REVIEW: You Took Away My Flag (Modofac Productions)

Take away these lyrics

 

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog

 
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: The Exonerated (La Costa Theatre)

Grueling In storytelling, “The Exonerated” lacks dramatic structure

exonerated

La Costa Theatre presents:

The Exonerated

 

by Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson
directed by Sonia Alexandria
Thru February 7th (ticket info)

review by Paige Listerud

The vibe created by La Costa Theatre’s The Exonerated feels downright 60s-radical–whether it be in the relaying of 6 true cases of wrongly accused men and women from the late 60s and early 70s, or the soft, plaintive guitar performance in the darkened theater space before the show begins. The language used by the wrongly accused/proven innocent reflects the Boomer generation and their perspective on violent, endemic racism and homophobia. Their voices, as performed by cast, ring authentically but that same period element distances the storytelling from the audience.

It relinquishes this play to being a thing of the past, even though it was only just produced in the first years of this century; even though the gross gaps in our justice system still haven’t been rectified.

lacosta But more than an old hippy feeling compounds the challenge of revitalizing these stories and making their pain immediate. Unfortunately, The Exonerated, which stirred some of New York’s biggest stars to perform in it, which was made into a movie with Aidan Quinn and Susan Sarandon, and was presented to Gov. George Ryan as he pondered a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, sorely lacks critical dramatic structure to make it an enduring work of theater.

Sonia Alexandria strives to keep the direction clean and simple; the minimalism of the barest of sets and strategically crafted lighting creates the right ascetic tone for the production. The effort to craft each story with the actors’ voices and bodies alone is the right move. The trouble is stories exposing some of the grossest injustices inherent in our legal system—stories which should raise hackles on the audience’s heads–get lost in a spliced-up jumble that contains no dramatic arc and raises no stakes. Impact gets lost just where one needs and wants and longs for impact.

Such a deep structural failing cannot be redeemed by the unaffected and earnest performances of a capable cast. That’s too bad, because some manage to achieve deeper resonance than just outrage at what has been done to them. Cliff Ingram’s Delbert Tibs and Theresa Ohanian’s earthy young hippy Sunny remain in the mind long after the lights come up.

For anyone who thinks law enforcement plays out just like the cop shows on TV, The Exonerated will act as an all-too–necessary antidote. For those long familiar with the arbitrary nature of our justice system and the tenuousness of everyday freedom, at the very best The Exonerated will come across as just another day in racist, classist, homophobic America.

Rating: ★★

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