REVIEW: Too Much Memory (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

A Terrible Beauty Is Born

 

Antigone (Anna Carini, foreground) illegally burries her brother despite the opposition of her family and the people (standing, from left to right, Dominica Fisher as Chorus, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Brett Schneider as Haemon and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

   
 SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
      
Too Much Memory
       
Written by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson
Directed by
Anna C. Bahow
at
The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
Through Nov. 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The Greek legend that recounts Antigone’s defiance of the tyrant Creon resonates through the centuries. It seems painfully real today because there’s nothing black-and-white about this conflict between anarchy versus order, justice versus law, and religion versus the state. Sophocles’ tragedy makes us see both sides (and sometimes switch them as we watch). Antigone is driven to bury her disgraced brother, a rebel against Creon’s Corinth, so that he may reach the afterlife–so much so that she will accept, and even welcome, martyrdom. Creon cannot permit this rebel to become, even in death, a rallying point for rebellion.

Antigone (Anna Carini, bottom left) buries her brother in defiance of her uncle Creon's law and he attempts to maintain control (standing, from left to right: Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Dominica Fisher as Chorus and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol. Even though these implacable adversaries cannot compromise, the audience sees this as a complex conflict between powerful and often necessary forces—law and order against the constant fight for freedom. In Sinnerman Ensemble’s Midwest premiere of this updated version by topical playwrights Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson, the ancient struggle is colloquially new, with references to torture (Antigone is waterboarded), the media (the chorus, Domenica Fisher, is an on-site TV reporter who can only digest “news bites”), political trappings (Antigone and Creon attack each other on a closed-circuit feed), and Iraq and Afghanistan (the soldiers are confused about their mission or the morality of their superiors). But Antigone and Creon are united by one thing: Each declares, “I have no choice.” Each wants to belong to something greater than themselves, but ultimately they stand or fall on who they are and what they do.

Calling itself “an adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation,” this new 80-minute version wants to both distance us from the original Athenian premiere (there’s even a strange exchange in French between the principal lovers) and to bring it home with a vengeance. In Anna Bahow’s well-tempered staging Howie Johnson plays Creon as a big-city boss with a very guilty conscience. Brett Schneider, as Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé Haemon, is helpless to mediate between his father and his lover. Likewise, as Antigone’s more practical (and surviving) sister Ismene, Cyd Blakewell haplessly agonizes from the sidelines.

Giving voice to a previously silent character, Calliope Porter as Creon’s much neglected wife registers her fury at being taken for granted until she’s forgotten altogether. Equally humanizing is the authors’ treatment of Jones (Ebony Wimbs), a soldier who finds more in common with Antigone than she ever expected.

 

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Then there’s Anna Carini’s daredevil Antigone, a coiled and almost cool fanatic improbably bent on the ritual sacrifice of her own life to protect a dead brother. She defies logic as much as she does Creon and, as Yeats said about the Irish guerrillas who fought the English, “A terrible beauty is born.” Antigone is not that far in style or substance from the suicide bombers of religious terrorism. She’s part of our world in more ways than one: When she delivers her final loving farewell to Haemon (via the video camera of Jones’ cellphone), it’s strangely touching as well as technological.

That’s the point of an updating that, strangely enough, may in a few years seem more dated than Sophocles’ timeless telling. Keeping it real doesn’t always mean keeping it new. Still, right now it’s got the common touch and needs no translation. The irony, however, of Too Much Memory is that for many audience members the original story of how Oedipus’ daughter sought and met her doom may well be forgotten. Better to refresh your own memory before seeing this very 2010 retelling of a young extremist’s date with death.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Haemon's fights back when his father Creon condemns Haemon's fiance, Antigone, to death (from left to right, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon and Calliope Porter as Eurydice), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

 

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REVIEW: Days of Late (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

The quandaries of modern love

 

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SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
 
Days of Late
 
Written/directed by Braden LuBell
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed  by K.D. Hopkins

SiNNERMAN Ensemble has produced a quirky and intense expose of life and love among the twenty to thirty-something generation. Days of Late lays bare the labyrinth that relationships have become in the electronic age. Written and directed by Braden LuBell, Days of Late features a remarkable ensemble.

DaysOfLate4 Navigating the path to relationship has become an inorganic process post-millennium. Text messages, instant messages, tweeting, g-talk, dating sites, and anonymity have taken the place of meeting a girl or a guy at school, church or even the local pub in “days of late”. Everyone is longing for intimacy but the means of attaining it are anything but intimate.

LuBell’s script is a series of well-staged scenarios between a group of friends and their assorted associates. The minimalist set is similar to Lucid (our review ★★½)also directed by LuBell but it works much better with his own writing. The actors move the simple pieces of furniture about in between scenes like puzzle pieces, and then sit on the sides of the stage as observers in the shadows. This allows the actors to be the focus of attention but calls to mind how love is manipulated and discarded like so much furniture.

Some of the cast members really stood out. Shane Kenyon as Arthur and Sue Redman as Avery represent the most authentic journey of all the relationships. Mr. Kenyon’s comedic timing is perfect and in a second he breaks your heart projecting the frustration of trying to be honest in a world that thrives on game playing. Ms. Redman is the perfect accompaniment as Avery. Her character’s explanation of having to look great to attract the right guy while repelling the wrong guy at the same time was hilarious in its honesty. The performances by Ebony Wimbs and Doug Tyler are interesting in that they are portraying characters that have been emotionally stunted from childhood. Ms. Wimbs plays Nina – a woman who has made her way into the world of high art and her model for love is more like a business plan. She finds Max (Tyler) online, who has just ended a two-year relationship with a man. Max wants to have the American family ideal. ‘Someone to grow old with and have kids’ is on his agenda and he decides that it should be a woman. There is a contrived nature to their relationship, seemingly constructed with directions from advice columns and magazine articles on identity and poly-amory. The performances of Ms. Wimbs and Mr. Tyler have a fine balance in portraying this situation. They are nuanced and open hearted even when it all comes to an unexpected conclusion.

Brian Kavanaugh (as Dale) makes the perfect sinister attorney on the down low who orders anonymous sex online to be delivered to his office. Dale is a jerk to everyone and cannot seem to come to terms with his sexual longings. Arianne Ellison has a funny and poignant turn as Dale’s emotionally abused wife Chrissy. One can not help but flinch as Dale berates her for not appreciating how hard he worked to get them to an upper echelon of society. The New Year’s Eve scene with Chrissy and Avery is beautifully acted and literally shows what happened to the cheerleader who had it all.

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Christine Lin, as Miyoko the gallery curator, and Bret Lee as Sascha, the gay starving artist, fill out the cast, do a fine job with roles that feel contrived and stereotypical. Ms. Lin is the Asian woman who rebels against the stereotype of submissiveness by being the polar opposite. She is revolted when she has her first orgasm delivered with great comic and sexy flair by Mr. Kenyon. She is used to rough and anonymous sodomy with Dale the doltish attorney and hates that she loses control. Mr. Lee spends most of the play as the walking wounded. He doesn’t get any of the snappy repartee or double entendre but manages to turn in a fine performance free of snark or self-pity.

The performances in Days of Late owe a lot to a fluid script. Some of the terms that could be a challenge are made clear by the writing and smooth direction. I am glad to be a generation before the one portrayed in this production. The world is an emotional minefield and the roadmap is mostly a mélange of instant gratification. This generation has been raised in an era of permissiveness and experimentation under the guise of personal freedom. Self-control and letting things unfold naturally still turn out to be the winning ticket. Days of Late is a definite winner. It is funny, warm, and potentially shocking in its frankness. Not for kids unless you want to do some hard explaining.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

“Days of Late” runs through May 22nd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western in Chicago. The times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are available by calling 773-296-6024 or www.viaducttheatre.com. Read more about this talented ensemble at http://www.sinnermanensemble.org.

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REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

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Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

Review: SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s “Ivanov”

For love or money

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SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov
directed and adapted by Sheldon Patinkin
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s production of Ivanov rises above most in that it is performed in the style in which Anton Chekhov wrote the play: not as an adaptation set in modern times or filled in with action to keep the attention of the modern audience, but set instead in the 1800’s, a time dull in activity but vibrant with conflict underneath the passive text and assumed action taking place off-stage. The complex characters portrayed by the lead roles makes this Anton Chekhov play a play worth seeing at Viaduct Theatre, as the ensemble rises to the difficult challenge of maintaining Chekov’s dark tragic feelings with the wittiness of Ivanov’s comedic comments on life.

Ivanov_4 Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov tells the story of self-loathing land owner Nikolai Ivanov (Jeremy Fisher), whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and who is drowning in personal debt. Once a desirable young man – fun, kind and respected – Nikolai married Anna (Cyd Blakewell). After marriage, Anna converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodox and therefore was denied her large family inheritance that many neighbors claim is the only reason Nikolai married Anna in the first place. Stuck in a depression that he cannot shake Nikolai sulks and is unmoved by Barkin’s (Ryan Martin) constant ideas to acquire financial prosperity and The Count’s (Sean Bolger) pleas for companionship or at least entertainment. The honest doctor (honest to the point of being self-righteous) informs Nikolai of his wife’s terminal diagnosis. No additional sadness sweeps Nikolai, for he has already reached an emotional bottom, and – respecting the doctors bluntness – he opens up to him about his own depression and lack of empathy for his wife.

These Chekhovian Characters are played well in the opening scene, especially by Jeremy Fisher as Ivanov and Johnny Russel as the doctor. They have a dark, even-keeled yet sullen personality with a tint of humor in their lines, reflecting the absurdity of life.

Nikolai’s depression doesn’t keep him from gallivanting off at night to a party at the Lyebedev’s estate where his new wealthy attraction Sasha is celebrating her birthday. As the repartee repeatedly drones on about how bored they are (via comical comments on their unfulfilled lives), Nikolai and Sasha are intimately conversing. Once they believe that they are finally alone Sasha and Nikolai are caught in an adulterous kiss by Anna who disobediently followed her husband to the party.

True to Chekhov’s style, the drama (or fight) between the three love interests takes place off stage. Still together with Anna, and trying to be a better man, Nikolai avoids Sasha until two weeks later when she comes to his estate to see him. Sasha, played by Sue Redman, gives an intriguing speech about why women are attracted to whiny desperate men and plays the martyr by telling him to stay with his wife, but with Anna’s illness and Ivanov’s sinful tendencies there is still a lot to play out.

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The set, designed by Jacqueline Penrod, is able to switch from the outside porch of Nikolai’s property to the inside of the Lyebedev’s upper-class home. In the opening scene Nikolai sits void of emotions at his simply crafted chair and table on the wooden front porch of his wooden home with the eerie death cries of an owl. The outside porch is designed too similar to that of a ranch and there is not much in the set that shows the countryside in which the play takes place. When the wooden walls are removed the depth of the Lyebedev’s living room is shown with a large dining table in the back for the guest to play cards and open space to converse while entering and exiting through the back door. The family room is up front with two couches facing each other (so the eligible bachelors can gaze at the eager young ladies) and a chair at top where Pavel Lyebedev (Howie Johnson) sits in his complacent bliss.

The wardrobe designed by Frances Maggio brings more to the plays atmosphere than the stage design, with dated clothes that have the sense of the 1800’s when this play was written, and all dressed in black as if it were a funeral when outside of Ivanov’s estate.

The main characters of SiNNERMAN’s production are talented – keeping the plainness in Chekhov’s characters while also bringing to life the complexity behind their lives. Chekhov has written no complete villain or saint. We cannot empathize with Nikolai because we do not trust his character, but yet we also do not know if he actually has malicious intent; he may be the victim of gossip and bad luck.

Cyd Blakewell delivers a fantastic performance as Anna; tired, desperate for attention and naive to the true feelings of her husband. She speaks with great drama allowing the humor in her ignorance to hit the audience subtly as Anna herself has no idea that what she is saying sounds ridiculous. Her defense for her husband makes one feel pity for the mistreatment and neglect that she has endured.

For a Chekhov fan, this play is a chance to see one of his lesser known plays, and SiNNERMAN’s performance is worth seeing. It is performed by the book, and the brilliance of Anton Chekhov is supported well by the talented lead actors. Some of the supporting actors/actresses come off a little cartoonish and out of character, but overall this is a quality performance from a very cool theatre company. This is not a play for someone looking for a lot of physical action or even a lot of verbal action, but the conflicts are there and you will be surprised in the way Chekhov’s plays can entertain.

Rating: ««½

Ivanov is playing at Viaduct Theatre, 3111 Western, Chicago, through November 7th.

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