REVIEW: Labour and Leisure (AstonRep Theatre)

  
   

Scant balm for the working man

  
  

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AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Labour & Leisure
   
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Dec 11  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Swinging into Christmas pageant season, few shows currently playing are as relevant or timely as AstonRep Theatre Company’s remount of lesser-known Joe Orton works under the title Labour & Leisure. Orton is best known for savaging hypocritical middle class morality in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and What the Butler Saw. One finds his queer eye at work in both of AstonRep’s twin productions The Good and Faithful Servant, directed by Ray Kasper, and The Erpingham Camp, directed by Robert Tobin. But his blue-collar origins in Leicester and a six-month stint in jail, for hilariously defacing library books, schooled Orton well in the corrupt hypocrisies of capitalist civilization. What better Christmas present could jobless Chicagoans give themselves (besides a job) than a gander at these miniature productions, with a few well-placed caveats, of course?

Erpingham-Hysterical-Eileen-WebThe Heartland Studio is a merciless black box. Kasper’s direction and Jeremiah Barr’s scenic design don’t really resolve the difficulties of setting apart clean and recognizable scene spaces in The Good and Faithful Servant. The cast struggles to ensure smooth transitions from scene to scene, but to no avail. At least Mrs. Vealfoy (Amy Kasper), one of the upper echelons of “the firm,” has a fine perch from which to dominate any hapless individual who enters her lair.

Thankfully, not just Mrs. Vealfoy, but Amy Kasper dominates the show. Kasper knows how to give her ruthless corporate villainess just the right touch of flirtatious charm. So whether she is ordering about the meek and deferential (read: enslaved) Buchanan (Jeff McVann), drawing Debbie (Sara Greenfield) into her schemes, or roping Ray (John Collins) under her oppressive wings, one feels the emotional compulsion to go along with whatever she wants. Only the strong survive in this world. The weak get black lung and a flaming toaster for 45 years of life-sapping service.

McVann, as Buchanan, is terribly strong in his comic portrayal of the stiffed working stiff. His opening scene, where Buchanan prosaically reunites with his long lost love Edith (Barbara Button), is a model of comic understatement. Button makes an excellent and charming comic partner. However, slips in dialect from her and other cast members adversely impact their performances. Greenfield does a humorous turn in both plays as an excessively pregnant young woman, but her pairing with Collins doesn’t match the strong comic connections formed between McVann and Button. Collins himself needs to bring a little more punk to his role as Ray, even if his working class roué ultimately capitulates to the firm in the end.

Erpingham-Press-1-WebThe cast of The Erpingham Camp fairs much better, if for no other reason than they get to work in less cumbersome space. Ms. Vealfoy’s perch is preserved for Mr. Erpingham (Jeff McVann), the ruler . . . uh . . . owner of this eponymous recreational resort. Here, McVann gives us pompous, self-absorbed, dictatorial asshole with both barrels, while the ill-used Chief Redcoat Riley (Kipp Moorman) sucks up to his boss in order to win the job of entertainment director during the camp’s evening entertainments. At first, Mr. Erpingham refuses. He has a much better suck-up, both figuratively and literally, in the otherwise absurdly useless Padre (Ray Kasper), the camp’s resident man of the cloth.

Nevertheless, Riley finally wins his favorite position when the camp’s entertainment director dies and no one else can fill his place. Entertainment at Erpingham Camp relies on the exuberant, if pedestrian, talents of buxom Jessie Mason (Charlie Casino) and nervous W. E. Harrison (John Collins). As for the victims/campers, Ted (Ian Knox) and Lou (Kathleen Lawlor) make for perfect conservative professional twits matched against the ultra-pregnant Eileen (Sara Greenfield) and her muscular, doltish working class husband, Kenny (Johnny Garcia).

Of course, Riley fucks it up and, of course, his fuck-up leads to a camp revolt of epic proportions. I’m just grateful that he made “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as gay as possible before the revolution.

In the wake of revolt, Mr. Erphingham and his pal, the Padre, come across like Hitler and his entourage in their last days in the bunker. Their pronouncements on art, religion, order and the classes are distinctly funny. Heaven only knows why they think they still have control of things, but the revolutionaries are not much better. Ted and Lou seem to think they can run this revolt using the civil defense handbook, while Kenny only needs to apotheosize his pregnant wife to justify tearing the camp down.

However, the award for best insanity of the night goes to Moorman, for impeccably delivering, as Riley, the most beautifully ridiculous and untruthful eulogy for Mr. Erpingham. Even for the little guy, there comes a moment of vindication.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Production Personnel

Cast: Barbara Button, Charlie Cascino, John Collins, Johnny Garcia, Sara Greenfield, Amy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Ian Knox, Kathleen Lawlor, Jeff McVann, and Kipp Moorman.

Production Team: Direction by Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin, Stage Management by Samantha Barr. Set, lighting, and prop design by Jeremiah Barr. Fight choreography by Charlie Cascino. Graphic Design by Lea Tobin.

     
     

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REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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