REVIEW: The Infernal Machine (InnateVolution Theater)

     
     

An old tale gets an updated retelling

 

Infernal Machine logo

   
InnateVolution Theater presents
   
The Infernal Machine
   
Written by Jean Cocteau
Directed by Dr. Beverle Bloch & Raymond K Cleveland
at
The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you’ll notice about InnateVolution Theater ProductionsThe Infernal Machine is the venue. The play occupies an unorthodox space, a gay bar specifically. A ring of chairs lines what is normally used as a dance floor while sparkly music videos of disco divas blast on monitors, serving as a strange sort of pre-show.

I’m a firm believer that environment plays a significant role in the theatrical production. And I usually love novel settings. But the choice to perform Jean Cocteau‘s surrealist take on Oedipus in a gay bar where patrons at times spoke over the performers during the first act seemed like a bit of a mistake. Admittedly, by the end of the play, the ambient chatter had quieted down, but it was always a presence and always served as a distraction, even when the actors delivered some pretty strong performances.

But the bar did have a large screen, which was obviously a necessary technical requirement for this play, written by a man known for his offbeat film work. And although I would have liked to have seen more intermingling between the live action of the play and the minimal action that takes place on the screen, the use of visual projections does help establish setting, given the production’s minimal props on stage.

The play itself is a fairly ancient story. It’s the tale of Oedipus, the young man whose future is foretold to be a great tragedy. He’ll one day murder his father and marry his mom. It’s a tale of tragic destiny and the futility of trying to avoid our predetermined futures. It’s also a tale of humility, as Oedipus slowly realizes that even he, conqueror of the Sphinx, is subject to the same rules that dictate all of mankind.

This is my first time to see Cocteau’s version, and from what I gather, it’s basically the same as the original tale minus the ornate poetry of Grecian writing. The language is contemporary; the characters resemble modern-day archetypes. The story is still set back in ancient times, but the characters possess an attitude that make them more relatable to those who live in the here-and-now. Take for example Queen Jocasta (Erin Cline). She’s a drama queen and a half, vamping for the audience and overreacting every time someone steps on her scarf. Cline does a brilliant job bringing this diva to life, making her a very engaging character to watch.

Another wonderful character, and a great comic relief, is the wise old adviser Tiresias (Arne Saupe). Saupe brings to Tiresias a clever sensibility and vaudevillian comedic timing. After all, the old man is blind, which lends itself to a lot of ironic sight gags, and Saupe uses this to full effect.

Much of the rest of the acting is uneven. Experience level seems to vary widely from performer to performer, which serves as a distraction when a scene lags because of one character. At times, the play verges on high school pageantry.

Still, this is a small production by a small theatre company, and overall it is an entertaining show. If you don’t mind a bit of background noise while watching a play, InnateVolution’s The Infernal Machine is a fun night out.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Performances run November 5 – 21, 2010 at The Call (1547 W Bryn Mawr Ave)
in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago..  Regular performances are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  Tickets are $20 and include 1 well liquor, house wine, or Miller drinks.

   
   

 

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REVIEW: Right as Rain (InnateVolution)

A tepid “Rain”

right-as-rain

 
InnateVolution Theater presents:
 
Right as Rain
 
by April Smallwood
directed by Toma Tavares Langston
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through April 24th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The publicity material for Right as Rain contains a quote from director Toma Tavares Langston declaring that this work by writer April Smallwood did not have a definitive answer or resolution. What actually commences is a predictable and stereotypical depiction of the angst of gay youth. This story has been told before, to better resolution, and there is nothing fresh or revealing in this tale of identity struggle and religious fundamentalism.

Right as Rain takes place at the home of Paul and Sara Stevens in present time rural Kentucky. The Stevens are a fundamentalist Christian couple with a teenaged son named Luke (Ethan Itzkow). Their son’s new friend Chance (Pavel Tabutov) has come by on a Sunday morning and witnesses the Stevens family’s living room church stained-glass-rainbow-cross service. Eileen Tull, as Sara Stevens, has a charming Middle America quality to her that fits the role of a compliant minister’s wife. She plays well opposite husband Paul (Arne Saupe), who does his best to interject life into the rigid Evangelical minister.  We soon learn that the Stevens family was run out of their last church because of a secret that resulted in shame – a shame of which no one is allowed to speak.

Itzkow plays the role of son Luke with puppy-like energy and naiveté. He is funny and heart rending as an innocent country boy who strictly obeys his parents and believes in his father’s sermons. In his acting debut, Pavel Tabutov is clearly challenged at every turn with his portrayal of Luke’s friend Chance. Stiff gesticulating and an inability to catch the beats of the dialogue hampers him from the start. At first, one might think Tabutov has difficulty with dialogue that’s florid and clumsily akin to old radio soap opera. And it soon becomes clear that the actor has an indiscernible accent and not of the southern type. If the role had been written for a foreign boy as a fish out of water in Kentucky it might have worked – just as it worked for James Baldwin in “Another Country” and “Giovanni’s Room” – two such examples of a naïve ultra-religious boy tormented and confused by his burgeoning sexuality.

In an attempt to shock or inject originality, playwright Smallwood transposed Baldwin’s themes into a Kentucky idyll. The unfortunate result is trite and predictable. The father keeps repeating “there is something about that boy” with narrowed eyes – killing any suspense of why the Stevens family had to leave Rushing Waters church in their last town. There is no shock that Paul had incited a hate crime that led to family disgrace and eventually Luke’s self- loathing and shame about his sexual identity.

The dynamic between the characters of Chance and Luke falls flat and unintentionally hilarious. For example: the parents go out of town and bad boy Chance shows up with vodka and porn. Luke gets hammered from slugging vodka like Sunny D, his defenses are down and Chance pounces as porn flickers on the television. It is already obvious that his life will be somehow ruined like the boy in “Reefer Madness” when he tokes on that fateful doobie.

There are other clumsy attempts to push the action to a fever pitch:

  • the eye-rolling dark-night-of-the-soul portrayal of Luke’s overwrought break-up scene
  • a seemingly campy take on Luke, as he cries at having forgotten the Lord’s Prayer – on his knees struggling to remember the familiar words
  • the odd hallucinagenic sequence where Luke’s friend Chance becomes a go-go dancer: the strobe-light flickers while Luke’s mother, wearing a jolly polka-dot dress, lilts around the disco club, dust mop in tow, all while father looms over the scene, bible in hand. (I realize that hallucinations are supposed to be absurd, but the staging of this scene is way over the top and the production is ill-equipped to handle it. The light and sound effects are badly-executed and should have been altered to fit the budget.)

Right as Rain is staged at North Lakeside Cultural Center, an early 20th-century mansion, a prohibitive space where care needs to be taken when staging a  production. northlakesideThe parlor is the main stage for the first 2 acts of Right as Rain, used as the setting for the Stevens kitchen and Luke’s bedroom. The seating arrangement in the parlor makes for poor sight lines, as audience members crane their necks to see the interaction between characters (not that it ultimately makes any difference).

The mansion’s front area is then used for the 3rd (and final) act, where the play’s climax occurs in the church being built by Paul in their home’s back yard. This scene is the best and most mercifully short of the production. Luke has taken a break from Chance and is helping his father. He breaks down and confesses to his father his homosexual encounters. The dialogue between Paul and Luke is fevered and skillfully delivered, the most honest and raw of the play. It also sets the stage for the rather stereotyped portrayal of gay self-loathing. The violent ending is meant to be shocking, but instead one feels hit over the head by the overplayed theme that one cannot run away from their sins.

Right as Rain is a world premiere that comes from InnateVolution’s previous “New Play Circle Series of Staged Readings”. There is much work to be done to take it from the present staged-reading feel into a professional production indicative of quality Chicago theatre. Though a more minimalistic production might possess some redeeming factors, the turgid writing makes minimalism impossible.

Rating: ★½

 

Right as Rain runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm. There are no performances March 27th or April 10th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 312-513-1415 or by visiting www.innatevolution.org.  Note: If attending, sit in the front row lest you miss any attempts at subtlety or reactionary glances.

      

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