Review: The Conquest of the South Pole (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

The Ultimate Downer

  
  

Tom Hickey, Michael Dailey, John Ferrick in Strawdog Theatre's 'The Conquest of the South Pole'. Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Conquest of the South Pole
   
Written by Manfred Karge
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 28  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The title suggests a sprawling epic, not this intriguing 90-minute allegorical comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge (a Brecht protege who has worked for the Berliner Ensemble). A richly surreal trove, The Conquest of the South Pole is an action portrait of four unemployed workers who, vaguely sensing they’ve lost their usefulness, pass their time recreating Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the bottom of the earth.

Strawdog Theatre presents 'The Conquest of the South Pole' by Manfred Karge and directed by Kimberly Senior.With no glory to seek themselves, they ape a long-gone fame. (It beats playing pinball, swilling schnapps or pretending that they’re force-feeding political prisoners.) This borrowed lusters is one of many pungent ironies archly detailed in Kimberly Senior’s staging for Strawdog Theatre.

Mired in the dying industrial town of Herne, the twentysomethings congregate on their crowded tenement rooftop (evoked by Jack Magaw in a sparely neutral dormer set design). Their make-believe offers them a refuge from the bleak life of the Ruhr valley. (Envying the boredom of "unemployed millionaires," one worker comments: "They don’t even want to work. I want to, and I can’t!") Well, they’re not attacking immigrant workers like so many German skinheads.

But, far from offering an escape, their ritualized polar saga perversely mirrors their own dark plight and it’s easier to connect with Scott’s doomed expedition than Amundsen’s successful one.

Led by gruff Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the crew–skeptical Buscher (John Ferrick), mysterious Seiffert (Michael Dailey) and very married Braukmann (Tom Hickey)–are joined by the dimwitted but doglike Frankieboy (Joel Ewing), as they meticulously recreate the Norwegian’s race to the Pole, scrounging around for antarctic-ish costumes, using a laundry line as an icy landscape, rappelling across the stage, breaking into song and dance.

Inevitably the fantasy must be paid for or, as they put it, "Watch out for crevasses." Sexually confident even if strapped for funds, Slupianek seduces Brauckmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery), who’s furious that their boyish “monkey games” are keeping her husband from going to work.  Buscher almost derails the pageant by demanding that they enact Scott’s doomed expedition, a reflection of failure a lot closer to their own.

Oddly, the event that renews their ardor to resume their "play" is an ugly encounter with Rudi (Anderson Lawfer), a boorish and fatuous Hitler lover and his divorced trull Rosi (Justine C. Turner); nothing could be worse than his idea of fascist pleasure.

When they finally "reach" the Pole, it’s a glorious, redeeming moment, followed all too quickly by the inevitable let-down (even a suicide). Clearly art was not enough.

In its pell-mell energy and kinetic stage pictures ”Conquest” strongly recalls past Chicago productions of English plays about bored and wasted youth–Road, Stags and Hens, Bouncers, (It also resembles Marat/Sade in its inspired yoking of an historical event with a dysfunctional present.) What’s unique to Karge’s 1986 work is the depiction of untapped ingenuity; in the desperation of the men’s elaborate theatrics, midlife crises and frenetic male-bonding, you taste the loss of so much thwarted art, squandered by hard times and bad luck.

With a translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt, the script is a volatile mix of cascading street poetry, no-nonsense confessionals, and the rigid, haunting prose of the original antarctic journals.

Unfortunately, this revival is much less thrilling than the play’s first Chicago production in 1992 by the late Famous Door Theatre. The Strawdog stage just isn’t big enough for the men to take real risks in recreating their polar hero journey. The script’s adventurous aspects get short shrift and we’re left with undiluted desperation.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2

Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
         
         

Strawdog Theatre announces new artistic staff and ensemble members

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As part of their ongoing celebration of 22 years(!) in Chicago theatre, Strawdog Theatre Company proudly announces the hiring of new Managing Director Hank Boland, new General Manager Cortney Hurley, the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, Mike Przygoda and Justine C. Turner and the appointment of Matt Hawkins as Strawdog Artistic Associate and Resident Director.

hboland_large Hank Boland replaces Alex J. Goodman as Managing Director of Strawdog Theatre Company.  Boland’s work with Strawdog Theatre Company includes writing Season Seventeen’s epic musical The True Ballad of Fall’s Blessings, directed by Strawdog’s Artistic Director Nic Dimond and written in collaboration with Strawdog Theatre Company. In 2006, Dimond asked Boland to develop a writing initiative for Strawdog Ensemble Members.  Billed the The Hit Factory, this program regularly schedules late night events and graduations to showcase new work. The Hit Factory now also offers tuition based classes to the public, please see our website for more information. The Hit Factory is committed to creating new works, and strengthening the working relationships between Strawdog Theatre Company and other members of the Chicago theatre community. Boland holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film from Columbia College in Chicago where he is an adjunct faculty member in the screenwriting department.

Cortney Hurley, Strawdog’s Production Manager since 2006, has been promoted to General Manager, overseeing Strawdog’s growing theatrical complex located at

Strawdog Theatre Company is now home to a 70-seat mainstage theatre, 40-seat Hugen Hall cabaret space complete with bar and liquor license and 400 square foot rehearsal space called Nowhere Mountain.

Strawdog Theatre Company is also pleased to announce the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap has appeared on the Strawdog stage in Cherry Orchard, Marathon ‘33 and the Strawdog Radio Theatre Series. Dunlap graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts and has been seen in productions at several Chicago theatres including 16th Street Theater, Lifeline Theatre, Factory Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, Adventure Stage Chicago and Estrogen Fest.

Paul Fagen was last seen as Father Toulon in Strawdog’s critically-acclaimed production of Red Noses. Originally from Annapolis, MD, Fagen has also acted in productions at The House Theatre of Chicago, Speaking Ring Theater and Quest Theatre Ensemble.

Mike Przygoda was most recently the Musical Director and Arranger for Strawdog’s Red Noses. Przygoda holds a BFA in music composition from Columbia College Chicago.  He has worked on numerous shows in Chicago both as a composer and as a performing musician for companies such as The House Theatre of Chicago (Valentine Victorious, Ellen Under Glass, The Boy Detective Fails, Hatfield & McCoy, The Sparrow, The Magnificents, The Nutcracker, The Rose & Rime), American Theatre Company (Oklahoma!), The Hypocrites (Camille/La Traviata), Trapdoor (AmeriKafka), Next Theatre (The Busy World Is Hushed, 365 Days/Plays), The Neo-Futurists (Beer) and has written music for Serendipity Theatre Collective‘s Second Story.  He served as a musical director for the Second City Touring Company.

Justine C. Turner joins the Strawdog Ensemble after appearing in Red Noses. Originally from Oak Park, IL and a graduate of Columbia College, Turner was most recently seen in the remount of Rivendell Theatre’s These Shining Lives at Theatre on the Lake and appeared in Ren Faire last summer at The Factory Theatre.

Director of Strawdog’s smash, sold-out production of Red Noses Matt Hawkins joins Artistic Associates Kimberly Senior and Shade Murray in their growing ensemble of Resident Directors. Hawkins previously directed Hatfield & McCoy for The House Theatre of Chicago, On My Parents Hundredth Wedding Anniversary for the side project and will direct Cabaret for The Hypocrites next spring.

Strawdog’s staff includes Artistic Director Nic Dimond, Managing Director Hank Boland and General Manager Cortney Hurley. The complete Strawdog ensemble includes Jennifer Avery, Hank Boland, Abigail Boucher, Don Cardiff, Erin Carlson, Michael Dailey, Anita Deely, Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, John Ferrick, Mikhail Fiksel, Aly Renee Greaves, Carmine Grisolia, Christopher Hainsworth, Kyle Hamman, Erik Hellman, Tom Hickey, Shannon Hoag, Anderson Lawfer, Sean Mallary, Kat McDonnell, Gregor Mortis, Stacy Parker Hirsch, Michaela Petro, Mike Przygoda, John Henry Roberts, Justine C. Turner, Jamie Vann and James Anthony Zoccoli.

Map to Strawdog Theatre: