Review: That Was Then (Seanachai Theatre)

     
     

A jilting dinner party with Seanachai

     
     

THAT WAS THEN PUBLICITY PHOTO

  
Seanachai Theatre presents
  
That Was Then
  
Written by Gerard Stembridge
Directed by
Carolyn Klein
at
The Irish American Heritage Center (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The style-smashing populist playwright Bertolt Brecht thought there should be more drama written about economics, the stuff that effects real people at all times—he pined to write a play about fluctuations in grain prices. Yet finding conflict and character in dollars and cents can mean pretty dry theatre. It seems audiences prefer more exciting fare—romance, tragedy, dysfunctional marriages. However, every so often, a play comes along that can masterfully blend people and their circumstances, making something striking and palatable. Gerard Stembridge’s That Was Then, enjoying its Midwest premier by Seanachai Theatre Company, takes on financial trends, nationalism, alcoholism, and love with stunning grace and humor.

On paper, the ideas behind That Was Then sound about as dramatic as stock market analysis. Stembridge focuses on the Celtic Tiger years of the ‘90s, when the Irish economy roared forward and Ireland went from being one of the most impoverished nations in Europe to one of its richest (…and now the country suffers from double-digit unemployment). We watch two dinner parties unfold simultaneously, one before the boom and one after. It’s a Byzantine structure, but Carolyn Klein’s steady direction keeps it from toppling over and the hugely talented cast leaps right into Stembridge’s complex world.

On one half of the stage is the home of Noel (Ira Amyx) and May (Molly Glynn), hard-working Dublinites. The other chunk of the stage belongs to Julian (Joseph Wycoff) and June (Sarah Wellington), a sleek English couple with a talent for, uh, unconventional finance. Noel invites the British couple over for dinner and to ask for a substantial loan. The invitation is returned five years later by Julian and June, who now need to ask the wealthy Noel for help. Drinks are poured, Irish-English tensions rise, and both couples find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

The lightening fast pacing is where That Was Then’s comedy is born. In an instant, we watch Noel transform from a drunk and crude brute to the upstanding sophisticate (one who invests in boy bands and buildings) he becomes. Julian and June go from haughty members of the upper class seeing how the other half lives to a couple on the brink of nervous breakdown. The leaps in time are surprisingly well-orchestrated—there were only a handful of moments where I was wondering whose party I was attending.

Every Seanachai show I’ve seen has been remarkably well-acted, and this one is no different. Amyx is hilarious as the brash Irishman and as the civil businessman. Wellington and Wycoff have a great chemistry playing and plotting off of each other. As the much-maligned May, Glynn possesses strength and humility. By the end, she becomes the most endearing character.

It’s fascinating to watch the difference between Julian’s and Noel’s marriages. Julian and June are on equal footing, even in running an unscrupulous business together. But Noel, even though he loves and cares for her, constantly harangues and belittles May, and refuses to let her know anything about his work. Seanachai bills Stembrudge’s play as a dark comedy, but it delves deeper than that. And if there is a victim in all this loaning, scheming, and spending, it is May.

For a story that plays on modern events that I’m not very familiar with, prejudices I don’t share, and countries I’ve never visited, I feel That Was Then is very relatable. I might not get the Michael Flatley jokes or completely understand the fiscal situation, but Stembridge writes universal themes and layered characters with wit and charm. The style is ingenious and captivating. Seanachai plucks drama out of global economics.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost (Oak Park Festival)

A Labour of Love in Oak Park

 

Oak Park Festival Theatre's Photos - Love's Labours Lost 002

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Love’s Labour’s Lost
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by
Jack Hickey
at
Austin Gardens, 100 block North Forest, Oak Park (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Okay – sitting in the park on a buggy summer night is not exactly my idea of fun. There has to be something of worth to make this kind of sacrifice. I took a loaner lawn chair from the box office and was grateful to see that the park provided insect repellant for a voluntary donation. I gratefully slipped a buck in the jar and took my place on the lawn in Austin Gardens. There was a lovely pre-performance from the newly formed Oak Park Opera Company. A soprano and tenor performed selections from Verdi and Puccini to warm up the crowd. The music was quite beautiful and set the mood for a very cultured evening.

Oak Park Festival - Love's Labour's Lost 21011 The cast from the play mixed about on the perimeter of the stage, playing bocce in the characters of men at court. When the action began it flowed smoothly as if they really were bystanders in the park.

Love’s Labour Lost is not as popular as other works written by Shakespeare, despite the facts that it is one of his funnier plays. The language is less convoluted and ornate – but it is that simplicity that makes this a deceptive pleasure. The audience gets more of a voyeuristic look into life and the social games that may have occurred in the Elizabethan court.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, setting the bar for future farcical comedies full of ribaldry and mistaken identity. Comedy requires a cast to work hard without appearing to try. Kudos to the cast of the Oak Park Festival Theatre for pulling off this feat with grace and skill in spite of a sound system that battled the seemingly endless parade of air traffic overhead and blaring night insects below. Also, a little program coordination would be in order so that the actors don’t have to compete with amplified street performances a block over.

I was able to tune out the distractions for the most part as the play unfolded. Adam Breske as King Ferdinand shone as the pompous monarch setting an impossible social standard on his young attendants. Joseph Wycoff played the Lord Biron with sparkle and a wink to Walter Matthau. Mr. Wycoff has a great face for the frustration and trickery that ensues. It is Lord Biron who is the last of the king’s court to agree to a vow of celibacy and intense scholarship. It is Wycoff who shows the best and funniest reaction as the one who admits his own hypocrisy last when all are revealed as having broken their vows.

Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost

The performance of Stephen Spencer as Don Adriano de Amado – a fantastical Spaniard – is a wonderful mix of buffoonery with Kabuki subtlety. Mr. Spencer is also a wonderful speaker of Shakespeare’s rhythms with sharp and well-placed inflections. No pun is left unturned without perfect inflection hitting the target each time. Charlie Cascino makes brief but crazy energetic appearances as Country Wench Jaquenetta.   Ms. Cascino’s mischievous smile and frisky demeanor are perfect for scenes with the clown Costard, played with equally great skill by Bryan James Wakefield.

Richard Henzel plays the character of Holofernes, a character is pivotal to the wonderful confusion and double takes that ensue with letter exchanges and identities. Henzel is a Chicago theater veteran and takes firm command in this role. The scenes between Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are comic gems. Two of the audience’s favorite performers are the thoroughly enjoyable Skyler Schrempp as Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost 2Don Armado’s attendant Moth and Robert Tobin as Dull the Constable. They both have a gift for physical comedy and verbal timing.

Love’s Labour Lost is not one of Shakespeare’s best works in regards to women roles. Katherine Keberlein is regal as the Princess of France, but she and the other ladies in waiting do not match the frenetic energy of the people in King Ferdinand’s court. This is partially due in part to Shakespeare’s interpretation or society women of the late 1500s, as well as the also the directing choice of reigning in the female cast a bit more than the male cast members, which is a wise choice by Artistic Director Jack Hickey.

All in all, Shakespeare Under The Stars is a great idea.  You will have to make some concessions for the environmental sounds that hinder full enjoyment, but a night out in a wonderful town with a big city feel more than makes up for this. 

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

Love’s Labour Lost plays through August 21st at Austin Gardens in Oak Park. The park is a block away from both the Metra and the Green Line. If you take the Metra please pay attention to the schedule as it has an intermittent nature (Metra schedule). It could happen that you end up in Wheaton like I did. Go early to catch the great sidewalk sales and community energy that is Oak Park. Be aware that Oak Park basically closes the sidewalks at 9:00, so either arrive in Oak Park early enough to dine at a restaurant before the performance, or bring a meal and a beverage (wine is allowed) because there is nada après theatre to be had. Check online at www.oakparkfestival.org for availability and ticket information. Bring your insect repellant or at least leave a tip in the donation jar if you use the park’s resources.

   
   

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

war-with-newts2

  
Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2

Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
         
         

Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

elvis-end-days

Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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