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: Under America (Mortar Theatre Company)

Lack of focus unravels epic saga

  Under America 05

   
Mortar Theatre presents
   
Under America
  
Written by Jacob Juntunen
Directed by
Rached Edwards Harvith
at The
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through September 26th  |  tickets: $12-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Jacob Juntunen deserves some props for diving headfirst into territory many writers nowadays fear to tread—the world of epic theatre. Juntunen’s newest play for his Mortar Theatre cohorts, Under America, spans months of time and travels through a smorgasbord of locations, some realistic, some surreal. Clocking in at just under Under America 10 three hours, it’s safe to say the play tackles a lot. Unfortunately, the ambitious piece tries to knot together too many threads, and Mortar’s production teeters a bit too close to chaos.

Under America is mostly about the Cabrini-Green public housing development and one journalist’s (Stephanie Stroud) attempts to understand issues that belie so much poverty in this country. Her story is interwoven with the tale of a youth from Cabrini-Green (Jon Sharlow) finding himself awash in the judicial system. Through time spent in solitary confinement, he discovers a prison wardrobe-to-Narnia which transports him to a bizarre system of tunnels brimming with strange characters “under America.” We also get to see how Sam deals with the boy’s family as well as her lawyer girlfriend, disconnected mother, and right-leaning father, who also happens to be a politician. Juntunen sets out to tell a big story, and this one is gigantic.

The play unravels due to a lack of focus. Angels in America succeeds so well because all the stories plug into each other thematically. Here, it is less compelling. Some storylines could be tossed out completely without shattering the macrocosm; Sam’s struggle to come out of the closet to her parents comes to mind, or any of the scenes with Jackie (Jazmin Corona), a social worker who gives a handful of opinions on Sam’s relationship and the social health of the country at large. The weaker character relationships should be weeded. They provide some interesting nuances, but don’t have the life-or-death gravitas that the driving issues tap into to keep the audience interested. Basically, the stakes vary widely.

Under America 0 Under America 02
Under America 11 Under America 03

For me, the most interesting section of the show was the dark, weird journey to the mythical belly of the American prison system. Michael, the young man, goes below, looking for his father through layers of hallucinations, doing the bidding of a cat-obsessed inmate and stoic warden, among others. The trip, which comprises most of the second act (of three), is unnerving, unpredictable, and fascinating. It was the tale I wanted to watch play out most of all.

For her part, director Rachel Edwards Harvith clicks with the script. Even with fistfuls of characters and plots, she never ignores a single one. Her dedication to the script  comes through in every scene. The waves of information could’ve been better shaped, though, and she should have picked certain ideas to really stick to the audience instead of letting them all surge over us.

Under America 07As a unit, the cast comes across as wooden. Some of the individual performances are magnetic, like Sharlow, Stroud, and Sentell Harper (who plays Michael’s brother). The group scenes ring hollow; the actors can’t keep their connection over the entire show. William J. Watt, however, deserves a special mention for his performance as Rob, Sam’s father. He gives charisma and caring to a character that could easily be stereotyped and set aside. He’s not the only talented one on-stage—there are some great moments dotting the production, but as a whole, the acting is inconsistent.

Let’s not forget that this is Mortar Theatre’s second production ever. They are a ballsy group of artists for sure. Even though Under America might get ensnared in its own web, there is a lot of talent and intelligence at work. They like to ask big questions and explore unique perspective—one hypothesis in the show links products manufactured by prisoners to concentration camps, for example. With some more generous use of the backspace button, Juntunen and company could easily hit gold with their upcoming season.

   
   
Rating: ★★
 
 

 

 

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REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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