Review: Helen (Vintage Theater Collective)

     
     

Vividly adept ensemble reveals the emptiness of beauty

     
     

Bergen Anderson (Servant) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

  
Vintage Theater Collective presents
  
Helen
   
Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Kelley Ristow
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 25  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

All I know about the Gods is the anguish of my own body.      –Io

Nothing should come between success and the intense wisdom of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen, produced by the Vintage Theater Collective at Strawdog Theatre’s space. Taking off from Euripides’ play by the same name, Helen investigates the troubling and enigmatic power that beauty maintains over women and men, not to mention its interplay with war, fame, fate, and loss. The legendary Greek beauty whose face launched a thousand ships finds herself stuck in a three-star hotel in Egypt, transported there by the gods to wait out the end of the Trojan War–at least until her husband Menelaus arrives to take her home. Meanwhile, to fool everyone and keep the war going at Troy, the gods have replaced her with an eidolon, an ancient Greek word that means both “phantom” and “image.”

Vintage Theater Collective - Helen poster“I do worry about the world. The splitting of image from being doesn’t bode well,” says Helen (Katy Caroline Collins) to the Servant (Bergen Anderson) of the hotel who perpetually offers her manicures and facials to pass the time. To be in a desired body or not to be in one—that is the question. Director Kelly Ristow assembles an excellent and intuitively adept ensemble cast to take on McLaughlin’s heady and thoroughly philosophical script. This they achieve with a lightness and ease that, nevertheless, nails some pretty dark and powerful revelations.

Collins holds the center with her bored, frustrated, yet quintessentially entitled heroine, solidly elucidating the tendency for perfect beauty to be emptied of everything pertaining to the self, flattened to a reflective surface for the projections of others. Her Waiting for Godot-style role is vitally flanked by the vivid performances of Miriam Mintz as Io and Emily Shain as Athena. Charmingly self-effacing, Io arrives in Helen’s room after being agelessly driven across the Mediterranean by Hera’s gadfly, still recovering her woman’s body after its transformation into a cow. “It made a kind of awful sense,” she says of Zeus’ attempt to hide her from Hera through the transformation, “because it arrived at a time when my body wasn’t my own anymore.” Of being at the mercy of the gods she can only surmise, “I guess I have to think of my suffering as sacred—it’s the only thing they ever gave me.”

Alternately, Athena shows up in chic black, callously glib about the Trojan War, which, as she announces to Helen, has already been over for 7 years. Humanity is a curiosity for the gods because we, unlike them, experience death. But their aspirations for the war to be a compelling spectacle were soon worn out by its boring 10-year siege of Troy. “We lost respect for you guys. You looked like a bunch of beetles scrambling around on a dung heap. When all is said and done, death is pretty boring.” To her credit, Shain blithely tosses off these lines with all the effortlessness as a socialite at a cocktail party.

If there is one snag in the fabric of McLaughlin’s script, it seems to be its over-reliance on the Servant’s storytelling to provide context for Helen’s next set of choices or emotional journey. Also, Jeff Trainor makes a terribly sympathetic war-torn Menelaus, yet his arrival in Helen’s room seems almost anti-climatic. McLaughlin has brought up and fleshed the conundrums involved over women being adored for their physical appearance–yet still having very little control or agency in their lives. She doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up what she’s plunged into. A certain form of immortality is held out to Helen but that hardly seems to compensate for the life the gods have taken from her. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next great beauty of Western culture to have independence, resourcefulness and self-possession. That would certainly be a refreshing change from her literary predecessors.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jeff Trainor (Menelaus) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

Vintage Theater Collective’s Helen continues through May 25th, with perfomances Mondays-Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 1pm. Performances are located at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway).  Tickets cost $20, and are available by phone (214-725-5217) or online at vintagetheatercollective.com.
  
  

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REVIEW: Red Noses (Strawdog Theatre)

Laughing in the face nose of the Black Plague

 

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 2

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
RED NOSES
   
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Matt Hawkins
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through August 15th |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 1 ‘It’s easy to find someone to share your life with. What about someone to share your death?’  Serious contemplations about the fragility of life get a laugh with the addition of a clown prosthetic.  Strawdog Theatre presents the remount of its successful 2009 production RED NOSES.  14th Century Europe is being plagued with death.  The dying is reaching epidemic proportions.  The survivors are targets for flagellant crazed religious types and victim-hunting scavengers.  From this hopeless void, a joyful priest recruits individuals to fight death with humor.  He forms a traveling troupe of performers to ‘ripple and spread’ amusement across the grieving countryside.   Strawdog’s RED NOSES explores the humorous side of the Black Plague by adding a clown-car-filled cast, jamming it to eighties music and letting death urinate on the wall.

The show starts playfully with a game of toss.  Death arrives with a neon yellow ball. The game becomes deadly.  Victims spew out neon yellow barf.  Game over!  The dying has begun.   Death doesn’t keep anyone down for long.  Zombies rise, dance and sing “Only the Good Die Young.” 

Under the direction of Matt Hawkins, the twenty-three cast members are lively, moving from scene to scene and role to role.  They juggle balls, play instruments, and remove spittle as a tight working ensemble.   It’s all about finding the comedic moment and putting a red nose on it.  Shannon Hoag (Marguerite) is hilarious as the disappointed almost-raped nun.  She belts out a wonderful rendition of “I don’t want to lose your love tonight.”  Sarah Goeden (Bells) and Chelsea Paice (Tricycle Clown Messenger) without a word effectively amuse and communicate with ringing and expressive faces.  Michael E. Smith (Pope) delivers a humorous line and attitude with ‘I don’t have to be wise just decisive.’  It’s the small touches that change dire to funny.  Two amputees do a stub version of a high five.  A blind man calls out a color.  
Death gets his cloak caught in his suitcase.  Cause of death?  Talented cast injects shots of fatal humor.  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 3 

‘If there is life after death, why do we have to die?’ Playwright Peter Barnes penned a tale about laughing in the face of death.  To exploit the absurd, he set it in a plague killing era and added clown noses.  The script could go “Patch Adams” cute as one man’s quest to bring joy to the infirmed.  Strawdog wisely chooses a “Monty Python” approach with comedy influenced by pushing the funny aspect of sensitive content.  Barnes’ play has a propensity to go long and tedious with some productions exceeding a three hour running time.  Even with Mike Przygoda (Music Director) orchestrating the 80’s flashback with a high-energy, live soundtrack, the second act gets a little tiresome with death-defying religious undercurrents. Still, “You gotta have faith!” Strawdog’s RED NOSES is plagued with comedy for whatever ails you! 

 

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 4

Running Time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

  
   

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Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

R-and-G-4 

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