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

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Arizona Lady (Chicago Folks Operetta)

A Rootin’ Tootin’ Hungarian Cowboy Opera

Arizona Lady Cast

   
Chicago Folks Operetta presents
   
Arizona Lady
  
Music by Emmerich Kálmán
Translated by
Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov
Directed by
Bill Walters
Music-Directed by
Samuel-Hilaire Duplessis
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 1st  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though it is ridiculously sentimental, watching Chicago Folks Operetta put on Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta Arizona Lady had me thinking of Bertolt Brecht. With this work, the Hungarian composer, Kálmán, sets up a counterfeit American landscape, much like Brecht placed In the Jungle of Cities and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the exotic (to them) United States. The inhabitants of Kálmán’s Arizona proclaim that the state is full of silver, gold, and cowboy songs, instead of water shortages and racial animosities. In a way, director Bill Walters’ production is surreal and oddly captivating, mostly overcoming its amateurish missteps.

The plot follows the classic Viennese operetta structure, revolving around two pairs of lovers, one comic and the other a bit juicier (for the record, I saw the second cast for the show and the names reflect that). Lona (Juliet Petrus) rules over a ranch and possesses the mind of businesswomen, supposedly without any room for talk of love. Despite this, she is reluctantly attracted to the wandering, singing cowpolk Roy (Gerald Frantzen), offering him a job and the task of priming her horse, Arizona Lady (Maray Gutierrez), for the local race. This storyline is crisscrossed with the courtship between young shop-owner Nelly (Kellie Cundiff) and the son of a beef magnate/cattle “intern” Chester (Matthew Dingels). Horse thieves, the Kentucky Derby, law and order, escaping to Mexico, and Prohibition all stir up the love stories, resulting in a cute, if somewhat vapid, tale of the Old West that never existed.

This fictional world is actually very intriguing. Theatre celebrates unreality, so Kálmán’s West cobbled from Hollywood, Oklahoma!, and the opera halls of Hungary makes for a wholly unique theatrical experience. There’s plenty of guitar and saloon-style piano in the score, but this is joined by waltzes and Hungarian-folk melodies. Walters completely embraces the apparent contradictions, creating a universe that’s all its own. Part of August Tye’s great choreography is ripped from line-dance halls, while some of it smacks of traditional Eastern European dances. Yet all of it works.

While the cast tears up the score, the acting could be polished. Petrus dips in confidence and seems to rely on constant towel-snapping to conjure up Nona’s sassiness instead of letting the text do that for her. On the other hand, Dingels’ goofy mannerisms and genuine squareness may not be great acting, but could possibly be ingenious for the fumbling Chester. Rounding out the leads, Cundiff and Frantzen are fine if somewhat wooden. The supporting cast is pretty hit or miss. The best moments are little bits stitched in the script, like ranch-hands using a child to smuggle liquor past the Sheriff or someone yelling in the middle of a huge dance number, “Hey! I’m dancing!” like they just realized what was going on. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy falls flat, and the transitions between dialogue and song are downright painful at times. The pace also falls slack in a couple of scenes. (Yes, I understand this is opera, but this light fare doesn’t feel like it should last three hours.)

Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov’s translation of the 1954 operetta, which has never seen an American production until now, is obviously done with a lot of love. While usually charming, the script occasionally gets too silly and audience interest flags. There is also some Spanish dialogue very awkwardly folded in. But they keep Kálmán’s somewhat bizarre world intact.

There are too many stale moments for this Arizona Lady to be completely satisfying, a problem for Glagov, Walters, and the cast. But there’s a lot of passion on-stage over at the Theatre Building. And any indie opera outfit, attempting to do something so grandiose on the budget of a storefront, has a special little piece of my heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Arizona Lady poster

   
   

Continue reading