REVIEW: Ten Unknowns (Will Act for Food)

No great truths revealed

 

10-unknowns

 
Will Act for Food presents
 
Ten Unknowns
 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by
Scott Pasko, assisted by Sally LaRowe
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave. (map)
Through May 29  |  Tickets: $20; $15 with food donation  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, now in Chicago premiere from Will Act for Food, debuted in 2001, and it’s set in 1992, but it feels even older, dated, like something out of the 1970s. I thought we’d got beyond gratuitous nude scenes and endless yelling about exploitation and the debasement of culture.

Its Lincoln Center premiere received handsome reviews, so possibly this complex drama fit better into 2001 than it does into 2010, or perhaps that production simply overcame the script’s flaws. Scott Pasko’s interpretation seems fine, though, and the cast does well, so I think the play has just not aged well.

The nature of art, the relationship of art and commerce, the roles of assistants vs. collaborators, the personal weaknesses of artists, generation gaps, homosexuality, ecology, the 10-unknowns-croppedugliness of American culture … Baitz packs all this and more, in rising volume, into his very talky story about a drunken old failure of a painter and three young people who come into his life without any understanding of where he’s come from.

Malcolm Raphelson, hailed as a promising figurative artist when his work featured as part of the 1949 exhibition "Ten Unknowns," soon vanished into obscurity with the rise of abstract impressionism. In 1963, he exiled himself to rural Mexico, mescal and a mean existence. Dennis Newport‘s gravel-voiced portrayal dances from grim bemusement to naughty charm to raw power, although he often seems too vigorous for a 75-year-old man who’s been living in a bottle most of three decades.

When some of Raphelson’s work surfaces to acclaim, New York art dealer Trevor Fabricant believes time is ripe for a retrospective and a lucrative comeback. He sends his own young assistant and sometime lover Judd Sturgess down to work with Raphelson and help him create some new work. When the dealer comes down to view the results and arrange the showing, however, the painter resists.

The polished but uptight Fabricant, for unaccountable reasons, is from South Africa (Baitz’s boyhood home). That’s distracting — not only because Ben Veatch, otherwise nicely smarmy, mangles the accent — and detracts from the Ugly American theme the rest of the play projects.

Judd, talented and anxious to learn from the older artist, is a junkie. Neil Huff, brimming with attitude, does his best to create a character but the script gives him little to build on. His rants and revelations seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, Raphelson picks up an unlikely fourth for this quartet, Julia Bryant, a Berkeley biology student researching nearly extinct frogs. Rachel Neuman‘s pretty, perky, wholesome Julia contrasts beautifully with the tormented and arty bunch — at least until the unraveling second act, when Judd loses it, Raphelson gives in, and Julia reveals her dark past and the rest of herself, too.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Theater Thursday: Raven Theatre’s "Hedda Gabler"

Thursday, May 14

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago

Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at the Raven TheatreBefore the performance Theater Thursday patrons will enjoy a special reception sponsored by Trattoria D.O.C. with appetizers, wine and beer and a post-show discussion with members of the cast. A contemporary woman trapped in conventional times relieves her intense boredom by constructing a dangerous game or reeking disaster on the lives of others. Hedda Gabler begs the question: How far would you go to escape? As Hedda resists the predictable world she has chosen, she unleashes a sequence of unfortunate events that brings her story to a shocking conclusion.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 773.338.2177 and mention “Theater Thursdays.”

Hedda Gabler

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Jon Robin Baitz

Directed by Michael Menendian

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler does the time warp at Raven Theatre

Review by Paige Listerud

Hedda Gabler most often gets the 19th century period treatment, so that it’s eponymous role, an epic role for women, more often than not, is interpreted in stark, severe, neurotic and even sociopathic ways.  (see examples of such augmented portrayals after the fold – including Cate Blanchett and Steppenwolf’s Martha Plimpton.)

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) contemplates her limited and self-limiting options.Michael Menendian, who has waited 20 years to direct this play, has pulled Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler forward to the 1930s. A time when many 19th century restrictions of gender, race, class, and propriety, still retained their grip, and yet had been slightly loosened by the gender role breakthroughs and financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties. This is not your grandmother’s Hedda; we know this Hedda, not from history, but from personal encounters with sorority sisters and Gold Coast socialites. This draws Mackenzie Kyle’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler a little further away from 19th century virago and a little closer to “Gossip Girl.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, this Hedda Gabler is an expertly crafted and smooth-running timepiece, with every part so honed, tempered and balanced with the others, it clips along with deceptive grace, lightness, and ease. Menendian, the sterling cast, and adaptor Jon Robin Baitz can take pride in their exertions to update a classic without overreaching. In fact, every actor’s performance is a model of technique balanced with dynamic energy and tension.

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) whiles away the hours.Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler) is a near-perfect blend of boredom and anxiety, exhibiting flippant social grace masking a powder keg of sadism. Ian Novak (George Tesman) humanizes his character’s history-geek ineptitude by not diminishing him to an utter buffoon. Symphony Saunders (Thea Elvsted) and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg) deliver sincerity and intensity without over-the-top melodrama. Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack) portrays evil with the graceful patience of a lazy, sleek cat waiting to spring.  JoAnn Montemurro (Aunt Julia Tesman) is appropriately co-dependent, without being so cloying we do not see her razor’s edge, to be used against any who would threaten her beloved nephew, George. Claudia Garrison (Berta) shows in a few lines a woman who is obsequious, fearful, bitter, and knowing of her mistress.

The pacing is fast; the lines tossed off so consistently, one would think Noel Coward constructed this Ibsen play. Best Comedic Moment goes to Ian Novak, for his pregnant pause and clueless response right after Lovborg, his intellectual rival, has thrown down the gauntlet. The deft and light direction rests on the foundation provided by Baitz’s meticulous adaptation.

They want a piece of her:  George Tesman (Ian Novak), Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler), Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack), and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg).“To make this modern and accessible, we had to go over every line,” said Michael Menendian, “and ask why Hedda was making this choice. Was she an abused or neglected child by her military father? Is she mad? We didn’t want people to feel sorry for her and we didn’t want the audience to wait for her to just go ahead and die already. She has no real focus, no real talent, no real ambition, and no strong desires. She’s got no idea family, no idea of love. She has a crazy notion of what is Romantic. She lacks courage. She has a twisted idea of pleasure or fun.”

Hedda Gabler is indeed a scaredy-cat, but she does manage to express one clarified desire: to have total control over another human being. This well-tempered production inevitably reveals, through its internal balance, the paradoxes of sadomasochism. Hedda wishes total control but is, ultimately, totally controlled. Thea, her rival for influence in Lovborg’s life, seems almost genetically submissive. Still, she demonstrates greater courage than any other character in her willingness to sacrifice marriage, social approval, and economic security. It is, perhaps, overwrought to suggest BDSM themes regarding Hedda Gabler. Yet, while the late Victorian Age was excessively moralistic, it was never innocent. Henrik Ibsen’s crime was to say that in a crowded theater.

Hedda in black “I think that people are amused or fascinated by Hedda Gabler now,” said Menendian. “Not stunned, as they were in Ibsen’s time.” Indeed. I won’t claim that nothing is shocking, but with the breakdown of race, class, gender, and sexuality barriers, the shocks don’t come so hard or so startling. Not to mention, with the steady spectacle of bad behavior the celebrity rich, reality TV, and day and night soaps, we have come a little closer to Hedda, not she to us.

Hedda-Eilert-couch But, putting kink aside, even everyday power exchanges may be too much for a person who wants it all without having to give up anything. The closest Hedda comes to give and take is heightened by her final scene with Aunt Julia, who checks and counters her in as surely as any of the men in Hedda’s life. Their mutual antipathy lies beneath the veiled messages and banal social courtesies they share. Both are playing nice and nobody is fooled for a minute. The sacrifice of truth and authenticity maintains their little détente. If only Hedda could sacrifice something else, hazard something, do something that gives her life weight, value, and meaning—if not absolute freedom. If there is madness here it’s because something’s got to give in this meaningless, safe and conventional existence. This production shows the unbearable lightness of Hedda Gabler’s being.

Rating: «««½

Buy tickets here.  Half-priced tickets available through StyleChicago.com.

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Raven Theatre announces 2008/09 Season

Michael Menendian announces Raven Theatre’s 2008/2009 Season, which includes Stephen Adly Guirgis’ searing Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, the world premiere of Tom Patrick’s darkly comic Misamerica, and Jon Robin Baitz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler.  Raven kicks off the season with a “Stark Raven Mad!” Gala Celebration on Friday, August 1.  Season subscriptions are available for just $50.  Visit www.raventheatre.com or call 773-338-2177.  

Raven Theatre announces 26th Season:

A powerful prison Drama, a World-Premiere, and an Ibsen classic.

 

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
directed by Michael Menendian

Raven begins its 26th season with the playwright responsible for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Our Lady of 121st StreetGuirgis’ plays mine his conflicted youth (attending Catholic parochial school in Harlem) to combine spiritual and religious themes with the rough streets of New York.  His plays are controversial and at times ferocious, but also stimulating and fiercely intelligent, inspiring audiences to question and debate long after they leave the theatre.  Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train centers on Angel Cruz, a young Latino man in jail for shooting a religious cult leader.  Also in prison is an infamous, born-again serial killer who raises the question:  Is faith enough to save those who have not practiced what they believe?

October 7 – December 6, 2008

 

Misamerica
A world-premier by Tom Patrick
directed by Greg Kolak

Somewhere in the Mid-east, in the near future, an entrepreneurial American corporation is ready to tackle the next big market.  Basic supplies are hard to come by and dangerous fighting continues throughout the area, but Starbucks and McDonald’s are popping up everywhere, and the Operation American Sole sandal company isn’t about to miss out.  A darkly humorous tale of American hubris, Misamerica takes an unapologetic look at our country’s policies and priorities.

January 27 – March 28, 2009

 

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Michael Menendian

Ibsen’s masterpiece depicts a woman’s inevitable road to tragedy.  Hedda has recently married a kind and reliable yet unexciting scholar.  She is visited by two old acquaintances:  a female schoolmate and another scholar.  The former has saved the latter from an unsavory lifestyle, helping him find success as a writer; Hedda is resentful both of his talent and her schoolmate’s influence on it.  Out of jealousy and boredom, she proceeds to destroy each of the people around her, and finally herself.  Is Hedda a heroine, a villain, a victim… or all of the above?

April 28 – June 27, 2009

 

Raven Theatre

Founded in 1983, Raven Theatre is dedicated to breathing new life into American classics and exploring other works that illuminate the American experience.  In addition to its regular season, Raven produces a Workshop Series of new and experimental productions, as well as a Youth Program, including teaching partnerships with various Chicago Public Schools, summer youth classes and original children’s shows performed at Raven Theatre.

Raven Theatre Company is funded in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, Polk Bros. Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, Yates-Feldman Foundation, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Prince Charitable Trust, The Mayer & Morris Kaplan Family Foundation, The Alphawood Foundation, The MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, The Northern Trust Centennial Fund, S & C Electric Company, The Department of Cultural Affairs, CityArtsIII, a city agency, and The Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.

 


Raven Theatre, located at 6157 N. Clark Street, just blocks from the Granville Redline stop. Free parking is available at the theatre, and plentiful street parking is also available.