Review: Life Is a Dream (Vitalist Theatre)

     
     

A different dream work

     
     

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

     
Vitalist Theatre presents
   
  
Life Is a Dream
   
   
Written by Calderon de la Barca
Directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru June 11  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The greatest gift from Spain’s Golden Age of theater, Calderon de la Barca’s masterpiece from 1635 can hold its own with Shakespeare’s later romances. Nonetheless, Life Is a Dream puts a very Spanish emphasis on the struggle between honor and duty and the animalistic versus the humane. Helen Edmundson’s new version is the perfect platform for Elizabeth Carlin-Metz’ passionate, persuasive revival, a show to justify Vitalist Theatre’s well-earned name.

Life Is A Dream - Vitalist Theatre 3The story is a combination fairy tale and parable: A future king is tested to see if his natural nobility can help him to rise above the worst adversity. Haunted by a prophecy that his son might destroy him, Basilio, king of Poland, has his heir Prince Segismundo imprisoned in a hidden tower, wearing chains instead of a crown. Basilio resolves to give the prince a test to prove whether he really is the monster that was predicted by creating a waking dream: Segismundo is seemingly restored to power and the king watches to see if this caged beast can rise to royalty. If Segismundo can put the common good above his fury over decades of mistreatment, he’s one of nature’s noblemen and Poland’s future.

The play’s power kicks in as Segismundo must wrestle with his dark demons, defy fate in order to assert free will, and overcome the desire for revenge and turn it into a quest for justice. He does it on behalf of Rosaura, a noble lady wronged by Segismundo’s cousin Astolfo, wrongly engaged to Segismundo’s true intended, the Princess Estrella. If Segismundo’s dream has come true, this heir now realizes how fragile life is and how death ends all dreams.

Baroque and often beautiful, Calderon’s ornate language abounds in glorious declamation, intense soliloquies and almost operatic flights of rhetoric, a treacherously grand style that modern audiences could find offputting. Happily, the Vitalist actors are completely in control of this material. They know their characters from the inside out: These speeches carry an ardor and conviction that makes whatever seems literary to live and sing. (But for some this still just might be a bit too lyrical not to be set to music.)

     
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

You see the fervor best in Paul Dunckel’s unstoppable Segismundo, as intense and consistent a declaration of independence as any role requires. Without pushing any passion over the cliff, Dunckel stays on fire throughout. In contrast, Madrid St. Angelo finely calibrates Basilio’s divided consciousness between father and monarch. Vanessa Greenway is her own action figure as intrepid-because-scorned Rosaura, while, as aspirants to the Polish throne, Gregory Isaac and Lyndsay Rose Kane stamp the play’s rises and reversals with their own authentic reactions. BF Helman gives Segismundo’s keeper all the conflicts the situation warrants. Finally, Ivan Vega provides comic relief as a Sancho Panza-like servant with a common touch amid extraordinary events.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

Vitalist Theatre’s Life Is a Dream runs through June 11th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online at www.stage773.com. For more information, visit vitalisttheatre.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: Wuthering Heights (Lifeline Theatre)

 

Gothic gone ghostly

 

 Nelly (Cameron Feagin, right) comforts Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left), who suffers from tortured visions; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
   
Wuthering Heights
   
Adapted by Christina Calvit
From the novel by Emily Brontë
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through October 31   |  
tickets: $20–35  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In a sense, Emily Brontë’s classic romance is about an anguished love that endures beyond the grave. Despite many gothic elements, it is not, however, a ghost story.

Yet in Lifeline Theatre’s disappointing version of Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Leopold as Cathy Earnshaw, spends way too much time creeping about the stage in a white gown, grasping hands out claw-like, while the rest of the company stands around dismally making "woo-woo" sounds in the background. Where’s the Halloween candy?

Heathcliff (Gregory Isaac, right foreground) is haunted by the memory of his lost love Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left background); in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë Adaptor Christina Calvit dumps the eminently dispensable Mr. Lockwood, who frames the original story, and leaves all of the narration in the hands of Nelly Dean (the capable Cameron Feagin), who does most of it in the novel, anyway. But Lockwood’s nightmare about Cathy at the start of the book makes it clear that the dead Cathy’s influence is psychological, not supernatural, paving the way for the dying Heathcliff’s visions of her. Here we have a very solid Cathy pounding at the window to get in, over and over again.

Calvit also excises the pious Joseph, removing the whole theme of religious intolerance and hypocrisy that’s in the novel. Even at that, the production runs nearly 2½ hours.

We’re left with the everlasting triangle of the brooding and increasingly dangerous Heathcliff (darkly handsome Gregory Isaac), the highly strung, self-centered Cathy and the prissy Edgar Linton (nicely played by Robert Kauzlaric), and the second-generation repetition of Cathy’s daughter (a straightforward performance by Lucy Carapetyan), Healthcliff’s sickly and selfish son (Nick Vidal) and the degraded Hareton Earnshaw (Christopher Chmelik), here turned into a kind of cringing Gollum.

The deteriorating Hindley Earnshaw (John Henry Roberts), Cathy’s mean and profligate brother, and Healthcliff’s unfortunate wife (Sarah Goeden) get short shrift. The comparison between Earnshaw’s decline at the death of his beloved wife and Heathcliff’s reaction to Cathy’s marriage and subsequent demise is all but buried.

For all their scenes together, we never really see the sensual attraction that so haunts Heathcliff that he spends his life plotting revenge over his lost love, or Cathy to say that Heathcliff is her self. (Which, of course, makes it OK for her to marry another guy.)

WutheringHeights2Calvit juxtaposes the two generations fairly well, but she introduces each character in such a way that audiences are never left in any suspense about what’s going to happen and who’s going wind up with whom. So she tells us that Cathy marries Linton, not Heathcliff, and that her daughter ends up with Hareton well before the scenes that show us. Perhaps Calvit assumed that no one would go to see this play who wasn’t familiar with the novel. She might be right.

Certainly, no one who isn’t already a fan of the Brontë will become one as a result of this very screechy play, in which the characters are constantly yelling at one another. (To be fair, some of that is straight out of Emily Brontë melodrama — but it’s not comfortable to hear.)

Stylized. dancelike sequences add nothing to our understanding of the story and only take up time and slow the action. So much of the script and Elise Kauzlaric direction get in the way, that it’s hard to tell whether the cast does a good job or not.

Alan Donahue’s platform set captures little of the vastness of the Yorkshire moors and the up and down slide of the window and door become tiresome quickly.

If you’re an avid fan of the novel, you might want to see this. If not, skip it.

   
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

R-and-G-4 

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