REVIEW: Odradrek (House Theatre)

  
  

House Theatre finds its groove

  
  

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - House Theatre of Chicago - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter Bullard

  
House Theatre of Chicago presents
  
Odradrek
 
Written by Brett Neveu
Music by
Josh Schmidt
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The House Theatre of Chicago isn’t known for their gloominess. They often dip into darker subjects, especially death (Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe, The Nutcracker our review ★★★½), sometimes drugs (All the Fame of Lofty Deedsreview ★★★), and, once, children killing each other with metaphorical handguns (Girls Vs. Boysreview). Their newest offering, Odradek, a riff on Kafka via Brett Neveu, is easily the bleakest story I’ve seen by the puckish group. The promotional material compares the play to Hitchcock, and in a semi-disclaimer, artistic director Nathan Allen warns that the “show is scary.” I firmly believe that the hardest emotion to evoke in an audience is not glee, or sadness, or despair, but fear. To be honest, Odradek never really scared me. And it’s not very Hitchcockian; it feels more like “Saw” meets Beverly Cleary.

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter BullardThe play is beautifully realized by designers Collette Pollard and Lee Keenan. The play works best when seen as performance art, not a intellectual venture. Neveu and Dexter Bullard, two newcomers to the House, want this play to be both a tragically complex story and a macabre poem. They can’t nail down either. Neveu’s language is delightfully lyrical, but it doesn’t make for a coherent piece of drama. Realities, fantasy, and hallucination are blurred and the three characters’ motivations are convoluted. However, the show still takes the audience on a ride in true House style.

The play centers around a Boy (Joey Steakley), who comes from a broken, but not abusive, home. He lives with his Father (David Parkes), who enters into an ethically-questionable romance with the Boy’s Doctor (Carolyn Defrin). The Boy, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a monster that lives under the stairs, Odradek. Slowly, the Boy slips down a path of confusion and self-mutilation.

The plot has a few holes, which I’ll wager are intentional. The Doctor is pretty clearly a primary care physician, and the Boy very clearly requires some facetime with a psychologist. The Boy’s wounds provided another puzzle, because it wasn’t clear if they were imagined or actual. As the play progresses, the grip on reality loosens and every aspect of the story comes into question.

The Boy’s affliction is linked to his parent’s divorce, but not much is explained. Neveu relies heavily on images, metaphors, and anecdotes for mood, but none of these provide stakes for the Boy. Colors are especially important—the Doctor asks the Boy what color his mother’s eyes are, while Odradek quizzes him about the hues of blood and sinew. But these tangents don’t explain why he misses his mom or why he chooses to hurt himself.

Even with the stylistic clashes, the cast handles the play well. Parkes’ performance is fascinating to watch in his House debut. He gives the Father a gritty, Chicago-style treatment that isn’t found in many House shows. Defrin, always a pleasure, plays against him decently, even though she’s more presentational. Steakley comes off zombiefied in a challenging role, and his age is very hard to pinpoint (I sort of figured he was around 25 but still living at home). He hits astride as his story unravels.

Infusing the company with new blood this season is a truly refreshing idea. In recent years, the House seemed to be stumbling at times. Odradek is a worthy venture and dives into territory that the company had successfully plunged into in the past. But it lacks heft. The play doesn’t reveal much about mental illness, divorce, or a connection between the two. Its value lies in how it strikes the ear, the eye, and the soul – not the mind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

NutcrakerPoster copy

 

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
House theatre - The Nutcracker House theatre - The Nutcracker
     
     

REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future

 

Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

R-and-G-4 

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