Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: Soul Samurai (Infusion Theatre Company)

     
     

Not quite enough soul in ‘Soul Samurai’

     
     

Glenn Stanton, Megan Tabaque, Paul Tadalan, Christine Lin, Zach Livingston, Anji White.

  
Infusion Theatre Company presents
   
Soul Samurai
  
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Mitch Golob
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Bloodthirsty shoguns run a post-apocalyptic New York City. A female warrior seeks revenge for her murdered girlfriend, armed with only a katana and a wise-cracking sidekick.

It’s a pretty sweet premise for a play. Especially when a live DJ is scoring the activities and comic book-style video projections provide visual gimmickry. Infusion Theatre Company’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai promises to attract nerds and action-addicts alike. If only the product lived up to the hype.

Nguyen’s play falls into the same pit many of the action movies he’s sending up fall into. Instead of a cohesive plot, the story just seems to be an excuse for the next battle. Even with director Mitch Golob at the helm and Geoff Coates crafting the complex sword brawls, the production can’t overcome the play’s flaws. The pacing of the entire show is jilted and the fights seem to be running at about 75%, not full Christine Lin, Amy Dellagiarino in Infusion Theatre's 'Soul Samurai' by Qui Nguyen. Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPennaspeed. It’s fun, but it is not fun enough.

Nguyen writes in a style that is half neo-Kung Fu flick and half Blaxploitation. He sets his story several years after New York City has fallen to ultra-violent gangs and a few genuine psychopaths. We follow Dewdrop (Christine Lin) as she seeks to avenge the death of her lover, Sally December (Amy Dellagiarino), who was attacked by a mob of bad guys right in front of Dewdrop’s eyes. The narrative is chopped up so we also see how Dewdrop went from a demure, Asian college student to an urban Amazon. She battles through to Brooklyn, along with her loudmouthed pal Cert (Steve Thomas). But as she slashes deeper into the city, the thugs get more sinister. And maybe a soul-deprived Sally December is among them. Like any good hero, Dewdrop presses on to the bloody end.

I have to give Infusion props for bringing a tale on-stage that you usually don’t see—something action-based instead of focusing on a bunch of characters jabbering the whole time. Although the play is a unique beast for theatre, it doesn’t feel entirely original. While “Kill Bill” was Tarantino’s homage to Hong Kong cinema, it was also an entirely new tale. Soul Samurai seems like an homage to “Kill Bill”. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is referenced at least twice.

While his production generally exudes the cool necessary for something like this, Golob’s show is flawed. On paper, the running time was an hour and 45 minutes; in reality, the show clocked a half hour over that. A lot of that was due to slow transitions Master Leroy (Evan Lee), Dewdrop (Christine Lin)and dragging scenes, including a training montage that overstays it’s welcome. And on opening night, at least, the on-stage action, music, and video weren’t entirely synced up.

The cast captures Nguyen’s tough, dog-eat-dog style well. Lin has a bit of tough time commanding the space, but she finds it eventually. She’s got the spunk, but she can’t always externalize it. Thomas is the highlight of the show, always flying at a breakneck pace and delivering his profanity-laced witticisms with flair. Other favorites include Glenn Stanton as a pimp-coat donning shogun and Evan Lee as the stereotypical sensei (“Sally” comes out as “Sarry”).

Considering how cool the show could be, the end product is just sort of disappointing. There’s a lot of flash, and Jesse Livingston’s musical styling adds some fun. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough to cover up the holes in Nguyen’s pedestrian script. How often, though, is there a chance to see live samurai battles in this city? The slice-and-dice novelty is indeed worth checking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPenna

Soul Samurai runs April 28 – June 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave.
The performance schedule is Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. Tickets are $25 during the run with student, senior and industry
discounts available. Industry tickets, $15, are available at all Thursday
performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-975-8150 or at
infusiontheatre.com.   

Photos by Anthony LaPenna

  

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Review: Verse Chorus Verse (Tympanic Theatre)

    
  

The Tragedy of Grunge, Redux

  
  

Dennis Frymire, Jon Penick, and Kevin Crispin - Verse Chorus Verse

  
Tympanic Theatre presents
  
Verse Chorus Verse
  
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Kyra Lewandowski
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $12-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Not being a slave to rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve listened, puzzled, to people exclaiming that a certain rock band or music genre saved their lives. I’m equally flummoxed at the notion that any single music artist could be dubbed “the voice of a generation”—there are, after all, so many voices and the most deserving frequently fail to receive widespread attention. Nevertheless, fame places crowns upon a few–that some musicians end in tragedy only serves to superglue that dubious diadem upon the troubled rocker’s brow. Such is the life and music of Kurt Cobain. Tympanic Theatre’s latest production, Verse Chorus Verse, pulls its audience into the milieu of grunge fans, reporters and revivalists marked by Cobain’s death. It’s as if, from the moment he pulled the trigger, time stopped and all hope of going forward was lost.

Actually, Randall Colburn’s interesting new play, under Kyra Lewandowski’s direction at the Side Project Theatre, begins at a far earlier point in the Cobain legend. Fourteen year old Polly (Victoria Gilbert) gets kidnapped, raped and tortured by Gerald Friend (Neal Starbird(left to right) Victoria Gilbert and Neal Starbird - Verse Chorus Verse), who lures her into his car after a punk rock concert–the very same Polly becomes the heroine of Nirvana’s eponymous song on their album “Nevermind”. Flash forward twenty years later, the older Polly now fascinates Garret Leskin (Kevin Crispin), a budding grunge star heralded as the new Cobain, who thoroughly believes that Cobain was murdered. The play’s structure oscillates between the past and present, between that fateful kidnapping and its emotional reverberations far into the future.

For all the dialogue around Cobain and the burden of living up to his legend, the story really belongs to Polly. Gilbert gives a passionate edge to her role’s pathos. Polly is drug-addicted, trapped in the past, and, since becoming enshrined in Cobain’s lyrics, hardly able to see beyond the boundaries of her own legend. The murder mystery that Garret hopes to unravel through her is tangled in half-cooked fictions, inchoate emotional desperation and age-old resentments over who got fame and who got left behind. Dennis Frymore puts in a tough, grilling performance as Mason Dwyer, lead of the Satanic Metal Band, Yeti, who has lost his guitarist Terry (Jon Patrick Penick) to Garret’s up-and-coming band, Samsara.

Lewandoski’s direction also hangs pretty tough—making the most of the black box at Side Project with a spare but versatile set by Dustin Pettegrew. She squeezes every moment for tension and suspense from her cast, shifting between scenes where rockers spar over competing narratives and otherworldly scenes in which Polly survives her kidnapping by Friend, moment by moment, under a starry sky. This doesn’t mean Verse Chorus Verse is perfect. A few fellow audience members confessed to being confused over its alternating shifts between past and present. Plus, the show will obviously carry more meaning for viewers steeped in rock culture. But both the work and production show sophistication, even with its characters’ simplistic pre-occupation with fame. Everyone just wants to be remembered, even Mr. Friend, in a chilling performance by Starbird, tries to be remembered by leaving his marks on Polly’s flesh.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Verse Chorus Verse continues through April 7th at side project theatre (1439 W. Jarvis), with performances Thursday thru Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Tickets are $15 general admission ($12 for senior/student/industry), and can be purchased online. For more info, go to www.tympanictheatre.org.

 

Photos by Paul E. Martinez.

 

 

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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: Ghostbox (InFusion Theatre Company)

 

Where Bergman dared to tread

 

 

Ghostbox (1) - Photo by Kevin Viol

    
InFusion Theatre presents
    
Ghostbox
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Mitch Golob
Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have to give credit to InFusion Theatre Company for stepping out of the usual experimental game with Ghostbox. Randall Colburn has taken more than a page from one of my favorite directors and made it work by means of multimedia. The one-act play opens with Wife, played by Victoria Gilbert, demonstrating how a simple transistor radio can pick up supernatural signals. The film is shot in a grainy 1970’s patina of de-saturated color. It has an eerie feel and sets the mood for what comes next. The actual stage is painted in washed out gray tones with the screen set center stage. The actors are dressed in gray scale colors as well, with the exception of the Shadow that looms ominously.

Ghostbox is reminiscent of two of Bergman’s masterpieces: “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Seventh Seal”. Victoria Gilbert’s dialogue would seem repetitive in the hands of a less emotive actor. As Wife, she portrays the agony of loss and the psychology that lies beneath. Colburn’s dialogue reaches into the exotic territory of Reykjavik as the beginning of the love story of Husband and Wife. Husband spoke of Reykjavik as if it were the Promised Land where their love would be perfect. Wife reveals that he kept his deep melancholy and sexual dysfunction a secret.

Ghostbox (7) - Photo by Nastassia JimenezThe characters are kept from connecting and roam a wasteland of radio signals and flashbacks on film. This is indeed a thriller, but thankfully not in the obvious slasher mode. There are no winks at the audience in Ghostbox. This play grabs, releases, and toys with the subconscious. The images of water suggest drowning versus cleansing and purity. Even the scenes of Gilbert standing in a field of solid green are ominous and somehow stark.

Kevin Crispin plays the role of Husband. He bears a stricken hollowed visage that harkens back to German Expressionism films as well as the man playing chess with Death in “The Seventh Seal”. It’s a mystery – is Husband trying to avoid Wife in this murky place that they roam or is he keeping clear because of Shadow.

Ghostbox makes excellent use of sound (sound design by Claudette Perez) with jagged piercing radio signals that cause a few gasps in the audience, adding another layer for the characters to navigate in this nebulous place. I had visions of the old ‘Radio Free Europe’ commercials that called for open radio signals behind what was called the Iron Curtain. I was back in my seven year old psyche and recalling the terror I felt for the people who couldn’t just turn on the radio for pleasure as well as the pain and the smell of what I imagined was a real iron curtain. With Ghostbox, Colburn has created an onomatopoeia of vision and sound that projects a stark and frozen hell. When Gilbert and Crispin are together on the stage the action is taut, feeling as if glass is breaking everywhere without hearing the sounds. Gilbert goes from stricken and grieving to anger – anger at being denied love and sexuality. Crispin treads a tightrope of emotion as it is slowly revealed where they are and how they got there.

If Ghostbox were a film it would be in black and white. Director Mitch Golob keeps the scenes tight and efficient as if he were a film auteur. The suffering of humankind is said to be universal, but how it is expressed varies. It’s a refreshing experience to see a theatre production that does not go for the obvious but definitely hits the jugular. (A strange contrast to see the folks in line for Million Dollar Quartet in the main theatre.) It is a shot of surreal Technicolor and then an Icelandic blast downstairs in the Apollo Studio. Ghostbox is marketed for Halloween entertainment and it will hit the spot. Sleep well children…

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Ghostbox (5) - Photo by Nastassia Jimenez

InFusion Theatre Company presents Ghostbox at the Apollo Studio on Thursdays through Saturdays with a special Halloween Performance on October 31st at 8:30 pm. The Apollo Studio Theater is located at 2540 N. Lincoln. Call 773-935-6100 or www.ticketmaster.com

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Hesperia (Right Brain Project)

An Exploration of Love and Trust

 

     IanDaisy03

   
The Right Brain Project presents
  
Hesperia
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through August 14th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The Right Brain Project is staging an intriguing production called Hesperia. This show exposes how love, friendship, and trust transcend class and social mores. The playwright, Randall Colburn, takes these themes and puts them smack dab in post-modern America, offering up some interesting musings on what happens to those who buy into the American Dream and the underbelly of that dream.

Right Brain Project's "Hesperia" by Randall Colburn In the opening scene we are introduced to Claudia and Ian played by Natalie DiCristofano and Billy Fenderson respectively. Ian has shown up at Claudia’s door in the small town of Hesperia not far from where they grew up. Ms. DiCristofano is a sylph-like beauty that exudes vulnerability and a hard edge at the same time. The character of Claudia is has come to this town to shake off her past as a porn actress. She is now a born again Christian and engaged to marry the youth minister at the local church. Billy Fenderson also has a wonderful edge as a man who is trying to escape the past but perhaps got in deeper than he should have.

Claudia and Ian are childhood best friends and were partners in porn apparently working only with each other. The porn career for both of them seems to have been done on a lark or a childish dare that got out of hand. Claudia has escaped, but there are thugs on Ian’s trail. Being saved or born again is an escape for both characters – but who really takes it to heart is the lingering question for both of them.

Claudia is engaged to Trick whose real name is Trevor. The nickname is a result of youthful horsing around with language. It is an interesting choice for the character considering his fiancée’s former profession. (I wonder if the playwright was going for homage to Tennessee Williams with the double entendre.) Nick Freed plays the role of Trick with an endearing innocence and country boy energy. He keeps the energy level high, especially when drilling young Aaron for the state Bible Bee. It is a finely balanced portrait of fundamentalist America without the judgmental sneer that is evident in other works, and Nick Freed embodies the innocence and the frustration of having been anointed in the ministry. Trick tells Claudia that his gift is discernment that comes into play when Ian shows up and tries to reclaim his small town past. Trick accepts without judgment and with a trusting open heart. Claudia knows better in spite of her innocent past with Ian.

 

ClaudiaTrick01 Hesperia06

Trick fixes Ian up on a date with a nice girl from church named Daisy, played by Katy Albert with a refreshing country girl sexiness, looking clean scrubbed and apple cheeked like a 50’s Ladies Home Journal girl. Daisy is instantly smitten with the new boy in town, no doubt unaware of his extensive experience. Albert and Fenderson have good chemistry; the post date with the two of them is timed perfectly and staged with a voyeuristic flair. The sex scene is done well, with an edge of discomfort and shame. Surprisingly it’s Trick that feels the shame while Daisy wants him to stay.

The one chink in the play is the character of Aaron. It’s played well by Danny Mulae, but feels like a throwaway device for shock effect. Aaron finds a DVD of Claudia and Ian’s early work. The interaction between Ian and Aaron feels somehow false. Trick’s character alludes to Aaron starting to show interest in sex and then the boy comes off like the “bad seed,” interrogating Ian about the film. Also, some of Mr. Fenderson’s lines get lost due to either odd staging or poor enunciation.

This drawback really should be remedied because Ian’s character is open for judgment and it could be made clearer regarding why he should not be judged harshly. By the time the wedding of Trick and Claudia takes place Ian has been picked up by the thugs calling for him from California. Everything falls into place for Claudia, but did she turn on her former best friend or did he willingly return to his former life:  The matter is not easily resolved in a neat package, which is more realistic than Ian settling down with Daisy and popping out the kids. It is also Hesperia Photosatisfying that Trick and Claudia don’t have an instant sexual connection on their wedding night. Claudia has more experience but doesn’t want the same feelings from before. It is honest, painful, funny, and wonderful to observe.

Throughout the production the actors are confined to a small stage with seating around the perimeter, remaining on stage during other scenes. The actors remain in character with the emotional impact from the previous scene remaining fresh. This is a contemplative work that requires that the audience focus on the actors’ subtleties. The sparseness of the stage is a good choice as is the audience seating. I don’t know if it was deliberate but the backless seats caused me to be more in tune with the play. It took effort and concentration to sit comfortably as well as watch the stage. It is an integrative approach at best, and I felt for the actors having to be still and not drown in sweat without a stage exit. Here’s my heartfelt wish for a better air conditioner-you all deserve one!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Hesperia plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm through August 14th at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood. The theatre is easily accessible by CTA or Metra. Call 773-750-2033 or go to www.therbp.org for tickets or more information.

IanDaisy02

 

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REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

springawake1

 
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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