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: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Redeemers (New Leaf Theatre)

  
  

Struggling to save the corporate soul

  
  

Pat King, Joel Ewing and Marsha Harman -  Photo by Tom McGrath

   
New Leaf Theatre presents
   
Redeemers
  
Written by Bilal Dardai
Directed by
Jessica Hutchinson
at
Rocco Ranalli’s Pizzeria, 1925 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A distinctly Eighties vibe pervades New Leaf Theatre’s production, Redeemers — and it’s not just that Pat King, who plays Nick, resembles a young James Spader both in looks and acting style. Directed by Jessica Hutchinson and set in the warm, casual and seasonally festooned environs of Rocco Ranallli’s back dining room, Redeemers revisits class warfare in the same way Eighties Brat Pack films explored them—as if Redeemers_NL_6photo by Tom McGrathsome black and white lesson in morality could be drawn from the conflict.

Nick, Mercy (Marsha Harman) and Abel (Joel Ewing) all work for Charles Edwin of Edwin Financial, then meet at their favorite watering hole each evening to rehash their existence under Mr. Edwin’s rule. Playwright Bilal Dardai gives these characters a sharp, witty and convincingly incestuous rapport while King, Harman and Ewing mark their territory at Ranalli’s with their tight, responsive and slightly sinister threesome. One never questions that they have known each other for years and can map each other’s moods by the stalling tactics they engage in or from the drinks they order. Over time, one silently asks what draws these three together besides shared history or a mutual workplace.

But never mind about that now. Charles Edwin dominates all their thoughts. His role in their lives infects even happy hour, when they might truly desire a break from the boss. Fine enough that they should grouse about Mr. Edwin when he was a tyrant, but a sudden change of heart—literally a double-bypass surgery—transforms him into the noble, fair and generous employer of Charles Dicken’s dreams. All of which strikes the threesome with incredulity and is simply too much for Nick, for one, to take. He masterminds with Mercy and Abel a series of relentless pranks meant to test Mr. Edwin just to see how far his personal reformation endures.

Sadly, the play suffers from the very thing it is founded upon—storytelling style theater. The most significant events have already occurred and must be related to the audience through the obviously suspect threesome. The cast is smart, charming and play their roles to second-skin perfection but the storytelling style inevitably dampens emotional immediacy. Redeemers_NL_5photo by Tom McGrathEven Nick’s obsession with Mr. Edwin loses tension because he must always be spoken of in the past tense. Even the jokes scripted to make fun of the style cannot relieve its subtly annoying impact. The only segment that doesn’t suffer is Abel’s tragic childhood account regarding his father.

New Leaf has engaged Dardai’s script with thoroughly professional talent to make it present; its crackling dialogue alone indicates the emergence of a promising new playwright that should be watched. However Redeemer’s wrap-up is as paper thin, implausible and morally simplistic as the Eighties films mentioned above. Tyrant or reformed saint, one has the boss one has and acquiesces to that arrangement as part of the cost of accepting the hierarchy of corporate life. Or one joins a commune or a co-operatively owned business—a choice that these cynical three, no doubt, would mercilessly ridicule over a scotch and soda.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Redeemers_NL_002-1093834846-O

FEATURING

Pat King
Joel Ewing
Marsha Harman

PRODUCTION

Assistant Director: Josh Sobel
Production Manager: Marni Keenan
Stage Manager: Tara Malpass
Dramaturg: Emily Dendinger
Environment Design: Michelle Lilly
Sound & Projections Design: Nick Keenan
Costume Design: Rachel Sypniewski

  
  

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

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

war-with-newts2

  
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