Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Emigrants (Moving Stories Theatre)

The Polish Odd Couple

The Emigrants - AA and XX

Moving Stories Theatre presents:

The Emigrants

 

by Slawomir Mrozek
directed by Goran Milev
through February 21st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago audiences rarely get a chance to see the stimulating and provocative work of Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. For that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to high tail it to Moving Stories Theatre’s showing of The Emigrants at The Artistic Home. This is the first in a series of World Theater they will be presenting for the 2010 season and if their opening shot is any indication of future productions, we are all in for a real treat.

Written in 1974, The Emigrants reflects both the philosophical and the mundane dilemmas of émigrés from Eastern Block states living in the West. Commenting on his own immigrant experience in a letter, Mrozek wrote, “I never experience such a Image1sharpening of [my] senses and thoughts as in an unfamiliar country, an unfamiliar city, among unfamiliar people, whose language preferably I do not know. [This offers] such intensification of life, of my whole existence.”

That state aptly describes Emigrant XX (Goran Milev, who also directs the productions), the prosaic prole who wants to make just enough money to own a house back in the old, totalitarian home country. Emigrant AA (Joe Mack), a Polish liberal intellectual succeeds him in education and abstract understanding, but hasn’t enough drive to get dressed and step out of the basement apartment they share. Without a dollar in his pocket, XX finds excitement going to the train station and standing among the people there, while AA stays on the subterranean level, imagining himself as an organism in the bowels of a great beast.

Together, XX and AA make up a pre-Perestroika Polish odd couple–getting on each other’s nerves over issues that are either petty, but significant to daily survival, or are deeply profound but, without traction, vanish into airy nothingness. Milev, in particular, strikes all the right notes portraying XX’s new emigrant awkwardness and anxiousness to be acceptable. Compounded by a capacity for taking concepts too far and reluctance in admitting when he doesn’t understand something, XX’s character drives most of the comedy of the piece.

Image7 Indeed, he seems to be its heart and soul, especially when AA determines to make him the center of his new work of political theory. Never mind that AA hasn’t completed any work, intellectual or otherwise, since he’s arrived—XX cannot leave until it is done. Here, the enlightened intellectual begins to reflect the control of the totalitarian state they have both left. But then, as XX astutely pointed out earlier, under totalitarianism the both of them were equal—in slavery. New rules and not-so-new divisions of class and privilege determine their value as human beings in the so-called free world.

It’s here where the production falls short in teasing out all the layers of darkness, paradox, and absurdity. But then, Mzorek packs more into an 80-minute one-act than most playwrights do into two hours. Mack’s interpretation of AA is especially casual—that, and no discernible accent, makes AA like a slightly more educated Dude from The Big Lebowski than a despondent Polish intellectual émigré. A certain lack of fire and intensity, particularly when holding forth dearly held political views, robs Mack of an edge to be realistically threatening once the story turns dark. Both actors do sustain the dynamic tension between them, however, long enough to suggest the pearl of madness at the bottom of AA’s soul–and the pearl of wit that dwells at the bottom of XX’s.

The Emigrant’s run will be short—only until February 21st. For those who crave more intellectual fare and seek a break from the cultural insularity of American life, this small, dense political drama may prove to be a walk on the wild side.

Rating: ★★★

 

the emigrants

Review: Artistic Home’s “Days to Come”

  The Artistic Home Shows Weaknesses, Not Strengths, of Days To Come

 

DTC02_Firth after fight

The Artistic Home presents:

Days To Come

by Lillian Hellman
directed by Kathy Scambiatterra
thru November 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.         — Lillian Hellman

DTC06_Wilke and Easter Is it possible to be too reverential while executing a particular work? True, Days To Come was written by the larger-than-life Lillian Hellman. In it, tragic things happen, lives are irreparably damaged, and the play is full of social import. All the same it is still a melodrama, not a tragedy. One’s impression upon seeing it onstage now at The Artistic Home is that director Kathy Scambiatterra has seriously mistaken one for the other.

This is not to write off Days To Come as a lesser Hellman work and I hope no one reads my use of “melodrama” in any pejorative way. Melodrama is an extremely versatile, complex, and enduring genre. One for which, as the above quotation shows, Hellman had immense respect. Most of all, more often than not, melodrama is intensely personal. In the end, Days To Come is about the very personal costs of falling for fast, slipshod, and cutthroat solutions to both personal and larger social problems.

Artistic Home’s production succeeds most when it fulfills the melodramatic mode of the play—as it does in those scenes centering on the strikebreakers/thugs hired by the Rodman family to disrupt the ongoing strike at their factory. Scenes where Mossie (Eustace Allen) and Joe (Jeremy Glickstein) play cards while they “guard” the Rodman house build with crackling intensity; while Wilke (Gerard Jamroz) their boss oozes criminality out of every pore. Jamroz absolutely shines in this role—coy, sleazy, and unctuous when he needs to be; pouring on coarse brutality when it serves. His performance almost steals the play.

In fact, Hellman’s criminals seem to come from the pen of her lifetime partner, Dashiell Hammet. But then, they had been together for five years by the time Days To Come premiered.

DTC04_Julie and Henry DTC03_Julie and Andy

In stark contrast, Scambiaterra chooses to keep the rest of her cast buttoned down until the final scene. Sadly, what goes missing is a sense of history between all characters and a strong ensemble sensibility between cast members. Plus, direction during the first act often seems as stilted as some of the dialogue; the actors often look like chess pieces moved around upon a board than people inhabiting a living room.

Patrick Raynor as Tom Firth, the working class best friend of Andrew Rodman (Joe McCauley), brings refreshing intensity upon his entrance into the family hothouse environment. Tim Patrick Miller, as the labor organizer Jim Whalen, brings a nice touch of Humphrey Bogart toughness to his role, even if some lines bring him dangerously close to sounding like a pompous white knight.

Once the strike devolves into violence, Scambiaterra’s direction finally unleashes the cast in a big family blow-up, a dramatic impact lessened by the lack of any reasonable foreshadowing. Still, the biggest, most enjoyable scene-stealer is Justine Serino as Cora, venting her jealous rage at philandering sister-in-law Julie (Leavey Ballou).

It’s here Joe McCauley’s role as the family scion, Andrew Rodman, finally comes into its own—and it’s a palpable relief when it does. His character’s trajectory veers the closest to tragedy. What is not clear is whether, at the start of the play, he realized that he could lose the town that he loved the most through his own passivity. If Hellman’s writing does not make that clear, then the actor must make that choice—as if the whole world of this play depends upon it.

Rating: ★★½

 

DTC01_Whalen waiting for pick-up DTC05_Julie and Whalen

 

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