Review: Slaughter City (Jackalope Theatre)

  
  

Disciplined, persuasive production nobly delves into tough subjects

     
     

Ryan Heindl in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

  
Jackalope Theatre presents
   
  
Slaughter City
    
  
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kaiser Ahmed
at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Naomi Wallace is a committed playwright. She wants her audiences to be equally so, to meet her stories more than half way. Poetic vignettes that defy any consistent time frame, these two hours and twenty minutes of archetypal scenes focus on a packing house in a Brechtian-like factory called Slaughter City.

Ryan Heindl and Kristin Anderson in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope TheatreBut that’s as much focus as you get. Mostly the play offers glimpses of the ongoing struggle of the labor movement to be honored, as in fairly compensated, for the work that made America, not just plutocrats, prosper. Wisconsin is only the latest scene of a battle for the soul of America, which is the decency it shows its workers. Fittingly, Jackalope Theatre’s disciplined and persuasive production does it justice.

Wallace offers scenes and work songs of workers and some scabs agitating for a new contract in a slaughterhouse that gives them 20-minute breaks, scars from numerous cuts, premature arthritis, blood poisoning—and meager wages. Presiding over this most recent struggle are avatars from past ones: Cod is the androgynous Irish descendant of a woman who jumped to her death to avoid the flames in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers behind locked doors over a century ago. In a deal with the devil, namely, the symbolic Sausage Man, emblematic of management, Cod survived but now must engage in every labor conflict from 1910 to the present. (Alas, it’s too nebulous, quixotic and precious a concept to really strike home.)

The specific workers in this latest showdown matter more. They slice up imaginary meat as their boss, Mr. Baquin, practices sexual harassment, improbably insisting on cleanliness despite the abattoir’s appalling conditions. The kill-floor is a seething pit of racial tension, class conflicts, and clandestine romance. All the time these exploited toilers must decide between the kind of solidarity that Cod embodies or the way of death suggested by the Sausage Man.

Kaiser Ahmed’s painstaking (and pains-giving) staging delivers memorable performances—Ryan Heindl’s doomed dyslexic kid, Kristin Anderson’s feisty rebel, Warren Feagins as a guilt-ridden supervisor, Anne Sears as an innocent fire victim, John Milewski as the twisted owner, AJ Ware as conflicted Cod, and Jack McCabe as the sinister Sausage Man. (I’d add Katherine Swan to the list but, lacking any projection, her mush-mouthed Maggot dropped too many lines to register on the stage.)

Discursive and fragmentary, Slaughter City hardly invites its audience to any feast of reason. Like Brecht, Wallace means to keep us at a distance. It’s not clear why: The choice between Cod and the Sausage Man is too obvious for this kind of detachment. Notwithstanding the play’s confusing concepts, Jackalope’s commanding dedication to a difficult story and subject deserves accolades, particularly during hard times where yesterday’s advocacy damnably doesn’t seem to work.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Butchering the carcasses in "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

Slaughter City, by Naomi Wallace, continues at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 4th, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:30pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-340-2553) or online here.  For more information, visit www.jackalopetheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “Six Degrees of Separation”

 Relationships Have Their Limits 

 L-R: Paul (Michael Pogue) describes his stolen thesis paper to Ouisa (Karen Yates), Flan (Eric Leonard) and Geoffrey (John Milewski) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott.

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Six Degrees of Separation
by John Guare 
directed by Steve Scott
thru August 30 (Buy tickets online)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

WHAT IS THE POINT of being related to everyone else on the planet, if the daily connections between those one is closest to are thin, shallow, and brittle to the point of snapping? That is the central theme of John Guare’s most famous play, Six Degrees of Separation, produced by Eclipse Theatre at The Greenhouse Theatre upstairs studio. Sadly, as proficient, or even inspired, as individual performances may be, a startling lack of contrast between what is and what could be in the relationships between various characters reduces this production to a flat, if interesting exercise.

L-R: Flan (Eric Leonard) receives a gift from Paul while Larkin (Joe Mack), Ouisa (Karen Yates) and Kitty (Rebecca Prescott) try to find Paul's father, in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. Perhaps this particular studio space simply cannot allow for enough varying levels of play. In scenes which require most of the cast, Steve Scott’s direction clumps half to one side and half to the other, forcing an almost two-dimensional interaction, and reducing the actors to bodies onstage. Also, this ensemble play still lacks strong ensemble feeling. Characters may be distant from each other, but actors should not be; this play demands that the history between most characters be inferred from just a few lines.

Having said that, there’s no denying the excellence of individual performances. Michael Pogues’ portrayal of Paul, the young black man who dupes the upper echelons of New York society into believing that he is the son of Sidney Poitier , is subtle, knowing, and the high point of the production. Pogue is as much a dream weaver as his character and his performance is a joy to watch.

Ouisa’s (Karen Yates) progress under Paul’s inspiring, if illusory, influence is driven, engaging, and realistic. Ouisa may never be a Zen master, but she does move from shallow, materialistic social climber to a woman intrigued by the potential for expansive, more meaningful relatedness. The rapid-fire exchanges between Ouisa and her husband, Flan (Eric Leonard), whether about art deals, social machinations, or Paul’s transgressions, are fun displays of technical virtuosity.

Ousia (Karen Yates) dreams about Paul (Michael Pogue) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. What a pleasure to see Guy Massey (Dr. Fine) and John Milewski (Geoffrey) well-cast and exemplifying the complete embodiment of small roles. Michael Gonring also does a solid turn as the awkward, closeted young college student that Paul seduces to extract information on the upper classes he seeks to infiltrate.

However, at this particular moment, Six Degrees of Separation may demand more from younger cast members than the adults. Sadly, our palates have been jaded (if not utterly revolted) by a steady stream of obnoxious rich kids in dramas, reality TV shows, and as vapid celebrities in their own right. As of 2009, we suffer from over-exposure to the bad behavior of the celebrity rich. The greatest challenge, through acting and direction, is to humanize the parent-child relationships of the play and to individualize each young person’s role, regardless of how few lines or how spoiled the characters are. Otherwise, the danger is that the audience will tune out and not care.

It matters because this is the background against which Ouisa evolves her relationship—or fantasy of a relationship—with Paul. The rapport that she and Paul creaL-R: Rick (Nick Horst), Elizabeth (Laura Coover) and Paul (Michael Pogue) celebrate exciting news in Eclipse Theatre's production of "Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, directed by Steve Scott. te during his desperate phone call to her, before his arrest, needs greater contrast with the connections, or lack of them, that Ouisa has with her own children and husband. Likewise, a stronger sense of history between her and Flan would lend body and contrast to the overall production. Every relationship, no matter how simpatico with regard to interests, has its irritations, its compromises, and its resignations. Ouisa’s exposure to Paul magnifies what little Ouisa has settled for while she pursued having it all. Now, will she go on settling or will something have to give?

Rating: «««

All photos by Scott Cooper.