Review: Slaughter City (Jackalope Theatre)

  
  

Disciplined, persuasive production nobly delves into tough subjects

     
     

Ryan Heindl in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

  
Jackalope Theatre presents
   
  
Slaughter City
    
  
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kaiser Ahmed
at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Naomi Wallace is a committed playwright. She wants her audiences to be equally so, to meet her stories more than half way. Poetic vignettes that defy any consistent time frame, these two hours and twenty minutes of archetypal scenes focus on a packing house in a Brechtian-like factory called Slaughter City.

Ryan Heindl and Kristin Anderson in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope TheatreBut that’s as much focus as you get. Mostly the play offers glimpses of the ongoing struggle of the labor movement to be honored, as in fairly compensated, for the work that made America, not just plutocrats, prosper. Wisconsin is only the latest scene of a battle for the soul of America, which is the decency it shows its workers. Fittingly, Jackalope Theatre’s disciplined and persuasive production does it justice.

Wallace offers scenes and work songs of workers and some scabs agitating for a new contract in a slaughterhouse that gives them 20-minute breaks, scars from numerous cuts, premature arthritis, blood poisoning—and meager wages. Presiding over this most recent struggle are avatars from past ones: Cod is the androgynous Irish descendant of a woman who jumped to her death to avoid the flames in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers behind locked doors over a century ago. In a deal with the devil, namely, the symbolic Sausage Man, emblematic of management, Cod survived but now must engage in every labor conflict from 1910 to the present. (Alas, it’s too nebulous, quixotic and precious a concept to really strike home.)

The specific workers in this latest showdown matter more. They slice up imaginary meat as their boss, Mr. Baquin, practices sexual harassment, improbably insisting on cleanliness despite the abattoir’s appalling conditions. The kill-floor is a seething pit of racial tension, class conflicts, and clandestine romance. All the time these exploited toilers must decide between the kind of solidarity that Cod embodies or the way of death suggested by the Sausage Man.

Kaiser Ahmed’s painstaking (and pains-giving) staging delivers memorable performances—Ryan Heindl’s doomed dyslexic kid, Kristin Anderson’s feisty rebel, Warren Feagins as a guilt-ridden supervisor, Anne Sears as an innocent fire victim, John Milewski as the twisted owner, AJ Ware as conflicted Cod, and Jack McCabe as the sinister Sausage Man. (I’d add Katherine Swan to the list but, lacking any projection, her mush-mouthed Maggot dropped too many lines to register on the stage.)

Discursive and fragmentary, Slaughter City hardly invites its audience to any feast of reason. Like Brecht, Wallace means to keep us at a distance. It’s not clear why: The choice between Cod and the Sausage Man is too obvious for this kind of detachment. Notwithstanding the play’s confusing concepts, Jackalope’s commanding dedication to a difficult story and subject deserves accolades, particularly during hard times where yesterday’s advocacy damnably doesn’t seem to work.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Butchering the carcasses in "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

Slaughter City, by Naomi Wallace, continues at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 4th, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:30pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-340-2553) or online here.  For more information, visit www.jackalopetheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: The Homecoming (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

  
  

Mary-Arrchie excels at stripping away social restrictions

  
  

Luke Hatton, Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Jeremy Chandler

    

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents

    

The Homecoming

        
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Geoff Button
at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $18-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After experiencing Belarus Free Theatre’s powerful Being Harold Pinter (our review) earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how any traditional Pinter production would resonate going forward. Mary-Arrchie’s production of Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming has answered that question: more than ever. While Pinter’s domestic wars have always proved powerfully apparent and has inspired plays such as Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County, Belarus Free Theatre’s Pinter unearthed the immediacy and politics of his writing in such a way that American audiences now have a new frame of reference with Pinter’s writing. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s loft storefront, Director Geoff Button crafts an absurdly detailed production that hits all of the most vital aspects of this play dead on. The comedy and relationships are sharp. The rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue is surgically articulated. The sexually charged faceoffs are bubbling. Ultimately, this Homecoming stays with you after exiting out onto Sheridan Road.

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerAmerican audiences were appalled, fascinated, and viscerally affected when The Homecoming made its American debut in 1967. As the play has aged, the shock may have worn off, however, the parallels in family relations is perhaps more recognizable. The brilliance lies in how subtly Pinter transcends from the everyday to the absurd. It’s as if we travel from Kansas to Oz without the tornado. The story is set in 1964 London in the home of Max (Richard Cotovsky) where he lives with his two sons Lenny (Vance Smith), Joey (Dereck Garner) and his brother Sam (Jack McCabe). Max speaks loudly and carries a shiny stick. There are references made to his dead wife which was also the death of a female figure in this home. Daily domestic conversations are instantly off kilter on topics such as cooking, “Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook.” This world is turned on end with the return of Max’s third son Teddy (Luke Hatton) and new wife Ruth (played by Michaela Petro in one of the most riveting performances of the season).

Smith and Petro begin the “game” in their first scene together. Smith’s Lenny is deadly blunt and comical. Their banter revolving around a simple glass of water is thrilling, “Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.” As events unfold, social rules disintegrate. Jealousies and desires revolving around Ruth play out literally in front of her husband, Teddy. Petro’s Ruth is captivating in how she is objectified and yet never victimized, always winning the battle of wits. All the while, Hatton is fascinating while adulterous actions are played out in broad daylight. He avoids playing aloof and instead makes us question the limits of civility.

Amanda Sweger’s set is detailed. The fray of the wallpaper still hangs from the ceiling where a wall used to be. Sweger makes her own set glow evocatively like a Chinese light box in her double duty as lighting designer. Sound designer, Joe Court has the audience sit in silence during the preshow, listening to an amplified clock’s ticking time bomb effect before the start. However, his use of distorted gong-like effects adds unnecessary gravitas at moments, which conflicts with Pinter’s much more powerful uses of silence. Costume designer Izumi Inaba is faithful to Pinter’s text while giving Petro the most perfect shade of red in a suit that highlights Ruth’s sensuality and assertiveness.

Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerOne element that proves difficult for any ensemble of American actors is the English dialect in this play. When most effective, the dialects are differentiated by class (something that may not land as clearly on an American audience’s ears anyhow). Unfortunately, the dialects all but disappear with a couple actors during the performance which distracts slightly. In addition, on the night I attended, Pinter’s words began to trip the actors up somewhat during the final scene. However, when Cotovsky, on his knees says, “I am not an old man” it strikes right at the chord Pinter intended.

One of the strongest elements of this production is Button’s staging. His attention to proximity between characters tugs and pulls at the tension. There is a time when a pause plays better at ten feet and other times where it is more effective at three inches. Button plays with this notion to its fullest extent and creates visually telling pictures.

There are numerous levels at which to enter this play. One is the simply thrilling entertainment of seeing social restrictions stripped away. What if people did and said what they wanted and felt at any given moment? We all know of families in which small battles are blown out of proportion – perhaps all too well. We also know of instances of jealousy and flirting played out amongst siblings and parents when an outside party, especially an attractive one, is brought into a home. Pinter has turned the volume up and shined a spotlight on these moments. Button and his cast excel at making the unrealistic dangerously truthful.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin Chandler

The Homecoming continues at Angel Island Theater through April 10th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Running time is 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 (Thursdays and Sundays), $20 (Fridays) and $22 (Saturdays), and can be bought online or by calling the box-office at (773) 871-0442. For more info, visit: www.maryarrchie.com.

All photos by Benjamin Chandler.

  
  

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REVIEW: Pancake Breakfast (The New Colony)

      
     

Family dysfunction stacked high and covered with syrup

     
     

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre

   
The New Colony presents
   
Pancake Breakfast
   
Written by Tara Sissom
Directed by
Sean Kelly
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Independence Day is an annual celebration of liberation. For Beatrice, this year is D-Day for the release of a captive, her brother. The New Colony presents the world premiere of Pancake Breakfast. Beatrice resurrects the 4th of July family tradition. Her plan is to get the estranged family together to intervene in her mother’s unhealthy relationship with her brother. But before the clan can instigate the interference, they need to re-enact the holiday family rituals from pancake breakfast to fireworks. ‘Going home again’ is a craving never quite satisfied. Do pancakes ever taste as good as the childhood memory of them? Pancake Breakfast is family dysfunction stacked high and served with fruits and nuts.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 4Playwright Tara Sissom devised the Pancake Breakfast script in collaboration with the actors. Sissom laid out the premise and the ensemble developed individual characters. The result is an IHOP menu of tasty options that don’t quite go together for one well-balanced meal. Some of the characters are a bounty of flavor. Arlene Malinowski (Lillian) is a delicious loud-mouthed, mean-spirited, mother flapjack. Evan Linder (Randy) is a delectably hilarious, Asperger’s son-of-a-bitch. Jack McCabe (Arlie) stirs the pot for laughs as an eccentric nut. Megan Johns (Darcy)smokes the pot as the amusing, carefree 2nd wife. It’s these tangy portrayals that overshadow the other milder ingredients. What are the other tastes? Gary Tiedemann is definitely sweet, but how does he blend with his bitter partner, Andrew Hobgood (Bobby)? And Steve Ratcliff (Bud) seems a little bland for marrying zesty… both times.

The script can be confusing. In the first scenes, it’s unclear who Eleanor (Susan Veronika Adler) is. Adler brings some spice but is more seasoned for the grandmother’s role than the grown-up version of a youthful single parent. Thea Lux (Beatrice) goes to a lot of trouble to serve pancakes but seems more like a waffle eater. Lux is a quandary. What does she want? And where is she going? Her last line at the show’s end adds to the mystery.

Director Sean Kelly stages the show on a long linear stage. It’s an interesting floor plan representing a variety of rooms (scenic design by Nick Sieben). But in the cavernous Viaduct Theatre, this layout muffles some pertinent dialogue because of the obstructive angles. Sometimes the audio barrier is actually another actor standing directly in front of the speaker. From the southeast corner, a tub conversation is muffled between the submerged and the percher.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 3

Simultaneous staged activity occurs for a horizontal visual feast, tasty or otherwise. In an initial scene, the march to the breakfast table is a light-hearted patriotic salute. Often when family gets together for a holiday, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Relative cooking can get confusing. No need to start from scratch, Playwright Sissom just needs to clarify the recipe’s direction and whisk the lumps until smooth. Pancake Breakfast is a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity combo platter in the making. Order up!

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 2

Pancake Breakfast continues thru December 19th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

   
  

 

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REVIEW: That Sordid Little Story (The New Colony Theatre)

Tall Tale Is Too Big

 

The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Thea Lux, Tara Sissom, Brandon Rutter, Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs - photo by Anne Peterson

   
The New Colony Theatre presents
   
That Sordid Little Story
   
By Will Cavedo, Andrew Hobgood and Benno Nelson
Composed by
H. Riggs, C. Gingrich, T. Sissom and T. Lux
Directed by Andrew Hobgood
Music Directed by
Henry Riggs
at
Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western, Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The New Colony Theatre’s original play That Sordid Little Story is a huge production, both figuratively and literally. It fills the spacious Viaduct Theater with a two-tiered  stage that is flanked with jutting runways. There are two intermissions throughout the 2.5-hour long piece. Including musicians, the cast just jumps the dozen marker, which I know is no Cherrywood, but it’s The New Colony, That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Danny Taylorstill a sizeable amount of people for an off-Loop production.

The play also feels huge. It’s epic in its nature, with its protagonist, Billy Lomax (Patriac Coakley), journeying from Fayetteville Georgia across the South in search of a bluegrass band that may just hold the answers to the identity and whereabouts of his father. Along the way, Billy encounters a cast of colorful characters including a manipulative antique shop owner (Caitlin Chuckta) and her jealous brother (Wes Needham), a man of color who claims he’s half Cherokee (Anthony DiNicola), a stand-up comic (Sean Ellis), a couple of Latino day laborers (Aaron Alonso and Gary Tiedemann) and others.

The elusive bluegrass band serves as the soundtrack to Billy’s life. Each song inexplicably represents Billy’s current situation, or at least that’s how he reads into it. And so the band becomes the fuel that drives Billy, and for that matter the rest of the play, forward.

I should note that The New Colony takes a unique approach to creating a new production like this. The lines delineating actor, writer and director are blurred, with all cast members getting some say in the development of the play and its final treatment. With a company of about 30 members, this sounds like a situation where too many cooks could have spoiled the pot. And while the pot is not spoiled, it suffers from too many ingredients.

The New Colony, Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Aaron Alonso, Patriac Coakley and Sean Ellis - Photo by Anne Petersen The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Jack McCabe.  Photo by Anne Petersen.
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The play practically bursts at the seams. There’s just so much in it. Issues of race, issues of family, issues of wealth and social class. In covering so much territory, very little is actually said.

In addition, there are too many characters that come in and out of Billy’s life for us to really care about them. Once Billy starts developing a connection with someone, he leaves or he is left. We as the audience catch on to this pattern quickly, which means mentally we know there’s little at stake with these friendships. Once that happens, we know we can check out, and thus the relationships that Billy is making just don’t have Sordid_11 much of an impact. In the end, you’re left just waiting to see how the whole thing wraps up.

Also, some of these scenes lag. There are conversations between talking heads that sound reminiscent of college-level discussion groups. Much of this dialogue could be cut, and we’d still get the point. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a 2.5-hour long play as long as your play needs to be 2.5 hours. With some obvious editing, That Sordid Little Story could shave off a good 30 minutes.

But let’s take a moment to focus on what this play does well, namely, the music. This is a four-star score, lyrically and melodically. Heart-wrenching at times, uplifting at others, the music overshadows the rest of the play with its spot-on descant harmonies and its band’s down-home-country affection.

Also, the acting is consistently solid. Standout performances include Sean Ellis as the drunk comic, Aaron Alonso as a non-English speaking immigrant and Caitlin Chuckta, who reminded me of comic actress Stephnie Weir.

That Sordid Little Story is anything but little. It’s a big piece – too big. With some self-editing, this could have been more than just a cool concept. But as it stands, I’d rather just listen to the soundtrack.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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REVIEW: Living Newspapers Festival (Jackalope Theatre)

A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie

 Living Newspapers - John Milewshi - phot by Ryan Bourque

Jackalope Theatre and Silent Theatre Company presents:

Living Newspapers Festival

Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Living Newspapers - AJ Ware - photo by Ryan Bourque So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.

Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.

Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.

The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.

There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.

Living Newspapers - Eric Prather - photo by Ryan Bourque The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.

The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.

 

Rating: ★★★

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