Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: The Franklin Expedition (The Building Stage)

Franklin ends up lost once again

 

 Franklin Expedition cast - The Building Stage Chicago

   
The Building Stage presents
   
The Franklin Expedition
   
Conceived and Directed by Blake Montgomery
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through October 30  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Billed as "A slightly delusional, historically inaccurate, fragmented portrait of a lost explorer," The Building Stage’s world premiere The Franklin Expedition centers on Sir John Franklin, a British naval officer and Arctic explorer who mapped much of the northern coastline of North America. In 1845, he set out with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to traverse the last uncharted section of the Northwest Passage, but never returned. Numerous search and rescue missions were sent, but Franklin and his 128 men were lost. An 1854 expedition interviewed Inuits and learned that the ships had become icebound. The crews had tried to reach safety on foot, resorting to cannibalism in their efforts to survive, but all succumbed to the bitter conditions. A horrified Victorian public refused to believe this account of their heroic explorers, but recent discoveries seem to bear it out. The mystery of what happened to Franklin’s expedition inspired the ballad "Lord Franklin, “Wilkie Collins,” 1856 play The Frozen Deep and a variety of other artistic works.

Franklin Expedition cast - The Building Stage Chicago 3 You won’t find any of this out by watching The Franklin Expedition. Conceived and directed by Blake Montgomery, and developed and performed by David Amaral, Pamela Maurer, Chris Pomeroy, Jon Stutzman and Leah Urzendowski, the play takes a highly stylized and very self-referential view of Franklin.

"I don’t recognize myself," the character says at one point. As well he might.

All five of the performers play Franklin at different times, often several at once — sometimes in chorus — as well as his wife, his crew, Queen Victoria and a few other characters; then they step back to examine how well their differing portraits of the man worked out. At times, it seems more like a method-acting workshop than a play.

The timeline isn’t remotely chronological, slipping from Franklin on his frozen ship to his preparations for the voyage to his imaginings of his triumphant return to his funeral and around, through and back again. Stretches range from tense to solemn to humorous to outright zany.

Some parts work well: A scene in which the very expressive Stutzman, as Franklin, valiantly tries to rally his disheartened crew; a funny and highly anachronistic session in the snow; and a post-expedition meeting between the tall and hugely comic Pomoroy as Queen Victoria and the diminutive blonde Urzendowski as Franklin. Others, such as the back-patting acting critiques and an overlong scene in which Urzendowski, as the Queen, criticizes the British restraint of Amaral, as Lord Barrow, in eulogizing the lost Franklin, are less successful.

Musical interludes by the sweetly voiced Maurer, sometimes accompanied by other cast members, include some very nice folk songs, including a lovely rendition of "Lord Franklin." The multi-talented performers accompany on fiddle, guitar, keyboards, ukulele and washboard.

It’s definitely interesting, the performances are very well done and the concept of the ever-changing Franklin quite cleverly executed. Yet, overall, the play — 90 minutes without intermission — never quite seems to come together. It seems a collection of disjointed scenes. I’d really have liked to see more history and action and less theatrical navel gazing.  

In the end, despite all these players, Franklin himself is lost.

    
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Franklin Expedition cast - The Building Stage Chicago 2

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