Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: Betrayal (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
  

Who’s zoomin’ who? The tangled webs of betrayal

 

 

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 1 - photo by  Michael Rothman

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
   
Betrayal
   
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by
Kevin Christopher Fox
at The Performance Center, Oak Park (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nobody gets a break in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now produced by the Oak Park Festival Theatre at the Performance Center of Oak Park. Everyone is suspect, everyone’s version of events is dubious, and unspoken motives lurk beneath the most mundane conversations. One fumbles to guess at what a character really means, whether he is repeating invitations to play squash or inquiring into the latest authors worth reading. Pinter’s highly educated and exceedingly well-mannered characters seem weighed down and contained by civilized behavior. A long-running adulterous affair, once discovered, instead of being the source of passionate rage or outcry is dealt with only in the most repressed and passive-aggressive ways.

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 5Director Kevin Christopher Fox well sustains the closed, inbred relationship between this terrible triangle. Jerry (Ian Novak) has had a seven-year affair with Emma (Kathy Logelin), who is the wife of his best friend, Robert (Mark Richard). Part of the intrigue of Betrayal is that Pinter starts the audience at the very end of Jerry and Emma’s affair and then winds backward, through all its stages, toward its origin. One sees what the affair has become before one sees how it began; one sees the relationship after the love has been exhausted, which gives a completely new twist on how one interprets the beginning, when Jerry woos Emma with an explosive profession of love.

Indeed, it interrogates Jerry’s motives for starting the affair with Emma or Emma’s motives for capitulating to Jerry’s effusive language. It interrogates Robert’s motives for letting the affair go on for so long, as well as his motives for ending his marriage to Emma. Who’s zoomin’ who—and what do they hope to get out of each power play or emotional twist?

The play is adultery viewed in hindsight, based upon Pinter’s own extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, a BBC Television presenter, which lasted seven years. With the beginning placed at the end, one notices those inklings of repressed jealousy and competitiveness between Jerry and Robert taint the affair from the start and make its origins suspect. One hopes that, at least at the start, Jerry and Emma’s affair soared with the kind of romance that movies and advertising sell – but that is never certain. Nothing is ever allowed room for certainty in this play. Betrayal makes us doubt love itself, as well as the possibility for love’s survival.

Since we learn from the beginning that the affair is over, the rest remains with the characters’ interactions. Oak Park Festival’s production feels like it is operating with a slightly defective third wheel. Kathy Logelin’s performance pulls the greatest emotional impact—the burden of secrecy, lies and deceptive silence show up clearly in Emma’s face. Logelin’s emotional accuracy Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 2wins sympathy for her character, in spite of the fact she is cheating on her husband and not totally truthful to Jerry. Mark Richard may have the least sympathetic role, cruel, dry and manipulative in his relationship with Emma. But one commiserates with his desperate defensiveness in the veiled conversations Robert holds with Jerry once he’s found out about the affair.

Ian Novak delivered an excellently timed and crisp performance as George Tesman in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler—but, as Jerry, he’s still trying to find his way and his occasional slippage in English dialect certainly doesn’t help matters. Pinter writes Jerry so suspect that he comes across, at certain moments, as a real cad. However, Jerry’s cannot be a role totally devoid of sympathy or the delicate balance that leaves the audience in uncertainty becomes undone. Here is a character that at least began as a fool for love. His desire for a love larger than life is very like Madame Bovary’s–a deep, inchoate longing for something more than the finite emotional space that civilized society allows us.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 3

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Theater Thursday: Raven Theatre’s "Hedda Gabler"

Thursday, May 14

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago

Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at the Raven TheatreBefore the performance Theater Thursday patrons will enjoy a special reception sponsored by Trattoria D.O.C. with appetizers, wine and beer and a post-show discussion with members of the cast. A contemporary woman trapped in conventional times relieves her intense boredom by constructing a dangerous game or reeking disaster on the lives of others. Hedda Gabler begs the question: How far would you go to escape? As Hedda resists the predictable world she has chosen, she unleashes a sequence of unfortunate events that brings her story to a shocking conclusion.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 773.338.2177 and mention “Theater Thursdays.”

Hedda Gabler

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Jon Robin Baitz

Directed by Michael Menendian

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler does the time warp at Raven Theatre

Review by Paige Listerud

Hedda Gabler most often gets the 19th century period treatment, so that it’s eponymous role, an epic role for women, more often than not, is interpreted in stark, severe, neurotic and even sociopathic ways.  (see examples of such augmented portrayals after the fold – including Cate Blanchett and Steppenwolf’s Martha Plimpton.)

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) contemplates her limited and self-limiting options.Michael Menendian, who has waited 20 years to direct this play, has pulled Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler forward to the 1930s. A time when many 19th century restrictions of gender, race, class, and propriety, still retained their grip, and yet had been slightly loosened by the gender role breakthroughs and financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties. This is not your grandmother’s Hedda; we know this Hedda, not from history, but from personal encounters with sorority sisters and Gold Coast socialites. This draws Mackenzie Kyle’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler a little further away from 19th century virago and a little closer to “Gossip Girl.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, this Hedda Gabler is an expertly crafted and smooth-running timepiece, with every part so honed, tempered and balanced with the others, it clips along with deceptive grace, lightness, and ease. Menendian, the sterling cast, and adaptor Jon Robin Baitz can take pride in their exertions to update a classic without overreaching. In fact, every actor’s performance is a model of technique balanced with dynamic energy and tension.

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) whiles away the hours.Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler) is a near-perfect blend of boredom and anxiety, exhibiting flippant social grace masking a powder keg of sadism. Ian Novak (George Tesman) humanizes his character’s history-geek ineptitude by not diminishing him to an utter buffoon. Symphony Saunders (Thea Elvsted) and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg) deliver sincerity and intensity without over-the-top melodrama. Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack) portrays evil with the graceful patience of a lazy, sleek cat waiting to spring.  JoAnn Montemurro (Aunt Julia Tesman) is appropriately co-dependent, without being so cloying we do not see her razor’s edge, to be used against any who would threaten her beloved nephew, George. Claudia Garrison (Berta) shows in a few lines a woman who is obsequious, fearful, bitter, and knowing of her mistress.

The pacing is fast; the lines tossed off so consistently, one would think Noel Coward constructed this Ibsen play. Best Comedic Moment goes to Ian Novak, for his pregnant pause and clueless response right after Lovborg, his intellectual rival, has thrown down the gauntlet. The deft and light direction rests on the foundation provided by Baitz’s meticulous adaptation.

They want a piece of her:  George Tesman (Ian Novak), Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler), Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack), and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg).“To make this modern and accessible, we had to go over every line,” said Michael Menendian, “and ask why Hedda was making this choice. Was she an abused or neglected child by her military father? Is she mad? We didn’t want people to feel sorry for her and we didn’t want the audience to wait for her to just go ahead and die already. She has no real focus, no real talent, no real ambition, and no strong desires. She’s got no idea family, no idea of love. She has a crazy notion of what is Romantic. She lacks courage. She has a twisted idea of pleasure or fun.”

Hedda Gabler is indeed a scaredy-cat, but she does manage to express one clarified desire: to have total control over another human being. This well-tempered production inevitably reveals, through its internal balance, the paradoxes of sadomasochism. Hedda wishes total control but is, ultimately, totally controlled. Thea, her rival for influence in Lovborg’s life, seems almost genetically submissive. Still, she demonstrates greater courage than any other character in her willingness to sacrifice marriage, social approval, and economic security. It is, perhaps, overwrought to suggest BDSM themes regarding Hedda Gabler. Yet, while the late Victorian Age was excessively moralistic, it was never innocent. Henrik Ibsen’s crime was to say that in a crowded theater.

Hedda in black “I think that people are amused or fascinated by Hedda Gabler now,” said Menendian. “Not stunned, as they were in Ibsen’s time.” Indeed. I won’t claim that nothing is shocking, but with the breakdown of race, class, gender, and sexuality barriers, the shocks don’t come so hard or so startling. Not to mention, with the steady spectacle of bad behavior the celebrity rich, reality TV, and day and night soaps, we have come a little closer to Hedda, not she to us.

Hedda-Eilert-couch But, putting kink aside, even everyday power exchanges may be too much for a person who wants it all without having to give up anything. The closest Hedda comes to give and take is heightened by her final scene with Aunt Julia, who checks and counters her in as surely as any of the men in Hedda’s life. Their mutual antipathy lies beneath the veiled messages and banal social courtesies they share. Both are playing nice and nobody is fooled for a minute. The sacrifice of truth and authenticity maintains their little détente. If only Hedda could sacrifice something else, hazard something, do something that gives her life weight, value, and meaning—if not absolute freedom. If there is madness here it’s because something’s got to give in this meaningless, safe and conventional existence. This production shows the unbearable lightness of Hedda Gabler’s being.

Rating: «««½

Buy tickets here.  Half-priced tickets available through StyleChicago.com.

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Raven Theatre announces 2008/09 Season

Michael Menendian announces Raven Theatre’s 2008/2009 Season, which includes Stephen Adly Guirgis’ searing Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, the world premiere of Tom Patrick’s darkly comic Misamerica, and Jon Robin Baitz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler.  Raven kicks off the season with a “Stark Raven Mad!” Gala Celebration on Friday, August 1.  Season subscriptions are available for just $50.  Visit www.raventheatre.com or call 773-338-2177.  

Raven Theatre announces 26th Season:

A powerful prison Drama, a World-Premiere, and an Ibsen classic.

 

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
directed by Michael Menendian

Raven begins its 26th season with the playwright responsible for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Our Lady of 121st StreetGuirgis’ plays mine his conflicted youth (attending Catholic parochial school in Harlem) to combine spiritual and religious themes with the rough streets of New York.  His plays are controversial and at times ferocious, but also stimulating and fiercely intelligent, inspiring audiences to question and debate long after they leave the theatre.  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train centers on Angel Cruz, a young Latino man in jail for shooting a religious cult leader.  Also in prison is an infamous, born-again serial killer who raises the question:  Is faith enough to save those who have not practiced what they believe?

October 7 – December 6, 2008

 

Misamerica
A world-premier by Tom Patrick
directed by Greg Kolak

Somewhere in the Mid-east, in the near future, an entrepreneurial American corporation is ready to tackle the next big market.  Basic supplies are hard to come by and dangerous fighting continues throughout the area, but Starbucks and McDonald’s are popping up everywhere, and the Operation American Sole sandal company isn’t about to miss out.  A darkly humorous tale of American hubris, Misamerica takes an unapologetic look at our country’s policies and priorities.

January 27 – March 28, 2009

 

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Michael Menendian

Ibsen’s masterpiece depicts a woman’s inevitable road to tragedy.  Hedda has recently married a kind and reliable yet unexciting scholar.  She is visited by two old acquaintances:  a female schoolmate and another scholar.  The former has saved the latter from an unsavory lifestyle, helping him find success as a writer; Hedda is resentful both of his talent and her schoolmate’s influence on it.  Out of jealousy and boredom, she proceeds to destroy each of the people around her, and finally herself.  Is Hedda a heroine, a villain, a victim… or all of the above?

April 28 – June 27, 2009

 

Raven Theatre

Founded in 1983, Raven Theatre is dedicated to breathing new life into American classics and exploring other works that illuminate the American experience.  In addition to its regular season, Raven produces a Workshop Series of new and experimental productions, as well as a Youth Program, including teaching partnerships with various Chicago Public Schools, summer youth classes and original children’s shows performed at Raven Theatre.

Raven Theatre Company is funded in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, Polk Bros. Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, Yates-Feldman Foundation, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Prince Charitable Trust, The Mayer & Morris Kaplan Family Foundation, The Alphawood Foundation, The MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, The Northern Trust Centennial Fund, S & C Electric Company, The Department of Cultural Affairs, CityArtsIII, a city agency, and The Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.

 


Raven Theatre, located at 6157 N. Clark Street, just blocks from the Granville Redline stop. Free parking is available at the theatre, and plentiful street parking is also available.