Review: A Lesson Before Dying (Lincoln Square Theatre)

  
  

Stark simplicity amplifies Lincoln Squares’ Lesson

  
  

David Lawrence Hamilton and Barth Bennett (Jefferson) in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

  
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
   
A Lesson Before Dying
   
Written by Romulus Linney
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

To call Lincoln Square Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying rudimentary would be the understatement of the year. The production values of the set design by director Kristina Schramm may be low, its look stark and rough around the edges. That, however, works in the production’s favor at critical moments—evoking dark poetry about a young black man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The meat and potatoes of Lincoln Square’s offering lies in the excellent characterizations of its little known cast, some of whom make their Chicago debut David Lawrence and Elana Elyce in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying"with this production. Hence, their cumulative efforts can be considered a small diamond gleaming in an unexpected spot. Go to witness the resilient, earthy, intelligent and vital performances that fill the church basement space Lincoln Square Theatre calls home.

Set in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, Miss Emma (vividly played by Mary Helena) wants the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (David Lawrence Hamilton) to intervene with her grandson Jefferson (Barth Bennett), who has just been sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store owner. At one point in his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer had argued that one might as well execute a hog as execute his client—from that point Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog. Miss Emma hopes that the schoolteacher can speak to Jefferson and raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he can die with dignity.

But Wiggins himself is a man burnt out on the futility of teaching in the rural South. The shack that stands for the schoolhouse he teaches in doesn’t have enough chalk to last through the year. His students spend more time playing with bugs than reading the old, used and worn out textbooks donated to them from white schools. His perspective on the impact he can make under such conditions has degenerated to impotent and sour cynicism. “Vivian, I’m dead here,” he tells his girlfriend, also a schoolteacher. But Vivian Baptiste (in a fresh and driven performance by Elana Elyce) pushes Wiggins to help Jefferson. Due to going through a divorce herself, Vivian cannot be sure of Wiggins, if he turns out to be someone people can’t depend upon—“Decent men back out. Decent men give up. Decent men change the rules.”

     
A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

The power of Wiggin’s story lies in the pressures upon him to be more than what he is – which he may be swayed by, but never really yields to. Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the novel by Earnest J. Gaines preserves Wiggins as a man filled with doubts, able to use only the most meager pedagogical tools at his disposal to draw Jefferson out. Vivian seems, at times, to want him to be a superman. The Rev. Ambrose (resonantly played by Rudolf D. Munro, III) definitely dislikes Wiggins’ secular leanings dominating Jefferson’s recovery and wishes there would be more God-talk involved in his redemption. But it’s the halting and uncertain nature of the schoolteacher’s mentality that allows him to be influenced by the person who matters most—the condemned man himself.

At the beginning, both Hamilton and Bennett’s play their characters too tight and shut down to allow for much emotional play. But both actors blossom into their roles organically—evincing profound, confrontational and revelatory moments the closer Jefferson comes to his day of execution. Flanked by the manipulative Sheriff Guidry (Ed Schultz) and the sympathetic Deputy Paul Bonin (Jereme Rhodes), Jefferson’s ability to recover himself and face his undeserved death becomes more about the transformation of a community than just his personal ordeal. Lincoln Square Theatre renders a poignant and profound drama on the value of human life that is more than worth the effort to seek it out.

     
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

Dates/Times: Continues thru June 11, with performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets: $20 ($12 students & seniors)
Purchase:
credit card via Brown Paper Tickets; cash and check at door;
Reservations:
773-275-7930; Location: 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago (map)

  
  

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REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)

   
   

A heartfelt lesson on facing the music

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
The Piano Teacher
 
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Next_Piano_Teacher_3 (2)

The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Gin Game (Lincoln Square Theatre)

 

Deal ‘em and weep

 

 

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch in The Gin Game

        
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
The Gin Game
   
Written by D.L. Coburn
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through November 20   |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When people are in need of friendship they will sometimes go to great lengths to keep the friends they’ve made, even when those friendships turn sour. The Gin Game, produced by Lincoln Square Theatre, takes an interesting, although somewhat strange, turn from two people looking for companionship to an unrelenting battle of words and anger.

The set resembles a typical retirement home game room with its black and white checkerboard floor, two tables each with two chairs and a stack of games organized in a shelf. It looks as though the room is in need of updating, like something found in place before it’s been rehabbed. That needs-to-be-updated quality gives the set some character and charm.

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch - Lincoln Square TheatreThe Gin Game reunites Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred A. Wellisch as Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin. The pair was last seen performing together in Lincoln Square Theatre’s production of The Lady in the Van. It’s clear that these two actors are very comfortable with each other on stage.

The Gin Game opens on Fonsia and Weller preparing themselves in their rooms to go out into the public spaces of their retirement home. It is visitor’s day but neither has anyone there to see them. Fonsia wanders into the game room where she finds Weller alone at a table. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch are equally animated and instantly present from the moment the lights up come. As they begin to converse with each other, it becomes clear that each has made interesting and distinct character choices. Thorbjornsen-Coates’s Fonsia feels very proper and formal yet shy and nervous as she’s learning the ways of her new home. Wellisch’s Weller is rougher around the edges and more opinionated, but he’s not overly pushy about it. He seems friendly and charming enough. As I said before, these two have instant stage chemistry and it feels like old friends reuniting, even though in the show they’ve only just met. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch play well off each other, creating interesting dynamics as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin, the game which the entire show centers around.

As Weller and Fonsia play some friendly rounds of gin, they begin to talk about their lives. Starting with small talk at first, they discuss their previous work, their families and why they’re in a retirement home. Fonsia evidently likes to talk and the conversation provides entertainment for the both. Thorbjornsen-Coates offers a pleasant demeanor that’s hard not to like, and Wellisch seems like someone’s adorable, albeit slightly cynical, grandpa.

GinGamePR3 The action of The Gin Game flows well, which is important particularly for this production. With only two actors and a play that focuses around them playing a card game, it would certainly be easy to lose energy and cause the show to drag. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch do a terrific job of keeping the energy levels high so they scenes move quickly and keep the audience’s focus.

The more Weller and Fonsia play gin, however, it becomes clear that much more is going on below the surface. With each new hand dealt, Weller becomes more and more agitated, showing his true colors and nasty temper. Angry outbursts take the place of friendly conversation as the show quickly turns from pleasant to tense. It’s unnerving and unexpected at first when Weller just loses it, throwing cards and overturning a table. Wellisch uses this twist in character to really let loose and own Weller’s anger. Fonsia, on the other hand, becomes frightened, irritated and confused. Thorbjornsen-Coates is completely authentic in her reactions to Weller’s intensifying outbursts.

Even with all the anger and resentment building, the two continue to play out rounds of gin. As the game itself becomes more competitive, so do its players, battling each other and belittling each other. Both Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch feel their character’s emotions and reactions through their whole bodies. They not only act with their words but with their body language.

For a solid performance of an intriguing work, check out Lincoln Square Theatre’s The Gin Game.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Gin Game poster - Lincoln Square Theatre

The Gin Game plays at the Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt St., through November 20. Tickets are $20 or $12 for students and seniors and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.

   
Production Personnel  

Fred Wellisch
Actor – Weller Martin

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates
Actor – Fonsia Dorsey

Kristina Schramm
Director

Gina Patterson
Lighting Designer

Gloria Feliciano
Stage Manager

Elayne LeTraunik
Publicity

     
     

REVIEW: Chaste (Trap Door Theatre)

Bizarre love triangle

 

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Trap Door Theatre presents
 
Chaste
 
by Ken Prestininizi
directed by
Kate Hendrickson
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 19th   | tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Imagine the hit cornball sitcom “Three’s Company” re-imagined for an audience of existential-minded intellectuals. I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me. Brunette bombshell Janet Wood is recast as Paul Ludwig Carl Heinrich Ree, a lesser Jewish-German philosopher of the mid-19th century. Secretly straight bachelor Jack Tripper chastenenepaul is recast as Lou Andreas-Salome, the first female psychoanalyst and a student of Sigmund Freud. And buxom blond Chrissy Snow is Friedrich Nietzsche. Keep the copious amounts of sexual innuendo and add some pretty bizarre dream sequences and you have a template for the Trap Door Theatre’s newest production, Chaste.

Chaste is the third Ken Prestininizi play for the avant-garde theatre company to produce. In contrast to some of the other works that Trap Door has done recently, such as the enigmatic Minna (our review ★★★★), Chaste is much more digestible for a general audience. Although there are elements of the absurd sprinkled about, for the most part what you see is what you get. And what you get is an extraordinarily entertaining play about three abnormally awkward and hyper-intelligent thinkers who are stuck in a house and trapped in a love triangle.

The play borrows heavily from history. It is true that all three philosophers did once live together. It is true that Ree (John Kahara) introduced the much younger Salome (Sarah Tolan Mee) to Nietzsche (Antonio Brunetti). And it is true that the three made a pact to live together as a chaste trio in an effort to intellectually understand the secrets of life.

What actually transpired between the threesome is unknown. What is known is that Salome cut ties with Nietzsche, believing him to be desperately in love with her. This was made all the more complex because Ree and Salome had been a couple for some time.

chastehandkiss Prestininzi’s script is poetic without being overwrought. He conveys the madness and the intelligence of these three individuals without ever romanticizing their pursuit of an enlightened life through chastity. In fact, each character, in his or her own way, is somewhat pitiful. They all can wax-philosophic about the role of God, gender equality and the meaning of life, but not one of them seems to be a well-rounded, stable individual. It’s like watching three freakishly smart teenagers fight for the affections of one another.

The actors all play their roles with a fiery passion. Kahara as the nebbish Ree does an excellent job of playing up Ree’s patient restraint, which makes his sudden outbursts of insanity all the more impactful.

Brunetti is a scene stealer with his Salvador Dali-like facial expressions. Even when sequestered from action on another part of the stage, you can’t but help to look his way. No doubt the role of Nietzsche must have been a fun character to assume, and it is obvious that Brunetti revels in doing it.

Mee definitely has the thinnest resume out of the bunch, but she holds her own alongside her cast mates. Although there are moments where her portrayal of Salome threatens to become a Charles Dickens Estella caricature, she juggles the complex layers of the early feminist who seemed to have a schizophrenic love-hate relationship with men.

Tiffany Joy Ross rounds out the cast as Nietzsche’s overprotective sister Elisabeth. Ross’ frigid stare and scowling face could suck the fun out of any ménage a trios. She also succeeds in balancing the character’s stoic exterior with her brother-loving heart.

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Director Kate Hendrickson has directed every play that Trap Door has produced by Prestininizi. She has a keen eye for stunning stage pictures. And thanks to a fairly bare set save for a few platforms, the characters’ positions in reference to one another speak amply of their evolving relationships.

Chaste is a clever and often funny example of dramatic historical fiction. It is also probably the closest we’ll ever get to a 19th-century season of “Real World”. But contemporary television references aside, the lunacy that love inspires within these three lunatics, as told by a talented writer through a talented cast, makes for a four-star play.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

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Creative Team: Assistant Director: Jen Ellison / Sound Designers Jason Meyer & Shane Oman / Lighting Designer Gina Patterson / Set Designer Joseph Riley / Stage Manager Gary Damico / Costume Designer Nevena Todorovic / Makeup Designer Zsófia Ötvös / Graphic Designer Michal Janicki

Review: Trap Door’s “12 Ophelias”

Begins brilliantly, but has incomplete finish

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Trap Door Theatre presents:

12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs

by Caridad Svich
directed by Kate Hendrickson
through October 31st (ticket info) 

 

   Ophelia: Do you think my heart is any lesser? 
 Gertrude: What do you mean? 
Ophelia: For being born.
 

 Kate Hendrickson’s direction pulls out all the stops for Trap Door Theatre’s current avant-garde production, 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs. Characters emerge from and descend into black pools, suggesting just how close oblivion always is. Projection screens made up of white petticoats hung on a line, when opheliataken down reveal an altogether different space. Musicians stationed in various locations suggest angels, as well as prostitutes, waiting their turn. Above all, rich poetic language and original songs create a potent atmosphere that may carry the production long past the point when characters’ psychological motivations fall short of the play’s premise.

After floating for centuries, Ophelia (Mildred Marie Langford) emerges in Appalachia, reborn from the water into a world in which Hamlet is now known as Rude Boy (Kevin Lucero Less); Gertrude (Joslyn Jones) runs a brothel; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, simply known as R (Jen Ellison) and G (Casey Chapman), are the brothel’s lackeys; and Horatio, now known as H (Noah Durham), spars with Rude Boy in daily camaraderie. It is a world in which Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet seem to have a second chance at love. But there are times when Caridad Svich’s reworking seems so far from the original, the two only connect superficially.

For one thing, Langford and Jones exude natural power in their acting. For another, their Ophelia and Gertrude, respectively, are not the weak, timid, easily manipulated women of Shakespeare’s work. As much as one appreciates the tremendous beauty in their strength, what should their characters’ former lives be to them or to us, if all resemblance breaks with the past? Svich’s Ophelia remembers her former life. “I left everyone unblessed,” she recalls of her suicide. Yet her ability to relish her robust sexual appetites and her outright pursuit of Rude Boy/Hamlet bear no relation to Shakespeare.

The only characters with any clear correspondence to their pasts are R and G, with memory so retained in their present consciousness, they recite Ophelia and Hamlet’s lines in parody before the newly reborn Ophelia. The commentary and interplay between R and G is probably the strongest feature of Svich’s work. Their foolery during the song “Lonesome Child,” which takes place opposite of Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet’s lovemaking, is delightfully inspired.

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Sadly, Rude Boy may be the most underdeveloped character of the play. The most layered, erudite, and mercurial protagonist in Shakespeare’s pantheon is reworked with utter and brutal reductionism here. Gone is the princely state and Renaissance learning—Svich’s Rude Boy/Hamlet is little more than a womanizing thug. His final battle with H is an indulgent act of self-immolation; his eventual rejection by Ophelia reduces him to a pathetic, slobbering mass. About their former romance, Ophelia dismisses him with, “You were just a rude boy.” It’s a line that utterly breaks with Shakespeare’s realized creation. This abridged Rude Boy/Hamlet stacks the deck and buys this Ophelia’s empowerment on the cheap.

Amidst lush poetry, it’s this dramatic shallowness that belies Svich’s shortcomings. At least in this work, Svich shows greater psychological depth in conveying the state of loss and brokenness, rather than any true hope of recovery from it. Even R and G’s repeated commentary, “The crushed come back—there is no mending here,” loses all dramatic tension to become disproved. Some may revel in that kind of pre-scripted fatalism, but others may wonder what spending 90 minutes with this work was all about, if there was never any hope for healing and love. In spite of the cast’s talents and imaginative direction, the audience may walk away feeling cheated.

Rating: ««½

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