REVIEW: A Crowded House (State Theatre of Chicago)

   
   

Inside each room lies a literary genius gasping for breath

 

State Theatre - A Crowded House - Image

  
State Theatre presents
  
A Crowded House
   
Adapted from a collection of Virginia Woolf novels
Directed by Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher
at
Gunder Mansion, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

That Virginia Woolf created anything is a testament to her drive, razor-sharp intelligence and prolific, intense imagination. That her work emerged as a leading voice in Modernism, despite immense social and mental health obstacles, is nothing less than incredible. Being raised in an ultra-literate Victorian household certainly gave Woolf the educational foundation on which to succeed, but recurring nervous breakdowns and perennial depression plagued her from adolescence.

A bit of hallmark Victorian shame and silence, especially regarding mental illness, swathes and muffles the rough sketch of Virginia Woolf (Casey Searles) that is A Crowded House; but that tactic seems only appropriate. State Theatre selected the period perfect Gunder Mansion to present her life, through her work, en promenade. While I’ve seen other theater companies defeat themselves with that sort of set up, State Theatre fulfills their mission with great poetry. One is almost overwhelmed by the production’s impressionistic simplicity and also its meticulous attention to detail. Not one, but eight playwrights sculpt the miniature dramas that take place in each room and each room represents one of Woolf’s novels. But more than that, like Woolf’s novels, each room becomes a moment in time or a place in the mind, a A Crowded Room - State Theatre - posterthought or emotion that exists to be revisited. Mrs. Dalloway (Catherine Bullard) is our guide; Woolf’s perfect hostess, hosting the tour of her creator’s mind—another nice bit of turnabout.

Co-directors Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher succeed in truly breaking down barriers between audience and cast by establishing each character immediately. “The Voyage Out” by Lisa Siciliano throws the audience into the middle of a wedding party celebrating Virginia and Leonard’s nuptials, as well as the publication of Virginia’s novel by the same name. While a tactic like that can feel stagy, it’s surprising how quickly one acclimates to their eccentric, literary milieu. Outrageous Lytton Strachey (Zach Kropp) and Clive Bell (Caleb Probst) dominate the social scene–poor, sweet Leonard (Joe Zarrow) rendered quite meek and unadorned in their company.

But one quickly realizes, by inference, the critical if quiet role that Leonard plays in Virginia’s life and work. “Night and Day” by Rob Smith drives home the monstrous arrangement between Virginia and her half-brothers. George and Gerald Duckworth, who molested both Virginia and her sister Vanessa after their mother’s death, control the publication of her works—at least until Leonard sets up an independent press to produce them instead. Likewise, in “Mrs. Dalloway” by Greg Edwards, Leonard becomes protective of Virginia when the party celebrating the publication of her novel breaks down entirely. The frenzied self-absorption of their guests and the pressure to be all things—great writer, great hostess—finally gets to Virginia.

The perpetual fragility of Virginia’s mental state is the running thread behind each play—in ways large and small A Crowded House attempts to unravel the reasons behind Woolf’s eventual suicide. Indeed, one whole room is devoted to Virginia’s mentality. Even the erotic reverie that is “Orlando” by Lisa Siciliano, regarding Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West (Cara Olansky), centers on Virginia’s isolation from everyone—even the lover closest to her.

Obviously, this is not the whole Virginia Woolf. State Theatre runs the risk of portraying her as just another woman writer, fulfilling the “madwoman in the attic” stereotype. At the same time, Casey Searles is at her best in Virginia’s final act. All that the woman wanted to do was write, but mental illness was stripping that away from her. All that can be offered in reply is silence. The gorgeous shadow puppetry of Tim Speicher’s “Between the Acts” gives us that silence . . . and wonder . . . and beauty.

While one might wish for other, more diverse elements of Woolf’s life and work to be fleshed out, A Crowded House is one to see.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
        
   

 

REVIEW: The Pigeons (Walkabout Theatre)

Buying In and Selling Out—All Over a Cup of Coffee

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Walkabout Theatre presents
 
The Pigeons
 
by Joe Zarrow
directed by Cassy Sanders
at
Swim Café, 1357 W. Chicago (map)
thru June 7th  |  suggested donation: $10-$15  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Without a doubt, one can arrive unprepared for Joe Zarrow’s new play, The Pigeons, produced by Walkabout Theatre, at Swim Café’s space. It’s easily the cleverest, foxiest and physically wildest farces I’ve seen since, well, forever. The production’s biggest drawback may be the space itself. As a lucky critic on opening night, I got central place out of the severely limited seating—other audience members had to Pigeons vert settle for seats way off to the side of the dramatic action because of the café’s bowling-alley structure.

Walkabout chose Swim Cafe to ultra-locate Zarrow’s play in West Town, grounding its gentrification issues directly for that neighborhood. The Pigeons is about West Town’s café society confronting the dilemmas of buying in and selling out. But, honestly, this play could be revised to fit any up-and-coming neighborhood with its hypocritical, image-obsessed, anti-gentrification hipsters. They are a countercultural generation beset by worthy opponents for the same living spaces: the materialistic, self-absorbed yuppies for whom money equals sex and commitment, and the cunning, ethnic enthusiasts for the American Dream, manipulating their way to it by any—and every–means necessary.

Take Martin (Kevin Crisper) for example. He’s a community-conscious eco-hipster needing a place to stay in his gentrifying hood, so that he can keep his job and fulfill its mission to green the area. But he’s also something of a man-whore, whose dalliances with the ladies may be as much about attaining said living space as actual attraction to the ladies in question. Then there’s Martin’s buddy, Lloyd (Keith Neagle), a graphic artist and budding textile artist (okay, he likes crafts) who is totally in love with his slacker lifestyle. Lloyd’s been couch surfing in Martin’s various apartments since, well, college. Any café serves as his office and living room since he can reliably sit in one, with his books and notebooks, over one cup of coffee for up to six hours at a stretch. Lloyd maintains the purity of his ideals, in contrast to Martin, but that may be as much about the fact that he can retreat to his Dad’s home in Wilmette as any true courage of conviction.

Zarrow’s crafty, shrewd and artful dialogue knows whereof it speaks. Even Veronica (Emma Stanton), proprietor of the independent alternative café, in which Martin and Lloyd execute their warring discourses, is more obsessed with image, both the café’s and her own personal image (they are one!), than with selling coffee and paninis. Even slacker Lloyd gets roped into serving the customers while Veronica exits for image consultations with her advisor, Jorge. He discovers too late his gross error in serving Bex (Mary Hollis Inboden), a shapely, success-at-all costs real estate agent who places her complex latte order with him while awaiting a client. “I’m sorry,” says Lloyd, once corrected by Veronica, “I wasn’t aware of your socio-economic profiling policy.”

Bex and her shallow, materialistic, and seductive go-getter agenda may be everything Martin, Lloyd, and Veronica hate, but she’s nothing compared to Chad (Travis Williams), her yuppie frat-boy client. Who knows what subconscious manias really drive Chad, but any interaction with caffeinated beverages leads to behavior that requires a restraining order. The café’s perennial visitor, The Pierogi Lady (Mary Mikva), needs no stimulant other than her aspirations for a piece of the American pie.

 

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All together, Zarrow has created characters one finds in the farcical action movies of “Rat Race” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only he shows greater sophistication in his handling of themes. All the play needs now are some minor editing adjustments—Lloyd’s death scene goes a little too long, as do Veronica’s plans for homelessness at the end.

Director Cassy Sanders demonstrates she has the wherewithal to wind up her sterling, energetic, and savvy cast and let them fly. As Bex, Inboden had me with real estate speak like “Slippy-Whipper” and “I am a real estate agent—I have an instinctual connection to the land.” As Chad, Williams bowled me over with, “Bros before condos” and his own self-congratulatory plans to help out the “poor Spic kids” in the neighborhood. Crispin’s Martin is as self-compromising a philosopher as any, especially when it comes to getting what he desperately wants. “Our dreams are better than his dreams,” he says of Chad; once he confiscates Chad’s money, “What we have here is some real Robin Hood re-distribution shit!” For his part, Neagle makes me wonder just what Lloyd’s “macchiato incident” at Starbucks was really all about. Only the roles of Veronica and The Pierogi Lady seem a little on the thin side, which may have little or nothing to do with Stanton and Mikva’s interpretations of them.

Overall, audiences would do very well to squeeze their way into Swim Café’s space and enjoy the riveting, intelligent, and manic farce that Walkabout and The Pigeons provides for their neighborhood. And I think you can also get some coffee and a pastry before the show.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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