REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

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Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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Non-Equity Jeff Awards nominees announced

chicagoatnight

2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award Nominees

 

 

Production – Play
  Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Killer Joe Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ )
The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)

 

Production – Musical
  Chess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James (review ★★½)
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Glorious Ones   Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre 

 

Director – Play
  Aaron Todd Douglas: Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Michael Menendian: Death of a SalesmanRaven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Michael Rohd: Wilson Wants It All House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
Kimberly Senior: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Rick Snyder: – Killer Joe Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)

  

Director – Musical
  Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier: Chess – Theo Ubique Theatre (review ★★½)
Jeffrey CassThe Who’s TommyCircle Theatre
Stephen M. Genovese: The Glorious Ones Boho Rep (review ★★★)
Andrew Park: Evolution/CreationQuest Theatre Ensemble  (review ★★★)

 

Ensemble
  The Glorious Ones Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Red Noses Strawdog Theatre Company
Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Under Milk Wood  Caffeine Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
  Tony Bozzuto: On an Average DayBackStage Theatre Company 
Darrell W. Cox: Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Andrew Jessop: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Peter Robel: I Am My Own Wife Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★★)
Chuck Spencer: Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre  (review ★★★½)

 

Actor in a Principle Role – Musical
  Courtney Crouse: ChessTheo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)
Tom McGunn: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Eric Damon SmithThe Glorious Ones
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Jeremy Trager: Chess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre   (review ★★½)

   

Actress in a Principle Role – Play
  Brenda BarrieMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre  (review ★★★★)
LaNisa FrederickThe Gimmick Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Millicent HurleyLettice & Lovage Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★★)
Kendra Thulin: Harper Regan Steep Theatre  (review ★★½ )
Rebekah Ward-Hays: Aunt Dan and Lemon BackStage Theatre 

 

Actress in a Principle Role – Musical
  Danielle Brothers: Man of La Mancha Theo Ubique Theatre  (review ★★★)
Sarah Hayes: Man of La ManchaTheo Ubique Theatre   (review ★★★)
Maggie PortmanChess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
  Chance Bone: Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago  (review ★★)
Jason HuysmanDeath of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Edward KuffertThe CrucibleInfamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Peter Oyloe: The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre   (review ★★★)
Phil TimberlakeBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Eric Lindahl: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Steve Kimbrough:
Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag
John B. LeenChess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
  Nancy Friedrich: The Crucible Infamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Vanessa Greenway: The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kelly Lynn HoganThe Night Season Vitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★)
Mary RedmonThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Kate GarassinoBombs Away!  – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre  
Danni Smith
The Glorious Ones  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Trista Smith: Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical  -  Hell in a Handbag
Dana Tretta
The Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

New Work
  Aaron CarterFirst Words  MPAACT (review ★★★)
Ellen FaireyGraceland Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★)
Tommy Lee JohnstonAura  Redtwist Theatre
Andrew Park and Scott Lamps
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Michael Rohd & Phillip C. KlapperichWilson Wants It All  -  The House Theatre of Chicago  (review ★★★)

 

New Adaptation
  Bilal Dardai: The Man Who Was ThursdayNew Leaf Theatre  
Sean Graney:  –
Oedipus  The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Frances LimoncelliBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Frances Limoncelli:  – Mrs. Caliban  – Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
William Massolia: Little Brother  Griffin Theatre

 

Choreography
  Kevin BellieThe Who’s Tommy  Circle Theatre
Brenda Didier
Chess   Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
James Brigitte DitmarsPoseidon! An Upside Down Musical  Hell in a Handbag Productions

 

Original Incidental Music
  Andrew Hansen: Treasure Island  -  Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Kevin O’Donnell:   -  Wilson Wants It All  -   House Theatre   (review ★★★)
Trevor WatkinThe Black Duckling  -  Dream Theatre

 

Music Direction
  Ryan BrewsterChess  – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
Gary PowellEvolution/Creation  Quest Theatre   (review ★★★)
Nick SulaThe Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

Scenic Design
  Tom BurchUncle Vanya Strawdog Theatre  (review ★★★)
Alan DonahueTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Heath HaysOn an Average Day  -   BackStage Theatre Company
Bob Knuth
The Analytical Engine  Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
Bob KnuthLittle Women  -   Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
John Zuiker:   I Am My Own Wife  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Lighting Design
  Diane FairchildThe Gimmick  -  Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Kevin D. Gawley: Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Sean MallarySt. Crispin’s Day  – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Jared B. MooreThe Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre
Katy PetersonI Am My Own Wife
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Costume Design
  Theresa HamThe Glorious Ones  -  Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★)
Branimira IvanovaTreasure Island  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Joanna MelvilleSt. Crispin’s Day  -  Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Jill Van BrusselThe Taming of the Shrew  Theo Ubique  (review  ★★★)
Elizabeth WislarThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Sound Design
  Mikhail FikselOedipus The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Michael GriggsWilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre (review ★★★)
Andrew HansenTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)  
Joshua HorvathMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre (review ★★★★)
Miles PolaskiMouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Artistic Specialization
  Kevin Bellie: Projection Design, The Who’s Tommy  -   Circle Theatre
Elise Kauzlaric: Dialect Coach, 
Busman’s Honeymoon  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Lucas Merino: Video Design, Wilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
James T. Scott:  Puppets, Evolution/Creation Quest Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Fight Choreography
  Geoff Coates: On An Average Day  -  BackStage Theatre Company
Geoff Coates
Treasure Island  Lifeline Theatre   (review ★★★½)
Matt HawkinsSt. Crispin’s DayStrawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
R & D ChoreographyKiller Joe  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½  )

 

More info at the Jeff Awards website.

   
   

REVIEW: Orange Flower Water (BackStage Theatre)

Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma

Orange Flower Water (4 of 7)

BackStage Theatre Company presents:

Orange Flower Water

 

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Chopin Studio Theatre thru March 27th (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.

Orange Flower Water (2 of 7)Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.

Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.

The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.

Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.

Orange Flower Water (3 of 7) Orange Flower Water (7 of 7)

The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.

The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.

The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.

Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Orange Flower Water (6 of 7)

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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