REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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REVIEW: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (Next Theatre)

Limited Direction Hampers “…Scientology Pageant”

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Next Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow
Concept by Alex Timbers
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The boxy proscenium studio theater space at Next Theatre creates challenges for any of its productions. It produces visual perspectives that tend toward the two-dimensional and contained. One would think that wouldn’t necessarily detract from a satire qua children’s pageant. Yet the set design (Grant Sabin) for Next’s seasonal production, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is strikingly flat and unimaginative. Kathyrn Walsh’s direction stays contentedly—and without irony–within its confines, for the most part stationing the pageant’s child actors on three-tiered risers that further distance audience from performance.

It is the staging that dulls the tooth of this anti-religious-scam slam fest. Children re-enacting with absolute earnestness the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the modern prophet of Scientology, is a premise with Wildean potential. But, for all it’s self-touted edginess, in close collaboration with the show’s Obie award winning creator, Kyle Jarrow, Next has pulled its punches and stayed closer to conventional home.

Awkward scene changes and uneven pacing fragment the ensemble cast’s cohesiveness. Interestingly, it is cohesiveness they energetically demonstrate while cutting loose during some of the musical numbers, throwing in acrobatic abandon for good measure. Jennifer Baker, Sara Geist, and Nicole Rudakova project performances that stand out from the constrictions with which they must contend. Also, Jason Krause ably plays L. Ron Hubbard, pulling off smug self-satisfaction and the cravat-and-blazer look with natural ease.

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Several new songs have been introduced as products of collaboration between Jarrow and Next Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Southerland. While one song lends a softer, more humanizing tone to the process individuals within Scientology may go through, the rest don’t radically alter the message or style of the show, nor do they have to. The amount of satire that any religion can take should be directly proportional to the money it makes.

Rating: ★★½

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Review: Next Theatre’s “boom”

Next Theatre’s boom Is All Wit, Very Little Heart

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Next Theatre presents:

boom

by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Jason Southerland
thru October 11th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value is survival to the human race? Everything, wouldn’t you think? But what if survival doesn’t mean that much, especially if the quality of life is compromised or if other life will go on and develop without us? Next Theatre’s production of boom, by San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is meant to be the beginning of their season-long dramatic exploration of these themes. Works like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us are presented for sale to further facilitate the audience’s discussion.

BOOM 4 Nachtrieb’s breakout success is bright, sly, and pyrotechnically witty in its explorations of life’s beginnings and endings. It seems the perfect vehicle to set off Next’s 29th season, whipped up lightly enough to not overwhelm an audience, but intellectually proficient and adept enough to knowingly raise the stakes regarding human existence. What goes missing, strangely, is the human connection–one of those little ineffable things that make human life worth living.

I say “strangely” because connection is precisely what the lead male character, Jules (John Stokvis) wants and what he expects to attain with Jo (Kelly O’Sullivan)—but under extreme duress. What makes Jules, a marine biologist, less like a thoroughly evil villain and more “the nutty professor” is that he commits his crimes on the pretense of saving the human race from extinction. He has calculated that a comet of unknown origin will strike the earth, extinguishing all life, and he needs a female companion with which to reset human existence.

In order to establish credibility for his dry, purely scientific motivations, a joke is pounded home that Jules is “a homosexual.” The impregnation of Jo, the jaded, world-weary journalism major Jules lures to his lab via craigslist, could take place by “intensive coupling” or by more antiseptic means. That is if Jo would allow that to happen—which, understandably she doesn’t. Instead, she feels compelled to hurl herself tens of thousands of times against the force-field reinforced lab door, by which they are both imprisoned once the comet strikes.

While her sentiments are understandable, this component strains credulity the most, since there really is only so much electroshock that a straight girl can take.

The cast executes this farce with precision and verve. Its rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue encompasses everything from modern dating and sexuality to the random chance to the rationales of hope pitted against despair or disillusionment. Perhaps the most brilliant exposition of Nachtrieb’s powers is the full-on rant that bursts forth from Jules, exasperated with Jo’s unrelenting, snarky pessimism. Stokvis delivers it with an almost joyful fury.

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Finally, the audience is further distanced from the play when it is revealed to be a set piece within a futuristic museum. Directed by Barbara (Shannon Hoag), the museum piece’s curator, the play’s themes are further filtered and commented upon, while sprinkled generously with her complaints about the museum’s management.

Hoag delivers the strongest comic performance of the evening as Barbara and her line, “I wish I had more control,” is probably the play’s quintessential through-line. Layers upon layers of control issues run throughout the play, regarding the characters, humanity’s fight for survival–hell, even each character’s individual struggle for personal vindication is madly fraught with control issues.

BOOM 3 However, even if one manages to gain some control and by that control procure survival, there is still no guarantee of the quality of outcomes.

For instance, you can make people do things, but you cannot make them want to do them. It is that which makes the moment of connection between Jules and Jo so forced and without credibility, even in a farce like this one. Certainly, there’s such a thing as Stockholm syndrome, wherein a hostage ultimately becomes loyal and emotionally attached to the abductor. But attachment, loyalty, romance or connection that is not freely given lacks all savor, especially in a comedy.

Prior to the comet destroying everything, both Jules and Jo lament, in their own ways, the lack of human connection in their contemporary lives. This may be their only common bond. Yet if there is no real future for human connection, at least as represented by these characters, why should we care, not just if they will go on, but also if they have lived at all?

 Rating: ««½

 

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