Review: The Last Saint on Sugar Hill (MPAACT)

     
     

A new modern tragedy classic is born

  
  

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

  
MPAACT presents
  
  
The Last Saint on Sugar Hill
   
Written by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Carla Stillwell
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It is a privilege to see new theater works from the outset. MPAACT’s production of The Last Saint on Sugar Hill is one of those rare privileged moments in time. This is destined to be a classic written by Keith Josef Adkins and directed by Carla Stillwell – Resident Director of MPAACT. Adkins opens the hot button issue of gentrification and those who profit from it for examination of motives and consequences.

The Pedigrew family lives a comfortable life in what remains of hardscrabble Harlem. The residence of former President Clinton, gourmet coffee, and wine shops threaten to change the landscape and remove the people who know no other home.

In a stunningly visceral performance, journeyman actor Trinity Murdock potrays the character of Napoleon Pedigrew, who presides over the last of the Harlem buildings gone to seed. I have seen Murdock in several roles on Chicago stages and he can be depended upon to play the neighborhood good guy or singing griot.

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. The role of Napoleon Pedigrew is rooted in ancient traditional tragedy and 20th Century social unrest. Playwright Adkins has carefully crafted a non-stereotypical role in Napoleon. I say that because it is an unflinching and honest look at what has been unspoken on the mainstream stage. Mr. Murdock presents a sociopath whose interests and wealth are literally ripped from the bodies and souls of those who are unfortunate enough to inhabit his buildings or contain his DNA.

The language is street raw and dismissive of political or societal correctness. There is no "N" word- it is nigger said with ferocity. At first, the rap that flows from Napoleon is pithy and comedic in the folksy style of that favorite or feared drunk relative. It is funny in the style of Richard Pryor performing for a Black audience. As the play barrels forward like a bullet, Napoleon Pedigrew’s words take on a frightening tilt. Here is a man who felt the spike of poverty and the chokehold of the underclass so keenly that his conscience snapped. Trinity Murdock plays this character laid bare and full of angry hubris. Napoleon brags of his knowledge from snippets of PBS to which he donates to give him the cache of current education. It is a bravura performance.

Napoleon Pedigrew’s sons are the vehicles for his parasitic real estate empire and the victims of his stranglehold on their memories. Mateo Smith plays the role of eldest son Dexter Pedigrew. Dexter was a promising med student who has been drawn into his father’s world of cracking heads for rent and unscrupulous methods to hide cheap or dangerous repairs. Mr. Smith gives a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a man who wants to please his father and somehow be of service to the neighborhood that is crumbling under his feet. Napoleon tells Dexter that he is a thug and it would be a waste of his talent to be a doctor.

Dexter’s childhood holds a traumatic event that pressed his humanity to the side at his father’s behest. Napoleon tells his son, "Thinking is for thinkers and you are a thug down to the bone." He pounds the thought into Dexter’s head that boxing is the greatest form of capitalism and one of the fringe benefits of his daddy’s sperm. Smith subtly recoils at each of the jabs from the father character. Each jolt builds in a slow and controlled simmer that is on an equally frightening steady boil at the climax of the play.

The youngest son Z is played by David Goodloe. At first Z seems to play into his father’s world of debauchery. He reduces women to asses, thighs, and panties. Mr. Goodloe is at first funny as the tail-chasing stud playing with his daddy’s money. His father has him under the control of the promise of being comfortable no matter what happens in the neighborhood. Z gleefully hits happy hour at the new fancy cigar bar to see how much sex he can rack up. It’s sad to know that his youth has been wasted on violence and sex as an education. Napoleon encourages the hedonism in misplaced elevation of how he can rule the world with money.

Goodloe’s performance evolves into a man discontented with what his life has become. His realization comes as a sudden jolt after the father is fully revealed as a monster. Goodloe fleshes out the Pedigrew dysfunction by playing an unwitting victim who was never taught to be a fully evolved and involved man. The cast is rounded out by Terry Francois and Sati Word in perfectly crafted motif roles that fill in the story. Mr. Francois plays a homeless man who becomes the living conscience for Dexter. It is a beautiful performance that never becomes maudlin. Sati Word is another MPAACT ensemble regular that I last saw in the highly-recommended Tad in the 5th City (my review). He plays medical resident Joseph who reminds Dexter of his potential and responsibility to himself and his community. He represents another facet of Dexter’s conscience. Mr. Word is an engaging presence that I would love to see in a showcased role.

It should be noted that opening night was full of local actors and friends of the cast. I found it unsettling that they kept laughing long after it became obvious that Napoleon Pedigrew believed all of his egotistical folksy ravings. He meant that he would cut the heads off of his children if it would get him what he wanted. I felt great sorrow when Napoleon stated," America is trying to kill us Black men. We are an endangered species scrambling for our own crumbs. The only way to stop the watchful eye of The Man is to sit on a throne of cash!" Like any great art, there is painful or recognizable truth contained in the words, notes, or brushstrokes. It seems as if they have not seen much of the life they portray on the stage and I felt that it was very disrespectful of their fellow actors.

This show is something that should be put on your viewing schedule. It is entertaining but also a telling social commentary about how business gets done in America. Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump are just the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Also, Trinity Murdock’s performance is not to be missed. Bravo!

     
    
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

MPAACT’s The Last Saint on Sugar Hill continues through June 12th at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Clark), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $23, and can be purchased from the MPAACT website.

  
  

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Review: One Flea Spare (Eclipse Theatre)

  
  

Eclipse tightly weaves sexual and cerebral dark comedy

  
  

Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) and Bunce (JP Pierson) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani.  Photo by Scott Cooper

  
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
One Flea Spare
   
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Charles’ Law: confine elements together, turn up the heat, watch them expand. Prevent them from expanding, and you watch them burst.

It’s a basic principle of chemistry, and a loose outline for any drama in which characters are trapped together during a crisis. The heat, per se, in Naomi Wallace’s 1995 play is in part the Great Plague that ravaged London during the 17th Century, L-R: Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.and in part the class and sexual inadequacies of her characters: a wealthy couple quarantined inside their home, and the two poor, desperate scavengers who sneak in for shelter.

Twenty five days into a preventative lockdown with boards and a guard (Zach Bloomfield) sealing the couple’s walls and windows, a young servant disguised as a wealthy man’s daughter (Elizabeth Stenholt) and a sailor (JP Pierson) inadvertently extend the couple’s incubation stay from three more days to a full twenty eight. Tensions quickly escalate.

The plague is only the backdrop in Wallace’s story—to some of these characters, it’s more or less a nuisance than a crisis. The real threats within the estate are offenses to each others’ presumptions and social sensibilities: sexual bargaining, class warfare, homoeroticism…One Flea Spare explores these tasty ideas with a steady mix of poetry and prose, absurd comedy and claustrophobic tension.

Even with violence always looming, and several onstage nods to penetration, the experience is more intellectual than visceral. It’s always satisfying to think about, if Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.only mostly fun to watch. Underneath the play’s linear-plot exterior lies a mosaic play’s heart, mashing together styles and tones, sometimes with enlightening results; other times, the product is more convoluted.

Director Anish Jethmalani is able to help keep the show grounded in places where Wallace doesn’t, knowing not to overwhelm the tightly packed text. Her straightforward and precise staging provides clarity to themes that could easily otherwise be murky. The cast does likewise. This small ensemble is exceptional, especially Brian Parry as the proud, aging, and sometimes oafish house master. Susan Monts-Bologna achieves sympathy without victimhood as his oppressed wife, and JP Pierson conveys a sense of maturity that’s found somewhere in between a young man’s idealism and an adult’s surrender to reality.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt, center) introduces herself to William and Darcy Snelgrave (Brian Parry and Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper

 

All photos by Scott Cooper

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Review: The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (Remy Bumppo)

     
     

Albee tragedy hits all the notes, but not always in tune

     
     

Martin (Nick Sandys) stands helplessly by as wife Stevie (Annabel Armour) mourns the loss of their perfect marriage in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
    
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
      
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What an amazing season for Edward Albee fans, as three of his most groundbreaking and influential works have played at some of the city’s most esteemed theaters. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the classic about the lies a couple tells to keep their dying love – saw a brilliant revival at Steppenwolf, featuring a terrifyingly dominant George played with ferocity by Tracy Letts. The Charles Newell-directed Three Tall Women at Court gorgeously exposed the hopes and regrets of one woman’s life, and starred three stunning actress particularly skilled at capturing the musicality and poetry of Albee’s script. Now Remy Bumppo joins the fray with The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Albee’s tragedy about one man’s love for a goat and the cataclysmic damage it inflicts on his perfect marriage.

Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Lies, hopes, regrets, secrets – these are the universal ideas that Albee operates with, but his plays are genius because of their specificity in plot and style. The game George and Martha play in Woolf, the fluid, interwoven recollections of A, B, and C in Women, and the utter physical destruction of Sylvia are all precisely structured to maximize the impact of their themes. George and Martha’s lie deceives the audience, the memories of the tall women are mirrors of the human experience, and the ruins of Martin (Nick Sandys) and Stevie’s (Annabel Armour) living room represent the devastating effects sexual secrets have on a marriage, bestial or otherwise.

Albee has often compared writing to composing music, and his plays have a specific rhythm in the dialogue that sets the cadence for the action: Woolf tense and discordant like a Bernard Herrmann movie score, Women delicate and aching as a Beethoven sonata, and Sylvia an explosive Wagnerian epic. Dynamics and articulation change, themes are passed around characters like sections of an orchestra. This specificity requires exceptionally skilled actors to capture the complexity of the script, and while Remy Bumppo’s cast of actors plays with passion and commitment, sometimes they have trouble finding the beat.

The opening scene finds Martin preparing for an interview with his good friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) as Stevie tidies up the living room. The couple jokes about Martin’s failing memory, acts out a Noel Coward pastiche – the perfect picture of a happy marriage, except for the unsavory scent of barn in the air. The British Sandys speaks in an American dialect that occasionally wavers during the quiet moments, like the opening scene, but while distracting, it is not the main problem with the start of the show. There’s an ease to the dialogue that the actors haven’t quite found, and that ease helps cultivate a sense of familiarity and comfort between the husband and wife. Martin and Stevie are accustomed to the wordplay and good-humored jokes of their repartee, but Sandys and Armour have difficulty finding the scene’s relaxed pace. The quiet moments are the most difficult for the cast, but they become stronger as the actors begin to expound their energy in the later scenes, using the rare instances of calm to get a much needed breather.

     
Billy (Will Allan) and Stevie (Annabel Armour) struggle to accept the reality of Martin's betrayal in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.   Martin (Nick Sandys) tries to comfort troubled son Billy (Will Allan) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. Family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) confronts Martin (Nick Sandys) in a scene from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Martin struggles to get through his interview with Ross, showing little pride or enthusiasm for his architectural achievements and displaying a guarded detachment that forces Ross to probe into the source of his unease. When Ross learns about Martin’s affair with Sylvia, a goat, the play switches into a heightened emotional mode that the actors are most comfortable in. Mitchell’s combination of disgust and disbelief is spot on, while Sandys begins to show the tortured, conflicted soul of Martin’s character. And when Ross sends Stevie a letter detailing Martin’s affair, their lives are shattered beyond repair. All three of the mentioned plays have these breaking points, but they are never the climax of the play: Martha mentions their son, A/B/C disowns her son for being gay, and Ross sends Stevie the letter. After the breaking, the characters are vulnerable enough that Albee can strip them down and reveal their deepest wants and fears.

Annabel Armour shows remarkable depth as she navigates Stevie’s breakdown, portraying a woman whose defenses are slowly worn away as she realizes she isn’t strong enough to hold her marriage together. She finds herself in a situation she could never conceive, her husband now a sexually deviant stranger. Armour and Sandys find the show’s rhythm in the chaotic second scene, one of the best in contemporary theater, spanning the entire emotional spectrum and sparking intense, intellectual debate about sexuality, marriage, and love. Albee takes the extramarital affair to its extreme, and the characters’ honest, painful reactions resonate even stronger in the absurd circumstances. Armour’s deterioration is heartbreaking, recalling her marriage’s joyous past in the context of its sordid present, and lashing out violently as Martin elaborates on the history of his relationship with Sylvia.

Upturning furniture and smashing pottery, Stevie turns the living room into a physical representation of her marriage, as each new revelation from Martin is another dagger in her side. Going back to the music metaphor, when the characters have the melody, during those big moments when everyone is at a forte, the James Bohnen directed Stevie (Annabel Armour) and Martin (Nick Sandys) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?. Photo by Johnny Knight. production achieves greatness. Stevie has a series of powerful monologues that Armour performs flawlessly, culminating in a series of screams that will give audience members goosebumps. The main conflict succeeds because Martin truly loves both his wife and Sylvia, and Sandys is completely believable in his affections. He performs his monologues with conviction and truth, and it’s easy to see how Stevie could fall in love with such a passionate man. And then you realize he’s talking about sex with a goat.

After Stevie and Martin duke it out, their seventeen year old son Billy (Will Allan) suffers a breakdown of his own, as his parents’ collapsing marriage coincides with his own sexual crisis. There’s a tension in Allen’s physicality that may be a character choice, but is ultimately a distracting one as he occasionally appears uncomfortable and stiff. In light of his father’s attitude toward his homosexuality, Billy reacts to his father’s affair with an appropriate mix of fury and repulsion, but the disturbing shift in Billy and Martin’s relationship is natural because of Sandys and Allen’s chemistry. When Ross returns, Mitchell enters at a lower emotional level than his costars, but he is able to reach their level of intensity by the time Stevie reenters. The play’s final moments build to a stunning release of emotion, and the actors hit all the right notes for the tragic end. As the 100-minute long demolition of a family concludes, the audience is left with a slew of questions regarding the nature of human sexuality, which may be the best part of an Albee play. Long after the production has ended, it’s themes resonate and resurface when we least expect them, because of the powerful experience within the theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Martin (Nick Sandys) comforts son Billy (Will Allan) in a moment of turmoil while family friend Ross (Michael Joseph Mitchell) looks on.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? continues through May 8th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, with performances Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30-$45, and can be purchased online, or by calling 773-404-7336. For more info, go to www.remybumppo.org.

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Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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Review: Agnes of God (Hubris Productions)

  
  

What is truth and what is a miracle?

  
  

Sara Pavlak, Lorraine Freund, Barbara Roeder Harris - Hubris Productions' Agnes of God

  
Hubris Productions presents
   
Agnes of God
  
Written by John Pielmeir
Directed by Jacob Christopher Green
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The human mind is a miraculous and wondrous thing. In the play Agnes of God, not only is an atheist asked to suspend logic, she’s also asked to question the nature of miracles in modern times. Hubris Productions presents a luminous and beautifully acted production directed by Jacob Christopher Green. The moment I sat down and looked at the set, I was transported back to the convent adjacent to my grammar school. It was stark and yet serene in its simplicity, just like the OSP convent of my childhood. There is a desk that serves as a place of authority for both Mother Miriam Ruth and Dr. Livingstone. Otherwise, it’s the ascetic and well-scrubbed world of a religious order.

Barbara Roeder Harris, as psychiatrist Dr. Livingstone, shines in the role of someone who is appointed to deem whether a horrific act was insanity or murder. The emotional range required of the Livingstone character would be Grand Guignol performance in the hands of a lesser actress, but Harris’ Livingstone is a perfect balance of restraint and fierce protector, determined to discover the truth even at the risk of her own beliefs.

Lorraine Freund (Mother Miriam Ruth) inhabits the habit. I was stunned at how much she recalled my second grade teacher, Sister Vienny. Here, Mother Miriam Ruth is a tightly wound character who unravels with surprising profanity and knowledge of the real world outside the cloistered convent. Freund plays Mother Miriam with a sly sense of humor, a steel-trap mind, and a warped protectiveness. Mother Miriam chose the world of contemplative religious life after a perceived failing at the art of being a wife and mother who raised two angry atheists. The question lingers – did Mother Miriam need a miracle to renew her faith, or does she manipulate a mentally ill girl to cover a deep lack of faith?  Freund is ramrod straight, shielded by an otherworldly calm. She is chillingly wonderful and the nun of my nightmares.

Sara Pavlak (Agnes) literally has the face of an angel. She is heart-wrenching as a naïve and abused girl who has never seen the outside world. Agnes would possibly be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as well as Disassociative Identity Disorder in these modern times of needing a label for everything. This Agnes is buried in her trauma and possibly a miraculous anomaly that cannot be explained. The stigmata that bursts from her hands is a shock that draws audible gasps from the audience. Ms. Pavlak so deeply inhabits the pure novitiate that the viscera of blood on her gleaming white habit is almost obscene. One cannot imagine this innocent waif being invaded by the carnality of intercourse but when she is in the throes of hypnosis-induced orgasm there is a raw sensuality that is at once powerful and transcendent.

These three actresses play seamlessly off of each other. The timing and movement is very important in such a stark production. There is not much room for missteps and they make none.

Jacob Christopher Green’s direction is seamless and well modulated. This is a drama that has the potential to go way over the top, and agonizing to watch (as in the case of the 1985 film featuring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly). Playwright John Pielmeir’s script is made for the subtleties of the stage and for understated performances that explode and knock you back in your seat. Brava ladies, Bravo Mr. Green, and kudos to Hubris Productions.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Agnes of God runs through April 16th, with performances Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Performances are at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $25, and can be bought online or by calling 773-404-7336.

The 2011 season of Hubris Productions will donate portions of their proceeds to Humboldt Park Social Services. It is the Hubris mission statement that they provide entertainment, inspiration, education, and charitable giving. It is a worthy cause and definitely worth your time in the theater.

  
  

Review: Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…. (Halcyon Theatre)

     
     

Halcyon’s updated Greek tragedy’s as disjointed as its title

     
     

Adam Dodds and Christine Lin  in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell
  that Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable)
  
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by
Tony Adams
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru March 27  |  tickets: $18-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Modern playwrights know you can get a lot of mileage from shaking up the Greek classics. The themes thought up by Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are vibrant and the stakes are feverish. The drama is easy to understand; lives are on the line. Because of their conceptual enormity, they are easily tinkered with. Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis is one such classic, with a plot boiling down to a king sacrificing his daughter for good luck on the battlefield.

In our day, the ever-inventive Charles Mee and the ever-misanthropic Neil LaBute have all taken swings at Iphigenia. Caridad Svich’s 2004 technology-infused Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) is as disjointed as its title. Svich smashes together 21st Century political discourse, the club scene, and the horrendous violence committed by numerous Christine Lin with Derrick York onscreen in 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)' by Caridad Svich. Photo by Tom McGrath. Latin American dictators with the myth. There’s a lot to swallow. Agamemnon is a despot, Orestes is a crack-addicted baby, and Achilles is a sexually-ambiguous raver. Halcyon’s production, directed by artistic director Tony Adams, stumbles over the script’s weaknesses and the cast fails to fully embrace the material.

General Adolpho (Arch Harmon) is Svich’s envisioning of Agamemnon, but he isn’t planning to invade Troy. Instead, he seeks reelection, which may be hard considering his terrible human rights record. In order to get the people on his side, he hatches a plan to kill his daughter Iphigenia (Christine Lin) for sympathy points (although it’s never made clear why he doesn’t just rig the election—seemingly small potatoes for most dictators). Iphigenia flees to the outskirts of town, meeting several of her father’s victims on the way (including three female ghosts played by men). She also comes across Achilles (Adam Dodds), who always has chemicals in his bloodstream and melancholy in his mind. But, like in all the Classics, Iphigenia learns you just can’t beat fate.

Even though I’m no ecstasy expert, Halcyon’s production feels false. The ever-looping electronica (composed by Zebulun Barnow) never reaches the decibels needed. I wanted to feel the bass (although that would probably disrupt Infamous Commonwealth’s A Doll’s House going on down the hall). Svich’s dialogue seems to be penned by an outsider to the scene, especially in these actors’ mouths. The slang feels awkward and the cast seems uncomfortable (especially the drag queens in their heels). Most importantly, Lin and Dodds don’t reach the epic highs needed for Greek drama. Even though Svich’s scenes pull from a huge wardrobe of influences, she relies heavily on Euripedes’ sense of tragedy. Halcyon is unable to grab hold of that level of hubris.

     
Christine Lin and Derrick York onscreen in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable). Photo by Tom McGrath. Arch Harmon in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable), presented by Chicago's Halcyon Theatre. Photo by Tom McGrath.
Adam Dodds and Christine Lin in Halcyon Theatre's 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)'. Photo by Tom McGrath Derrick York in the forground and Arch Harmon on screen in "Iphigeni", produced by Halcyon Theatre in Chicago. Photo by Tom McGrath. Christine Lin  in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

To their credit, Adams and video designer Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson do a mostly fantastic job with integrating stage action and video. Steph Charaska’s set and Pete Dully’s lights make the world jump to life. And the cast captures Svich’s dark sense of humor, especially Rafael Franco, Derrick York, and Arvin Jalandoon as the ghosts. The run time is a little over an hour with no intermission, but the play has a kernel of the epic style of Homer. We watch a journey unfold on-stage, with lots of characters, motivations, and points of view.

In the end, the production takes itself too seriously. There are a lot of moments that feel as melodramatic as the angst-ridden tunes that fuel the play. In a bout of meta-theatricality, Iphigenia brings up the burden of playing a character bound by a plot, a very intriguing idea. But like most of the ideas in this Iphigenia, it’s tossed on a heap with all the others. Almost as if we participated in a bender, the audience leaves bewildered and confused.

  
  
Rating: ★★
       
  

Arvin Jalandoon, Derrick York Christine Lin and Rafael Franco in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia. Photo by Tom McGrath.

 

Artists

 

Cast: Adam Dodds (achilles), Rafael Franco (fresa girl 1), Arch Harmon (adolpho/general’s ass, soldier x), Erica Cruz Hernández (violeta imperial/hermaphrodite prince), Arvin Jalandoon (fresa girl 3), Christine Lin (iphigenia), Terri Lopez (camila), Miguel Nuñez (virtual mc), Derrick York (orestes/news anchor/virgin puta/fresa girl 2)

Production: Tony Adams (director), Steph Charaska (scenic design), Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson (video design), Annie Hu (animation design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Pete Dully (lighting design), Zebulun Barnow (sound design and music), Lee Strausberg (props design), Morgan Gire (stage manager), Tom McGrath (photography)

        
       

Review: Ghosts of Atwood (MPAACT)

     
     

Exorcising the past without reconciliation

 

  
     

  
MPAACT presents
  
Ghosts of Atwood
  
Written by Shepsu Aahku
Directed by
Andrea J. Dymond
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ghosts of Atwood has a fascinating and voyeuristic premise – a chance to see behind the walls of a midwestern boys military school. The fascination comes from the fact that the narrator is a still-traumatized Black man looking back thirty or so years. He comes from a past of being only one of the few allowed in the White world. It was supposed to be a privilege and an honor to assimilate and pave the way for others to follow.

As suspected, the grass is not green in the verdant woods of Wisconsin for toy soldier Quinn. MPAACT playwright-in-residence Shepsu Aahku is the author of Ghosts of Atwood.  His work is a memoir of his own time in military school back in the 1970’s and, according to Aahku, sometimes memory cannot be trusted. It turns out that this is a rationalization fed to impressionable children to mask the horrors inflicted upon them. What is the truth? Who is your brother when it hits the fan?

Quinn is dropped off at Atwood while his still loving mother gets her life in order. He comes from a supportive family that wants him to have a good life, the kind of life advertised in the Sunday supplement magazine.

Quinn is brutally hazed by cadet Moose and his posse on his first day at Atwood. Zack Shornick is brilliant as the abusive and abandoned Moose. He blends fear, anger, and atavism in an explosive performance.

Equally brilliant is Corey Spruill as cadet Whitehead – the only other black kid at Atwood. Spruill quiet performance simmers and then boils over in a seething climax that breaks the heart from the shame of recognition. Whitehead has been at Atwood for seven years and doesn’t classify himself as anything other than a soldier. The moment that he allows vulnerability, the shell breaks completely.

Aahku’s structure for  Ghosts of Atwood is pretty straightforward. But in an effort to distinguish this work from similar stories like “Lord of the Flies” or “Taps”, he adds an esoteric quality to the ‘ghosts’. Imaging horrific abuse as a monster under the bed drives the fact that the cadets are really children. 

   

The ghost causes one child, Bobby, to be a chronic bed wetter at the mercy of Moose and the other boys. Jack Miggins is heartbreaking as Bobby, who should be playing baseball but is Moose’s unfortunate ‘bitch’. His breakdown recalls the demise of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The grownups in Ghosts of Atwood are stock military characters. The role of Hammer (Dan Loftus) is a disciplinarian handing out demerits for dirty dress whites and a paddling for unruly behavior. Loftus projects a martial image of paternal firmness. Niall McGinty plays the jolly wilderness guide Major Taggert. His folksy Mayberry demeanor adds a jolt to his character being revealed as a malevolent force.

Wardell Julius Clark plays the lead role of cadet Quinn. His character is seen as a teenager and then as an adult decades later still haunted by Atwood. Clark’s performance comes off as strangely tight and stiff even in light of his character’s memories. It’s given that Quinn is well spoken and in a military milieu but it doesn’t jibe with the more naturalistic method of the rest of the cast.

Actors James Holbrook and Jack Moore give excellent performances as boys who’ have molded into military life. Mr. Moore is chilling and funny as the perfect Drill Captain whose uniform is full of braids and medals. Mr. Holbrook also fits the military image as well. His character Waddelow is the cadet who gets to log in the demerits and inflict abuse unpunished for the most part. He has mastered the smug sneer and is physically menacing, which is perfect for the role.

I would be remiss to not mention the glorious Trinity P. Murdock as Nesta the Rastafarian griot/singer. He is a sort of Greek Chorus underscoring the present day Quinn’s post- traumatic memories and the means by which Whitehead coped with Atwood in the past. Whitehead believes in the Rastafarian idea of justice and resistance through Jah and sacramental spliffs. It is lost on naïve Quinn but remains a constant song in his adult memory through Nesta.

Ghosts of Atwood is designed well. The imaging of the ghost as an undulating black mist gives one the chills and provides for an appropriate visual metaphor of a child’s nightmare memories. The sparse dormitory and wood footlockers give an authentic old boarding school feel to the set.

I give kudos to the cast and Drill Team Choreographer Demetria Thomas for precision worthy of competition. Also, a special mention is given to Kevin Douglas for excellent fight choreography. These scenes are brutal and have to be precise and authentic to have the intended impact.

This is a production that should be on your list of shows to see this month. Ghosts of Atwood is a chilling and authentic exploration of the truth that society is not willing to remember. With resident director Andrea J. Dymond doing an exemplary job shaping and pacing the show,  Ghosts is a powerful indictment of what authority is willing to ignore or deny under the guise of ivy-covered utopias at the expense of the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ghost of Atwood runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until February 27th. The Greenhouse Theatre Center is located 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-404-7336 for box office information or check out the website www.mpaact.org