REVIEW: You Took Away My Flag (Modofac Productions)

Take away these lyrics

 

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Modofac Productions, LLC presents
 
You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo
 
Book, music and lyrics by Henry H. Perritt Jr.
Directed by
G. J. Cederquist; musical direction by Jeremy Ramey
At
Theatre Building Chicago, Lakeview
Through May 23 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Henry H. Perritt Jr., the Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who authored and produced You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo knows a lot about his play’s subject — he authored two books about the disputed Balkan territory and spent 10 years working toward its redevelopment as an independent state — and something about writing music.

What he doesn’t know is the first rule of drama: Show. Don’t tell.

There’s so much exposition in this musical, it could be a textbook. And it doesn’t help a bit that it’s a sung-through format, so all this explication comes at us in recitative form. Even worse, the lyrics often jar against the music with too many feet per beat, poor scansion and bad rhymes, in awful couplets like these:

 

"Your kind heart will keep you from ever
Using that AK47."

"Must we endure the Serbians’ yoke un-
Til our backs are truly broken?"

"Talk all you want. I don’t care.
Successful insurgencies are really rare."

The exposition begins with the opening song, in which the narrator, a trench-coated American reporter (Brian Birch), gives us some history of the conflict in Kosovo between the occupying, Serbs and the "proud Albanians" — the story is unabashedly 253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdogpro-Albanian — and sets us up to meet 18-year-old Arian (Jordan Phelps), his best friend, Fahri (Ethan Saks), and Arian’s older sister, Vjosa (Amy Steele). The three all work in a cafe run by the siblings’ father, Fatmir (Joshua Harris).

Arian chafes under Serbian military law, but Vjosa is just as bothered by the strictures of Albanian society, and longs for the freedom of America. She is secretly in love with a Serbian officer, Dragan (Shaun Nathan Baer), an unheard-of miscegeny. The boys enrage some Serbian soldiers by taunting them with the Albanian flag. While Dragan protects Arian, one of his men kills Fahri. Vowing revenge, Arian goes off to join the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of guerrillas led by Driton (Patrick Cannon).

Meanwhile, Dragan drunkenly asks Vjosa if she still loves him. She does, but she’s not above stealing secret Serbian plans from him to give to her brother. Fatmir and the reporter try unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to intervene in Kosovo. The fighting goes on, the passage of time symbolized by the reporter’s increasingly blood-stained trench coat, and the purloined plans make no difference.

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog Guilt-stricken Dragan gives the reporter compromising photos of Serbian atrocities that bring international aid at last, and NATO bombs the Serbs out of Kosovo. The proud Albanian Kosovars next struggle with international authorities, ultimately declaring independence but never getting back their Albanian flag.

Parts of the plot seem unlikely, yet not more so than in other musicals. But there’s way too much of it — too many complexities and too many scenes covering too long a time period.

The young cast, all beautiful singers and fine actors, do a heroic job with the material. The music, if not always melodious, is pleasant enough, and sometimes stirring, with a contemporary pop sound. Music director Jeremy Ramey and his musicians (David Orlicz, Nick Anderson and Nick Boettcher) give the score everything they can, but the tunes and the performances have no chance at all against the relentless horribleness of all those words.

 

Rating: ★½

 

 

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Review: Brain Surgeon’s “1512 West Studebaker Place”

 Promising, if Incomplete, “1512 Studebaker” brings the Depression Era Alive

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Brain Surgeon Theater presents:

1512 West Studebaker Place

conceived by Liz Ladach-Bark and Joseph Riley
directed by Liz Ladach-Bark
thru November 22nd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

romance One thing you have to say about Brain Surgeon Theater’s latest production: they do crowded tenement right. In fact, 1512 West Studebaker Place maintains such a solid 1930’s tone, it’s hard to believe it’s a contemporary original production—the idea conceived by Liz Ladach-Bark and Joseph Riley, the play written and developed by the ensemble cast, with original music by Christopher Cole and Gwen Tulin. It has all the look and feel of a work that could have been produced from one of the New Deal’s arts programs. Even its incomplete finish does not diminish the ensemble’s achievement in the depiction of suffocating economic despair.

The production’s greatest strength is its realistic and cohesive integration of adult and child players. The Kelly family, headed by Stanley (Buck Zachary), wife Olivia (Katie Canavan) and sister Louise (Gwen Tulin), with their daughters Kate (Layla Kornota) and Suzy (Megan Bishop), live cheek-by-jowl with fellow borders Mim (Amy Gorelow), her niece Juliet (Laura Deger), writer Walter Lummet (Jacob A. Ware) and his little boy Mouse (Ethan Baum). Months of back rent are due to landlady Maggie Delaney, executed with absolutely sinister menace by Lauren I. Sivak.

Maggie Delaney walks in and out of their home without bothering to knock on the door. She involves Suzy in a secretive scheme. Bit by bit, she takes everything her tenants own—even callously wearing a hat that Louise has had to give up with the rest of her elaborate wardrobe.

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But the Kelly family may be just as much at the mercy of Stanley’s unrealistic hopes of owning a toy factory, as they are the economy. In fact, as naturalistic as family and tenant interactions are in this play, what strains credulity the most is Olivia’s enduring, patient acceptance of Stanley’s pipedreams and procrastination. The weakest moments of the play come at the end. When there is finally nothing left for Maggie Delaney to take, everyone gets thrown out of the house. Even a dutiful 30’s housewife would have something to say in response to the loss of her home and the imperiled state of her children, but Olivia remains silent in the face of Stanley’s insipid reassurances.

walter'sshadow The children’s games and songs in the play say volumes about living in poverty, often more than the play’s text itself. The plot developments, such as the revelation of a hidden safe in the house and a budding romance between the silently despairing Mim and butcher’s assistant Clarence, played warmly and compassionately by Rob Grabowski, deepen the world of the play and provide relief to this work’s unending hopelessness.

The plaintive figure of Mouse, jeopardizing his life by crawling out his attic room window to sit and sing in a tree, remains one of the play’s most enduring images. What gets lost in a muddle on stage, at the end of the play, is the dramatic significance of Mim opening up and speaking to him–a problem that could be resolved with some clean up in direction.

1512 West Studebaker Place is still incomplete and audiences should consider it very much a work in progress. But the Brain Surgeons have gotten it this far. The bones of a really good play are there. Let’s hope they will take it the all the way home.

Rating: ★★½

 

Read additional Studebaker Place review, by Henry H. Perritt, Jr., by clicking on “Read more”.

   

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