REVIEW: Steel Magnolias (Hubris Productions)

Hubris production could use a touch-up

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Hubris Productions present
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by
Lavina Jadhwani
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

steel magnolias_005The 1989 film version of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is one of the definitive chick flicks of all time: empowering, hilarious, emotionally devastating, and featuring one of the best female ensembles ever assembled on screen. Harling’s characters are southern women bursting at the seams with charisma, and they require the  larger-than-life personalities of a Dolly Parton or Shirley Maclaine to make their struggles spectacular. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, the actors of Hubris’s Steel Magnolias lack the energy that makes these characters enthralling, resulting in a plodding production that never makes it to the emotional heights that the script has become known for.

Harling’s play depicts the key moments of diabetic Shelby’s (Sara Pavlak) adulthood – her wedding, pregnancy, motherhood, etc. – and how these events affect her mother M’Lynn (Stephanie Wooten-Austin) and other women of Chinquapin, Louisiana: salon owner Truvy (Calidonia Olivares), sardonic widow Clairee (Sharon Roseri), eccentric curmudgeon Ouiser (Lorraine Freund), and new girl Annelle (Jessica Maynard). In Truvy’s salon, these six women argue about wedding colors, gossip about local ladies, and experience the occasional breakdown in an environment free of testosterone. On paper, the generations-spanning assortment of personalities should be quite entertaining, but the potential of the characters isn’t reached by the ensemble.

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From the very opening scene it is obvious that Steel Magnolias needs a lot of fine-tuning: the actors stumble over lines, the comedy revolves too heavily on gags (Annelle drops things! A lot!), and Truvy’s hair is way too flat. That last one is just mind-boggling, as big hair should be at the top of any designer’s checklist for this show. As the production continues, the lack of chemistry between the actors makes it apparent that there is still much character work to be done, starting with a much needed jolt of electricity to the dull performances.

   
   
Rating:★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Messiah on the Frigidaire (Hubris Productions)

Faith among the desperate

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Hubris Productions presents
 
Messiah on the Frigidaire
 
Written by John Culbertson
Directed by Dennis Frymire
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The fervid religiosity of the American South suffers so much parody and lampoon it’s a wonder to find any comedy based on it that won’t bog down in cliché and 2-dimensional stereotype. But playwright John Culbertson shows a real feel for his subject. With Messiah on the Frigidaire, he demonstrates enough quick-witted familiarity to zing the zaniness of belief, while compassionately allowing his Messiah 2 characters the room to doubt, despair, and grow. Hubris Productions opens its fourth season at Greenhouse Theater Center with this gentle and astute play. Director Dennis Frymire and cast zealously realize its delicate balance between the hilarity of flamboyant religious showmanship and the loneliness of true dark nights of the soul.

Chief among lost souls is Lou Ann Hightower (Kim Boler)–facing a series of dead ends in her marriage, her blue-collar life, and her church. That might just look like tough times on anyone else. However, Lou Ann is also losing her faith, which for her is like slowly being drained of life’s blood. Luckily, she has a comforting sounding board in her friend and next-door neighbor, Betsy Gridley (Laura Rauh), the happily married ex-slut of Elroy, South Carolina. Lou Ann can confide to Betsy about the estrangement between her and her husband, Dwayne (Aaron Sjoholm), which has occurred under the strain of going nowhere fast. Betsy can still find joy in the streetlights as they come on in the evening, but Lou Ann finds her dreams and Dwayne’s suffocating in the confines of the trailer park.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious and/or obvious ways. In a premature attempt at topiary sculpture, another neighbor’s child has hacked away at one of Lou Ann’s trees. Light from the street lamps projects through its jagged branches, casting a shadow upon the Frigidaire on Lou Ann’s front porch, revealing–the face of Jesus! (Or Willie Nelson, take your choice.) Always thinking, husband Dwayne immediately perceives the monetary value of generating crowds to come view the new icon.

The trouble is, everyone else in town sees the monetary value, too—from the Reverend Hodges (Jeff McVann), who tells Lou Ann she doesn’t “fit in” to his church, to Elroy’s bank president Larry Williamson (Jack Birdwell) who denied Dwayne the loan to open a video store, but set up his own cousin with Dwayne’s idea. Culbertson is quite smart in the the numorous ways he highlights Elroy’s class dynamics. But he is also very conscious about the way it wreaks havoc with Lou Ann’s delicate conscience. Lou Ann may be more Christian than the church she’s been thrown out of or even the believers that show up on her property, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any happier.

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Frymire maintains the possibility of hope by snuggly weaving the relationships between Lou Ann and Betsy, and Lou Ann and Dwayne. Boler’s performance quietly, profoundly reaches to the solitary longing in Lou Ann’s soul but it also exposes Lou Ann’s simple, open acceptance of other people in their beliefs, no matter how wacky. Sjoholm’s Dwayne is a wily but frustrated good guy—chomping at the bit to make good on his dreams; only needing someone, especially Lou Ann, to believe in him. As Betsy, Rauh never goes overboard with the fun and friendly sluttiness—just enough to make her casual and comfortable in her own skin, never enough to overwhelm the friendship between Betsy and Lou Ann.

Even the “bad guys” get a bit of sympathy in their interpretation. Reverend Hodges may be the douchiest of douche bag preachers, but McVann’s performance also gives the impression that he is almost always on the point of obsequiously apologizing to someone. Birdwell portrays Larry Williamson with light, Southern college boy charm, masking the teeth he has underneath just long enough before he needs them.

This is one of those productions where the set should really live up to the quality of the storytelling. John Whittington makes the most of the cramped studio space available, but it still shows a flat, 2-dimensional quality. That might be fine if these were comic book characters—but they are not and the acting is not. Humane portrayals of flawed, human characters deserve humane, if not royal surroundings.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Review: Hubris Production’s “Bent”

Hubris’ Revival a Limited, but Still Devastating, Success

Hubris Productions presents

Bent
by Martin Sherman
directed by Jacob Christopher Green

Review by Paige Listerud

To appreciate Martin Sherman’s Bent, one has to acknowledge the times in which it was created. When Sherman finished it in 1970, he was addressing neglected history about the Holocaust–the persecution of gay men and lesbians, along with other marginalized groups, like the Roma and the disabled, were hardly mentioned and Bent2practically forgotten. But he was also answering to the urgency of the budding Gay Liberation Movement, sparked by the Stonewall riots that had taken place just a year before. Bent is not simply about remembrance but also about reclaiming the gay male body in the face of absolute hostility—an attempt that was facilitated by the somewhat earlier explosion of the 60’s Sexual Revolution. These two basic dramatic intentions may still have fit fairly easily in 1979, when the play hit Broadway and received nominations for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

Unfortunately, at the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, Bent is showing its age. It has a singular, radical, and revolutionary focus. It lacks in-depth examination of the interconnectedness of oppressions that would make ripe material for any exploration of the Holocaust today. The men with the pink triangle may have been the lowest of the low in Nazi concentration camps, particularly when they were persecuted by fellow inmates, yet the bare suggestion that life was so much better for Jews is a component of Sherman’s radical shortsightedness–certainly not an anomaly in leftist thinking in the late 60’s, but rather irksome and disturbing to witness now.

“I wanted to do this because I had led workshops with LGBT youth at the Center on Halsted,” said director Jacob Christopher Green. “There were so many of them that didn’t know about the pink triangle. We thought the play was particularly relevant today because of similar economic conditions between the Weimar era and this. And the advances that had been made by Germany’s own homosexual movement by Magnus Hirschfeld and the Institute for Sexual Science. That was all swept away by the Third Reich.” Bent1

So while not at all denying the urgent need for remembrance, it may be time to encourage and develop more fully fleshed-out works that expose the dire straits of queer people under Nazi terror.

Without altering the script, these issues couldn’t be resolved with the very best of casts. Problematic to Hubris Productions’ presentation is an uneven cast. The first act comes across as musty community theater–the few bright moments being Travis Walker’s drag performance as nightclub owner, Greta, and the tender scene between Max (Christopher Kauffman) and Rudy (Michael Shepherd) while they are on the lamb. The set (designed by John Whittington), while irritatingly monochromatic, is designed to give the production many levels to play with, which makes the 2-dimensional direction of most of the action in 1st Act a conundrum.

The second act improves profoundly with the concentration of action on Max and his newfound ally, friend, and lover Horst (Jason Ober). That Kaufman and Ober are able to create a realistic and deeply moving relationship out of BENT_webdialogue that is sometimes stilted is a testimony to their craft and Green’s ability to create a truly intimate connection between them on a very bare and unforgiving stage. In their transgressive celebration of their sexuality and growing vulnerability, their increasing love for one another creeps up on them and on us.

By the time Horst is ruthlessly executed in front of Max, we are swept up in Max’s anguished acknowledgement that he has truly loved. He has loved men. And he has loved without the dulling distractions of alcohol and cocaine that were part of his old decadent life in Berlin. The finale is heartbreaking and devastating. This is the revolution we have needed all evening long.

Rating: ««½

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
When: Thru August 15, 2009
Tickets: $25 Adults, $20 Student/Seniors, Box Office: 773-404-7336
Tickets Online: https://www.tix.com

Cast: Christopher Kauffman, Michael Shepherd, Andrew Skenk, Gregory L. Payne, Travis Walker, Timothy McGuire, Jason Ober

Artistic/Technical Team: Jacob Christopher Green (Director and costumes), John Whittington (set designer), Richard Ebeling (lighting designer), Jason Dabrowski (sound design), CJ Leavens (Props), Nathan Petts (fight choreographer), Patricia Savieo (dramaturge), Lexi Staples (flag art), Tina Frey (stage manager), John Kamys (video creator/director)

Note: A portion of the proceeds from this show will benefit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org

There will be a Talkback Series with the director and actors immediately following the show on Sundays, July 12, 26 and August 9. They will last approximately 30 minutes.

More info: http://www.hubrisproductions.com