Review: Erratica (The American Demigods)

     
     

Sex and Shakespeare for the scholastically inclined

     
     

Erratica at America Demigods, by Reina Hardy

   
American Demigods present
  
Erratica
  
Written by Reina Hardy
Directed by Dan Foss
at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 14  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The American Demigods are working with one sharp and sassy script for their latest production at Second Stage Theatre. Dan Foss directs a taut, dynamically funny cast for Erratica, by Reina Hardy. An academic farce, Erratica brings brains and loins together with a typical dash of intellectual neurosis. Hardy, being the founder and Artistic Director of The Viola Project, which introduces young girls to Shakespeare, is eminently familiar with the academic field she spoofs. Her professorial protagonist, Dr. Samantha Stafford (Lisa Herceg), idolizes her subject, the Bard, to the rejection of all others. Yet she finds herself up to her eyeballs in moonstruck, mediocre student-poets, glib, scheming and mercenary publicists, and competitive colleagues who would also like to get into her pants. Even the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (David A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Wilhelm) desires her amorous, as well as academic, attention. But all the good doctor wants is love distilled to a purity of lived experience that matches Shakespeare’s sublime and ineffable lines.

Of course, no one can live up to that—but that doesn’t stop the puerile attempts of one of her students, Gregory, to woo her with his verse. We never get to see Gregory. But we do get a full on rant against Dr. Stafford from Elspeth (Victoria Bucknell), his defender, for rebuffing Gregory’s advances by savaging his poems. Though stuck on Gregory herself, Elspeth reviles the professor for reducing Gregory to cringing under the table at Commons “eating nothing but Triscuits and powdered Tang.” If Elspeth cannot have Gregory, she at least wants him to be happy in his own heart’s desire—something that absolutely dumbfounds the professor.

Against her wishes to be left alone, Stafford is pulled into an undertow of messy, hormonally-driven desire. Likewise, her desire for academic purity, such as the publication of her highly intellectual treatise on Shakespeare, meets with the mercenary side of publishing–represented by her leggy, fast-talking and devious publicist Lisa Milkmin (Kelly Yacono). Herceg charmingly delivers Stafford’s smart and sardonic exasperation down pat and, while Bucknell makes a classic comic foil with her character’s adolescent insecurity and Wilhelm bounces off her rebuffs of Marlowe with intelligent, roguish charm, nothing crackles as much as the showdown between professor and publicist. It’s style meets substance—and superficial style is definitely winning.

A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Lisa wants Stafford to shape her book into a “Shakespeare for the Cosmo girl.” But failing that, she pressures Stafford into translating the newly discovered “Quinberry Diaries,” a recent academic find of an Elizabethan trollop’s journals that has garnered intense notoriety and landed a career coup for the university’s head librarian, Dr. Hooper. “You’re pleading like an undergraduate,” Hooper smarmily quips once Stafford comes asking for the dairies, “that’s exciting.” If Hardy’s play has any flaws, it’s in the way her cerebral protagonist has to skirt sexual harassment moments like these to keep the whole play light and fluid. Foss’s direction simply drives the play forward and the mysterious theft of the Quinberry Diaries distracts from Hooper delivering even further unwanted sexual advances.

Likewise, for such a smart comedy, the play wraps up a little formulaically, with a character leaping from behind an arras to resolve the final entanglement or Stafford showing sudden sexual interest in Hooper where there was none before. All that can be said is that Hardy’s shrewd dialogue and Foss’s clean-cut direction takes the audience through the journey with zippy alacrity. So, savor the juicy conspiratorial scene between Elspeth and Lisa. Enjoy Stafford’s alcoholic binge breakdown, when she declares, “Vodka’s like black—it goes with everything.” Appreciate the quieter moments when Marlowe tries to get through to her. Life isn’t pure poetry. And that’s a good thing.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.

     

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REVIEW: Oleanna (American Theater Company)

 

ATC Takes Mamet to School

 

 

Oleanna - American Theater Company 1 Oleanna - American Theater Company 3
   
American Theater Company presents
  
Oleanna
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Rick Snyder
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  | 
tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching the American Theater Company’s production of Oleanna, you get the sense that the young David Mamet must have been really pissed off by one of his professors. The two-person academic melee screams with anger towards the ivory tower. I bet Mamet must have known and hated someone like John, the pedantic teacher on the brink of tenure. Helmed by director Rick Snyder, ATC’s Oleanna sears and fumes, leaving the audience awe-struck after the chilling finale.

The incendiary play races along for three acts. Each one depicts Jon (the towering Darrell W. Cox) and Carol (the contrastingly petite Nicole Lowrance) clamor for control, the fight escalating exponentially with time. Carol, a meek student well aware of the price of college admission, seeks academic freedom and understanding, while Jon fights for his right to dispense knowledge as he sees fit. His entire livelihood is at stake; he is in the final throes of achieving tenure and purchasing a house, and complaining Carol could ruin everything. And as much as Oleanna is about a teacher and student, it is about a man and a woman.

Oleanna - American Theater Company 2Seen by some as misogynistic, the play taps into the lingering sexism that survived third-wave feminism. When read or played wrong, Carol can come off as a nagging, soul-sucking imp. But Lowrance nails it; her Carol isn’t bright, but she wants to learn and becomes demoralized and angry when her arrogant professor tears into her high opinion of secondary education. I always find myself siding with her—yeah, she becomes vicious and cocky by the end, but Jon’s like that from the beginning, and has probably been that way for his entire teaching career. At times, Carol feels like a character who doesn’t want to be in a Mamet play. She sputters and gropes for words, unlike most of his creations with razor-sharp vocabularies, Jon included. Her inarticulateness actually grounds the character, who is probably one of the best concoctions Mamet’s typewriter has conceived.

Cox creates a fascinating portrayal of Jon, a man who paints himself as a social revolutionary but actually plays strictly by the rules, however elitist or sexist they may be. Cox’s Jon is surprisingly unassuming, speaking in crackly, tenor tones. He’s pompous and long-winded, but it comes out of a place of insecurity. Worn down by the stress of the real estate deal, he seems at the end of his rope, especially as Carol tosses wrenches into his plans. Cox also adds a stitch of creepy social awkwardness. When he consoles Carol by caressing her back at the end of Act One, everyone in the house was squirming in their seats.

Together, Lowrance and Cox are dynamite. They squawk rhetoric at each other, grabbing for the reins of the relationship. Snyder’s staging navigates the text wonderfully and sculpts the tension. For example, the famous brutal assault in Act Three springs like a trap and knocks the audience’s wind out. As it turns out, John is actually a terrific teacher because Carol becomes just as power-hungry as him.

Although usually well-forged, a few aspects of the production were muddy. One major issue is that we never really know why Carol continues to visit Jon. We’re left wondering if she’s just wrathful or driven by something more powerful than mere revenge.

ATC placed Oleanna alongside Speed-the-Plow (our review ★★★) to form a combo platter entitled “The Mamet Repertory.” Placing both plays next to each oddly pulls out similar themes in each. However, I preferred the claws-out combat of Oleanna to Plow’s Hollywood cynicism. The ending of Oleanna is superb. The characters are shattered, but there is no resolution, no catharsis. When the lights go down, we’re left gasping for air.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

 

    

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