REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre)

 

The Man Behind the Monster

 

 Frost (Andrew Carter) interviews Nixon (Terry Hamilton)

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
Frost/Nixon
  
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

It’s not a stretch to cast Richard Nixon as a monster. He was a cantankerous soul who rabble-roused around an unpopular war and abused the presidency to allegedly commit felonious acts. His legacy is a sobering stain on the political landscape that serves as a reminder for others to not blindly trust those we choose to lead.

FrostNixon_101 The real challenge of this work is portraying Nixon as a human being, a man of both wants and desires as well as fears and frustrations. To put it another way, the challenge is to bring out Nixon’s humanity while simultaneously highlighting his treachery.

TimeLine Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon brilliantly toes this line.

The play details the famous 1977 interview with the disgraced president. Those producing the interview meant for it to be the trial that Nixon never got, thanks to a full pardon by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, spearheading the questioning was a character with questionable skills—David Frost (Andrew Carter). Frost was an international playboy who hosted successful talk shows in the U.K. and Australia. At one point, he had an unsuccessful run in America. This failure forever nagged him, and so he devised a plan to restore his good name. That plan was to nab the biggest interview of the decade.

Meanwhile, Nixon (Terry Hamilton) was self-sequestered in his California mansion. He was defeated. He had achieved the highest position of public office only to fall so very far. However, word of Frost’s desire to conduct an interview piqued his interest. For one, the financial agreement on the table to secure the interview would make Nixon a very rich man. But moreover, doing a softball interview with a British talk show host could help him restore his good name.

Of course, as history reveals, Nixon agreed to multiple sit-down interviews with Frost. And although the majority of tape captured during these sessions was merely a lesson in Nixon’s uncanny ability to evade tough questioning, it eventually led to a rare and honest glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac.

This play is nothing without a good Nixon, and Hamilton’s portrayal of the man is executed with great finesse. There is obviously a conscious balance between depicting Nixon as a human and a villain with the ultimate goal to strike at the heart of truth. One way this is accomplished is by subtlety yet powerfully revealing to us Nixon’s insecurities. For example, there is a scene in which Nixon questions whether a pair of laceless Italian shoes is too effeminate for him to wear. In this scene, Hamilton broadcasts Nixon’s childlike need for reassurance, knocking the man down to mortal proportions. It is also fortunate that Hamilton never verges on caricature, opting to veer away from political cartoon. Rather, he aims for documentary.

 

FrostNixon_056 FrostNixon_226
FrostNixon_147 FrostNixon_181

Director Louis Contey is a real talent. His use of blocking to create dramatic tension between Frost and Nixon is just another pleasurable subtlety of this production. Specifically, his work is highlighted in a scene in which an inebriated Nixon makes a late-night phone call to Frost. Although the two speak from separate locations, Contey puts them in the same space. There they move around each other and glare at one another in a battle of intimidation.

The set design by Keith Pitts also enhances the quality of the production. Large projections, created by Mike Tutaj, are cleverly used to alter the setting, from Nixon’s California home to a trans-Atlantic flight. Televisions flank both sides of the stage where closed-circuit cameras broadcast the historic interview. This gives us, the theater-going audience, a vision of how the medium of television shaped and influenced the interview.

TimeLine Theatre’s Frost/Nixon digs deep into the psyche of one of our most notorious presidents. Yes, Nixon may not have been an honest man, nor was he necessarily a decent or good man. But he was a man. And although this does not forgive his transgressions, it helps us better understand his weaknesses.

Ultimately, TimeLine has created a triumph of a production. Buy your tickets now while seats remain.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
 

FrostNixon_027

 

Extra Credit:

     

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Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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Review: Piven Theatre’s “Two by Pinter: The Lover and The Collection”

Piven needs to push the envelope

 Grimm & Black

 

Piven Theatre Workshop presents:

Two by Pinter: “The Lover and “The Collection

by Harold Pinter
directed by Joyce Piven
thru November 15th (buy tickets) 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Grimm & Black - V Two early works by Harold Pinter, The Lover (1962) and The Collection (1961) onstage now at Piven Theatre Workshop, probably shocked their audiences when they first premiered. Replete with BDSM and homoerotic undertones, they explore the games people play while maintaining or establishing control within a marriage or among multiple sexual relationships. Quite appropriately, you won’t find leather, whips, or chains in founder Joyce Piven’s interpretation of these little capsules of Pinter. But that doesn’t mean the dramatic stakes should be any lower for lack of accoutrement. There’s plenty of emotional sadomasochism to go around and charge the evening with peril.

Dana Black (Sarah) and Lawrence Grimm (Richard) in The Lover are certainly well paired as a married couple spicing up their relationship with their own version of extra-marital dalliances. Both are excellent in expressing an aloofness that masks the need for control in the dynamics of their sexual cat-and-mouse play.

Strangely, though, lack of chemistry plagues their efforts to depict characters with a driving need to play these games, for whatever reason. Since cool surface adherence to social pleasantry is as much a part of this couple’s game as anything else, it’s difficult to suggest just when lust and risk, danger and fear should emerge to take the foreground. But take place it must or the audience will sense the actors are playing it safe or that there are no stakes here worth playing for—either in physical or emotional safety for these characters. Black’s performance compellingly pulls the action toward the risk of intimacy, but that risk has to stand in stark contrast to the politically incorrect possibility of violence and subjugation.

Reed & Francisco - VThe Collection fares a little better since actors Jay Reed (James) and John Francisco (Bill) take more risks, especially in venturing toward the violent. Francisco’s Bill is charming, erotic, and shifty enough to take on any role he feels required of him in the moment; Reed plays James with just the right suggestion of privilege and pomposity that gets him into trouble later on. It’s in this second one-act that Grimm, as Harry, gets to pour on Pinter’s icy, savage language with a relish he seems denied as Richard in the first one-act. It’s a play with more teeth in it–but even then, the actors could push it a little farther.

There you have it–at the risk of sounding gratuitous, let there be more sex, more violence. These are middle class people with dark, dark dreams. I respect the need not to be over the top, but pulling punches also does grave disservice to Pinter’s works. Piven and cast must demonstrate that they are not afraid to go into the night.

Rating: ««½

 Reed & Francisco - H

 

Productions Personnel

Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Joyce Piven
Prod. Manager: Jodi Gottberg
Lighting Design: Seth Reinick
Sound Design: Collin Warren
Props Design: Linda Laake
Dialect Coach: Jodi Gottberg
Set Design: Aaron Menninga
Stage Manager: John Kearns
Cast: Dana Black
John Francisco
Jay Reed
Lawrence Grimm