Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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REVIEW: Shining City (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

God is elusive in Redtwist’s captivating ‘Shining City’

 
 

Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City' - photo Andrew Jessop

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Shining City
  

Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Joanie Schultz 
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There is a moment in Redtwist’s Shining City where, lurking behind a door, a split-second spark of divinity is revealed. It is bloodied, silent, and is at once horrifying and reassuring.

To call Conor McPherson’s play a “ghost story” would imply it provides some answer to the nature and existence of another world or its inhabitants. But in the streets and isolated dwellings of McPherson’s Dublin, there is no such certainty. Even when an apparition is in plain sight, its significance, meaning and reality is just painfully out of Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopreach.

This play is rather, for all its melancholy and despair, a love story.

Set in an upstairs therapist’s office, Shining City chronicles the sessions of middle-aged widower John (the superb Brian Parry), and his ex-priest doctor, Ian (John Arthur Lewis). After the sudden death of his wife, John has begun to see visions of his spouse, moving him out of his home and into a local inn. Ian, wrestling with his own losses, has just left the woman he abandoned the Church for. The mother of Ian’s child, Neasa (Cheryl Lynn Golemo) struggles to exist separated in the unwelcoming company of Ian’s family. Two months flash between each scene, and as time goes on, the three slip further away from any assurance of who they are or the morality of the decisions they’ve made.

Each of these characters are, in one way or another, in limbo. They are all lost between homes, identities, loves, or sexualities, and seek escape in all the wrong ways. Director Joanie Schultz comments in her program note that she calls upon her own experience living out of a suitcase to relate an ambience of no refuge, which she accomplishes brilliantly in this production. Redtwist’s nearly claustrophobic performance space serves to amplify the overtones of each character’s underlying fear and wanting. Much of the action is relayed through long, patient storytelling, and just as John cannot escape his guilt and anxiety, we as the audience are seated almost in the hyper-realistic office right there with him, his deep-gravel, hypnotic voice only feet away. These characters are richly drawn, and this ensemble does great Cheryl Lynn Golemo and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopjustice to them, supplying flaws and sympathies to their humanity.

In the intimate setting, no detail goes unnoticed, and play’s production team has created a scrupulously complete environment, from the window’s view of a cathedral to the ideal selection of transitional music.

McPherson doesn’t appear to relish the hell he puts his characters through, making their struggle all the more real and painful to watch. It also makes their redemption that much more believable and satisfying.

Shining City’s finale may prove to be divisive for some audiences. I encourage them to take note of John’s declared realization when considering the play’s last image: it isn’t the fact of what happens that’s important, but instead the effect. Regardless of their conclusion, the effect–like this production–will be moving.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Kaelan Strouse and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessop

Production continues through February 27th – Thu, Fri, Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 3pm. No performance on Sun, Feb 6, but an add’l perf on Sat, Feb 26, 3pm.  The show’s running time is approximately 1:40 with no intermission. Tickets: Thursdays, $25; Fridays & Sundays, $27; Saturdays, $30 (seniors & students $5 off).  More info: www.redtwist.org/Tickets.html.

     
     

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REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

EQUUS2

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

EQUUS4-72 EQUUS6-72

Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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