Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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REVIEW: Fairways (Endpoint Theatre)

     
     

A musical about golf, and not much else

     
     

"Fairways the Musical" by Mary Hutchings Reed and Curtis Powell, produced and presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

  
Endpoint Theatre presents
  
Fairways
  
Book and Lyrics by Mary Hutchings Reed
Composed and Directed by
Curtis Powell
at
Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A note in the Fairways program emphasizes that the musical is “not meant to be a serious work, just a whole lot of fun for the actors and audience.” The problem with that sentiment is that $32 is a serious price for ticket, especially for a brand new company in a competitive neighborhood. Despite the non-serious nature of the musical, there still needs to be some sort of emotional reality beneath the characters, and both the book and music of Fairways are obstacles for the actors in reaching that place of honesty. Now, I don’t play golf. I don’t have any emotional attachment to the sport, but my enjoyment of Fairways as a musical shouldn’t require me to be a golfer. If anything, it should make me want to pick up a club and hit the green myself, yet Reed’s predictable book and forgettable lyrics do nothing to make golf intriguing.

Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.The show begins in 15th century Scotland, where the local men are looking for a way to pass the time as they tend their crops and flocks. The opening number is cute and the actors are certainly enjoying themselves, but problems already begin to appear in the beginning moments, with some actors in Scottish dialect while others are in Irish. After the ensemble shares a pint, the action shifts to the present, where Betsy O’Neill (Jeanne T. Arrigo) is trying to teach her daughter Kathy (Erin Renée Baumrucker) to golf, in hopes that it may win her the Mother-Daughter Tournament and add some spark to her daughter’s love life. The relationship between the two women feels like a mother and her preteen daughter rather than two mature adults, and the jokes in Reed’s script are painfully cheesy. “Golf will be good for you, like yoga.” “That’s a stretch.” Groan. Fairways is Reed’s first stage work, and her dialogue never quite sounds like natural human speech, with the characters shirking away from any forms of subtlety or subtext and speaking as directly as possible. The result is that the dialogue becomes a tool to move the plot forward and not much else, giving little insight into the emotional life of these golfers.

As Betsy instructs Kathy, Byron Mackay (Jay Cook) is teaching his son Sam (Jamie Watkins) the game so that he can impress his Boss (Michael Bragg). Sam is dating Joan Woods (Erin Lovelace), the daughter of Betsy’s rival Nancy (Regina Webster), and the mother-daughter duo is unanimously hated by the golf club. If the plot is beginning to sound a little busy, it is, and nothing really gets fleshed out to the point that it becomes believable. Betsy and Byron sing a duet about golf called “Do Nothing,” a song that praises “a game about life, a game about nothing at all.” That is the main flaw with Fairways: nothing has consequence. Almost all of the Act 1 musical numbers are just explanations of different elements of golf: terminology (“Talking The Talk”), lessons (“Really Very Easy”), scoring (“Gimme A Six”), things to say when someone has a bad shot (“Nice Shot”), new equipment (“New Shoe Soft Shoe”), and practice ranges (the terrible “Practice Range Rap”). The only song that offers any sort of insight into a real problem is “Why Can’t He See?”, Kathy’s solo after she scares Sam away by being too aggressive. And while the exchange before is so tame that the stakes aren’t really there when the song begins, credit to Powell for trying to tell an emotional story through song.

        
Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre. Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre. Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

The same problems continue through Act 2, but the plot becomes even muddier with the introduction of Anika (Lovelace), a client for Sam’s firm that played golf in college. We are already supposed to be invested in a love triangle between Sam, Kathy, and Joan (despite having not even seen Sam and Joan in a scene together), and the addition of another character just weakens the already strained story. The plots aren’t very developed, so they are easily wrapped up, and the show comes to its predictable conclusion as the audience learns that “in the game of love and fairways, the best course is honesty.” The actors really do look like they’re having a great time while they perform, and much of the music is well sung, but it’s all so insubstantial that it’s hard to care.

“Show, don’t tell” is a major problem in Fairways. The audience is told how the characters feel about each other rather than gaining these opinions through character interactions. People are constantly commenting about the relationship between Sam amd Joan, yet the only instance we see the two together is for their inevitable breakup. Or instead of showing how golf affects the characters on a personal level, the music just takes an element of the sport, and explains it through song. As an inaugural production, Fairways gives the impression that Endpoints is more concerned with getting the works of Artistic Director Curt Powell produced than creating works of strong musical theater. The script, music, and technical aspects of the show (some background images even contain huge watermarks from iStockPhoto) don’t match the quality of musicals with tickets nearly half the price, making Fairways a hard sell even for the most avid gold fan.

  
  
Rating: ★½
 
 

Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

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