REVIEW: Escape from Happiness (Infamous Commonwealth)

Uneven production still allows for entertaining conclusion

 

Infamous Commonwealth Escape for Happiness Press Photo 2

   
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
   
Escape From Happiness
   
Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Genevieve Thompson
at the
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I am not an elderly person. But I’m not completely cool with starting an almost 3-hour show at 8:30, which is the case with Infamous Commonwealth’s Escape from Happiness by Canadian George F. Walker. The major problem with that almost 3-hour show is that it drags, so when I walked at around 11:20 it felt like it was much later.

Starting-time aside, the production isn’t without merit. Although the laughs dip, Walker’s black comedy has some extremely funny moments. The play throws the audience into the thickets of a very dysfunctional family, but one where all the progeny visit often. Escape from happiness posterEveryone, from mom to dad to the trio of sisters, have their little neuroses and quirks, a few worse than others. A product of the early-90’s obsession with petty crime, slacker philosophy, and guns, Escape from Happiness is a chapter in a cycle set in Walker’s old neighborhood in Toronto. There are several untangled knots tied in the plot that make it feel like a link in a chain instead of its own complete whole. There’s an occasional focus on vigilantism and mention of how awful the surrounding neighborhood is, but those points don’t mesh well with the rest of the familial-centered story. Walker stretches his characters and world too far and too thinly for us to really clamp onto any one character. The focus moves from sister to sister without choosing a protagonist. Reeling, complicated family dramas can be brilliant (August: Osage County, anyone?), but Walker just can’t keep our interest going for all his characters throughout the course of the play.

The mission of Infamous Commonwealth is to visibly envelope themselves in one theme each season. The concentration this year is redemption, which is a pretty obvious theme in the play, directed by Genevieve Thompson. Tom (Jim Farrell), the father, is infested with mental illness and shunned and despised by over half his immediate family. The problem is that his past sins didn’t seem worthy of such acidic hate, a failing of writing and direction. Mom (Barbara Anderson) seems to live in willful obliviousness to everything, and the three sisters pick sides and pick on each other. All of the in-fighting is framed within a story about small-time dealers and crooked cops, an external disturbance which feels forced.

The cast has a hard time connecting and building off of each other. Anderson, especially, feels fundamentally false, going through rehearsed motions instead of breathing life into the character. She plays at the crazy and ends up feeling safe. She’s joined by several supporting cast members, like Anne Sheridan Smith and Joe Ciresi, who don’t listen to the other actors on-stage.

Infamous Commonwealths Escape for Happiness Press Photo

As the youngest sister and the focus of the first chunk of the story, Whitney Hayes is fine. The character just becomes increasingly boring and unimportant, and Hayes has much less to do after intermission. The real glue that keeps this show together is Nancy Friedrich as the clingy middle sister, Mary Ann. She has a schizophrenic monologue in the middle of the play that is the funniest thing in the production. She’s mousey and prone to rambling, nailing Walker’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, she functions as a bit part for most of the production. As her sister Elizabeth, Jennifer Mathews takes over for the last half of the play and handles it pretty well, although the character isn’t nearly as funny as Mary Ann. Jim Farrell and the hapless Stephen Dunn are also noteworthy, adding their own comic touches when they can.

Thompson’s production, maybe because of Infamous Commonwealth’s love of themes, sheds some humor in order to clarify the message. And Walker’s writing is dense and unevenly paced. However, the humor blasts through in the second act, and the cast comes together to make it work. Comedies, even black comedies, need to roll along at a quick clip, and this Escape from Happiness lumbers under its own weight.

  
   
Rating: ★★
    
      

Extra Credit

           
Escape From Happiness cast1 Escape From Happiness cast2 Escape From Happiness cast3 Escape From Happiness cast4 Escape From Happiness cast5

Featuring: Barbara Anderson, Josh Atkins*, Joe Ciresi*, Stephen Dunn*, Jim Farrell, Nancy Friedrich*, Whitney Hayes*, Chris Maher *, Jennifer Mathews* and Anne Sheridan Smith.           *denotes company member

West Stage of the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street.  Running July 10 thru August 8;  Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:30pm

                 
                  

REVIEW: “Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne”

A poetic play in a perfect setting

John & Fanny B

North Lakeside Players present:

Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Written and directed by Frank Farrell
at
North Lakeside Cultural Center in Edgewater.
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Among the best things about Chicago’s theater scene are wonderful chances to see productions close-up in intimate and sometimes non-traditional settings. Such venues really bridge the gap between audiences and performers. As I overheard a woman say at North Lakeside Players’ charming world premiere, Bright Star: "I felt like I was part of the play."

The Players perform in the historic Gunder Mansion in Edgewater. Built in 1914, reportedly as the lakefront home of an early silent-movie mogul, the house was renovated and opened in 1989 as the North Lakeside Cultural Center.

mrs B & john john & fanny a 12.6.09

The building can accommodate more, but North Lakeside Players Artistic Director Frank Farrell prefers to limit audiences to 20, in part because he likes to stage scenes throughout the house, moving watchers from room to room. Farrell’s Bright Star shifts from the wood-paneled front parlor to the leaded-glass-flanked dining room to a second-floor bedroom, so viewers get something of a house tour along with the play. (Farrell is known for getting his audiences on the move. He’s also the man behind Theater-Hikes, performed during 2-mile walks, and a new project involving bicycle treks.)

North Lakeside Cultural Center forms an ideal setting for historical plays, like "Bright Star," which covers 1818 to 1821, the final years of the short life of British Romantic poet John Keats. Written in 2001, Farrell’s "Bright Star" is based on the 1968 historical novel of the same name by Joan Rees, which was in turn named for Keats’ sonnet, said to have written to his beloved, Fanny Brawne:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

You need not be a student of literature to appreciate this sad, true love story, also the subject of a recent film by Jane Campion. Keats, 23, and Brawne, 18, met in Hampstead in 1818, and gradually fell in love. Then, as now, life was not easy for self-employed writers — particularly unsuccessful, critically reviled poets — and the couple could not afford to marry. Both her people and his discouraged the relationship. Then, Keats’ health began to fail.

Playwright Farrell weaves wonderful lines, both his own and quotations from Keats, into a compact script. He pares the poetry to a minimum, keeping things moving — aJohn_Keats_by_William_Hiltonlthough I would gladly have heard more of Joe Ciresi’s beautifully expressive recitations.

Ciresi makes a handsome, very boyish Keats (though topped with a Struwwelpeter wig whose historical accuracy appears a little dubious). When it comes to dialogue, however, his performance sometimes seems too restrained.

Actor and script keep the love scenes decorous, as perhaps they really were. Yet surely the intense and stormy Keats who poured his heart into famous love letters with lines like, "Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you" and "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," should display more passion? We need some sizzle, especially between Keats and his darling.

Pretty Nicole Richwalsky brings the right coquettishness and emotion to the young and not very deep Fanny, while Christina Thodos plays her widowed mother with matter-of-fact briskness, delightful in scenes such as one quizzing the young poet on his prospects. Christina Irwin is nicely motherly as the busybody neighbor, Mrs. Dilke, and Michael Mercier doubles proficiently as Keats’ dying brother, Tom, and his friend Charles Brown. Frank R. Sjodin and Nada Latoya Steier capably play a variety of supporting roles.

The playwright knows his subject thoroughly, creating a few puzzles for audience members not so deeply grounded in Keats’ biography. For instance, there’s a rather mystifying scene with Mrs. Isabella Jones (Steier), who needs a better introduction (Keats may or may not have had an affair with her); and glancing references to bad reviews don’t adequately prepare us for an unneeded, anticlimactic monologue damning Keats’ literary critics for the poet’s death.

Quibbles aside, "Bright Star" is a lovely play in a lovely setting, well worth the modest ticket price.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Note: The production is not wheelchair accessible. Paid parking is available across the street; parking passes must be reserved with tickets. Possible future performances may be in February. 

fanny & john bed Photos by Frank Farrell