
    
Hard Headed Heart
   
Created by Blair Thomas
Victory Gardens, Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 21  | 
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

We long ago learned that puppets aren’t just for kids. In founding Redmoon Theater 20 years ago, puppeteer Blair Thomas taught Chicago that lesson with giant puppets, keen artistry and contemporary work. Now, in his intimate, one-man show Hard Headed Heart, currently at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Thomas deftly schools us in historic puppetry arts while focusing on darkly romantic adult themes.

blair_thomas_credit Saverio Truglia Don’t look for Redmoonlike spectacle, Disneyesque whimsy or Muppety cute — instead, in three lyrical, loosely connected vignettes, Thomas showcases a variety of smaller format, centuries-old puppetry forms: wooden-headed hand puppets; jointed, rod marionettes; scrolling cantastoria; shadow puppets and rod puppets — all with an edge of grotesquerie. In a break with some of the traditions, Thomas, clad in a dusty black suit like a 19th-century undertaker, remains fully visible throughout, sometimes as puppeteer, sometimes as a live actor, creating an amalgam between puppetry and performance art. We’re always aware of the man — Thomas never effaces himself into a hidden operator behind the scenes.

Each of the three segments of the 75-minute show, first produced last year, has its own creative puppet set. Hard Headed Heart begins with Thomas’s lively, amusing rendition of "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal" by Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, a lightly bawdy hand-puppet show about the courtship of the folkloric Spanish scalawag and bully Cristobal and his dubious lady love, Rosita.

At its outset, we’re treated to Thomas, in sad-faced clown makeup, playing the pompous director and the fanciful poet-author, whipping around a rotating costume as he converses with himself. Next comes a Punch and Judy-like act, with classically stylized puppets and a traditionally violent and silly love story. Thomas switches between manipulating the hand puppets, playing several musical instruments and performing in his director role in a frenetic, almost breathless one-man-band performance.

For the second act, Thomas riffs on the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral standard "St. James Infirmary." In this slow-moving piece, Thomas alternates between singing (with a vocal wail reminiscent of Cab Calloway in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon "Snow-White"), operating rod marionettes in front of a motorized paper-scroll backdrop and playing ukelele, toy piano, drums, cymbals and what looks like a mellophone or BlairThomas-St James Infirmary_1_credit Kipling Swehla baritone bugle. With the mournful-visaged marionettes, designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock to evoke antique specimens, Thomas re-enacts the funereal love affair of the song to chillingly dramatic effect, with some particularly effective puppet dance moves that I’m sure are much harder to achieve than he makes them look.

Finally, Thomas presents Wallace Stevens’ poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in a shadow puppet show performed against a set of four backlit, rolling arts scrolls. To the music of Ben Johnston‘s String Quartet #4, Thomas dances below his moving paper images, cranking the rolls and using cut-outs, rod puppets and his hands to convey Stevens’ cryptic poetry.

This won’t be a show for everyone — those impatient with poetry or unsympathetic to largely plotless mood pieces about love gone wrong may not feel that its artistry overcomes those elements. Hard Headed Heart is for those who enjoy sad songs and art for art’s sake.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Note: Hard Headed Heart is suitable for ages 16 and up. Produced without an intermission, the show has open seating.

   
  

Part of Thomas’s performance of "St. James Infirmary" at the 2010 "Cranks and Banners" Festival.

  
  

Cab Calloway sings "St. James Infirmary" in Betty Boop’s "Snow-White."

   
   

REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays

 

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

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The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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