Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

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The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

     
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The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Artists

 

Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress

  

  
     

REVIEW: Under Construction (Jackalope Theatre)

   
  

Finding meaning from life’s little knick knacks

 
 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Brenann Stacker, Christopher Meister, & Dan Conway

    
Jackalope Theatre presents their adaption of
   
Under Construction
   
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by
AJ Ware
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Step onto the set of Under Construction and you immediately suppose that you’re about to witness the typical family melodrama.  Audience seating is minimal; right onstage with the players in Jackalope Theatre’s intensely intimate adaptation of Charles Mee’s original play (adapted by Andrew Burden Swanson, Melanie Berner and AJ Ware, who also directs).  But the usual Thanksgiving gathering serves up a platter of multicolored feathers, glasses stuffed with random textiles to suggest different kinds of beverages, dinner rolls cut out of memory foam and candles on the table crafted from colored pencils.  This is not a “real” Thanksgiving but a creation, a re-creation based on fallible and impressionistic memory. 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerBoth the memory and its recreation belong to Abbey (Brenann Stacker), an artist who creates sculptures from found objects, the detritus of knick-knacks that survive us.  What Abbey tries to reconstruct is her relationship with her father Sam (Christopher Meister), a prickly man at war with himself in his staid role as family breadwinner and working class Joe.  Continuously frustrated, he cannot help taking it out on his family.  Not a model dad, Sam eventually leaves his family, which also includes son Jack (Dan Conway) and wife Emily (Mary Jo Bolduc).

Reconciling her feelings after her father passes away becomes the driving force in Abbey’s work, as well as her livestream conversations with her brother Jack, who wonders himself just how much he is turning into his father.  Under Construction jumps around between present events and Abbey’s continually revised and reconstructed past.  This structural element to the play has its pay-offs, but also sacrifices continuity, which probably is the point.  Uncertainty purposefully suffuses past events.  But the play’s transitional demands make the actors start cold with some scenes and that sort of emotional scramble makes its demands on the audience as well.  Nevertheless, both Stacker and Meister expertly render some very hard-boiled truths—she, about the barren depths of an artist’s creative malaise and he, about the life-draining impact of a man’s labor exploited under capitalism.

Jackalope’s production also does an excellent job of taking Mee’s pastiche of 1950’s social etiquette books and father/daughter scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and replaying them with totally transformed impact between the characters themselves.  Family may indeed be a replay of scripts handed to us from a variety of comforting and familiar sources, but that replay’s actual outcome might not comfort or reassure like some safe and predictable “Father Knows Best” scenario.  Sam does not know what to make of his life and Abbey has a hard time knowing what to make of their relationship once he is gone.

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Christopher Meister, Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerIn the context of uncertainty, forgiveness becomes a creational act.  Gently conveying this well are the actors cast as the grandparents, Sophia (Margaret Kustermann) and Henry (Jim Schutter).  Even as bit parts, they provide the foundation for this family. 

If there is a weak point to Under Construction, it’s the role of Emily, who for the most part gets pigeonholed as a long-suffering wife with little room for nuance or variation.  Here is another character that needs some process of forgiveness.  If she has any, it goes mysteriously and failingly silent.  Abbey, at least, has her work—an art form wherein she can take the scraps of what’s left of a life or a relationship and make it into something with meaning.  It’s what we do with the detritus left behind, after all, that truly matters.    

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Jailbait (Profiles Theatre)

Teens grow up too fast in Profile’s tense tragicomedy

 

Emmy (Zoe Levin) and friend Claire (Rae Gray) in Profiles Theatre's "Jailbait" by Deidre O'Connor

   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Jailbait
  
Written by Deidre O’Connor
Directed by
Joe Jahraus
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

“We’re 15, everything fun is illegal,” Emmy (Zoe Levin) tells her friend Claire (Rae Gray) as they prepare to sneak into a 21-and-over nightclub. Over the course of Deidre O’Connor’s Jailbait, the two girls learn why those laws are in place when they’re paired off with Mark (Shane Kenyon) and Robert (Eric Burgher), two thirty-somethings looking for an undergrad-style night of drunken debauchery.

Emmy (Zoe Levin) and friend Claire (Rae Gray) in Profiles Theatre's "Jailbait" by Deidre O'ConnorWith children being exposed to sexually charged material at an earlier age, what was once considered deplorable behavior is becoming the norm for teenagers. Playwright Deidre O’Connor recognizes this changing social climate without passing judgment, letting the audience draw conclusions as the events unfold. The script realistically confronts the issue of teenage sexuality without being preachy, creating a complex situation where blame is shared between all involved parties and everyone is a victim.

With a cast of actors adept at creating believable characters, Joe Jahraus directs a tense, provocative production that reinforces the themes of the script beautifully. Gray gives an outstanding performance as Claire, who is simultaneously struggling with the pressures of adolescence and the loss of her father. Claire blossoms in the liberate environment of the adult world, and Gray captures both the awkward teen and confident woman in Claire beautifully.

In a play full of tense moments, Claire’s scenes with the newly single Robert are especially painful to watch because of the actors’ terrific chemistry, milking dramatic irony for all its worth as the attraction builds. An interesting dynamic develops during these scenes, with Robert acting more youthful and carefree as Claire matures, effectively bridging the emotional age gap while the physical and legal age gaps loom dreadfully. The play succeeds largely in part due to Burgher’s vulnerable, anxious, but ultimately charming portrayal of Robert, avoiding any predatory qualities that could compromise the innocence of his courtship with Claire. The character is likable, making it so much more difficult to watch him seduce a 15 year old girl.

In supporting roles, Levin and Kenyon are the drunker, rowdier pair, providing comic relief while still being given a fair share of meaty, dramatic moments. As a man whose “first wife hasn’t even born yet,” Mark is the closest thing to the play’s antagonist, with his manipulation setting tragic events in motion. Kenyon’s charisma makes it hard to hate the character, and he does have a point when it comes to the arguments he makes to lift Robert out of his slump – except for the part where the girls are 15. Levin spends a good amount of the show playing drunk, a difficult task she performs impressively, but she also gives Emmy a clear emotional journey, making her more vulnerable as the play progresses.

At the end of Jailbait, Claire and Emmy talk about the events of the night with the excitement of teenage girls gossiping about their latest crushes, free from the burdens of being an adult. This scene is welcome relief from the tension of the rest of the play, but also serves as a foreboding reminder that once the adult has touched you, it owns you. Growing up will happen no matter what, so why lose your childhood?

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Production Personnel

Playwright: Deidre O’Connor
Director: Joe Jahraus
Featuring: Eric Burgher, Rae Gray, Shane Kenyon, Zoe Levin
Lighting Design: Jess Harpenau
Sound Design: Jeffrey Levin
Set Design: Sotirios Livaditis
Costumes:  Melissa Ng
Stage Manager:  Corey Weinberg

  
  

REVIEW: Days of Late (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

The quandaries of modern love

 

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SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
 
Days of Late
 
Written/directed by Braden LuBell
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed  by K.D. Hopkins

SiNNERMAN Ensemble has produced a quirky and intense expose of life and love among the twenty to thirty-something generation. Days of Late lays bare the labyrinth that relationships have become in the electronic age. Written and directed by Braden LuBell, Days of Late features a remarkable ensemble.

DaysOfLate4 Navigating the path to relationship has become an inorganic process post-millennium. Text messages, instant messages, tweeting, g-talk, dating sites, and anonymity have taken the place of meeting a girl or a guy at school, church or even the local pub in “days of late”. Everyone is longing for intimacy but the means of attaining it are anything but intimate.

LuBell’s script is a series of well-staged scenarios between a group of friends and their assorted associates. The minimalist set is similar to Lucid (our review ★★½)also directed by LuBell but it works much better with his own writing. The actors move the simple pieces of furniture about in between scenes like puzzle pieces, and then sit on the sides of the stage as observers in the shadows. This allows the actors to be the focus of attention but calls to mind how love is manipulated and discarded like so much furniture.

Some of the cast members really stood out. Shane Kenyon as Arthur and Sue Redman as Avery represent the most authentic journey of all the relationships. Mr. Kenyon’s comedic timing is perfect and in a second he breaks your heart projecting the frustration of trying to be honest in a world that thrives on game playing. Ms. Redman is the perfect accompaniment as Avery. Her character’s explanation of having to look great to attract the right guy while repelling the wrong guy at the same time was hilarious in its honesty. The performances by Ebony Wimbs and Doug Tyler are interesting in that they are portraying characters that have been emotionally stunted from childhood. Ms. Wimbs plays Nina – a woman who has made her way into the world of high art and her model for love is more like a business plan. She finds Max (Tyler) online, who has just ended a two-year relationship with a man. Max wants to have the American family ideal. ‘Someone to grow old with and have kids’ is on his agenda and he decides that it should be a woman. There is a contrived nature to their relationship, seemingly constructed with directions from advice columns and magazine articles on identity and poly-amory. The performances of Ms. Wimbs and Mr. Tyler have a fine balance in portraying this situation. They are nuanced and open hearted even when it all comes to an unexpected conclusion.

Brian Kavanaugh (as Dale) makes the perfect sinister attorney on the down low who orders anonymous sex online to be delivered to his office. Dale is a jerk to everyone and cannot seem to come to terms with his sexual longings. Arianne Ellison has a funny and poignant turn as Dale’s emotionally abused wife Chrissy. One can not help but flinch as Dale berates her for not appreciating how hard he worked to get them to an upper echelon of society. The New Year’s Eve scene with Chrissy and Avery is beautifully acted and literally shows what happened to the cheerleader who had it all.

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Christine Lin, as Miyoko the gallery curator, and Bret Lee as Sascha, the gay starving artist, fill out the cast, do a fine job with roles that feel contrived and stereotypical. Ms. Lin is the Asian woman who rebels against the stereotype of submissiveness by being the polar opposite. She is revolted when she has her first orgasm delivered with great comic and sexy flair by Mr. Kenyon. She is used to rough and anonymous sodomy with Dale the doltish attorney and hates that she loses control. Mr. Lee spends most of the play as the walking wounded. He doesn’t get any of the snappy repartee or double entendre but manages to turn in a fine performance free of snark or self-pity.

The performances in Days of Late owe a lot to a fluid script. Some of the terms that could be a challenge are made clear by the writing and smooth direction. I am glad to be a generation before the one portrayed in this production. The world is an emotional minefield and the roadmap is mostly a mélange of instant gratification. This generation has been raised in an era of permissiveness and experimentation under the guise of personal freedom. Self-control and letting things unfold naturally still turn out to be the winning ticket. Days of Late is a definite winner. It is funny, warm, and potentially shocking in its frankness. Not for kids unless you want to do some hard explaining.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

“Days of Late” runs through May 22nd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western in Chicago. The times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are available by calling 773-296-6024 or www.viaducttheatre.com. Read more about this talented ensemble at http://www.sinnermanensemble.org.

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