Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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REVIEW: BOOJUM! (Caffeine Theatre-Chi Opera Vanguard)

     
    

Is it group therapy or a lobotomy? Both!!

      
     

 

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Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard present
   
BOOJUM! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll
   
Books/Lyrics/Music by Martin Wesley-Smith & Peter Wesley-Smith
Directed by Jimmy McDermott
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Drawing from the creative genius of “Alice in Wonderland”, it’s a nonsensical operetta that is all in his head. Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard, in conjunction with DCA Storefront Theater, present BOOJUM! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll, written by the Brothers Wesley-Smith. Reverend Charles Dodgson battles his Caffeine&Cov_Boojum!_02pseudonym over the origins of his most famous literary masterpiece. The reserved Charles and the flamboyant Lewis deconstruct their lookingglass fame. Who better to help in the rediscovery process than Alice? Both of them! The child and adult version of Carroll’s inspiration challenge him on the intense connection and de-connection of their relationship. As Charles sorts out his Alice issues, his imagination unleashes the makings for his farcical poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”. Quirky characters fill Charles’ head with a jumble of demands for attention. BOOJUM! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll is a stay-cation to a world of the unexpected. What a head-trip!

Before the show even starts, the visual is intriguing. Projected Carroll Lewis-isms are visible on sheet-like curtains (projections by Justin Meredith). The imagery spectacle continues with the introduction of characters clad in eccentric combinations of attire. Costume designer, Philip Dawkins aids in the storytelling with distinct looks to individualize the crazy muddle. Pearls, goggles, hats, the whimsical detail is a fabulous “What-Not-to- Wear”on-a-snark-hunt-fashion show. The talented ensemble wears crazy-on- their-sleeve tailored to perfection. The first act is high-energy high-jinx as the cluster of oddballs prepare for a snark hunt.

The loonies are flawlessly synchronized in movement for a collective punchline. Individually, they sing their backstory with amusing zest and powerful vocals. Some of the more memorable whacko performances: drunken dolt Sara Sevigny (butcher), stripped down double-the-pleasure Kevin Bishop (billiard maker) and Stephen Rader (banker), and a twisted dark comedic Jeremy Trager (Lewis).

 

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BOOJUM! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll drops you down a hole. It’s up to the audience to piece together the puzzle without the aid of a clear picture. From the title, you know it’s a humorous take on an author notorious for a hallucinatory imagination. The first act is frolicking on speed. Because the material is unfamiliar, and without the aid of projected operatic titles, the jokes are realized a few moments after they are sung. Despite Director Jimmy McDermott‘s masterful staging, some of the laughter is unrealized. The second act gets serious real fast and sidelines the funnier elements to focus on the Charles-Alice relationship. Although a fascinating exposé on a children’s author, the seedy realization is an uncomfortable portrayal, like Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Finding Neverland” or “Alice in Wonderland”. What’s really going on between this adult and these kids?

BOOJUM! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll is all about looking at two sides of the same thing: Dodgson/Carroll, Past/Present, Reality/Fantasy. Following this splitting trend, I’ll break it into two too. The first act, Boojum: Nonsense is a schizophrenic’s group therapy session. The second act, Boojum: Truth is more like a lobotomy.

   
   
Rating:  ★★★
   
   

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BOOJUM! runs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm, thru December 19th. Intended for ages 12 and up.  Contains mature themes. 

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

 

Production Staff
    
Director: Jimmy McDermott
Musical Directors: Andra Velis Simon & Myron Silberstein
Dramaturg: Daniel Smith
Musical Dramaturg: Eric Reda
Choreographer: Natalja Aicardi
Costume Design: Philip Dawkins
Lighting Designer: Casey Diers
Scenic Designer: Narianna Csaszar
Projection Designer: Justin Meredith
Technical Director: Jason Beck, Dan Cox
 

Ensemble

   
Alex Balestrieri
Kevin Bishop
Marielle de Rocca-Serra
Laura Deger
Kevin Grubb
Stephen Rader
Michael Reyes
Sara Sevigny
Heather Townsend
Jeremy Trager
   
   

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3 Words: To my left and a definite voice in my head, James describes the show with ‘a theatrix flambel.’