REVIEW: Master Harold and the Boys (Timeline Theatre)

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TimeLine Theatre presents:

‘Master Harold’ and the Boys

 

by Athol Fugard
directed by
Jonathan Wilson
through March 21st (more info)

Reviewed by Ian Epstein

‘Mastor Harold’ and the Boys leads an audience through what it feels like to be white or black, the owner’s son or the the owner’s servant, in the St. George’s Park Tea Room of Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1950 — a time shortly after South Africa officially fell under apartheid — and playwright Athol Fugard leads an audience through all of this in an hour and forty minutes with no intermission.  It’s intense.

mh2The story begins in set-designer Timothy Mann‘s brightly colored reconstruction of St. George Park Tea Room — an establishment that belonged to Athol Fugard’s parents as well as Hally’s.  It’s a small establishment in one of South Africa’s larger coastal cities that sits towards the end of the curve that bends the Atlantic Ocean out into the Indian Ocean.  Outside, it is wet and windy.  No kind of weather to fly a kite.

By day, Willie (Daniel Bryant) is a Tea Room employee.  By night, he trains so hard for the upcoming National Ballroom Dancing Competition that he beats his dance partner when she stumbles.  He easily tires of mopping and opts, instead, to take the mop in hand and set off across the Tea Room, twirling around tables to the practiced tempo of the Quickstep, imagining himself onto the winner’s podium of "a world without collisions."  The Quickstep is like a Foxtrot but faster, even without music; the fee to make the jukebox play is the same as the bus fare home. 

Willie stops and starts his Quickstep according to Sam’s (Alfred H. Wilson) interruptions and suggestions.  And Sam is a character full of both, and healthy doses of joke, poetry, and digression, too.  From the first moments of the play, Bryant and Wilson breathe life into the pair beautifully.  And they mill about the Tea Room getting everything in order with the familiarity and ease of two men who’ve worked in this Tea Room since before the audience got here and will remain long after they leave. 

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Enter a soaking wet Hally, short for Harold, (Nate Burger), the bosses’ boy.  He storms in from school and the rain.  He’s got homework that he shirks in favor of exchanges, arguments, saviors and heroes with Sam.  Hally champions Darwin and Tolstoy, Sam picks up Jesus.  They trade small talk, personal stories, and simple symbols as allegories for large swathes of South Africa — and as a tangled interracial pair, they themselves become symbolic of something South African and larger.   

When he’s enjoying himself, Hally seems to forget about race.  He pays close attention to the stories Sam tells.  But as soon as the phone rings with bad news about dad by way of mom at the Hospital, he reliably remembers who is what color, how cruelty inflicted makes him feel lifteMasterHarold_156d and how much work has to be done to maintain the Tea Room and just who the people are who should be doing it and aren’t.  So he stabs at Sam and Willie, though at Sam much more than Willie and as the play unfolds in real time and the calls come in from the Hospital and then from home, everything mounts to a desolate, piercing, acrid crescendo.

Through director Jonathan Wilson’s meticulous guidance, ‘Mastor Harold’ and the Boys combines brutal, sincere acting with understated production elements that evoke apartheid’s early days in a way that makes them feel chilling and here to stay for a while.  The costumes, lights, and the set are tremendously successful because they set the right tone for the play.  Because it takes place in real time, Jonathon Wilson’s decisions stress story, sound, and script over visuals and spectacles.  All of it comes together to make TimeLine Theater Company’s production a captivating, harrowing success.

Rating: ★★★½

 

Regular Run: Wednesdays at 7:30 pm (3/3, 3/10 and 3/17 only), Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm.  Running time approximately 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

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  • Download the Master Harold… study guide
  • Download the Master Harold… lobby display
  • Post-show discussions (FREE) hosted by a TimeLine Company Member and featuring members of the production team and cast on Thursdays 1/28, 2/4 and 2/11; Sundays 2/14 and 2/21; and Wednesday 3/3.
  • Sunday Scholars Series (FREE) on 1/31, an hour-long post-show panel discussion featuring experts on the themes of the play. You do not need to see the performance on this day to attend the discussion.
  • More info at FugardChicago2010.com

REVIEW: The Artist Needs A Wife (side project)

Cohesive set adds clarity to an otherwise jumbled script

Freud stabs painting

the side project presents: 

The Artist Needs a Wife 

by Jesse Weaver
directed by
Carolyn Klein
thru February 14th (ticket info)

review by Ian Epstein

The side project’s production of The Artist Needs a Wife, by Jesse Weaver, tells the claustrophobic tale of Freud and Mott (played by John Ferrick and Chris Hainsworth).  Freud and Mott are two older, similar looking, starving artist types.  The duo lives in a decrepit hovel that doubles as a garden level apartment with walls so leaky, rusty, and paint-smeared that the canvas of Freud’s many-year masterpiece looks like a natural extension of the wall itself.  His muse is a woman named Whore (Allison Cain).  If she hadn’t dried up at the same pace as Freud’s inspiration to paint, the pair might’ve produced something like a de Kooning together.  Instead, there’s a lot of struggling. 

In fits and starts, Freud and Mott come and go, looking for a touch of Michelangelo’s genius at the bottom of a box of corn flakes or hidden among the pages of a Polish mail-order bride catalog.  When they don’t find inspiration in these places, they make bold dramatic gestures: stabbing the empty box of cornflakes to the wall with a carving knife or tearing the apartment to pieces.  And in a moment rife with dramatic possibility, one even orders the redheaded bride that the other was eyeing in the catalog.  Suddenly the image in the catalog is flesh, and Whore has competition in the form of a sexy little redhead (Ann Sonneville) with a thick stutter.

Katja with knife at Mott's throat Mott punches Whore

All of this sounds great, but the script feels like a sprawling rough draft with too little knowledge of its many subjects to be either funny or serious.  It reaches towards the kind of tension that builds up in the back and forth of a Pinter exchange supplemented with a healthy dose of the absurd – but it doesn’t grab hold of anything.  There isn’t a particularly developed stage vocabulary for lack of inspiration so this prominent thematic thread is hard-pressed to hold an audience’s interest for what feels like an unending two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes.  Whenever passage of time comes up, the actors dismiss it with affected lists — a trait that might work if the actual chronology of the characters were made legible anywhere (the walls, the plot, their intimacy).   There are words misused without intending to be, confusion about Polish being written in Cyrillic (which it isn’t), and profanity that reads like a loud placeholder for what a truly ticked-off down-and-out artist might yell.  All of this leaves the audience excusing too much of the playwright’s shorthand to enjoy the show.

William Anderson‘s set, with its moldy colors, its cramped, cockeyed amenities, and its fragmented ceiling tiles may be the only piece of this production that strikes a tone appropriate to the subject matter.  It is especially admirable for its clarity, economy, and versatility. 

Rating:

FEATURING: Allison Cain, John Ferrick, Christopher Hainsworth, and Ann Sonneville 
CREATIVE TEAM: Carolyn Klein (director) William Anderson (sets), Emily Duffin (props), Miles Polaski (sound), Greg Poljacik (fights), Seth Reinick (lights), and Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes)

Tickets: $18 General, $12 Industry   (with H/R, business card or student ID)
Group discounts available

Sketchfest comes to Chicago: do not miss it!

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Storytown

by Ian Epstein

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival:

  • Lasts only 8 days
  • erupts with nearly 150 performers
  • consists of nearly 100 troupes
  • is calling your name

sketchfest-logo“We’re creating comedy,” says Brian Posen, the founder and Executive Producer of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  With a head full of curly hair, Posen wears a neatly trimmed beard, a spotless labcoat and a pair of white angel wings, swaying slightly.  He’s standing on a stage in a cloud of fog.  Black horn-rimmed glasses frame his face, giving him the distinguished air you’d expect from a mad, comedic scientist.  A fellow actor, also clad in a labcoat, holds up the machine emitting all this fog.  This is Bri-Ko, one of the sketch comedy troupes participating in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  It’s 4:30pm on Thursday, January 7th, and they’re putting the finishing tech touches on their show.  In three and a half hours the curtain rises simultaneously on three stages to kick off the 9th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, or  SketchFest for short.  And Bri-Ko is one of the troupes that Executive Producer and Founder Brian Posen himself will perform in. 

Sketch Comedy – a history course

Hundreds of years ago and late at night, a writer fumbling over a desk with a dim lamp couldn’t think up the right word for an elusive thought.  Blindly, the writer scratches down a word on the page — a word that is not English at all — that is, in fact, Dutch. 

That elusive idea that the writer wrestled with? Lost to history. It definitely wasn’t a perfect drawing or a final draft, “what the Dutch Painters call a schytz” or a “hasty piece.”  No, this was something else .  An idea too flighty for familiarity.  It needed to be lean and light like a single shriek of laughter.  The “first schetse of a comedy,” perhaps.  From its first uses in English, a sketch is something intimately connected with the person who created it.  It is practically incapable of life outside of that person.  And from its first instance, a sketch has always been about the ability to get across a lot of ideas using a combination of speed and variety – it’s a quick bit of ingenuity or an outline traced in midair. 

What is sketch comedy?

Is it improv?  In a word: no.  Sketch Comedy involves reams of paper full of words and tons of ideas put forward in these things that you might call scripts.  You’d be mistaken, though, since these scripts, animated by the writers who wrote them and appreciated by the audience that views them, become what they call sketchs

Sketches of what, though?  Of movies?  Sometimes.  A TV mini-series?  A full on farce à la Moliere with costumes?  A song cycle or an extended piece of silent, physical comedy?  Commedia dell’arte for the new decade?    A made for TV movie performed live with two people playing ten roles?   Are these sketches just blueprints for knock knock jokes?  Does each maybe contain some shard or kernel from the source of all knock knock jokes ever?

The sketches, Posen explains, differ as widely as the troupes that perform them.  He continues, adding that sketch is the comedic form that is all the rage in the comedy scene these days.  Talking quickly, he runs through history, stopping here and there to point out trends in American comedy with insight and nonchalance. The 80s were all about stand up, he observes, and the 90s saw the rise of improvisation as the ruling form well  into the recently closed out naughts, where the sketch takes off around the time as SketchFest’s 2001 inaugural year.

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Bri-Ko Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Buffet Shark

SketchFest comes to Chicago

Back in 2001, Posen, working as a producer, booked a stage at Theatre Building Chicago to put up a musical by the Chicago writing duo Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day .  The musical was an ambitious production called Aztec Human Sacrifice.  But the bottom fell out and Posen was left with a reserved stage at Theatre Building Chicago.  There were no other takers for the stage and nothing was waiting in the wings.  So Posen hopped on the phone and sent emails to his sketch comedy friends and about a month later the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival met with huge success.  Posen possesses that rare, inspiring combination of an actor’s energy, a comedian’s wit, a teacher’s patience, and an off-hand eloquence that allows him to talk about the traditions of comedy and connect them to complex theories about how theater should work, theories that an academic might trace back to Brecht or far beyond. 

Over its elongating history (who knows what’s in store for next year’s 10 year anniversary…), there have been a variety of trends in what SketchFest emphasizes.  2010 marks an explosion of kid-centric sketch offerings for groups of kids and by groups of kids spilling across the stages by day.

But be sure not to go to a late night show expecting family-friendly content.  Posen warns that sketch, a theatrical form that draws its energy from aggression and hostility before turning it into satirical gold, is largely rated R or PG (depending upon the parent or the rating organization).

In a lot of ways, SketchFest resembles a professional conference — where comedy is the currency of choice and the CEOs appear in clown noses or costumes.  Posen and the SketchFest staff bring together a select panel of performance professionals (only half of the groups that apply make the cut) who gather to discuss and workshop the finer points of their craft.  And a huge part of sketch comedy’s beauty is that the craft is so self-effacing — the better its done, the harder you laugh.  You don’t marvel at the delivery of a particularly difficult line so much as you crumple to the floor crying hysterically.  The countless hours spent slaving over the placement of punchlines in a script or perfecting what is too often perceived as the innate mystery of comic timing fall by the wayside; comedy’s most audible byproduct isn’t applause, it’s laughter. 

Chicago Theater Blog Recommends

(Don’t be afraid to read about the groups or check out the schedule.  Take a look at the Kids friendly offerings!  And remember — they all passed the preliminary inspections so any group is a safe bet!)

Kanellis & Armstrong
1/8/10 @ 9pm
1/9/10 @ 9pm

Hard Left Productions
1/8/10 @ 10pm
1/9/10 @ 10pm

Bri-Ko 
1/8/10 @ 11pm
1/9/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)
1/16/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)

The Cupid Players
1/9/10 @8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Animosity Pierre
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 9pm

In Yo Face
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Rabbit Rabbit
1/15/10 @ 10pm
1/16/10 @ 10pm

BriTANick
1/15/10 @ 11pm
1/16/10 @ 11pm

The Backrow
1/16/10 @ 7pm

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Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

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Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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