REVIEW: Mrs. Caliban (Lifeline Theatre)

Forbidden love and the rebirth of spirit

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Mrs. Caliban

Based on the novel by Rachel Ingalls
Adapted for the stage by Frances Limoncelli
directed by Ann Boyd
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Magical Realism, the melding of fable with cold hard reality, is a term not often heard in mainstream American culture. Fortunately. we find magical realism beautifully rendered in Lifeline Theatre new production of Mrs. Caliban.

MrsCaliban1_web As the play opens, the Calibans go through a stultifying ritual of getting on with the day. Fred communicates with wife Dorothy by checklist. There are no loving words or affectionate pecks on the cheek. Fred can barely look Dorothy in the eye as he stumbles over the worn excuse for those working late –  “I’ll call” – before walking out the door. Dorothy seems to inhale the indifference as she closes the door and forges ahead with her household tasks, habitually turning on the radio; losing herself in the world of music, news and the American “fables” called commercials.

A chirpy announcer is heard extolling the virtues of dishwashing liquid and reasoning that a hot TV dinner can corral a straying husband. Dorothy loses herself in the music and mocks the commercials with interpretive dance. (Brenda Barrie , playing the role of Dorothy, is an ethereal delight to watch – exuding a sprite-like joy and wonder in the character.) Dorothy has lost most of the joy in her waking life and her surroundings are stark and white. Matching the minimalistic set-design, she dresses in varying hues of beige – literally fading into the background. Mrs. Caliban’s only human contact involves forays to the supermarket and coffee with her friend Estelle.

Estelle is literally a siren in red, played by Jenifer Tyler. A divorcee who extols the joys of promiscuity and drinking too much coffee, Tyler gives an edgy performance as a woman who tries to make her fantasies come true through promiscuity and betrayal. What could easily have been a scenery-chewing role, the character of Estelle – as honed by Ms. Tyler – is instead shaded with beauty and vulnerability. Her actions are reprehensible but grounded in insecurity and wanting to be loved.

But this life of ritual and fantasy is starkly interrupted by the appearance of an escaped monster. With menacing tones, the media calls the monster Aquarius Man; warning that he dismembers his victims. The monster appears in Dorothy’s kitchen while she prepares a meal for Fred and his business client. He is a hulking creature played with a man-child flourish by Peter Greenburg. He takes in the scenery and the character of Dorothy with animal senses. Greenburg projects the feeling that all of his senses are heightened, absorbing and then becoming his surroundings as he takes everything in with astonished wonder. The monster’s chemistry with Dorothy is instant and believable.

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There is a lovely comic rapport established between Dorothy and Aquarius Man. She feeds him vegetables and discovers that his name is Larry. The monster speaks tentatively, literally a foreigner learning a new language. Greenberg uses this technique to such skill that it adds hilarity when he tells Dorothy his real name or when he recoils from alleged vegetarian cornflakes and prefers the taste of the box.

Aquarius Man Larry is the antithesis of husband Fred, played by Dan Granata. Fred has become accustomed to ignoring his wife as anything other than someone to go over the checklist as he exits the house. He has long exited her heart or had any intimacy with Dorothy. Mr. Granata imbues his performance with sadness and guilt. Fred is a philanderer and doesn’t have the capability to connect with anything or anyone. Dorothy knows that Fred is cheating but begins to not to care as her relationship with Larry becomes intimate and then erotic. She listens to him and asks about the world of which he longs to return. He listens to her about the loss of her children and then her marriage.

There is a surprising erotic intensity between Larry and Dorothy. The erotic history of the monster and the damsel in distress goes far back in theatre and literature. Dracula and Mina Harker, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, or the Wolf Man and the Gypsy Girl are but a few examples (not to mention pop culture’s “Beauty and the Beast” or “Shrek”). Larry and Dorothy never actually kiss but rather consume each other through their senses of touch and smell. She caresses his odd green skin and seems to become consumed by the tactile sensation.

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This is so much more than a story of interspecies mating. It is a fable of redemption, fate, acceptance, and forgiveness by becoming of love more than in love. Larry is brutally honest with Dorothy about his life and his origins. When he commits what is considered a horrific crime in self-defense, Dorothy is called upon to face her perception of wrong and right. Is it harder to defend Larry because she knows one of the alleged victims? Will she still stand by him and help him get to his native home?These wonderful actors make the questions more than simple romantic flights of fancy.

Special attention must be given to Monica Dionysiou who plays three supporting roles as Estelle’s out of control adolescent daughter Sandra, a pushy saleswoman, and is scary funny as the Supermarket Cheese Majorette. It is a surreal experience that will make you look askance at the sample lady at the market.

Mrs. Caliban” is adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the novel by Rachel Ingalls and directed by Ann Boyd. Ms. Boyd does an exemplary job of bringing archetype and fable into the realm of reality, creating a production void of flat moments or missed beats,.

Brandon Wardell’s lighting add beauty to the action, creating a chiaroscuro effect that enhance the actors without the use of physical props. The silhouette of Larry as he feeds from the energy of the sea was touching and more so when Dorothy becomes one with the sea as well.

“Mrs. Caliban” is an ensemble piece at its best. It is a great theatre experience that leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. I was left wondering about my own fears and presumptions about other beings. Also, it’s a sly and funny indictment of our advertisement-drenched sensibilities. It’s possible that we have all had moments when the box would have tasted better than the contents but let ourselves be deluded into what is supposed to be good or look good by 30 second blurbs.

Take 90 minutes and get a better look at the Lifeline Theatre’s highly-recommended production.

Rating: ★★★★

“Mrs. Caliban” is at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. It is accessible by CTA and there is ample parking at the NE corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free shuttle service before and after the show. The play runs Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00PM, and Sundays at 4:00PM, through March 28th. Contact Lifeline at 773-761-4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com

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Review: Lifeline’s “Busman’s Honeymoon”

The mystery stew of Busman’s Honeymoon

review by Paige Listerud

Following an explosion in the chimney, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; right) enjoys a laugh at the expense of Bunter (Phil Timberlake; left; soot-smudged face), in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. SayersFans of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, by Dorothy L. Sayers, are sure to be delighted by the well-produced world premiere of Busman’s Honeymoon, adapted by Frances Limoncelli and directed by Paul S. Holmquist, both Jeff Award-winning ensemble members of Lifeline Theatre. This is the fourth in a line of Sayer’s Wimsey novels that Limoncelli has adapted for the stage at Lifeline; preceded by Gaudy Night in 2006, Strong Poison in 2004, and Whose Body in 2002. Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler respectively reprise their roles as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane from Gaudy Night, for which they both received Jeff nominations.

Wedding bells have finally rung for amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg, left) and novelist Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler, right), but their quiet, country honeymoon is disrupted by a body found in the wine cellar, in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Homquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers Famous crime sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and equally famous mystery novelist Harriet Vane escape the glare of publicity by eloping to their newly-purchased English country house. There, with the aid of Lord Wimsey’s long-suffering, perfectionist butler, Bunter, they amiably manage the blighted amenities of their run-down home and the intrusions of eccentric locals on their honeymoon, until murder disturbs everyone’s peace. Embroiling themselves in the mystery threatens their relationship, as much as the crime and their celebrity disrupt the English countryside.

This production is filled with nostalgia, not just for Sayers’ characters in particular, but also for all those crime-solving couples from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Elegant pairings of men and women who are just as likely to toss off a witticism as detect an overlooked clue, all while keeping the romance between them frothy and bubbling. Limoncelli’s adaptation, in accordance with Sayers’ novel, attempts to take Lord and Lady Wimsey to deeper levels. They struggle with intimacy, with keeping their integrity, with staying together while forces pull them apart, and withstand the darkness of bringing someone to execution, according with the law of the land.

Bunter (Phil Timberlake; left foreground; holding teacup) offers a toast to his employers, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; center background) and Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler; right background; white dress), on their wedding night, in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers There is much here that fans, familiar with both Sayers’ books and/or Lifeline’s series of adaptations, will thoroughly enjoy. The scenes of the rapacious press on Wimsey’s heels are fun and precise in their execution. The scene of the villagers bursting into song creates a much-needed sense of community. The vicar with his blunderbuss is a riot. The rant that Bunter (Phil Timberlake) breaks into over the disturbance of his lord’s delicate port is precious, as is the enmity that it sets up between him and Mrs. Ruddle (Millicent Hurley) from thereon.

People unfamiliar with this series will find enough that detracts from the complete enjoyment of the play, despite the yeoman-like work of the cast and crew.

It takes a deft hand, in writing or in acting, to shift from clever, lighthearted sleuthing to more serious melodrama without a hitch. The challenge is always to create a seamless whole in the characters’ progression, while building and maintaining suspense in resolving the murder.

Here is where one threatens to overweigh the other. Here is when the necessary introduction of stock mystery characters threatens to distract from the deeper development of the central love relationship on stage. Here is where one wonders whether too much is being crushed into an already 21/2 hour-long production. Here one questions whether another form, similar to a mystery television series, would better serve.

Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; left; standing on chair) expresses his joy at finally being wed to Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler; right), in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers.What cannot be fulfilled through the structure of the play must be carried by the actor’s performances. Let it just be said that, across the board, these are stock provincial English characters. It is harder to play a stock character than one realistically written. So much of the actor’s performance relies on what is not contained in the script, which is by nature stereotypical, at least in such a predictable genre as mystery. The actor must make three-dimensional a two-dimensional and cliché figure, yet not exceed the boundaries of the character.

Still, these characters must be inhabited in order to keep them from seeming predictable or trite. While the entire cast is technically excellent and uniformly pulls off dialect, character intentions, and complex scene changes with aplomb, nothing replaces the performance that makes one believe that an actor is the gardener, is the jilted old maid, is the vicar, etc.

It’s very possible that in the course of the run each of the cast members will grow deeper connections to their characters and make them seem less superficial. It’s also quite likely that Greenberg and Tyler will better negotiate their characters’ shift between sleuthing with elegant charm to the graver, more precarious pursuit of truth and love.

Rating: «««

Info: Previews beginning Friday, May 1, 2009, opening Monday, May 11, 2009, and running until June 21, 2009. Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Chicago, IL 60626. For tickets call the box office at 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

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Lifeline welcomes Allison Cain as new Managing Director

Allison Cain Joins Lifeline Theatre as Managing Director

Allison Cain, new managing director at Lifeline Theatre Lifeline Theatre welcomed Allison Cain as their new Managing Director starting March 24, 2009. In this fulltime, on-site position, Cain will be responsible for all the theatre’s non-artistic functions, including operations, finance, marketing and strategic planning, and hsave oversight of all development and fundraising. Together with Artistic Director Dorothy Milne, Cain will continue to work on the ensemble’s 26th anniversary, 2008-2009 season, which will feature the “Mystery3(or “Mystery Cubed”) benefit with Sara Paretsky on April 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center, and concludes with the world premiere adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers“Busman’s Honeymoon,” running May 1–June 21, 2009. Lifeline Theatre is also a member of the community partnership that will present this summer’s Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest (August 22–23, GlenwoodAve.org). The non-profit’s 2009–2010 season begins with two world premiere stage adaptations – the MainStage production “Treasure Island” (running September 11–November 1, 2009) , and the KidSeries musical “Dooby Dooby Moo” (running October 17–December 6, 2009).

Lifeline_logo From 2001-2008, Cain was Factory Theater’s Executive Director (where she remains an ensemble member), and was Artistic Director of Studio 108 from 1991–1998. She received her training at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and at Chicago’s Columbia College, and, since 1990, has worked almost exclusively on new work in Los Angeles, Connecticut, and Scotland, in addition to Chicago. Lifeline audiences will recognize Cain from her work as an actor in the MainStage productions of “Johnny Tremain,” “Crossing California,” “The Mark of Zorro,” and “Mariette in Ecstasy,” as well as in numerous productions over the past 17 years with Factory and other Chicagoland theaters. Cain had been concurrently working in the corporate world for the past 25 years, and for 13 of them as a Human Resources professional.  She said, “I am thrilled to make the full-time transition to the not-for-profit theater world, and remain committed to the development and production of new works.”

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