Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

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The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

     
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The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Artists

 

Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress

  

  
     

INTERVIEW: Sweet Bird of Youth – now extended to Jan 16!

        
        

Sex and Power in Artistic Home’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’

 

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Just how shocking was Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth to the average American in 1959? It certainly titillated New York audiences, as well as secured 3 Tony awards and an adaptation to the screen in 1962, with leads Paul Newman and Geraldine Page from the original production. The movie itself offers only expurgated Williams—no explicit mention of racism, syphilis, or castration. Thank goodness, The Artistic Home’s production recalls us to the play’s lusty roots and its lyrical interrogation of the psychology of desperation that leads to corruption (see our review here ★★★½.)

Sweet Bird of Youth may be William’s most political drama, slamming Southern racism and the South’s campaigns against desegregation during this era. Plus, he shows no end of contempt toward the moralizing hypocrisy that keeps corruption in place and blights all kinds of youthful promise. But we wanted to look at the sexual politics inherent in the text and the chanceprincessdiagonal_thumbunderlying constructions of youth, beauty, age, money and fame that mold the relationship between gigolo Chance Wayne (Josh Odor) and his aging actress sugar-momma, Alexandra del Lago (Kathy Scambiatterra). Who’s using whom, who really has the upper hand, and is their any hope for human interaction between these two demoralized sexual partners?

One warning: I commit a little faux pas at the end of the video. Going into the interview, I believed that Director Dale Calandra and actor Frank Nall, who plays Boss Finley, would be joining us for a second 15-minute segment. But Dale was knocked out by a fierce fever and Frank couldn’t get away from his construction job. Something about being stuck on a scaffold three stories up—and in some nasty, windy weather. We hope both are okay. Get well, Dale!

In the interview I talk with the Sweet Bird leads – Kathy Scambiattera (sugar-momma Alexandra de Lago) and Josh Odor (gigolo Chance Wayne).  Enjoy!!

 

        
        

REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

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The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Tallest Man (The Artistic Home)

 

Great News: Due to high ticket sales, The Artistic Home

has extended this fine production through August 22nd!!

Of travelers and tall ghosts

 

The Tallest Man

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
The Tallest Man
   
Written by Jim Lynch
Directed by John Mossman
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark  (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, and have heard a good deal of what is called Irish tradition and superstition. Ghosts, feuds, remedies for bad luck, and  pride in one’s culture abound in the Artistic Home production of The Tallest Man. This fine production brings to life a land and culture in a humorous and touching way.

Tourmakeady, County Mayo Ireland around the turn of the 20th-century is the setting for this tale based on the stories told to playwright Jim Lynch. The people have survived the Great Potato Famine and live under British rule on Irish land. Here they The Tallest Manscramble for survival; land ownership is brutal and unrelenting with the collector looming around every corner.

The characters are introduced around the centerpiece of Breda Kennedy’s pub. Breda and her daughter Katie run the pub and Breda demands respect as the only Catholic woman who owns anything in County Mayo. Miranda Zola plays Breda with lusty ferocity, looking like a woman who has been ten rounds and won bare-knuckled. It is a brilliant performance from Ms. Zola, who I last saw playing a more deluded matriarch in The Artistic Home production of The House of Yes (our review ★★★).

The action begins in the pub with local sots Tommy Joe Lally (Frank Nall) and Johnny Mulligan (Bill Boehler). The two men sit at a barrel table drinking steins of whiskey and telling tales of the Tall Man, whose presence has altered life in Tourmakeady. Katie Kennedy tends the pub and dismisses the two men as yokels who are full of blarney. Katie (played with deep longing and courage by Marta Evans) yearns to go to a mythical New York where she can be a fine lady with furs and jewelry. She refuses to be tied down to the only other landowner – Tommy Joe. Early on it is apparent that Lally and Mulligan are always getting into absurd situations. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of County Mayo, showing their comedic genius in a scene where they pose as Cain and Abel after losing a card game to the parish priest.

The town of Tourmakeady is a character as well in this production. Set designer Mike Mroch has represented this environment through a darkly-painted stage replete with foreboding hues of green and fully-embellished with leaves.  It is not quite the rolling and verdant hills of Irish legend, but instead a survivor of famine and blood spilled over land rights. The cemetery and church have the same aura. Along with Mroch, playwright Jim Lynch and director John Mossman have crafted a complete fusion of time, character and place without compromise.

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The history of the Irish Travelers is a motif of the story. The main characters of Finbar McDonough and his cousin Frankie Walsh are from the Traveler tradition. They are called Tinkers in The Tallest Man, and represent a shameful and unwelcome part of Tourmakeady to Breda Kennedy. They are scoundrel, thieves, and worse. Finbar McDonough is in love with the beautiful lass Katie. Shane Kenyon plays Finbar with a devilish and sexy glint that is most appealing. He and Katie make out in the dark outside the bar and make plans for the future. Katie wants out and Finbar want to settle old scores. They have a wonderful chemistry without the airbrushing or any false notes.

The Tallest Man also exposes the Catholic Church as a seedy partner in the people’s struggle of Ireland. Malcolm Callan plays the local priest, Father McLaughlin, of Tourmakeady with unctuous vigor. He is seen extorting kickbacks from the landlord’s The Tallest Man representative. Father McLaughlin couches his demands from Newcomb (delightfully played by Eamonn McDonogh) under the guise of helping ‘his people’. The dialogue of how ‘their dirty faces look to me every Sunday’ made my skin crawl considering the current events with some of the priesthood. Devout lad Frankie Walsh discovers Father McLaughlin’s underhanded activities. Frankie remembers his daddy fondly, and feels responsible for his death by speaking at the wrong time. He cannot forgive McLaughlin’s duplicity of blessing his father’s funeral while being responsible for his death. Walsh projects wrath, grief, and guilt so beautifully in a part that could be really over the top. Darrelyn Marx as Finbar’s mother Mary is also wonderful, possessing a gorgeous voice when she sings of her son. It’s a moment to bring tears to the eyes.

Jim Lynch also brings tears of laughter through his capturing of Irish wit and tradition without false embellishment. The Tallest Man is a rowdy good time. The language is coarse and the action is naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit, and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly; every scene and character flows as well as fits in what could easily be a complicated puzzle. More than just a tale of Tinker ingenuity, the work is the story not told in the history books but instead around the table, or at the corner bar, or at your grandfather’s knee no matter your genealogy. See it, and you’ll also see your family somewhere within.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

The Tallest Man plays on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through August 22nd, 2010. The Artistic Home Theatre is located at 3914 N. Clark near Irving Park. For tickets call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.theartisthome.org

   
   

Featuring Ensemble members Marta Evans, Nick Horst, Frank Nall, and Miranda Zola; and Guest Artists Shane Kenyon, Eamonn McDonagh, Darrelyn Marx, Malcolm Callan, Brandon Thompson and Bill Boehler.

Directed by John Mossman
Produced by Jimmy Ronan and Samantha Church
Assistant Directed by Kristin Collins
Stage Manager: Rose Kruger
Lighting design by Josh Weckesser
Scenic Design by Mike Mroch
Costume design by Ellen Seidel
Sound/Original Music design by Aaron Krister Johnson

     
     

REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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