REVIEW: How Theater Failed America (Victory Gardens)

A talented monologist tells it like it is

 

daisey_portrait

 
Victory Gardens presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 2nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The stage is set like a Spaulding Gray performance – and that’s probably not an accident: empty save for a long, rectangular wooden desk in the center set with a glass of water and a few precisely stacked, torn out pages of ruled and written on yellow note paper. There are random collections of bric-a-brac piled high in the back, dimly lit like a proscenium made of old trunks and other junk, receded so far that it’s become a frame, a wall hanging. A stray lamp with no shade lingers brightly on one daisey_spadeaspadeside of the stage, and a single, lonely chair waits behind the desk. Enter, Mike Daisey, to applause. He takes his seat opposite the audience and sets off on a two hour explanation about How Theater Failed America.

The first thing Mike Daisey takes on in his rocket-fueled, sit-down invective monologue How Theater Failed America is the title of his own show. It’s a flimsy passive construction, he complains, as he slams his fist against the desk for emphasis and clarity. A small cloud of dust shoots out, dissipating in the light. Ridiculing himself even more, he shreds his own logic to set off on the right comedic foot and lighten the mood – perhaps people will stop thinking about the weight or potential boredom threatened by the show’s title.  He continues, asking – does the title suggest that there will be a powerpoint presentation? Is that what the ‘How’ is for? Is he trying to consciously drive people away with the show?

Once he’s done making fun of himself, he begins to bait the audience with guesses about their suspect motivations and beliefs about this angrily titled show. He laughs at the audience’s thirst to see someone or something crucified; then he recounts a conversation with an artistic director friend who told him that the show was great but the name was shit.

The monologue from the waist up told from behind a desk beneath stage lights without design flourishes or technical frills is stand-up comedy’s tragic relative – the uncle who embarrasses at a family function. The fun in stand-up comedy comes from watching a comedian wander from topic-to-topic, chasing laughs like a poacher on safari – hunting for that elusive combination of the hysterical and the everyday.  Conversely, the fun in watching Mike Daisey’s monologue comes from watching Daisey attempt to take on the institutions and corporations, the characters and personalities, the theories and practices of the American theater business like a surgeon turning a dull scalpel on his own body to cure actors and audience members suffering from a certain commercial or regional non-profit malaise.

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From behind his desk, Daisey delivers an exhaustingly good performance. Each word seems paired with an energetic gesture and the gesture accompanies each reuse of that word. It makes it very hard not to pay close attention to the only man glowing beneath the lights on stage, screeching every third minute. The audience begins to hear the story unfold in Daisey’s own desktop language of emphatic eyes, thirsty sips, brow-sweat wipes, and swinging limbs. The effect is hypnotic.

And then, of course, there is the monologue he delivers extemporaneously, occasionally glancing at notes, pulling anecdotes from experience, repeating angry assertions with comfort and ease. Daisey traverses a series of lyric meditations on his own past, memoir-like vignettes, describing bouts of paralytic depression or flirting with suicide in the icy October waves of a lake in Maine. He reminisces about starting a summer repertory company in Maine’s Western woods with a friend and his three ex-girlfriends. He tells the story of a stint as high school teacher where he stuck  76 high school kids on a stage in order to win a state daisey_proofcompetition. Woven throughout these memoir-like vignettes – the real gems of this show – Daisey tosses in snippets of conversation with a literary manager over here, a producer over there and a running series of interactions with a convivial drinking buddy and artistic director.

Daisey’s considerable accomplishment as an actor and a lucid storyteller aside, the show’s titular content is where it’s at its weakest. He paints a colorful but indistinct portrait of the American Theater as an aging, dying art form. It’s not that he doesn’t paint it well – he absolutely does. He talks chillingly of aging subscriber bases and listening to the hiss of oxygen tanks from the darkness beyond the stage; he expresses his deep fear that he is surfing through life on the last crest of American theater’s relevance, even going so far as to say that after him, "they’ll turn off the lights." He even includes a great bit about freeze-dried boxes of actors being dropped off from New York or “Law & Order” to work with a director who scrawled a drunk concept blueprint on a SoHo cocktail napkin before boarding a private jet to join the thawing actors for three weeks; that this is usually done with some specious connection to ‘community’ and how it would be entirely ludicrous if, say, professional sports worked like this.

The tone, when Daisey is railing against the American Theater establishment, is melodramatic and alarmist.  And it’s just this cynical topic that makes the show so engaging to experience. He is really mad; strong emotions are key to any sense of drama.  And a talented monologist trying to tackle these tough questions is a welcome change from what Daisey describes as all that "academic mist" about the dwindling audiences and commercialization and corporatism and the "end of theater". Unfortunately, How Theater Failed America‘s biggest hole is its almost total omission of alternatives.  If American Theater is so tied up in real estate or ailing or too corporate or failing, then what can be done to start bailing it out?  

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Arthur Miller YouTube Project: Crucible interview

A fast-paced, minimalist Crucible emphasizes the currency and timelessness of Arthur Miller

We met up with Chris Maher, director of Infamous Commonwealth Theatre’s latest production of The Crucible, and Craig Thompson who plays the of role of John Proctor. Ian Epstein, whose review marveled that their production’s fast pace “makes the piece a borderline thriller,” conducts the interview at Raven Theatre. The themes of timelessness and timeliness dominate the discussion, together with a genuine love for Miller’s actability.

 

Part 1

 

Part 2

 

Read our review for The Crucible here. (★★★)

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REVIEW: The Crucible (Infamous Commonwealth Theatre)

Minimalist “Crucible” finds hope amid darkened righteousness.

 

Crucible1

 
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents:
 
The Crucible
 
by Arthur Miller
directed by
Chris Maher
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The intriguing thing about a good production of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible – and Infamous Commonwealth‘s definitely falls in this category –  is how distant it feels from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was so infamously intertwined and on Miller’s mind as impetus for this composition.

The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials, an historical event that took place in Massachusetts back in the days of Puritan Theocracy (circa 1690).  Tituba (Adrian Snow), a slave from Barbados, and a bunch of goodly Puritan girls are caught dancing in the woods – at the time, some are even allegedly naked. And since Puritan foulplay of any sort is rewritten as Satanic rite, the whispers reverberating through Salem are about much more than a little naked dancing in the woods.

Abbigal Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) and John Procter (Craig C. Thompson) -Infamous Commonwealth TheatreNumerous accusations begin to fly that girls have even been consorting with the Devil himself.  There are some murmurs that say Abigail Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) did it.  Or was it the Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty (Glynis Gilio), as others say?  No, they insist, contradicting and indicting one another in a back and forth game of guilt and blame:  it was this girl and not that one, or it was Goodie Proctor (Jennifer Matthews) leading them all to the Devil! 

The accusations babble as sourceless and incoherent as a Massachusetts brook.  Townspersons accuse each other of increasingly sinful behavior, eventually metastasizing from the realm of the accused adolescent girls to grown women and eventually to the men as well.  Before long the small New England town appeals to an out-of-town minister to bring some order and some God to the whole mess – but it only gets muddier, further from the event and any sensible resolution.

As the play’s four Acts (though there’s only one intermission) unfold, the audience watches this small New England town shred itself, its children, its ministers, even the rule of law in hot pursuit of the Devil’s involvement, if any, in civic affairs.  The action moves from a villager’s home to the courtroom and then the prison at dawn on a day scheduled thick with hangings for witchcraft. Nick Rastenis‘ spare, white, post-and-beam, wood-colored set makes movement from one setting to another an effortless rearrangement of bodies on stage, and perhaps a table or a chair.  Rachel M. Sypniewski‘s costumes match the barren quality of Rastenis’ set, making it clear that Crucible-Prepress-Cropped-sThe Crucible is a kind of minimal costume drama; it’s a period piece where bare white walls and exposed wood beams do wonders. 

The minimal quality of the set and the dire consequences of being accused of witchcraft render Stephen Dunn‘s flamboyant gesticulations as Reverend Parris a little too sticky on stage – they tangle up the audience’s attention, making them question his character, and not listen to Reverend Parris’s doublespeak.  Perhaps this is the one instance where Director Chris Maher has pushed too hard – as otherwise the actors successfully achieve and maintain a nearly manic pace and pitch that keeps all four acts clipping along at a pace that makes the piece a borderline thriller – no small accomplishment for a piece where the characters are all too busy attempting to outdo each other’s rhetoric with brimstone polemics on the floor of a courtroom.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Adore (XIII Pocket Theatre)

Not your dad’s idea of a dinner date.

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Thirteen Pocket (XIII Pocket) presents:

Adore

Written and directed by Stephen Louis Grush
Through April 25th at
Steppenwolf Garage (more info)

by Ian Epstein

What is palatable theater?  Can a show about cannibalism be savory and wholesome?

XIII Pocket‘s Adore, a multimedia mix of stage and screen raises questions like these.  It’s one of three shows being performed at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre in repertory as part of their Visiting Company Initiative and it tells the star-crossed love story of Armin (Eric Leonard) and Bernd (Paige Smith). In Adore, writer/director (and Artistic Director of XIII Pocket) Stephen Louis Grush paints a disturbing psychological portrait of two men whose definitions of love converge not in the bedroom but on the dinner plate.

Adore2 Armin is a modern German citizen — and he would also lead us to believe that he’s a cannibal trapped in the body of a mild-mannered, small-town German citizen since his birth.  And it’s notable that Armin lives in a little village down the street and around the corner from a house once occupied by the Brother’s Grimm. Armin talks straight to the audience in a rambling, psychologically revealing monologue that tells his story and his character. 

He badly wants to be in love.  He has been looking for a long time – his whole life, even – but he’s never found that perfect dinner date. He explains this, mixed in with other digressions, in his monologue and at times illustrated by projections onto a gorgeous gilt-framed movie-screen.  The digressions are balanced and delivered to elicit a certain amount of sympathy for this lovelorn, anthropophagic character. Armin sees the consumption of a lover as an act of all-consuming love.

Then we meet Bernd — a tight-lipped, in-the-closet, Berlin businessman who is restless and bored with a life that he knows is enviable and a lover he knows is dedicated. Paige Smith is a brilliant Bernd, bringing a lightness to the character that even elicits laughs.  He does a wonderful job speaking in dialog to pre-shot movie footage and not having it sound affected or interruptive. At the end of the day, Bernd just really wants to be eaten.

Adore1Through the decentralized, anonymous, immaterial monolith that is the internet, Armin awkwardly meets Bernd, his true love, who is the man that he will eat for dinner.

Adore feels like it’s set in one of those dark, fraying, seldom-seen corners of the mind.  It takes all the ephemeral strengths of live theater and blends them with horror-movie-like traumatic flashes and flashbacks. 

Technically it’s very strong; Adore blends stage and screen with effortless naturalism — something that’s very often attempted but usually ends up failing.  But form aside, Adore is a show with content that’s tough to handle.    It’s technically admirable qualities emphasize the disturbing core of the story: people who willingly undertake an act of anthropophagy as love.  Adore strays inadvertently into the tradition of playwright’s like Sarah Kane or Antonin Artaud with his Theater of Cruelty, where theater is used like a violent shake to wake up a sleeper. 

Is Adore an accurate title?  Dangerous question.

Rating: ★★½

REVIEW: Pretty Penny (Right Brain Project)

Sexual appetite meets physical bodies – or vice-versa

Pretty Penny_1

Right Brain Project presents:

Pretty Penny

by Randall Colburn

directed by Nathan Robbel

through March 20th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Having cabin fever? Then check out the brooding, close quarter’s production of Randall Colburn‘s Pretty Penny over at Right Brain Project instead – it’s an inappropriately intimate storefront variation on an increasingly common theme: the uncomfortable mixture of sexual appetite, physical bodies, and the tech-induced separation of the one from the other.

Pretty Penny_3Victoria (Katy Albert) is a mischief-prone, present-day Women’s Studies student. She decides to pick up twenty hours a week at a no-restrictions-whatsoever phone sex line operation. Jerry (Josh Sumner) owns and operates this wiry brothel.  He’s a would-be photographer but instead of making pictures he wound up taking them from other people, then mixing and matching them to someone else’s voice-for-hire. People on one end of the line pay for what’s repeatedly described as a fiction – a total fantasy. Meanwhile, Jerry’s employees, and Victoria in particular, fall dangerously into the allure of the fantastical, no-restrictions alter-egos.

Enter Crystal (Susan Myburgh), strutting. Crystal is a no nonsense model with the drive and perseverance it takes to succeed in the business of flesh and posing – so naturally there are some skeletons in her closet.  Namely, some lurid, pre-nose-job skeletons, erotic photos taken by Adam some ten years earlier. She’s also got a push-over boyfriend named Tommy (Nick Mikula) who lacks the courage or emotional flexibility to go down on one knee and make Crystal his fiancée.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a pretty keen, emotionless business operator.  And he wants to put those Crystal photos on the hot-line’s site. Crystal resists, then concedes and consents to become the face of Victoria’s fictional persona. Victoria has already seen the picture that is “her.”  She’s busy trying out voices and personalities like new clothes, settling eventually on a squealy, whimsical lilt she names “Penny.”

Early on, Colburn sets the forces in motion that will eventually bring Crystal and Victoria face to face.  He also sets this meeting up as one of those forbidden encounters, likely to cause a cataclysmic disturbance.

Pretty Penny_2 It’s a difficult, almost cruel journey for an audience set in the round and just feet from the actors.  Nathan Robbel‘s otherwise strong directing might’ve benefited from an arrangement that didn’t force audience members to deal with the script’s themes of flesh and disconnect in such hyper-focused, claustrophobic quarters.  Luckily, the actor’s are, on the whole, captivating, making it natural to watch them and their subtlest gestures.

Set and props are minimal to not at all – there’s a good bit of miming, which emphasized the play’s thematic focus on our awareness of bodies in digital and physical space.  Colburn’s script is strong, dipping equally into material that is comedic then, all of a sudden, disturbing.  But the real gem of this production is Katy Albert, whose playful ease makes her electric in the collapsing double role of Victoria/Penny.

There’s a lot of writhing around in dim light talking dirty on the phone to a sordid cast of characters in Pretty Penny, but the complexity and maturity of Colburn’s writing in the talented hands of Katy Albert make the show thoughtful and rewarding for those willing to stray into its otherwise dark territory.

Rating:  ★★½

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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REVIEW: I Am a Camera (The Neo-Futurists)

How do you see yourself? How do others see you?

 Caitlin Stainken - "I AM A CAMERA"

The Neo-Futurists present:

I AM A CAMERA

 

created/directed by Greg Allen
through March 13th (more info)

review by Ian Epstein 

I AM A CAMERA appropriately begins with a slideshow.  The audience waits while a projector cycles through images taken from an anonymous childhood.  A slideshow in total darkness draws from the same atmospheric quality of being at a movie theater except that still images force the audience’s attention to examine each frame thoroughly.  Within seconds, the audience begins to wonder if the children in these photographs and the person in that one are the same.  Who are they?  What should I be looking for? 

Caitlin Stainken - "I AM A CAMERA" The anonymity hardly matters as soon as the second image appears, since holding one photograph up to another inevitably invites comparison.  The audience searches in the dark for clues that will shed some light on the relationship between what was there a moment ago and what is there now.  The succession of faces and places begins to hint at a story.

Then the projector stops and the lights come up a bit and Neo-Futurist ensemble member Jeremy Sher – playing Neo-Futurist ensemble member Jeremy Sher — enters from behind a broad white curtain.  A voice commands him to smile from some offstage, unseen, photographic location (the booth).  As he does a song begins to play and it plays and plays and plays and then as it ends there’s the familiar electric blue of a camera flash and the smile fades as Jeremy melts into the darkness and disappears offstage.  Enter Neo-Futurist ensemble member Caitlin Stainken (playing Neo-Futurist ensemble member Caitlin Stainken) – she repeats this process, a kind of unnerving endurance-performance mugshot.  The repetition underscores the fact that the length of a song is a very long time to sit still and stare at someone forcing a smile.  From its first moments, director Greg Allen toys with the tension between frozen images and breathing bodies.

Caitlin Stainken in "I AM A CAMERA"

As the play unfolds, I AM A CAMERA comes to life on a screen, on a stage, in front of a screen, behind a screen, in silhouette, in darkness, in a momentary flash, beyond a screen, back in the audience, in and out of the audience, with the audience on a screen, in photographs scattered across a table, in motion, in stillness, in any combination of these and, of course, here and there it bubbles out of the image world into words. 

Rating: ★★★

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PERFORMANCES: Opening Night: Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 8:00 p.m. Performances continue through March 13, 2010: Thurs/Fri/Sat at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can during previews and on Thursdays.

Limited seating, reservations highly recommended!! Go here to reserve tickets…

 

 

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