Review: The Front Page (TimeLine Theatre)

  
  

Updated: Now extended through July 17th!!

TimeLine’s signature dramaturgy venerates classic media satire

  
  

Editor Walter Burns (Terry Hamilton, right) and reporter Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, left) work the phones as the biggest story of the year breaks around them in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

  
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
The Front Page
      
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Directed by Nick Bowling
at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map
thru July 17 (extended!)  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Former Chicago newspaper men Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur took aim at city politics, print journalism, corrupt justice practices, and even themselves in their scathing 1928 comedy about a Windy City press room. So what was their ax to grind?
Far as I could tell, they didn’t have one. Even as they unmercifully and repeatedly jab at their subjects, most of which are barely sheathed caricatures of then-contemporary real-life figures, you can read some smiles between Hecht and MacArthur’s searing lines. The Front Page lampoons Jazz Age Chicago the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerate 21st century pop culture week after week on South Park—with a dash of anarchy and a palpable love for their targets. It’s one of the reasons why this TimeLine revival of a historic work is actually funny.

Peggy Grant (Bridgette Pechman Clarno, left) isn’t so sure that Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, right) is ready to leave his life as a reporter to get married in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara GoetschAnother is director Nick Bowling and artistic director PJ Powers’ willingness to play up the show’s silliness without playing down the characters’ grotesque flaws; these journalists are brash, lazy, immature, dishonest, misogynistic, racist buffoons. Maybe it was my imagination, but at a few points, I swear some were audibly farting on stage. When the most sympathetic man in the office is an escaped murderer, you know you’re working with a real handful…

Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers) makes a break from the boy’s club and heads to New York with his fiancé (Bridgette Pechman Clarno), or at least tries to before a death row inmate escapes from his office’s neighboring jail. The ensuing chaos exposes incompetence and corruption at every level of the city, from the opportunistic editors, to the deal making politicians, to the incapable police officers, to the dishonest reporters. Hilariously, too absorbed in troubles of their own making, the actual threat of the killer on the loose ranks near the bottom of the characters’ group consciousness.

Even near the brink, Powers and Terry Hamilton (Walter Burns) are grounded and convincing, while Bill McGough and Rob Riley get to have a little more fun as Chester Gould-type cartoons.        

Bowling’s production is brisk, clean, driven at just the right speed, and refined with an eye for details, both big—his cast is just right; it’s enough of a challenge to appropriately fill roles in a standard-sized show, and The Front Page is huge; and small—a 100 percent grease-saturated translucent hamburger bag evokes a reminder of why we’re the City of Broad Shoulders.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, right) and Mollie Malloy (Mechelle Moe, left) are determined to hide escaped killer Earl Williams (Rob Fagin, center) before he can be discovered by the police in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling.  Photo by Lara Goetsch

Editor Walter Burns (Terry Hamilton, right) doesn’t want Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, left) to quit his job as a reporter for the Herald-Examiner in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch. Reporter Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers) calls the news desk at his paper the Herald-Examiner to report a scoop on the biggest story of the year in TimeLine Theatre’s revival of the Chicago classic THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch
   

The Front Page continues through June 12th at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8:30pm, and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $28-$38 ($18 for students), and can be purchased by phone (773-281-8436 x6) or online. More info at timelinetheatre.com.

All photos by Lara Goetsch.

        

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REVIEW: The Censor (Ebb and Flow Theatre)

 

The sex whisperer

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Ebb and Flow Theatre presents
 
The Censor
   
Written by Anthony Neilson
Directed by
Mike Rice
at
The Basement, 1142 W. Lawrence (map)
through November 20  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

I’ve been to theater in basements before—nice, clean church basements, whose price is right for the cash-strapped theater company. But the setting for Ebb and Flow Theatre’s current production, The Censor, is a basement of an altogether different order—dank, musty, dirty, with an air of eerie abandonment. It’s a basement where you wonder where the bodies are buried. If you are tall, watch your head. Pipes jutting from the fairly low ceiling only contribute to the show’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Ebb and Flow want to give Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s play all the subterranean impact they can, given that the play is about our tendency to relegate explicit sex, and all attempts to depict it, to a foul and shame-filled underworld.

Censor 6 Under the direction of Mike Rice, this basement is the office of The Censor (John Gray). He works in the pornography department to which the Board of Classification has consigned him and it serves as a purgatory to which he’s resigned himself. “Do you know what we call this place?” he asks Ms. Fontaine (Geraldine Dulex), creator of the sexually explicit film he is in the process of rating. “It’s called ‘The Shithole’.” At another juncture he confesses, “We’re virtually lepers down here.” It’s his duty to act as society’s guardian, rating the pornography that comes across his desk, protecting the rest of us from its illicit images. Yet simply coming into contact with such material has rendered him a pariah in his co-workers’ eyes.

Ms. Fontaine tries to make The Censor “see” her film as she intended, the story of a love affair depicted in images, not words, using only “the international language of sex.” At first one suspects she’s pulling the tired, old “porn as art” ruse in order to win a less restrictive rating but, first and foremost, Fontaine is a believer. Her attempts to convince The Censor clearly indicate that she is out to obtain converts. As though she were a prophet, seer, or mystic, she then reads The Censor sexually and emotionally, proving her currency with the “language of sex” by accurately guessing his childhood and current marital state without anything divulged from him. Ms. Fontaine becomes the Sex Whisperer to all The Censor’s secret sexual privations, insecurities, and humiliations. Their relationship takes on a therapeutic, as well as pornographic, aspect as he opens up about the true nature of his sexually desiccated day-to-day existence.

Much about Ebb and Flow’s production is enjoyable. Neilson’s dialogue is tight, riveting and often poetic. Rice’s direction moves the action along convincingly and realistically—no small feat for a play that mimics porn scenarios. John Gray’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. He lends meaty depth, humor and humanism to his character’s loneliness, isolation and constant, neurotic desperation to do things correctly. Dulex may have a greater challenge depicting Fontaine, who often comes across as the all-knowing voice of sex and hardly seems human at all. Dulex definitely captures Fontaine’s oddly enigmatic, distanced perspective. For all

the daring with which this messiah engages in sex, the emotional connections are just not there.

 

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As for me, I came away from The Censor unconvinced as to its “in-yer-face” daring or authenticity. An award-winning play, The Censor depends just a little too heavily on basing Fontaine’s legitimacy upon her quasi-mystical sexual therapy. The scenario of the wiser, more experienced sexual partner claiming greater knowledge than the inexperienced or repressed initiate—knowing him better than he knows himself—is as old as porn itself. It certainly receives no refreshing or insightful treatment here. Furthermore, the play is hampered by the scattered introduction of The Censor’s wife (Amy Johnson) between the scenes in which Fontaine makes her case about the film. It was almost a relief to see Johnson sit down in an actual scene with Gray. Finally their marital malaise was palpable and thoroughly cemented his ostracization to the porn purgatory he has, essentially, chosen.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Curse of the Starving Class (New Leaf Theatre)

New Leaf’s “curse” satisfies

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New Leaf Theatre presents
 
Curse of the Starving Class
 
By Sam Shepard
Directed by
Kyra Lewandowski
Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park W. (map)
thru May 22nd  |  tickets: $10-$18  | more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepard’s best work always revolves around families. Some say that the American drama is family drama, and Shepherd definitely makes a strong case for this argument. His scathing True West, Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, and gritty A Lie of the Mind all focus on entangled, screwed-up families. Curse of the Starving Class, one of his other heralded “family tragedies,” is as blazing and cut-throat as the rural svclass2 California homestead it’s set in. It focuses on a family with standard structure—father, mother, son, and daughter—but with destructive tendencies. Transforming the Lincoln Park Cultural Center into the dilapidated familial residence, New Leaf does an excellent job capturing Shepherd’s gangster flick yet Aeschylean essence, although some moments are over-broiled and muddy.

The titular “curse” and the titular “starving class” are mentioned several times throughout the play, but neither is really explained at all. The drunken patriarch Weston (John Gray) describes a curse passed down for generations, from father to son, but doesn’t mention any details as to why their family is possessed or the consequences of this venom. The term is also thrown around in regards to the daughter’s first period, her entrance to adulthood. Shepherd is toying around with Classical ideas of fate, but with a horrifically modern twist: no one remembers what the curse is. The characters also have different opinions on the starving class, which is less of an economic distinction and more of a mental illness. The result is a titillating mixture of Aristotelian theory and post-modern sensibility, like if O’Neill wrote a B-movie.

The family, never given a last name, eke out an existence in a broken-down farmhouse; their front door smashed apart by Weston. We are privy to the kitchen area (they are the starving class, after all), and watch as each member contrastingly defile or rebuild the disgusting room. We see the idealistic son Wesley (Layne Manzer) urinate in the food prep area, yet later he attempts to replace the broken door. Ella (Victoria Gilbert), the matriarch, half-heartedly keeps order, and the much-maligned daughter Emma (Alyse Kittner) can’t stand the place. Weston, for all the destruction he causes, takes a shot at revitalizing the house in the final act. The world is ground-up and fallible; the characters attempt change, but can they escape their curse?

Kyra Lewandowski takes on this powerful script with gusto. Her staging is visceral, but sometimes misguided. A couple of very crucial moments take place in the eviscerated doorway, which is concealed from a good chunk of the audience. The production also adds some spooky shadow-work to push the play into a more abstract realm, but Shepherd’s grinding text doesn’t need it. Lewandowski’s expressionist choice distracts rather than adds, but it is fortunately rarely used. Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set and Jared Moore’s lights fill the otherwise welcoming Lincoln Park Cultural Center with gloom and decay, providing the cast with one unappetizing kitchen.

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The cast finds connections with Shepherd’s sometimes cryptic characters, and the entire show breathes and broods. Manzer’s Wesley can be a bit too manic, but Manzer clearly knows Wesley’s vulnerabilities. Gilbert sits in the world the best, making Ella’s most bizarre moments feel natural and understandable. Against both of these powerful actors, Kittner scratches and scrambles, which works for Emma. Gray shines in the last act, but earlier he overplays the drunken stupor and comes off as ungrounded. As the land-grabbing lawyer, Kevin Gladish can’t really penetrate Shepherd’s realm, seeming wooden and unsure. This is difficult territory to conquer, however, and the cast steps up to the challenge and they are not afraid to tear right into it.

There is a lot of important information that is left unsaid in Curse, leaving the audience unsettled and probing in the dark. Lewandowski and her team understand this critical aspect—they know to close doors as they open windows. Minus a few failings, New Leaf Theatre has a self-destructive, nauseating success.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

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Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

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The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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