Review: Kingsville (Stage Left Theatre)

   

Exposing the poisonous threads of macho culture

   
    

Nick DiLeonardi as Mike and Andrew Raia as Justin  – Photo by Lila Stromer

     
Stage Left Theatre presents
 
Kingsville
    
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by Vance Smith
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through November 21  |    tickets: $22-$28 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

When the student gunmen opened fire at Columbine High School in 1999, the nation took a collective gasp. The very idea that schools could become a place of intentional yet random mass murder was unimaginable and so shocking as to defy belief. Today when students commit in-school murders, they’re met not so much with shock and disbelief as they are with a sense of tragic resignation. The headlines are regional or even local rather than national because on a national scale, school shootings are no longer front page, above-the-fold news. It is as if the world has become comfortably numb to the idea that childhood is a time of danger as much as of innocence.

That sad fact makes Andrew Hinderaker’s Kingsville all the more forceful. Delving the troubled world of a high school reeling from a student shooting, Kingsville is heart-breaking in its veracity and its sensitivity. In its world premiere at Stage Left, Kingsville Kingsville - Stage Left Theatre is also  powerful indelving the related topic of bullying; the sort of relentless, dehumanizing abuse that can drive young people to the violence borne of utter despair. Or at least it is for the first half or so of the play.

For all its many merits, Kingsville loses much of its impact when its plot swerves away from its young protagonists and into the world of an adult who does something so far-fetched it’ll make your eyes roll in disbelief. We’re not going to give away the action here – that would be a major spoiler. Suffice to say, Hinderaker’s narrative ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness.  Until then, Kingsville is a richly compelling story as it mines the volatile, triple-threatening world of adolescence, machismo and guns. Moreover, director Vance Smith has a remarkable pair of young men in the two key roles that anchor the piece.
Andrew Raia plays Justin, a high schooler who has been the target of brutal locker room harassment. Nick DiLeonardi plays Justin’s best (perhaps only) friend Mike, a high school outcast who has found empowerment – and relief from all-consuming loneliness and self-loathing – by learning to shoot at a local teen center. Raia nails the rage, frustration and desperation of a young man for whose daily life is defined by humiliation and dread. It’s with stunning impact that Raia delivers a monologue describing the abuse – the details are excruciating, but it isn’t just the particulars that make the sene so harrowing. Raia taps into an anguish that’s almost unbearably raw and authentic. DiLeonardi’s Mike  seems – superficially at least – more laid back than the deeply wounded Justin, but he’s just as heart-breaking: A fundamentally decent kid driven to do something terrible simply because he doesn’t have the tools to cope with with all the badness around him.

The adults in Kingsville aren’t as effective, primarily because the characters feel more like representations of opposing points of view more than actual people. Wayne (John Arthur Lewis), reeling from the death of his son in a school shooting, advocates arming students so that they aren’t sitting ducks if a gunman opens fire on a classroom. Justin’s father James (John Ferrick) passionately opposes Wayne, a stance that has been an excuse for Justin’s tormentors to take their bullying to heinous levels of cruelty.

Hinderaker also has Audrey, a lecturer (Cat Dean) punctuate the piece, relaying the results of a startling and revealing study about contemporary attitudes about machismo. Audrey’s direct address, like that dubious plot development, detracts from Kingsville more than it adds to the production. The speeches are didactic, and while they offer some eye-opening information, they put a hitch in the storytelling. When the action stops so that Audrey can break in with academic commentary on kids and guns, the audience is bumped out of the story and into a virtual lecture hall.

What Kingsville does well is show how integrated the poisonous threads of macho man culture are within the tapestry of gun culture. They provide the basis of a fantastic, if ultimately unbelievable, story.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

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Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

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Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: The Love of the Nightingale (Red Tape Theatre)

This eerie ‘Nightingale’ sings a refreshingly resonant tune

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Red Tape Theatre presents
  
The Love of the Nightingale
  
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
directed by
James Palmer
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
(map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not going to lie, my expectations weren’t so high when I entered the space for Red Tape Theatre’s newest production, The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The last (and admittedly, only) show I saw by them, last season’s Enemy of the People (our review ★½), was pretty weak. That said, I was completely blown away. Directed by Artistic Director James Palmer, Red Tape’s Love of the Nightingale was refreshing, bizarre, and remarkably resonant.

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 Nightingale explores the ancient Greek myth of Philomele who, as all those mythology buffs out there will tell you, was transformed into a nightingale after some pretty traumatic experiences. And given that it’s written by Wertenbaker, you can bet the whole story is given a feminist twist. Palmer and his enormous cast explode the story into life, ripping it from its ancient Greek context and filling it with anachronism and theatricality. Set designer William Anderson builds a completely new space within the heart of the gym in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The set is its own little world, encircling the audience and featuring plenty of hidden drawers, doors, and other surprises. Palmer’s production is intensely physical, demanding the actors throw all they got out on-stage, just a few inches from the audience.

The story tells of the relationship between Philomele (Meghan Reardon), her sister Procne (Kathleen Romond), and her brother-in-law and King of Thrace, Tereus (Vic May). For those unfamiliar with the Greek myth, Procne asks her husband, Tereus, to bring her little sister out to Thrace for a visit. He sails over to Athens to pick her up, but things get a little heated on the trip back. Through a brilliant choice, the play is shaped and revealed by an almost silent dollmaker/carpenter/puppetmaster (Robert Oakes), who seems compelled to tell this unsettling story to us.

The dream team of designers Palmer amassed has concocted a marvelous world. Ricky Lurie’s modern-dress costumes are stunning, reveling in the uncanny style Palmer has set out. The suits and dresses are bright and colorful, contrasting sharply with the terrifying depths the play plunges towards. Anderson’s set is simple enough REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 to hold all of the different scenes required in the text, yet exudes its own bizarre essence. This is all pushed by Palmer, who moonlights as lighting designer, and his fetish for flickering fluorescents. The show is eerie and surreal, sometimes a dream and sometimes a nightmare.

Although the performances are at times outdone by the incredible design, there are some choice actors here. Romond’s tortured Procne is excellent; although the character doesn’t feature much in the original myth, here we’re entranced by her struggle. As Philomele, it takes Reardon a scene or two to hit her stride but she gets there, especially as the play gets heavier. May does great work as well, finding both Tereus’ sliminess and his royalty. For such a small stage, the cast is massive. However, they all fit the play extremely well, and everyone out there is required for the world to work as well as it does.

Much of the chorus is used in choreographed movement that surrounds the audience, trapping them into Philomele’s tragic tale. However, sometimes the movement pieces overstay their welcome and reach into repetitive territory, then our interest flags. The play calls for plenty of brutality, but Zack Meyer and Claire Yearman’s fight choreography doesn’t really hack it. It works well technically, but doesn’t have the piercing specificity the rest of the show has.

From their The Love of the Nightinggale, it is clear Red Tape has an aesthetic that works for them. Hopefully, they’ll expand and explore more of what made this play great. If Red Tape keeps churning out work like this, they’ll become a tiger of the storefront scene.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

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Victory Gardens and Teatro Vista presents:

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by Eddie Torres
thru November 1st (buy tickets)
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Midway through rehearsals for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, actor Christian Litke took a foot to the face that landed him in the emergency room, suborbital socket bone beneath one eye pulverized. Opening night, he went on with a Technicolor shiner you could see from the back row. Per Kristoffer Diaz’s strict must-not-look-like-fight-choreography stage directions, Litke proceeded to take another half a dozen “camel kicks” in the kisser – as well as a few spine-rattling power-bombs. As it is in real life, the professional wrestling world depicted in Chad Deity is a brand of fakery that’s truly brutal.

Chad-Deity-1 While audiences aren’t apt to suffer physical damage like Litke, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a knock-out victory of equal parts brains and brawn.

Power-bombs (wherein one’s spine hits the floor at a velocity surely spines were not intended to withstand) and lightning-quick roundhouses aside, Diaz’ ground (and bone) breaking take on the world of professional wrestling isn’t rooted in violence for the sake of shock, although it’s plenty violent and often shocking. It doesn’t traffic in the pandering stereotypes that fuel the WWE, although it uses those stereotypes point out their ridiculousness. This is a tale of race, racism and all-American boys grasping at the shiny, illusive brass ring of the All American Dream. It unfolds in hip-hop rhythms and is infused with some of the most politically incorrect language you’ll hear outside a meeting of the Alabama Chapter of the John Birch Society.

In director Eddie Torres, Diaz has a collaborator able to grasp and convey this incendiary material without missing a beat. The script requires a keen ear for both polyglot urban rhythms and the unctuous whitebread idiocy. Torres hears them all, and makes them resonate.

Chad Deity (Kamal Angelo Bolden , looking like the after photo in one of those back-of-the-magazine protein powder ads) is a professional wrestling champ who – as his bigot boss Everett K. Olsen (James Krag, a perfect mix of oiliness and ignorance) likes to say – makes people glad to be American. When Chad wins a fight, the terrorists lose.

But the real hero of Chad Deity is Macedonia Guerra (Desmin Borges, in a breakout performance that should have every agent in town clamoring to meet with him), aka The Mace. Macedonia’s job is to make the likes of Chad Deity look good. Stars like Chad Deity can’t exist without people like the Mace willing to act like they’ve lost every bout. Borges is a wholly endearing mix of self-deprecation and fierce pride. He knows he’s far more intelligent than his boss will ever be. He also knows that all his innate intelligence isn’t worth a slap in a world that prefers its villains and heroes in simple, black and white terms.

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So Mace suits up like a Frito Bandito outfit every fight, declares that he lives to steal American jobs and send American money back to drug lords in Mey-hee-co and lets Chad beat the crap out of him. Because when Chad Deity wins, Americans know why they’re fighting in Afghanistan, E.K. declares. To which the Mace sighs under his bright red sombrero and resignedly shakes his maracas.

For Macedonia, a way up in the wrestling world presents itself in Vigneshwar Padujar (Usman Ally), a multi-lingual Brooklyn-born Indian kid who is, no matter where he goes, “the most amazing thing in the room.” Charisma might owe Chad Deity money, but VP owns the entire fricking bank.

“I’m gonna get you a job,” Madedonia tells VP, and so begins the career of Chad Deity’s next enemy. E.K., in a move so awful it’s hilarious, has VP hit the ring as The Fundamentalist, a “Moslem” who enters flanked by women in burkas and praising Allah. In the lead up to a pay-per-view bout with Chad, the Fundamentalist beats up guys with names like Billy America (Litke, draped in a confederate flag and entering to a blast of Sweet Home Alabama) and The Patriot (also Litke, this time wearing an American flag). The fights manage to be both a tragic commentary on ugly Americans like E.K. and a wildly amusing mockery of them.

As animosity in the ring starts bleeding into real life, the dynamic between wrestlers becomes ever more complicated. As Macedonia worriedly notes, without community among in-ring enemies, wrestling gets dangerous. So as Chad and VP come to despise each other for real, the looming bout between them become fraught with the possibility of unscripted danger.

By having greased up, impossibly muscle-y men tear through the audience waving flags and shouting threats, Chad Deity manages to instigate the kind of audience participation you’d find at ringside at a Vegas championship bout. It’s wildly fun, wickedly funny and deeply provocative. In the so-called fake world of professional wrestling, Diaz captures profundity, adventure, aspirations and true triumph. The result is a theatrical prize.

Rating: «««½

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Nov. 1 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $20 – $48.For more information call 773/871-3000 or go to www.victorygardens.org.

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