Review: Sonnets for an Old Century (UrbanTheater)

     
     

Like life, ‘Sonnets’ is a bumpy ride

     
     

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.

   
UrbanTheater Company presents
 
Sonnets for an Old Century
  
Written by José Rivera
Directed by
Madrid St. Angelo i/a/w Juan Castaneda
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
thru April 24 |  tickets: $20   |  more info  

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Chicago has a vast and virtually unknown storytelling scene. Shows like The Moth, 2nd Story, Story Club, Stories at the Store, This Much Is True and Essay Fiesta feature the best writers and storytellers in the city. As a member of this scene (and Essay Fiesta producer), I see at least a dozen personal monologues performed each month. You would think that after hearing more than 100 narratives, I’d become jaded. However, I’d argue that the opposite is true. My appreciation for genuine and honest storytelling continues to grow and appears to be without bounds. Conversely, my bullshit detector has become highly attuned.

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter CoombsI mention all this because Sonnets for an Old Century, the new UrbanTheater Company production that’s part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep, is a storytelling showcase. The play, written by José Rivera, consists of a series of monologues told by the recently deceased. The stage is their purgatory, and it is here that each provides commentary on the life he or she has lived, both the good and the bad. So in essence, these monologues—or free-verse sonnets—are personal narratives, even if the narratives are fictional.

Overall, Sonnets is an incredibly inconsistent show. There are moments where the monologists hit their high notes, striking genuine emotion. In these rare scenes, you can sense the actor is digging deep, plucking an honest chord from within and relaying that to the audience from behind the mask of the character. It is also in these scenes where the dialogue rises above contrivance and overwroughtness to become something real and relatable.

Unfortunately, there are far too many monologues in which the diction is absurd, even spiraling into laughable territory. Lines like "ecology of the spirit" and "rhythm of vegetables" could work if they weren’t delivered with such grave seriousness. Nobody talks like this, not even poets—or at least good poets. The actors struggle when assuming these pretentious characters, often falling into the trap of indicating rather than acting. But can you blame them? Nobody can relate to a clunker of a line like the "fallopian tubes of her mind." How can the actors find a place of genuine feeling when lines like this are the antithesis of genuine feeling?

But let’s get back to the highlights. There’s a beautiful monologue delivered by actor Hank Hilbert. He plays an actor who, in life, kept his homosexuality and his AIDS diagnosis hidden from most of the world. The language of the piece is pedestrian, though it still retains its power. There is humor as well as poignancy. There is action as well as characterization. It has all the makings of a great narrative.

Another highlight is provided courtesy of Christian Kain Blackburn. His character talks about sin, and attempts to justify his earthly behavior, which in life included drug and alcohol abuse. He then gives a riveting speech about his invalid father and the pain of watching the man grow old, weak and helpless. Blackburn pulls from the gut and succeeds in delivering one of the most compelling sonnets of the production.

     
Gino Marconi in a scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs
Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series. Photo: Peter Coombs Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century', now playing in Steppenwolf's GarageRep series.

Despite these shining moments, and a few others, the play’s inconsistency detracts from its overall quality. Each character need not deliver his or her monologue in a similar voice – that would be a sign of a non-dynamic writer. But the style should remain consistent. You can’t go from real-world dialogue to slam poetry and expect us to think these characters exist in the same universe. Perhaps if director Madrid St. Angelo addressed these style shifts, there would be more cohesion and a better end product.

The reason why the aforementioned storytelling series are successful is because they strive to tap into a place of vulnerability without the protection of pretense. Sonnets for an Old Century will probably turn off quite a few audience members because of just how much it clings to its loftiness. If the actors and director could find a way to make each piece vulnerable, despite the laughable dialogue, this would be a much more powerful play.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Scene from UrbanTheater's 'Sonnets for an Old Century'.  Photo: Athony Aicardi

GarageRep continues through April 24th, with performances Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm; with a three-show marathon on Sunday, April 24 at 1 pm, 4pm & 8 pm.  For more info, go to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2011 GarageRep page.

 

Artists

Featuring: Jennifer Walls, Alex Polcyn, Christian Kain Blackburn, Gino Marconi, Gabi Mayorga, Shannon Matesky, Hank Hilbert, Rashaad Hall, Marilyn Camacho, Paloma Nozicka, Dru Smith, Marvin Quijada, Meghann Tabor, Phillip E. Jones, Arthur Luis Soria, Sojourner Zenobia Wright, Mike Cherry, Whitney Hayes and Amrita Dhaliwal.

       
        

What is GarageRep??

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Review: BRAINPEOPLE (UrbanTheater Company)

  
  

Examining the relationship of magic, passion and faith

  
  

Brain People - Urban Theatre 6

   
UrbanTheater Company presents
  
BRAINPEOPLE
 
Written by José Rivera
Directed by
Marti Lyons
at
Batey Urbano, 2620 W. Division (map)
through Dec. 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Before the lights went down for “Brainpeople” at the UrbanTheater Company (UTC), co-artistic director Madrid St. Angelo told the audience that we were in for some delicious language. This is an authentic description of Jose Rivera’s language and UTC’s spellbinding production. Writer José Rivera is possibly best known as the Brain People - Urban Theatre 9 screenwriter for “The Motorcycle Diaries”. He is also renowned in the theater world as a torchbearer for the Magical Realism genre. From the moment I walked in to Batey Urbano, I could feel the vibe that I remember so fondly from my days in Puerto Rico and not so fondly what I call post Catholic Terror Syndrome.

The set is a carnival of crucifixion imagery, dark wood, and reds to reflect the fires and riots in a not too distant future Los Angeles. It is an unsettling mixture of the surreal and the sublime done to perfection by scenic designer Jorge Felix. There is a muscular image of Jesus tethered to a tree dying or resurrecting in religious ecstasy. Along side this is a grotesque post-mortem painted in icy shades of blue.

Marilyn Camacho plays the mysterious and enticing hostess named Mayannah who once a year invites two strangers to dine with her. Amanda Powell plays the role of Rosemary and Kate Brown is Ani. Ms. Powell gives a tour de force performance as a woman with disassociative identity disorder- or is it possible that she is a channel for more sinister motives? One moment she’s a tentative guest named Rosemary, then Rosalyn, then Rosie and the list continues impressively. Each of Ms. Powell’s characters is done to a perfect comic or terror inducing affect, providing a searing reality check to Rosemary’s flights of illusion.

Mayannah resides in a wealthy grotto of Los Angeles where everything is available with the right amount of money. Hers is a languid existence punctuated by sirens and threats of police violence on her social inferiors. In fact, one can presume that this is a riff on present day Los Angeles, where fantasy and reality are blurred for the world to purchase a ticket. Mayannah’s anniversary repast is offered with the promise of a cash reward if her guests make it to dessert.

Brain People - Urban Theatre 8Ani and Rosemary are willingly subjected to a night of transubstantiation and the mental stigmata of an abandoned child longing for what she calls her unbroken self. Mayannah believes that if the energy of the soul can be consumed, it can also be absorbed and reborn. This is no simple tale of reincarnation or anything that I ever learned in catechism classes. Rivera’s story turns long-held tenets and beliefs on their heads by revealing the underside of learning them. The darkest creases of the mind emerge when society breaks down to martial law and, finally, anarchy. The character of Ani is a portrayal of an individual named for the lost civilization of Armenia. Ani comes to dinner to get the payout and leave the country to find real love and forget that she has a ‘PhD. in all the shitty forms of love’. It is Ani’s character that makes the connection to Mayannah’s soul’s longing while Rosemary sits in a catatonic daze absorbing and healing from her own childhood terrors. All three actors play off of each other with a dizzying rhythm of wordplay balanced with smoking hot sensuality.

Rivera has written dark and acerbic wit for these women. The characters are refreshingly free of stereotypes and shallow characterizations.

The UTC production is the Chicago premiere of BRAINPEOPLE. It is that rare meeting of cast, direction, and location that produces a transporting experience. UTC was formed to bring cutting edge experiences to the theater through diversity and roots in the Latino community and they hit a bull’s eye with BRAINPEOPLE. UTC founders Ivan Vega, Madrid St. Angelo and Marilyn Camacho have something truly special to offer to the theater community of Chicago. Go see this show!

   
       
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

Brain People - Urban Theatre 7

This show has a short run from November 12th through December 12th at Batey Urbano 2620 W. Division in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. More information is available on UrbanTheater Company check out www.urbantheaterchicago.com or call 312-239-8783.

   
   

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Interview with Elizabeth Ledo (now starring in Goodman’s “Boleros”)

INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH LEDO 

ledo

Elizabeth Ledo, currently playing the lead in The Goodman’s acclaimed Boleros for the Disenchanted. 

 

 

Barry Eitel:  Recently, I chatted with Chicago actress Elizabeth Ledo, one of the stars of the Goodman’s production of Boleros for the Disenchanted (our 4-star review here) where she plays both a young girl in 1953 Puerto Rico and a caretaker in 1992 Alabama. The two of us talked about her experience with the two roles, her Latina heritage, and why she chooses to work in Chicago.

You face an interesting acting challenge in “Boleros,” playing a character we see about 50 years later and played by another actress. Did you and Sandra Marquez collaborate at all on the characterization of Flora? How?

Not in an outwardly way. I think mostly through observation. There were things that I noticed her do in the second act and I said, ‘I like that, where can I find the genesis for that in my own portrayal.” We never sat down around a cup of coffee and talked about it specifically. There are things that are echoed in the script that we tried to serve up in both acts. Flora repeats certain lines in each act; we would try to serve those up. We worked with Henry a lot over Flora’s and her mother’s similar relation with the flowers, for example. Most of it, though, was just through observation or from the script

 Did the cast work closely with the playwright, Jose Rivera?

He was there for the second week of rehearsals and for previews. For the most part, because the play is very biographical, I would say Jose was a great resource. We were able to ask questions about his family and experiences, he was very open. He observed, was around rehearsals as a resource, but he didn’t really impose ever. He was very gracious and let us find our own way with the characters. So yes, he more there as resource than an imposing figure, rarely did he do anything unsolicited.

Now do you come from a Hispanic background?

My father was born in Havana, Cuba, and came over to the US in 1962 at the age of 14. Growing up, it was very important to keep that side of the culture alive and present. The Cuban way of life and the energy of that people was a big part of my family life.

Jose’s script is steeped in traditional Puerto Rican culture and beliefs about family, gender, work, America, etc. Did you pull inspiration from your own upbringing for the role of Flora?

Young Flora has a lot of similarities to my own grandmother. At the time of the first act, 1953, my grandmother was only two years older than Flora, on a different island, of course, but similar culture. My abuela came from very male-dominated society—respecting her parents, virgin on her wedding night, very pious. My grandmother just died in April, and this role was a very important part of my grieving process. I found it was a celebration of her. Flora and my grandmother, though, are very similar. I didn’t need to impose anything.

You switch in the second act to a different character—Eve, a caretaker. What was your experience like switching between two characters?

I’ve done that before in a few shows. Usually, though the multiple characters live in the same world and culture, but this show’s special in that the time periods are so different. It actually made it a lot easier; there was heavy stuff in the beginning, I could decompress over intermission, and come out in the second act in a time period that I’m very familiar with. I know the nineties, I grew up then. Henry and I talked quite a bit about Eve’s backstory, we came up that she was in the Peace Corps, for example. Eve alludes that she was born in Spain and she has a very European sense about her. Eve’s earthy, I’m earthy, I could throw in a lot of myself into the character. She has great compassion and great integrity, I think. I was able to fold in a relaxed air to her and a playfulness and a generosity.

Is there one that you personally connect to more?

I connected to both Eve and Flora very well. There was less social, vocal, and physical constraints with Eve because I can be my own resource. I know what it feels like to wear denim. Emotionally, though, both of these women were easy to tap into.

The show is remarkably funny, even though the play covers some heavy issues. How did you and the rest of the cast find the rhythm to balance both of those aspects of the script?

You have to. It’s survival in some ways. When you’re doing a show with heavy themes you need a release. We need it as much as the audience. When those funny moments come up it’s like an oasis in the desert, we need those moments to continue. The hardest scenes for us to nail down were the first two scenes. The play starts with a girl coming on crying, and you really have to serve up the comedy within the first 5-6 lines or else everything is dragged down. And then in scene 2, Flora gets validation that her fiancé is cheating. We really had to serve that up, you need those things, you got to let people laugh in the play. You got to get in the script and find the humor. We know it’s difficult, we know it’s sad and scary, so you must find the human side of the characters. Flora’s so innocent and earnest, and we were able to pull out humor in that. A lot of time we were desperate to find it for ourselves, because we really needed it with all of the heavier themes at work in the play.

This is your Goodman debut, but you are a well-established Chicago actress. What’s your favorite thing about acting in Chicago?

I love the audiences and I love the artists. The community is supportive and is always taking risks. It’s also nice being able to work where I live. The audiences are great. They’re smart, supportive, and a large amount of them are into something different and like it when artists go ahead and take risks. This says so much about them. Chicago artists are some of the most talented and human artists around. I can say that, and people from New York and LA comment on that as well. The artists have so much sensitivity and compassion for their work.

You also have a lot of experience in regional theatres across the country. Is acting in Chicago special for you?

I love working in regional theatre. But I always prefer to be home and be working. I’ve done a dozen productions with Milwaukee Rep, I love it, but if I have the opportunity to work at home I love to do that, I can be here at home with friends and artists I know really well.

What do you have up next?

Next I go up to do Christmas Carol at Milwaukee Rep. This will be my, oh gosh, eighth time. Its fun, I get reunited with the old gang. And then I’ll be working at the Court in the late winter.

 

View (2009-06-30) Boleros for the Disenchanted

View full Goodman production Album
(i.e., not just pics of Ms. Ledo)

Review: Goodman’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted”

A touching journey of one woman’s quest for love

 Boleros-group

Playwright Jose Rivera takes us on an emotionally touching journey through the eyes and soul of his mother as she experiences the raw struggles, joys, flaws, disappointments and selfless choices that love demands. As a young woman in Puerto Rico, innocent and filled with optimism in the strength of love, she leaves her unsuitable fiancé and meets the man she will marry. Boleros for the Disenchanted, Boleros-2playing at Goodman Theatre, is about whether that love can sustain 40 years later, after the truths of life have been unveiled.

Rivera’s story begins in the early 1950’s in Puerto Rico with a breathtaking set designed by Linda Buchanan filled with an assortment of flowers, and bright simply constructed housing. This Puerto Rican set is electrified with the romantic colors of the sky created by lighting designer (Joseph Appelt.)

The cast of six actresses and actors each take on multiple roles as the play ages itself through the years. With the outstanding direction of Henry Godinez, the transition of the characters’ lives over forty years has a natural fluidity and builds in intensity as it pushes various emotional nerves each act.

As the story begins, young Flora (Elizabeth Ledo) is engaged to marry the smooth talking charismatic machismo Manuelo (Feliz Solis) but she recently discovered that he has been cheating on her with another woman. Raised in a strict Catholic household, Flora was keeping herself pure for him. Flora’s mother warns her about being with a man like Manuelo but also speaks about the role of a woman in a marriage and dismisses the hurtful actions of men as it being in their nature. This conversation between Young Flora and her mother is continuously funny and made boleros_eusebioand floramore so by their ability to act as if they see no humor in their lines. Flora has witnessed, as we witness, her father’s (Rene Rivera) emotional flar-ups and how her mother copes with these individual moments and maintains their marriage.

Her father’s brash actions towards his wife and daughter leave the audience with a bit of distaste for his character, but the portrayal is realistic for the social norms of the time and emphasizes the social suppression of women. He also represents the Boleros-4sentiment of the elder Puerto Rican society, a disappointment in the deterioration of their country, which is mainly blamed on the United States. Neighbors with in the community are leaving for places like New York and Chicago, produce is being taken to the United States and being sold back to them at inflated prices, and the traditional values of the past are being taken for granted. The value of family, honor and happiness over wealth remains in Flora’s household, and her parents hope she will marry a good Puerto Rican who will remain in Puerto Rico.

Manuelo also attempts to justify his polygamous actions by explaining the biological nature of men, but his refusal to Boleros-6remain faithful to her forces her to leave him. Manuelo’s charismatic style of saying something ridiculous but making it sound romantic and sincere is gut-wrenchingly funny as he tries to romanticize his promiscuous ways.

Heart broken but uplifted with the excuse to visit her free-spirited eccentric cousin Petra (Liz Fernandez) Flora takes a trip to the “big” city. Against her traditional upbringing of female purity Flora and Petra are sitting alone outside when they meet a young soldier who is interested in Flora. Young Eusebio (Joe Minoso) is a kind patient man who draws the audience’s affection through his sincere love for Flora and desire for her happiness.

Boleros-3 Does Eusebio grow up to be the man and husband that Flora believes he is? Does their love still flourish with the same excitement and electricity that they had in their youth while meeting under the Puerto Rican sun?

Nine children later, living alone in America, and taking care of her now disabled husband, Jose Rivera tells us the story of how his mother champions love in its most beautiful and encouraging states along with the most ugly and defeating moments that life brings.

Jose Rivera’s ability to tell his parent’s story with heart-felt honesty astounds me. The inclusion of multiple themes such as migration, the loss of traditional values in individual progress, the roles of men and women and the meaning of true happiness all created a complicated mix much like the lives of his parents. The strength and vulnerability shown in Flora and her husband Eusebio are beautifully played by Boleros-7Sandra Marquez and Rene Rivera. They capture the depth and contradicting emotions that come with forty years of marriage.

This beautiful story had me laughing for 2 hours and crying at the end. It left a knot in my stomach and throat that only a story capturing the deepest truth of love can create. This play represents love in real relationships and the truth that lies behind the stories of our lives. In the end we see the strength that can surface when we choose to love.

Rating: ««««

Where: Goodman Theatre

Through: July 26th

Boleros-8

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