Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     

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REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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REVIEW: McMeekin Finds Out (Route 66 Theatre Company)

 

Did I mention we’re in Pittsburgh?

 

 Kate Buddeke, Blair Robertson, and Randy Steinmeyer

   
Route 66 Theatre presents
   
McMeekin Finds Out
   
Written by Scott T. Barsotti
Directed by Damon Kiely
at Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25-$37   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I hate seeing a bad play. You walk into the theater full of hope and high on expectations. The play may start out okay: an intriguing opening, some snappy dialogue and characters that are brimming with potential. But by the intermission, you realize the mess you’ve gotten yourself into, so you reach for your car keys. But then you remember you’re a theatre critic, so you have to stay and see if this agonizingly, dead-on-arrival play miraculously gets any better. And, more often than not, it doesn’t. Now you’re out two hours of your time, plus you must set out on the task of panning someone else’s beloved creation, which, let me tell you, makes you feel like a total and utter schmuck.

Route 66 Theatre Company’s world premier of McMeekin Finds Out makes me feel like a schmuck. This play is so seriously flawed that I am amazed the collective of talented artists behind the production didn’t demand this thing incubate a bit longer before letting it go to term. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly potential. But as it stands, this mess of a slapstick comedy is like seeing a mediocre improv show, where everything rests on a thrown-together goofy premise and where louder means funnier.

Randy Steinmeyer and Kate Buddeke 2 The play, written by Scott T. Barsotti, centers around a family in Pittsburgh. And Barsotti doesn’t let you forget for a minute where this play takes place. Mentions of the Steelers occur in every other sentence, and everyone possesses the standard Pittsburgh dialect, sprinkling their dialogue with words like “yinz.”

At the play’s opening, we witness the daughter Carla (Blair Robertson) getting on a guy at a house party. She’s drunk, and we can’t quite see the young man the way the couch is positioned. What we do know is that he’s immobilized somehow, possibly drunk or possibly tied up. In any case, she proceeds to have sex with him, which surprisingly serves as the basis of the play’s entire plot. That’s because, upon arriving home the next morning, Carla confesses to her parents, Guy (Randy Steinmeyer) and Pam (Kate Buddeke), that she may have raped the young man, since technically he didn’t consent.

That’s about it. There’s really not much more to this play. Oh sure, Guy and Pam are both laid up due to a car accident that was Guy’s fault. Guy now wears casts on both arms, which may have destroyed his career in construction. And Pam’s leg cast has made it impossible for her to continue being a chef for the time being. But Guy’s underlying guilt over the accident and Pam’s resentment are barely touched upon. Instead, the question of whether Carla raped a boy and what is the family to do dominates every single moment.

And perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if we, the audience, hadn’t already seen exactly what happened within the first minutes of the play. We know that she took advantage of this boy. We know most of the circumstances. And so when characters continually say things like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened,” you want to yell, “We do!” and hope everyone just moves on to something more interesting.

Another issue I had with this play is that it’s just not funny. The humor, solely because of the subject matter, occasionally verges on edgy. But overall, most of the jokes are on par with sappy sitcom schlock.

For what it’s worth, much of the acting is solid. Steinmeyer is entertaining. His portrayal of Guy is as if you mashed Edith and Archie Bunker into one person. Likewise, Buddeke provides some much-needed understatement and realism to this otherwise over-the-top, harebrained play.

McMeekin Finds Out doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. It goes nowhere while being simultaneously all over the place. Worst of all, there’s no driving force that compels the audience to keep watching. Give this play a thorough rewrite or transform it into a brief one act and you may have something. Otherwise, the only thing you’ll find out is that you just sat through a bad play.

       
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

 Randy Steinmeyer and Kate Buddeke

 

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Review: SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s “Ivanov”

For love or money

 Ivanov_3

SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov
directed and adapted by Sheldon Patinkin
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s production of Ivanov rises above most in that it is performed in the style in which Anton Chekhov wrote the play: not as an adaptation set in modern times or filled in with action to keep the attention of the modern audience, but set instead in the 1800’s, a time dull in activity but vibrant with conflict underneath the passive text and assumed action taking place off-stage. The complex characters portrayed by the lead roles makes this Anton Chekhov play a play worth seeing at Viaduct Theatre, as the ensemble rises to the difficult challenge of maintaining Chekov’s dark tragic feelings with the wittiness of Ivanov’s comedic comments on life.

Ivanov_4 Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov tells the story of self-loathing land owner Nikolai Ivanov (Jeremy Fisher), whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and who is drowning in personal debt. Once a desirable young man – fun, kind and respected – Nikolai married Anna (Cyd Blakewell). After marriage, Anna converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodox and therefore was denied her large family inheritance that many neighbors claim is the only reason Nikolai married Anna in the first place. Stuck in a depression that he cannot shake Nikolai sulks and is unmoved by Barkin’s (Ryan Martin) constant ideas to acquire financial prosperity and The Count’s (Sean Bolger) pleas for companionship or at least entertainment. The honest doctor (honest to the point of being self-righteous) informs Nikolai of his wife’s terminal diagnosis. No additional sadness sweeps Nikolai, for he has already reached an emotional bottom, and – respecting the doctors bluntness – he opens up to him about his own depression and lack of empathy for his wife.

These Chekhovian Characters are played well in the opening scene, especially by Jeremy Fisher as Ivanov and Johnny Russel as the doctor. They have a dark, even-keeled yet sullen personality with a tint of humor in their lines, reflecting the absurdity of life.

Nikolai’s depression doesn’t keep him from gallivanting off at night to a party at the Lyebedev’s estate where his new wealthy attraction Sasha is celebrating her birthday. As the repartee repeatedly drones on about how bored they are (via comical comments on their unfulfilled lives), Nikolai and Sasha are intimately conversing. Once they believe that they are finally alone Sasha and Nikolai are caught in an adulterous kiss by Anna who disobediently followed her husband to the party.

True to Chekhov’s style, the drama (or fight) between the three love interests takes place off stage. Still together with Anna, and trying to be a better man, Nikolai avoids Sasha until two weeks later when she comes to his estate to see him. Sasha, played by Sue Redman, gives an intriguing speech about why women are attracted to whiny desperate men and plays the martyr by telling him to stay with his wife, but with Anna’s illness and Ivanov’s sinful tendencies there is still a lot to play out.

Ivanov_2

The set, designed by Jacqueline Penrod, is able to switch from the outside porch of Nikolai’s property to the inside of the Lyebedev’s upper-class home. In the opening scene Nikolai sits void of emotions at his simply crafted chair and table on the wooden front porch of his wooden home with the eerie death cries of an owl. The outside porch is designed too similar to that of a ranch and there is not much in the set that shows the countryside in which the play takes place. When the wooden walls are removed the depth of the Lyebedev’s living room is shown with a large dining table in the back for the guest to play cards and open space to converse while entering and exiting through the back door. The family room is up front with two couches facing each other (so the eligible bachelors can gaze at the eager young ladies) and a chair at top where Pavel Lyebedev (Howie Johnson) sits in his complacent bliss.

The wardrobe designed by Frances Maggio brings more to the plays atmosphere than the stage design, with dated clothes that have the sense of the 1800’s when this play was written, and all dressed in black as if it were a funeral when outside of Ivanov’s estate.

The main characters of SiNNERMAN’s production are talented – keeping the plainness in Chekhov’s characters while also bringing to life the complexity behind their lives. Chekhov has written no complete villain or saint. We cannot empathize with Nikolai because we do not trust his character, but yet we also do not know if he actually has malicious intent; he may be the victim of gossip and bad luck.

Cyd Blakewell delivers a fantastic performance as Anna; tired, desperate for attention and naive to the true feelings of her husband. She speaks with great drama allowing the humor in her ignorance to hit the audience subtly as Anna herself has no idea that what she is saying sounds ridiculous. Her defense for her husband makes one feel pity for the mistreatment and neglect that she has endured.

For a Chekhov fan, this play is a chance to see one of his lesser known plays, and SiNNERMAN’s performance is worth seeing. It is performed by the book, and the brilliance of Anton Chekhov is supported well by the talented lead actors. Some of the supporting actors/actresses come off a little cartoonish and out of character, but overall this is a quality performance from a very cool theatre company. This is not a play for someone looking for a lot of physical action or even a lot of verbal action, but the conflicts are there and you will be surprised in the way Chekhov’s plays can entertain.

Rating: ««½

Ivanov is playing at Viaduct Theatre, 3111 Western, Chicago, through November 7th.

Ivanov_1