Review: Watership Down (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A hopping fantasy adventure

 
  

Hazel-rah (Paul S. Holmquist) and his warren - Watership Down

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
  
  
Watership Down   
   
  
Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by
Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $20-$35   |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Having not read Richard Adamscritically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea As told in legend, El-ahrairah (Paul S. Holmquist, right), Prince of Rabbits, and Rabscuttle (Scott T. Barsotti, left) enter the burrow of the Black Rabbit of Inlé on a quest to save their people; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Watership Down,” adapted by John Hildreth, directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth, based on the bestselling novel by Richard Adams. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.

Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.

Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).

The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).

Scott T. Barsotti as Fiver (left) and Paul S. Holmquist as Hazel (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down".  (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.

In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.

Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jesse Manson as Kehaar (left) and Christopher M. Walsh as Bigwig (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down". (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: Dracula (Idle Muse Theatre)

  
  

“Twilight”, eat your heart out!

  
  

Edward Harch as Dracula and Nathan Thompson as Renfield in a scene from Idle Muse Theatre's 'Dracula'

   
Idle Muse Theatre presents
   
Dracula
   
Adapted by Steven Dietz
Directed by
Lenny Wahlberg
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Idle Muse Theatre has captured the quintessential gothic vibe. Their production, Dracula, now at Side Project Theatre under the direction of Lenny Wahlberg, is traditional, to say the least. It slays because it is dutifully faithful to Bram Stoker’s vision and language, resonating with deep Victorian observations on human passion and the human condition. “Great men, like galaxies, end in dust,” quotes the supreme vamp himself, as he plays host to his unsuspecting guest, Jonathan Harker (Chris Waldron). Abraham Van Helsing (Brad Woodard) is the equal to the Count (Edward Karch) in weighty sentiments, especially when he warns John Seward (Brian Bengtson) not to reveal their secrets to “God’s madmen”—that is, just about everybody.

Edward Karch as Dracula in Idle Muse Theatre's production of 'Dracula'Gothic fetish aside, the real joy lies in witnessing Wahlberg’s young cast wield Stoker’s lush, dark language like mature, seasoned pros, adding those necessary flashes of humor at their critical moments. Of course, it helps to have Renfield (Nathan Thompson), the lunatic in Dr. Seward’s asylum, as your guide. Thompson maintains total and fierce control over Renfield’s twists, zipping from raving lunacy to childlike pleas–“May I have a kitten?”—never mind that Renfield, in possession of a kitten, is not an innocent thing.

But Renfield’s master also strikes a silent, controlling and imposing presence. As Dracula, Karch conveys the original deadliness of the vampire of vampires with icy elegance. The Count has aristocratic pedigree and a living recollection of history but he is much closer to Nosferatu in raging animalism. Here is fresh relief from the mooning, insipid vampires of “Twilight” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. The original Dracula makes them all look like pussies. Here is sex as danger, real danger, danger for the both physical body and the immortal soul.

Idle Muse’s production starts off very strong. The sensual and witty Victorian friendship between Mina Murray (Alex Fisher) and Lucy Westenra (Stacey Sublette) is established immediately, along with Mina’s powers as an uncommonly independent woman and Lucy’s driving romantic passions. In fact, it’s rather sad that one of them has to get staked—Fisher and Sublette really make a great team. Meanwhile, Chris Waldron’s portrayal of Jonathan Harker is dead-on as the fresh-faced Englishman who has no clue what awaits him in Transylvania. Bengtson’s Seward may be a little on the stiff side, but in some ways that’s apt for a character that is all ideals and naïve faith in science and rationality. Woodard, for his part, gives us a younger, more vigorous Van Helsing than we’re accustomed to from film—but that too, is a very good thing. With only a little more knowledge of vampire lore on his side, his hunt for Dracula proceeds almost on equal footing with Seward and Harker.

Where the play begins to wobble a bit is in the second act. Fisher is wonderful as the bitten Lucy but getting to the final showdown proves too much for Steven Dietz’s adaptation. Stoker’s novel has Dracula’s demise take place on a racing wagon with Lucy’s three suitors delivering the strategic deathblows. Nothing like that can take place at the Side Project’s storefront space. But the company might want to look into other special effects to stage the death of the Count. Spectacular evil deserves a spectacular end. That is the way we mere mortals honor it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Nathan Thompson as Renfield in a scene from Idle Muse Theatre's 'Dracula'.

 

Artists

 

Cast

Alex Fisher as Mina Murray
 Chris Waldron as Jonathan Harker
Stacey Sublette as Lucy Westenra
 Brian Bengtson as John Seward
Nathan Thompson as Renfield
Brad Woodard as Van Helsing
Eddy Karch as Dracula

Ensemble: Mara Kovacevic, Liz MacDougald and Matthew Gibson

Creative: Lenny Wahlberg (Director), Evan Jackson (Assistant Director), Greg Poljacik (Fight Choreographer)

 

  
  

REVIEW: Trickster (Halcyon Theatre)

  
  

Epic tale propelled by audacious scope; uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Riso Straley and Scott Allen Luke--Photo byTom McGrath

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Trickster
  
Written and Directed by Tony Adams
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 30  | 
tickets: $18 – $20 |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

With Trickster, Halcyon Theatre takes on a wildly ambitious epic of ancient Native American lore woven into a contemporary story of survival in apocalyptic world. Written and directed by Halcyon Theatre’s Artistic Director Tony Adams, the piece’s challenging, provocative sprawl of interlocking tales doesn’t always form the most coherent narrative. But what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in sheer audacious scope and an uncompromising artistic vision.

Arch Harmon as Fox--Photo byTom McGrathWithin the animal world, the earth’s four-legged creatures battle a dark fate overseen by a cruel Wolf Master. At the same time, a rag-tag group of humans try to stay alive in a burned out landscape where water and food are scarce and marauding soldiers are everywhere. Think ‘The Road’ merged with a highly sexualized take on Aesop’s Fables merged with the intricate Native American belief system of Spirit Animals and you’ve got a good idea as to the ruling aesthetic that governs Trickster.

Adams’ wild ride begins with a slam poet cry to a muse, and a violently worded harbinger of what’s to come. From there, the audience lurches to a fever-dream of a sex scene where in two dimly lit bestial creatures are making the beast with two backs. The illicit union of Swan (Christine Lin) and Coyote (Scott Allen Luke) leads to Coyote being chased to river, where he jumps in and assumes the shape of a stone. Flash-forward 500 years: Coyote has emerged from the river and been restored to his regular shape, only to find a world in ruins.

Competing storylines ensue as the animals attempt to redeem a world that’s a burnt-out husk and the humans try to keep from starving or death or being gang-raped by soldiers. The primary trouble with Trickster lies in the editing process: plots and sub-plots branch out from each other like an endless root system continually stretching out, increasingly tiny branches moving ever farther from the primary trunk. The result is that Trickster becomes compartmentalized – defined by many different storylines that don’t always add up to an emotionally resonant, authentically connected whole. The piece would benefit from some judicious pruning. At almost three hours, Trickster sometimes rambles despite the truly streamlined pacing.

As for Adams’ epic-sized cast of 19, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. This is the rare ensemble that truly reflects Chicago. Despite the best of intentions, the vast majority of theater companies simply don’t look like the city they spring from: Color blind casting doesn’t happen with any degree of regularity in Chicago. Halcyon is fiercely committed to it and with ensembles such as the one in Trickster, offers proof that diversity and excellence are hardly mutually-exclusive concepts. Halcyon is leading towards the time when multi-ethnic casting is the norm and doesn’t even warrant a mention.

There are several beguiling performances within Trickster’s ranks – Yadira Correa is delicious as a predatory owl intent on eating children. Riso Straley absolutely gets the combination of vulnerability borne of irrecoverable heartbreak and untouchable toughness borne of surviving in a battle-hardened world.

Scott Allen Luke, Arch Harmon and Rafael Franco--Photo byTom McGrath (R to L) Riso Straley, Derrick York and Rudy Galvan in Trickster--Photo byTom McGrath

Others don’t fare quite so consistently well: It’s difficult to understand much of the dialogue that springs from Fox (Arch Harmon) – his words are muffled, his diction muddy. And despite the cast’s size, there’s some distracting double/triple casting going on: As the final scenes wore on, it felt like the same three or so characters kept getting killed. When an actor gets his throat cut, shows up a few scenes later to have his neck broken, and shows up still later to suffer a fatal gunshot wound, well, the impact of the violence is diminished.

The production benefits greatly from costume designer Izumi Inaba’s work, which is a playful, furry example of creativity triumphing the constraints of a small budget. Her canine creations are the strongest, wild and wooly headpieces that emulate the spirit of the animals the actors are depicting, if not their literal appearance. Adam’ spare, burnt orange scenic design evokes the blistering heat of the great southwest, as well as the ancient art of the cultures who lived there millennia before the white folks showed up.

Halcyon Theatre demands a lot of its audiences. This isn’t the theater of effortless escapism. Instead, Adams takes you down a dark and difficult path, demands that you pay attention and leaves you with a brain overloaded with questions of morality, philosophy and the intricate nature of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Helen Young and Jennifer Adams in Trickster-- Photo byTom McGrath

Featuring: Jenn Adams, Yadira Correa, Delicia Dunham, Rafael Franco, Rudy Galvan, Johnny Garcia, Kamal Hans, Arch Harmon, Arvin Jalandoon, Christine Lin, Scott Allen Luke, Goli Rahimi, Johanna Middleton, Julie Mitre, Ruth Schilling, Riso Straley, Helen Young and Derrick York. (Cast & Production Team bios after the jump)

 

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REVIEW: Too Much Memory (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

A Terrible Beauty Is Born

 

Antigone (Anna Carini, foreground) illegally burries her brother despite the opposition of her family and the people (standing, from left to right, Dominica Fisher as Chorus, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Brett Schneider as Haemon and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

   
 SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
      
Too Much Memory
       
Written by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson
Directed by
Anna C. Bahow
at
The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
Through Nov. 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The Greek legend that recounts Antigone’s defiance of the tyrant Creon resonates through the centuries. It seems painfully real today because there’s nothing black-and-white about this conflict between anarchy versus order, justice versus law, and religion versus the state. Sophocles’ tragedy makes us see both sides (and sometimes switch them as we watch). Antigone is driven to bury her disgraced brother, a rebel against Creon’s Corinth, so that he may reach the afterlife–so much so that she will accept, and even welcome, martyrdom. Creon cannot permit this rebel to become, even in death, a rallying point for rebellion.

Antigone (Anna Carini, bottom left) buries her brother in defiance of her uncle Creon's law and he attempts to maintain control (standing, from left to right: Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Dominica Fisher as Chorus and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol. Even though these implacable adversaries cannot compromise, the audience sees this as a complex conflict between powerful and often necessary forces—law and order against the constant fight for freedom. In Sinnerman Ensemble’s Midwest premiere of this updated version by topical playwrights Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson, the ancient struggle is colloquially new, with references to torture (Antigone is waterboarded), the media (the chorus, Domenica Fisher, is an on-site TV reporter who can only digest “news bites”), political trappings (Antigone and Creon attack each other on a closed-circuit feed), and Iraq and Afghanistan (the soldiers are confused about their mission or the morality of their superiors). But Antigone and Creon are united by one thing: Each declares, “I have no choice.” Each wants to belong to something greater than themselves, but ultimately they stand or fall on who they are and what they do.

Calling itself “an adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation,” this new 80-minute version wants to both distance us from the original Athenian premiere (there’s even a strange exchange in French between the principal lovers) and to bring it home with a vengeance. In Anna Bahow’s well-tempered staging Howie Johnson plays Creon as a big-city boss with a very guilty conscience. Brett Schneider, as Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé Haemon, is helpless to mediate between his father and his lover. Likewise, as Antigone’s more practical (and surviving) sister Ismene, Cyd Blakewell haplessly agonizes from the sidelines.

Giving voice to a previously silent character, Calliope Porter as Creon’s much neglected wife registers her fury at being taken for granted until she’s forgotten altogether. Equally humanizing is the authors’ treatment of Jones (Ebony Wimbs), a soldier who finds more in common with Antigone than she ever expected.

 

Too Much Memory_03 Too Much Memory_06

Then there’s Anna Carini’s daredevil Antigone, a coiled and almost cool fanatic improbably bent on the ritual sacrifice of her own life to protect a dead brother. She defies logic as much as she does Creon and, as Yeats said about the Irish guerrillas who fought the English, “A terrible beauty is born.” Antigone is not that far in style or substance from the suicide bombers of religious terrorism. She’s part of our world in more ways than one: When she delivers her final loving farewell to Haemon (via the video camera of Jones’ cellphone), it’s strangely touching as well as technological.

That’s the point of an updating that, strangely enough, may in a few years seem more dated than Sophocles’ timeless telling. Keeping it real doesn’t always mean keeping it new. Still, right now it’s got the common touch and needs no translation. The irony, however, of Too Much Memory is that for many audience members the original story of how Oedipus’ daughter sought and met her doom may well be forgotten. Better to refresh your own memory before seeing this very 2010 retelling of a young extremist’s date with death.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Haemon's fights back when his father Creon condemns Haemon's fiance, Antigone, to death (from left to right, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon and Calliope Porter as Eurydice), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

 

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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REVIEW: Jerry and Tom (Idle Muse Theatre)

Searing thriller or side-splitting farce?  Who knows.

JT1

Idle Muse Theatre Company presents:

 

Jerry and Tom

By Rick Cleveland
Directed by Lenny Wahlberg
At the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.
Through March 21st
(more info)

Reviewed by Ian Epstein 

It’s unclear what brought Jerry (Matt Dyson) and Tom (Brad Woodward) together.  It’s unclear why they’re both in the line of work that they’re in.  It’s unclear who the man with the black bag over his head with his hands bound behind his back, sitting in the spotlight, is (though the role of corpse-recurrent is played by Brian Bengston). 

JT4 But it is clear what will happen to the man in the black bag when the phone rings and it is clear that Tom has done this many times before–has answered the phone, has green-lighted close quarters death by buckshot – even if Jerry, wielding the weapon like an amateur with a baton in a parade, is the one playing our trigger-prone young hot shot. And what is the natural response of our corpse-in-waiting to impending assassination? Tell bad animal jokes.

As the rest of the play unfolds in multiple vignettes spanning years of training and development as a team, it becomes clear that Jerry and Tom are hitmen.  They’re not your thrilling, glamorous, Hollywood hitmen living life bruised and wandering the world over with forged identities or double-O assignments. And they’ve got no clear relationship to the comedic cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry.  Nope. These are just your everyday hitmen, with kids and wives and all the burdens of regular life tucked away offstage and only occasionally discussed in the long spells of waiting to kill-off targets of indeterminate importance for a clandestine, potentially criminal organization with unknown leadership.

JT5 JT6
JT9 JT10

Lenny Wahlberg‘s directing would benefit from tidier, tighter transitions, although good blues in the dark does provide some enjoyment to audience members stranded in it.  Rick Cleveland‘s script overflows with crude situational jokes and it’s never clear whether the show is supposed to be taken seriously or comedically, as it lacks the high-stakes pacing, poetry or strong choice direction to support being a drama and accomplishing both.  Though the program explains the duration of time between scenes, they unfold so similarly that there’s no apparent logic that justifies the jumps in time and the play feels instead like a linear litany of melodramatic death after death after death.  If Idle Muse Theatre’s Jerry and Tom was trying for a searing, seat-gripping, anxious thriller (like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth), it didn’t succeed.  If Jerry and Tom was trying for a side-splitting Chaplin-esque romp where the same character dies again and again and again and can’t seem to escape death, it came closer but ultimately failed to elevate the stakes high enough to become that kind of farce.  In the end, we’re just annoyingly disinterested.

 

Rating:

 

JT15

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors. Thursday nights are industry nights. $5 ticket with headshot/resume.  Running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:PM, Sunday matinee at 3PM, through March 21.

Cast: Jerry – Matt Dyson, Tom – Brad Woodard, and Billy, Karl, Vic, etc. – Brian Bengston.

Design Team: Lighting Design: Steven Hill, Fight Choreography: Greg Poljacik

   

REVIEW: The Artist Needs A Wife (side project)

Cohesive set adds clarity to an otherwise jumbled script

Freud stabs painting

the side project presents: 

The Artist Needs a Wife 

by Jesse Weaver
directed by
Carolyn Klein
thru February 14th (ticket info)

review by Ian Epstein

The side project’s production of The Artist Needs a Wife, by Jesse Weaver, tells the claustrophobic tale of Freud and Mott (played by John Ferrick and Chris Hainsworth).  Freud and Mott are two older, similar looking, starving artist types.  The duo lives in a decrepit hovel that doubles as a garden level apartment with walls so leaky, rusty, and paint-smeared that the canvas of Freud’s many-year masterpiece looks like a natural extension of the wall itself.  His muse is a woman named Whore (Allison Cain).  If she hadn’t dried up at the same pace as Freud’s inspiration to paint, the pair might’ve produced something like a de Kooning together.  Instead, there’s a lot of struggling. 

In fits and starts, Freud and Mott come and go, looking for a touch of Michelangelo’s genius at the bottom of a box of corn flakes or hidden among the pages of a Polish mail-order bride catalog.  When they don’t find inspiration in these places, they make bold dramatic gestures: stabbing the empty box of cornflakes to the wall with a carving knife or tearing the apartment to pieces.  And in a moment rife with dramatic possibility, one even orders the redheaded bride that the other was eyeing in the catalog.  Suddenly the image in the catalog is flesh, and Whore has competition in the form of a sexy little redhead (Ann Sonneville) with a thick stutter.

Katja with knife at Mott's throat Mott punches Whore

All of this sounds great, but the script feels like a sprawling rough draft with too little knowledge of its many subjects to be either funny or serious.  It reaches towards the kind of tension that builds up in the back and forth of a Pinter exchange supplemented with a healthy dose of the absurd – but it doesn’t grab hold of anything.  There isn’t a particularly developed stage vocabulary for lack of inspiration so this prominent thematic thread is hard-pressed to hold an audience’s interest for what feels like an unending two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes.  Whenever passage of time comes up, the actors dismiss it with affected lists — a trait that might work if the actual chronology of the characters were made legible anywhere (the walls, the plot, their intimacy).   There are words misused without intending to be, confusion about Polish being written in Cyrillic (which it isn’t), and profanity that reads like a loud placeholder for what a truly ticked-off down-and-out artist might yell.  All of this leaves the audience excusing too much of the playwright’s shorthand to enjoy the show.

William Anderson‘s set, with its moldy colors, its cramped, cockeyed amenities, and its fragmented ceiling tiles may be the only piece of this production that strikes a tone appropriate to the subject matter.  It is especially admirable for its clarity, economy, and versatility. 

Rating:

FEATURING: Allison Cain, John Ferrick, Christopher Hainsworth, and Ann Sonneville 
CREATIVE TEAM: Carolyn Klein (director) William Anderson (sets), Emily Duffin (props), Miles Polaski (sound), Greg Poljacik (fights), Seth Reinick (lights), and Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes)

Tickets: $18 General, $12 Industry   (with H/R, business card or student ID)
Group discounts available