Review: Woyzeck (Oracle Theatre)

     
     

‘Woyzeck’ shows uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

  
Oracle Theatre presents
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Translated by David Steiger
Directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: free (public access)  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Woyzeck, now onstage at Oracle Theatre, is not just a searing, bold display of German expressionism, it’s also a unique theatrical experience of uncompromising vision, daring and macabre power. Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1837 tragedy about a working class soldier faced with insurmountable oppression, madness and betrayal has seen several revisions, including Werner Herzog’s film of the same name. David Steiger’s translation utilizes direct, clear poetry in expressing Woyzeck’s (Sean Patrick Ward) terrifying schizophrenic state. But is it the multiple elements pulled together by Max Truax’s direction that carry the day—or, rather, the unrelenting night–from which Woyzeck cannot escape.

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max TruaxEric Van Tassell’s lighting design, with its bleary reds and blues, melds perfectly with the projected images of wild fields inexorably buffeted by the wind (cinematography by Michael Fernandez and Jeremy Applebaum, video design by Max Truax and Bill Ryan, projectionist Ben Fuchsen). James Ogden’s set design elevates the stage to give us subterranean levels that reflect not only the hellish depths of Woyzeck’s mind but also the darker undercurrent of the human soul. One feels that when the actors are playing on top of the stage, they are always a step away from its precipice, emotionally as well as physically. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design crowns the production with its eerie nails-on-the-blackboard effects. Woyzeck is mad, but madness surrounds him, it is his environment, it is the world in which he lives.

The Captain (Sarah Shook) and the Doctor (Sarah Pretz) stand out as Woyzeck’s primary tormentors—the former believing that his underling must be immoral by dint of his poverty, the latter conceiving of Woyzeck as little more than a specimen for his experiments. Both actors possess disturbing otherworldliness, enhanced, no doubt, by the gender-bending aspects of their performance. But it’s Pretz’s deliciously icy delivery that brings home the benighted place that Woyzeck holds in 19th century society. Furthermore, it presciently foretells the development of Nazi eugenics a century before the Third Reich.

Reduced to being a pawn in his lowly position, Woyzeck can hardly hope to hang on to Marie (Stephanie Polt), the mother of his child once the Drum Major (James Errico) sets his sights on her. Ward’s performance as the troubled soldier almost seamlessly portrays a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails, the loss of Marie being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Polt’s sensuality is undeniable; her costume (Joan Pritchard) stands out as one more inspired detail in a production built on ripe symbolism. As for Errico, his flare for vain, bullish masculinity definitely contrasts with Woyzeck’s vulnerability and insecurity, as well as doubly underscoring the terror and despair Woyzeck feels against chthonic and unstoppable desire.

If there’s one flaw in Oracle’s efforts, it’s in its commendable, yet overlong dance sequence (choreography Lyndsay Rose Kane) to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love.” It depicts Woyzeck’s obsessive horror with Marie’s betrayal, as well as subversive desire in general. A bit of editing here would only punch up the piece. Dragged on too long, the power of the moment becomes lost. But this is just one flaw in an otherwise dead-on production. Oracle knows how to reap the most dread out of oppression, cruelty, heartlessness and insanity. Theirs is the must-see show of this season.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

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REVIEW: Blood Wedding (Oracle Theatre)

 

A Spooky Spanish Time at Oracle

 

 

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Oracle Theatre presents
   
Blood Wedding
   
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by
Ben Fuchsen
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: by donation  |  more info

Not often do classic canonical plays get featured as a Halloween fright fest. Yeah, ghosts and witches show up in many lists of characters, but they’re usually too heavily laden with symbolism and plot development to cause any nightmares. So Oracle Theatre is going out on a limb this year with their Halloween offering, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The results are mixed. Although Lorca’s lush language evokes plenty of chills, director Ben Fuchsen’s production lacks clarity and cohesiveness.

Lorca, one of the key purveyors of tragedy in the 20th Century, lived a pretty tragic life himself. A gay writer in Spain between the wars, he found himself spurned by men like Salvador Dali as well as facing the stresses of immense critical and commercial success at a young age. He ended up face down in a ditch somewhere, silenced by Franco’s Fascists in 1936. Yet his unsettling plays, many of which seem directly inspired by Sophocles or Euripides, have enjoyed popularity the world over. Blood Wedding is Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatreone of the best known. It follows a pretty standard storyline: longstanding feuds between families, nuptials, infidelity, murder, etc. What makes the piece stand apart is Lorca’s gorgeous poetry and his inclusion of vengeful supernatural forces in this very human story. The Moon, angry that man shuts their windows at night (and therefore shun him), decides to join Death in the manhunt for the runaway bride and her lover. Something much heavier than simple jealousy is going on.

Oracle mines the otherworldly elements of Lorca as much as they can. Instead of a small scene in the latter half of the play, Fuchsen places the Moon (a nearly-nude Justin Warren) and Death (Sasha Walloch clad as a flamenco dancer) in almost every moment. The duo brings a sinister vibe to the whole piece. They conjure all the spookiness in the production, wielding bloody, spine-chilling noises, and frenetic movements.

As their supernatural characters, Warren and Walloch take on all the supporting roles as well. This is where it everything starts to get muddled. We start wondering who is who—is Walloch playing Death now, or a servant woman, or Death pretending to be a servant woman? The concept is engaging, but the execution needs retooling.

The production could really benefit from a plot synopsis in the program. This is due to the fact that the cast focuses on creating atmosphere over storytelling. With its myriad of metaphors, Blood Wedding’s mood is intoxicating, but it’s impossible to stay engaged in that world when you’re just trying to keep up with the story. The style also fluctuates—some actors (like Sarah Pretz, who plays the ominous Mother), stick with heightened realism. Others, Alexander Gerber, for example, who portrays the unwitting (and slightly goofy) Groom, choose to face the audience and speak their lines with an expressionist slant. Both work for the piece, although the realism is far more grounded. The problem is that the stylization isn’t consistent, causing more plot and character confusion.

When you just sit back and let the show flood over you, there’s some great stuff. James Ogden’s gloomy set, consisting of several lacy screens, is appropriately creepy and smartly used. The statuesque Pretz commands the tiny Oracle stage like a captain on a ship. And there were two solid moments that terrorized me. Most of all, Lorca’s tremendous poetic skill, translated here by Michael DeWell and Carmen Zapata, is delicious and heartwrenching all at once.

Oracle is no stranger to the Halloween show. They’ve put up some well-received haunted house-style experiences in the past. I’m not completely sold Lorca can be repackaged as a Halloween treat, but the cast definitely puts forth tons of effort. But with more plot clarity, the production could earn a whole lot more screams.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Lullaby (Teatro Luna)

 

A More Charming Than Frightful “Lullaby”

 

 

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Teatro Luna presents
   
Lullaby
  
Written by Diane Herrera
Directed by Maria Enriquez & Miranda Gonzalez
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 17  | 
tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much of Teatro Luna’s current production reflects their collectivist approach to creating Latina-driven theater. Their program lists the all-female cast without designating their roles in Diane Herrera’s new play, Lullaby. Both playwright and producer Alex Meda emphasize Teatro Luna’s collective development process. “Writing is a lonely profession,” says Herrera in the notes, “With the love and support of these talented women, I was not alone.” As a play, Lullaby itself contains a strong family feeling. While drawing in plot devices from thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, its collection of stories still center on traditional women’s roles as lovers, mothers, and daughters. Framing each told tale is a mother in a hospital room, telling story after story to her comatose daughter, hospitalized from some unnamed accident.

Lullaby by Teatro Luna at Greenhouse Theater Center Chicago It’s a difficult and multilayered conceit to hold together, but directors Maria Enriquez and Miranda Gonzalez tautly and delicately sustain Lullaby’s translucent dramatic arc. Behind each story, however bizarre or funny, lies a mother’s never ending love and concern, even a desperate feeling of never being able to do enough or be enough for the ones she loves. The tales are plentiful—a woman continually strives to save her suicidal sister; a high-maintenance diva shows up at couples counseling with the robot boyfriend she created; a real Little Mermaid gives up on the love she sacrificed her community and family for; an overworked, unappreciated office temp struggles to turn around her shallow fellow employees—and many more.

Every tale migrates into the realm of fantasy, humor almost always lightens each story’s theme of lost love, lost opportunities, lost children and, ultimately, lost lives. Make no mistake: these Latina ladies are very funny—again and again their comic timing alone takes one by surprise. Their seamless incorporation of drama, dance movement and acrobatics in the final story totally seals the deal on the mother’s lonely vigil with her unconscious daughter.

The cast’s dexterous ability to shift from tale to tale, within the framework of the mother waiting for her daughter to reawaken, is probably the production’s greatest achievement. Herrera’s tales shift uneasily—but hardly frighten or horrify. At first, the introduction of a traditional harlequin figure at the start of Lullaby seems artsy and pretentious, but each reappearance of the harlequin sets the scene on edge, with peril suggested by the uncertainty of its presence.

If there is any drawback to Lullaby, it’s that its darkness often doesn’t go dark enough. Herrera’s writing almost seems afraid to go there, afraid to go to the point where the child is truly lost, the opportunity for love and a future is lost, and there is no bringing it back, no laughing it off, no hoping that it might be different. Much as I appreciate the playwright’s desire to create an almost eternal state of suspension for the audience, maintaining that effect, even to the end of the play, reduces the mother in the hospital room to a thin symbolic figure; not a mother we can deeply connect with. This is a woman we want to know, even if she is like every other mother in her desperate attempts to make her daughter revive. Her child is gone and may never come back. The agony of her personal nightmare must become ours.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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Timeline Theatre announces final extension of “The History Boys”

Timeline announces final extension of “The History Boys”

thru OCTOBER 18th

historyboys1 Marking its 100th Performance at Timeline, and with continued ticket demand resulting in 18 weeks of sold-out performances so far, TimeLine Theatre Company announces a third and final extension of its critically acclaimed and Equity Jeff Award-nominated Chicago premiere of The History Boys by Alan Bennett, directed by Nick Bowling. The History Boys, originally scheduled to end June 21 and previously extended to August 2 and then September 27, will close on October 18, 2009, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 Wellington Ave., Chicago.

Tickets for performances during this final The History Boys extension go on sale Friday, September 4 at 12 p.m., online at timelinetheatre.com or via phone by calling the TimeLine Theatre Box Office at 773.281.TIME (8463).

Download “The History Boys Study Guide

Fun “History Boys” Facts:

Since its Opening Night on Saturday, April 25, 2009, The History Boys has broken records and set numerous new ones for TimeLine. The play celebrates its 100th performance today, Thursday, September 3 at 7:30 p.m. — well beyond the previous record of 77 performances set by the remount of Fiorello! in 2008. Tickets to the 100th performance are sold out but theater fans are invited to celebrate with the cast and production team after the show at Wilde Restaurant & Bar, 3130 N. Broadway, beginning at approximately 10:45 p.m.

More of The History Boys by the numbers:

  • Equity Jeff Award nominations: 5 (Outstanding Production – Midsize; Ensemble; Director, Nick Bowling; Scenic Design – Midsize, Brian Sidney Bembridge; Actor in a Supporting Role – Play, Alex Weisman)
  • Length of the entire run: 25 weeks of performances over six months April 25, 2009 through October 18, 2009
  • Number of performances in the entire run: 140
  • Number of the first 100 performances that have sold out: 100
  • Average percentage capacity sold: 104% (Number of seats: 87)
  • Number of people who have seen the production through September 30: 8,732
  • Number projected to have seen the production through October 18: 12,500 (previous record was 6,309 for the remount of Fiorello! in 2008; the number of people who saw Fiorello! over the course of both of its runs in 2006 and 2008 was 9,254)
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The History Boys Performance Schedule

The performance schedule for The History Boys between September 3 and October 18 is: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 pm. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

The History Boys runs 3 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

The History Boys Tickets

Tickets for The History Boys extension performances are $32 (Wednesday – Friday) or $42 (Saturday & Sunday). Student tickets are $10 off regular price, with valid ID. Group rates for groups of 10 or more are available. Advance purchase is strongly recommended.

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For play synopsis, cast list, and directions to the theatre, click on “Read more”.

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