REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

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Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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REVIEW: The Odd Couple (Raven Theatre)

   

Oddly Uninspiring

 

Pills

  
Raven Theatre presents
 
The Odd Couple
 
written by Neil Simon
directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street (map)
through July 18th  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Oscar is messy. Felix is tidy. Oscar is brash. Felix is meek. Oscar likes gambling and cigars. Felix likes cooking and vacuuming. They’re both divorcees. They live together. They’re not gay.

If you pitched this as a show concept to a modern-day television executive, he’d either laugh you out of his office or option it as the next banal reality TV show. Either way, the idea would be seen as too simplistic and naïve for a contemporary television Ladleaudience. And that’s saying a lot, considering this is the same audience that demanded 11 seasons of “7th Heaven”.

But back in 1965, this is exactly what constituted good theatre. That’s when Neil Simon’s acclaimed The Odd Couple—featuring the slovenly Oscar and the uptight Felix–premiered on Broadway, garnering that year’s Tony for Best Play. In fact, it was such a hit that it ran for 966 performances, took a leap to the big screen in 1968, jumped to the small screen in 1970, went animated in 1975 and was revived for television once more in 1982. Now, the Raven Theatre Company, known for taking cracks at classics, is doing its own production.

The Raven’s version is utter slapstick. Characters speak with Ralph Kramden growls and nasal newsreel voices. Their movements and reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. When a scene calls for the emotion of surprise, the actors look as if they’re trying to pop their eyes out of their sockets. At one point, a character actually runs face first into a door when trying to stop a despondent Felix from going into the bathroom alone.

I assume it was director Michael Menendian’s vision to do a live-action cartoon version of The Odd Couple, and unfortunately, the outcome is a terrible miscalculation. The play–which already struggles to connect with an audience who are more surprised to see a marriage last rather than end in divorce—comes off as vapid, void of any real meaning whatsoever. It’s like the tragedy that has befallen Felix (Jon Steinhagen) is one big joke. And we get no sense of Oscar’s (Eric Roach) own unresolved marital issues except for his messy condo, which is a parallel for his messy life. Instead, Menendian has reduced the story to a one-joke pony that keeps begging to be laughed at. Sure, at first it deserves a chuckle, but by the end it’s just kind of desperate.

To their credit the cast is spectacular in their respective roles, even if the final outcome is damaged by misguided direction. Roach toes the line with Oscar, portraying him as a slob but a fun slob. This is a guy who’s a borderline hoarder, but he’s also a wild and crazy guy.

Steinhagen’s portrayal of Felix is a good balance to Oscar’s party-animal stereotype. He’s reserved, slightly effeminate and deeply emotional–or at least an emotional wreck, which is more than can be said about Oscar who takes a much more cavalier approach to his failed marriage.

Poker

In the end, Raven Theatre lost an opportunity to give a fresh take on this well-worn classic. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Menendian take up the task of providing this fairly hollow play with some real emotional depth. Rather than take the easy slapstick route, why not venture on that high road and make the actors bring some realism to their roles? Let’s see The Odd Couple as a dark comedy for once. After all, is this not a play about two men whose marriages have fallen apart, whose families have been torn from them due to their own negligence? If it truly is a funny show, the humor should still shine through despite a graver tone.

Still, there will always be an audience for schlock like this. Some people just don’t want to see something thought provoking or culturally relevant. Some people just want a show with uncomplicated laughs and a simple plot with characters as three-dimensional as a piece of construction paper. For those people, The Odd Couple will work just fine.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 

Performances continue through July 18: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm (No show July 4)

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Cast: Greg Caldwell, Larry Carani, Brigitte Ditmars, Liz Fletcher, Greg Kolack, Eric Roach, Jon Steinhagen, Anthony Tournis

Creative Team:   Michael Menendian (Director), Amy Lee (Light Design), Katherine M. Chavez (Sound Design), Ray Toler (Set Design),  JoAnn Montemurro (Costume Design), Cathy Bowren (Stage Manager), Dean LaPrairie (Photographer)

   
   

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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