Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: The House of Yes (Artistic Home)

A resounding, yet disturbing, “Yes”

 

House of Yes Publicity Photo #1

 
The Artistic Home presents
 
The House of Yes
 
by Wendy Macleod
directed by
Kaiser Ahmed
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
thru May 2nd  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

This is a story of what the age of Camelot hath wrought and what happens when no one tells you no. The Artistic Home’s production of The House of Yes is a dark love story that takes place almost two decades after the assassination of JFK. It is also a master portrait of comic absurdity in the privileged class of America.

House of Yes Publicity Photo #2 The Pascal family is trapped in time and in collective delusion. The eldest daughter is named Jackie O (brilliantly played by Liz Ladach-Bark). It quickly becomes apparent that Jackie O is a very disturbed girl. Ladach-Bark speaks in a patrician tone reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn and gives a wonderful unhinged quality to her character.

Miranda Zola (Mrs. Pascal) is an elegantly beautiful performer whose character encourages and sustains an incestuous relationship between her children. Both chilling and funny, Mrs. Pascal seems to admire the twisted relationship between her twin children.

The play is set at Thanksgiving, which can be a cliché of family drama-trauma, but this family melee is done skillfully and without histrionics. Youngest son Anthony (played with subtle ferocity by Tom McGregor), who has dropped out of Princeton, a failure at most everything save for his role as antagonizing brother, is trying to keep up with his big brother Marty in more ways than one and taunts Jackie O, telling her that Marty is bringing home a friend. The oldest brother has been away at college and his sister has been away at a mental institution. When Marty Pascal (the outstanding Andrew Yearick) steps through the door with a fiancée Lesly (Devon Carson, who does a commendable job playing the the production’s one “normal” person), all hell breaks loose – literally. Yearick truly looks like Joe College of whom his mother should be proud. The unraveling of his psyche and his helplessness to the machinations of Jackie O is infuriating and spellbinding.

Within this play are three scenes that might stay with you for a time after leaving the theatre:

A scene between Ms. Ladach-Bark and Ms. Carson is terrifying and yet funny. Jackie O is brushing Lesly’s hair while interrogating her about Marty. It seemed as if she were going to bludgeon her with the brush or rip her neck open, but she let the catty remarks fly while sweetly brushing. It was a nail biter moment like Clemenza in the back seat in “The Godfather”.

The most riveting scene is the sick reenactment of the JFK assassination that serves as foreplay for the fevered sex between siblings. Jackie O dons a pink Chanel suit with macaroni and ketchup standing in for the brains of the dead president. Marty pretends to be riding in the convertible and Jackie O shoots him, then runs to his side to play the part of the terrified widow. The line uttered in the first scene about Jackie O holding Marty’s penis in the womb is echoed without words.

House of Yes Publicity Photo #3 Finally, the scene between Mr. McGregor and Ms. Carson is disturbing in a different way. It is hard to fathom that fiance Lesly would fall for Anthony’s line of bull. He claims to be a virgin with a brain tumor and he needs to have sex before he dies. Anthony then drops the bomb that Jackie O and her fiance Marty are lovers, which Lesly does not believe until she sees it with her own eyes. It’s not that the sibling relations revolt her but that she plays into their hands to stay in the game. The whole family is lined up against her at this point but Lesly thinks she can still get away with the prize of Marty. In fact, the whole family is lined up for Jackie O because she has always gotten her way. She has flushed a lizard down the toilet because she thought that Marty loved it more than her. Mrs. Pascal explains, “Jackie O has always gotten her way. That’s just the way it is.”  (The Pascals are like wolves that feed on outsiders. It is intimated that Mr. Pascal’s abandonment was really a murder that coincided with the hole being dug for central air conditioning. )

A great deal of skill and passion went into making an act of incest really an act of love. Yes, it is twisted  – but the actors, and superb direction by Kaiser Ahmed, gives one a sense that the damage was done before the twins took to playing house to a higher adult level.

The set design, by Mike Mroch, is quite beautiful and authentic. (I found myself going through a flashback to my grandmother’s house, with the polished wood bar and the trapezoid coffee table.) Gleaming martini glasses and decanters add a glint of extra danger to the action. The use of picture frames as windows is a touch of brilliance as well (although they could just as well have been funhouse mirrors!).

This production was a breakneck thrill ride for me. Everything is done impeccably. The director has done a beautiful and seamless job of directing very difficult material. This is an indictment of American privilege that shows how always getting one’s way becomes parasitic. Though horrifying to think that neighbors could be watching this family’s demise, I am glad that I got to be a voyeur in The House of Yes. Take the time to watch-this is theatre at its best.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

House of Yes Publicity Photo #4

The House of Yes runs through May 2nd, 2010 at The Artistic Home Acting Studio, 3914 N. Clark Street in Chicago. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 6:00pm. For tickets visit www.theartistichome.org or call 866-811-4111.

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