Review: Arms and the Man (ShawChicago)

     
     

A well-acted, comedic pretend!

     
     

Arms and the Man - poster

  
ShawChicago presents
  
Arms and the Man
  
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
at DCA Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $10-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A young girl is enchanted by war.  Her plan for survival is to close her eyes and cover her ears.  When the enemy advances through her window, she must rethink her strategy.  ShawChicago presents Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.  In a Bulgarian village, the Petkoffs are treated like royalty.  They have wealth, servants and a library.  Their pampered lives have them glossing over the bad stuff… even war!  The arrival of a tattered soldier into their home changes everything.  At first, the armed man is a harbored rebel.  When he returns to the house, he’s a dark, secret indiscretion for mother and daughter and an honored guest to father and fiance.  Who is the chocolate cream soldier really?  Arms and the Man is a witty make-love-not-war farce.

As is the ShawChicago tradition, Arms and the Man is billed technically as a staged reading.  A staged reading has no costumes, no sets and no physical movement.  And actors read from the script and don’t interact with each other. As often is the case at ShawChicago, Arms and the Man falls closer to ‘play‘ than ‘staged reading.‘  Under the direction of Robert Scogin, the talented ensemble use vocal stylings, facial expressions and limited gestures for powerful impact.  With ‘noble attitude and thrilling voice,‘ both Jhenai Mootz (Raina) and Ian Novak (Sergius) are hysterical exaggerated versions of the upper-crust.  Shiny-eyed optimist, Mootz charms with her amusing grandiosity.  Staying within his small designated space, Novak throws s a magnificent red-faced, body convulsing tantrum.  Kate Young (Catherine) is animated with elegant sophistication and natural animosity.  When her husband muses that ‘Raina always happens at the right moment,‘ Young zings the one liner with a droll ‘yes, she listens for it.’  Christian Gray (Bluntschli) ends the show in tears.  Gray is beautifully swept up in the romantic moment and weeps.

It’s Gray’s and the others’ level of character interpretation that pushes Arms and the Man away from ‘staged reading’ and up the spectrum to ‘play.‘  The entire cast performs magic.  Sure, in the beginning, it’s a bare stage with music stands holding scripts.  But as the actors connect on an in-depth level with the audience, theatrical imagination produces the window, the bed, the chocolate creams.  The charade constructs the majestic house on the hill.  You see it because the actors feel it.  Arms and the Man is well-acted, comedic pretend!   

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

George Bernard Shaw writing

ShawChicago’s Arms and the Man continues at the DCA Studio Theatre, 77 E. Washington, through May 15th, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm; Mondays at 7pm.  Running Time:  One hour and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are $10-$22, and can be purchased online or at the door.

  
  

REVIEW: Betrayal (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
  

Who’s zoomin’ who? The tangled webs of betrayal

 

 

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 1 - photo by  Michael Rothman

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
   
Betrayal
   
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by
Kevin Christopher Fox
at The Performance Center, Oak Park (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nobody gets a break in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now produced by the Oak Park Festival Theatre at the Performance Center of Oak Park. Everyone is suspect, everyone’s version of events is dubious, and unspoken motives lurk beneath the most mundane conversations. One fumbles to guess at what a character really means, whether he is repeating invitations to play squash or inquiring into the latest authors worth reading. Pinter’s highly educated and exceedingly well-mannered characters seem weighed down and contained by civilized behavior. A long-running adulterous affair, once discovered, instead of being the source of passionate rage or outcry is dealt with only in the most repressed and passive-aggressive ways.

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 5Director Kevin Christopher Fox well sustains the closed, inbred relationship between this terrible triangle. Jerry (Ian Novak) has had a seven-year affair with Emma (Kathy Logelin), who is the wife of his best friend, Robert (Mark Richard). Part of the intrigue of Betrayal is that Pinter starts the audience at the very end of Jerry and Emma’s affair and then winds backward, through all its stages, toward its origin. One sees what the affair has become before one sees how it began; one sees the relationship after the love has been exhausted, which gives a completely new twist on how one interprets the beginning, when Jerry woos Emma with an explosive profession of love.

Indeed, it interrogates Jerry’s motives for starting the affair with Emma or Emma’s motives for capitulating to Jerry’s effusive language. It interrogates Robert’s motives for letting the affair go on for so long, as well as his motives for ending his marriage to Emma. Who’s zoomin’ who—and what do they hope to get out of each power play or emotional twist?

The play is adultery viewed in hindsight, based upon Pinter’s own extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, a BBC Television presenter, which lasted seven years. With the beginning placed at the end, one notices those inklings of repressed jealousy and competitiveness between Jerry and Robert taint the affair from the start and make its origins suspect. One hopes that, at least at the start, Jerry and Emma’s affair soared with the kind of romance that movies and advertising sell – but that is never certain. Nothing is ever allowed room for certainty in this play. Betrayal makes us doubt love itself, as well as the possibility for love’s survival.

Since we learn from the beginning that the affair is over, the rest remains with the characters’ interactions. Oak Park Festival’s production feels like it is operating with a slightly defective third wheel. Kathy Logelin’s performance pulls the greatest emotional impact—the burden of secrecy, lies and deceptive silence show up clearly in Emma’s face. Logelin’s emotional accuracy Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 2wins sympathy for her character, in spite of the fact she is cheating on her husband and not totally truthful to Jerry. Mark Richard may have the least sympathetic role, cruel, dry and manipulative in his relationship with Emma. But one commiserates with his desperate defensiveness in the veiled conversations Robert holds with Jerry once he’s found out about the affair.

Ian Novak delivered an excellently timed and crisp performance as George Tesman in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler—but, as Jerry, he’s still trying to find his way and his occasional slippage in English dialect certainly doesn’t help matters. Pinter writes Jerry so suspect that he comes across, at certain moments, as a real cad. However, Jerry’s cannot be a role totally devoid of sympathy or the delicate balance that leaves the audience in uncertainty becomes undone. Here is a character that at least began as a fool for love. His desire for a love larger than life is very like Madame Bovary’s–a deep, inchoate longing for something more than the finite emotional space that civilized society allows us.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

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Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

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Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

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REVIEW: Wild Nights with Emily (Caffeine Theatre)

The dead lesbian’s poet society?

 

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Caffeine Theatre presents:

 

Wild Nights with Emily

by Madeleine Olnek
directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy
at Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt
through April 11th
(more info)

review by Catey Sullivan 

Emily Dickinson: Spinster virgin in perpetually buttoned-up white, or sensual lesbian lover who let loose after dark in wild nights entwined with her sister-in-law? Wild Nights With Emily would have us believe the latter. To those who would argue it’s Dickinson’s poetry and not her sexuality that matters, we’ll point out that the title of Caffeine Theatre’s roll in the literary hay is taken directly from the Belle of Amherst herself.

emily5 The lady love Dickinson pined for when penning “Might I but moor/ To-night/in thee?”. That would be Susan Dickinson, her brother’s wife. Or so it would according to Madeleine Olnek’s curious, quirky portrait of the poet as a lesbian lover. In Wild Nights, director Meghan Beals McCarthy instills Olnek’s time-tripping tale with the playfulness this 90-minute romp demands.

But while Caffeine’s literary production is as fun as flirting, it falters in one significant aspect, and that is in the person of Emily herself. Reciting passages of longing and frustration and ecstasy from Dickinson’s body of beautiful work, Jessica Bennett’s Emily is more slouching, angsty, over-dramatic adolescent than anguished mature woman.

According to firebrand (or lightning rod, depending on who you talk to) feminist scholar Camille Paglia, Dickinson’s brutality “would stop a truck.” You’d never know to watch this version of Emily. Here, the poet is skittish, fragile, birdlike and childlike in a portrayal that doesn’t hint at the strength within a lioness of arts and letters.

Yet despite that flaw – and since Dickinson is the focus of the piece, it is not inconsequential – Wild Nights is a winning endeavor. There’s a delicious humor to be found as cartoon academics peer down their weighty spectacles into pronouncements such as “We cannot say whether Emily Dickinson was gay any more than we can conjecture that Ben Franklin would have chosen a car with airbags.”

With her ensemble bending gender portraying Dickinson’s contemporaries as well as a parade of posthumous editors, biographers, and tourists (the last tramping through various Dickinson exhibits with amusing degrees of enthusiasm), McCarthy keeps the pace spritely and the visuals vivid.

Wild Nights is a crazy quilt of times and places, bouncing between imagined scenes from Dickinson’s life (and death) and contemporary declarations about the poet’s life. Liberal sprinklings of irreverence (including one memorable wherein an earnest speaker during Mount Holyoke Parents Weekend assures the assemblage that one or two or even three “homosexual” encounters does not a lesbian undergrad make) ensure that this pseudo-biography of Dickinson never gets fusty.

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As Emily and Susan (Dana Black, hold that thought for just a moment please) rapturously discover oral sex, as Susan’s husband (Ian Novak) splutters angrily about insinuating secrets discovered folded among his wife’s “underthings,” as whist games play out and formal dances twirl about, the hidden life of Emily Dickinson unfurls as a colorful collage of eccentricity seemingly at odds with the deliberate, controlled beauty of her writing.

With the exception of Emily and Susan, McCarthy has the cast playing with the broadness of caricatures – which is wholly appropriate given the intermittent over-the-top bubbles of lunacy Olnek instills into many of her scenes. Novak, long one of the Off-Loop’s curiously unsung talents, makes great comic hay as prototypically saucy Irish maid and – more significantly – as Susie’s increasingly suspicious and snappish husband. As Emily’s biographer, Amanda Hartley is a primly outrageous, scissor-happy villainess.

Then there’s Susan, the most complex and intriguing person in this story thanks to Black’s deceptively gentle performance. She’s the quintessential still water running fathoms deep, richly contemplative one moment, smoothly calculating the next, head-over-heels-fall-down-crazy-in-love the next.

The core problem with the performance? It’s difficult to imagine this woman infatuated with the pretty but superficial snip we’re given as Dickinson.

Samantha Umstead and Alarie Hammock’s gorgeous and lavishly detailed costumes add a layer of lush visual beauty to the production and an intriguing contrast to the minimalist velvet drapes and framed poetry fragments of Stephen H. Carmody’s simple, effective set design.

The secret life of Emily Dickinson may forever remain just that. Even so, there’s intrigue in speculating what may have gone on between the lines.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Wild Nights With Emily continues through April 11 in the Berry Methodist Church (Lincoln Square Arts Center), 4754 N. Leavitt. Tickets are $15 – $20. More information is available buy going to www.caffeinetheatre.com

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler does the time warp at Raven Theatre

Review by Paige Listerud

Hedda Gabler most often gets the 19th century period treatment, so that it’s eponymous role, an epic role for women, more often than not, is interpreted in stark, severe, neurotic and even sociopathic ways.  (see examples of such augmented portrayals after the fold – including Cate Blanchett and Steppenwolf’s Martha Plimpton.)

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) contemplates her limited and self-limiting options.Michael Menendian, who has waited 20 years to direct this play, has pulled Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler forward to the 1930s. A time when many 19th century restrictions of gender, race, class, and propriety, still retained their grip, and yet had been slightly loosened by the gender role breakthroughs and financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties. This is not your grandmother’s Hedda; we know this Hedda, not from history, but from personal encounters with sorority sisters and Gold Coast socialites. This draws Mackenzie Kyle’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler a little further away from 19th century virago and a little closer to “Gossip Girl.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, this Hedda Gabler is an expertly crafted and smooth-running timepiece, with every part so honed, tempered and balanced with the others, it clips along with deceptive grace, lightness, and ease. Menendian, the sterling cast, and adaptor Jon Robin Baitz can take pride in their exertions to update a classic without overreaching. In fact, every actor’s performance is a model of technique balanced with dynamic energy and tension.

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) whiles away the hours.Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler) is a near-perfect blend of boredom and anxiety, exhibiting flippant social grace masking a powder keg of sadism. Ian Novak (George Tesman) humanizes his character’s history-geek ineptitude by not diminishing him to an utter buffoon. Symphony Saunders (Thea Elvsted) and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg) deliver sincerity and intensity without over-the-top melodrama. Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack) portrays evil with the graceful patience of a lazy, sleek cat waiting to spring.  JoAnn Montemurro (Aunt Julia Tesman) is appropriately co-dependent, without being so cloying we do not see her razor’s edge, to be used against any who would threaten her beloved nephew, George. Claudia Garrison (Berta) shows in a few lines a woman who is obsequious, fearful, bitter, and knowing of her mistress.

The pacing is fast; the lines tossed off so consistently, one would think Noel Coward constructed this Ibsen play. Best Comedic Moment goes to Ian Novak, for his pregnant pause and clueless response right after Lovborg, his intellectual rival, has thrown down the gauntlet. The deft and light direction rests on the foundation provided by Baitz’s meticulous adaptation.

They want a piece of her:  George Tesman (Ian Novak), Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler), Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack), and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg).“To make this modern and accessible, we had to go over every line,” said Michael Menendian, “and ask why Hedda was making this choice. Was she an abused or neglected child by her military father? Is she mad? We didn’t want people to feel sorry for her and we didn’t want the audience to wait for her to just go ahead and die already. She has no real focus, no real talent, no real ambition, and no strong desires. She’s got no idea family, no idea of love. She has a crazy notion of what is Romantic. She lacks courage. She has a twisted idea of pleasure or fun.”

Hedda Gabler is indeed a scaredy-cat, but she does manage to express one clarified desire: to have total control over another human being. This well-tempered production inevitably reveals, through its internal balance, the paradoxes of sadomasochism. Hedda wishes total control but is, ultimately, totally controlled. Thea, her rival for influence in Lovborg’s life, seems almost genetically submissive. Still, she demonstrates greater courage than any other character in her willingness to sacrifice marriage, social approval, and economic security. It is, perhaps, overwrought to suggest BDSM themes regarding Hedda Gabler. Yet, while the late Victorian Age was excessively moralistic, it was never innocent. Henrik Ibsen’s crime was to say that in a crowded theater.

Hedda in black “I think that people are amused or fascinated by Hedda Gabler now,” said Menendian. “Not stunned, as they were in Ibsen’s time.” Indeed. I won’t claim that nothing is shocking, but with the breakdown of race, class, gender, and sexuality barriers, the shocks don’t come so hard or so startling. Not to mention, with the steady spectacle of bad behavior the celebrity rich, reality TV, and day and night soaps, we have come a little closer to Hedda, not she to us.

Hedda-Eilert-couch But, putting kink aside, even everyday power exchanges may be too much for a person who wants it all without having to give up anything. The closest Hedda comes to give and take is heightened by her final scene with Aunt Julia, who checks and counters her in as surely as any of the men in Hedda’s life. Their mutual antipathy lies beneath the veiled messages and banal social courtesies they share. Both are playing nice and nobody is fooled for a minute. The sacrifice of truth and authenticity maintains their little détente. If only Hedda could sacrifice something else, hazard something, do something that gives her life weight, value, and meaning—if not absolute freedom. If there is madness here it’s because something’s got to give in this meaningless, safe and conventional existence. This production shows the unbearable lightness of Hedda Gabler’s being.

Rating: «««½

Buy tickets here.  Half-priced tickets available through StyleChicago.com.

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