Review: The Voodoo Chalk Circle (State Theatre Chicago)

  
  

Brecht adaptation successfully unearths New Orleans of old

  
  

Sarah Addison Ely, Ellenkate Finley, Alexis Randolph, Genevieve Lally-Knuth in a scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'

   
State Theatre presents
  
The Voodoo Chalk Circle
  
Adapted by Chelsea Marcantel
Based on the original play by
Bertolt Brecht
Music by
Chris Gingrich and Henry Riggs
Directed by Tim Speicher
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There was a unique and fascinating collaboration that occurred between two small theatre companies this year. The “Full Circle Festival” may have unfortunately fallen off the radar for many theatergoers; however, it began with Theatre Mir’s powerfully resonant production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (our review ★★★★). Now, the State Theatre has given us the wonderful opportunity to revisit this story in a new light with Chelsea Marcantel’s New Orleans set adaptation, The Voodoo Chalk Circle. Marcantel has been an up and coming playwright in Chicago for a few years, and this may be her most ambitious and successful endeavor to date. Tim Speicher’s intelligent and creative direction creates a captivating visual and aural experience that is heavy on theatrics and light on political Brechtian alienation. After experiencing Theatre Mir’s substantial production, this abridged retelling is a fresh and exciting compliment.

A scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'Before the play begins, the multi-talented Nick Demeris warms up the crowd as a street performer, similar to those that frequented the tourist areas of pre-Katrina New Orleans. We are then catapulted into a pre-hurricane New Orleans by our narrator, Josh Hambrock. He introduces us to Grusha (Ellenkate Finley) on her 21st birthday, which is being celebrated at a downtown nightclub on the eve of an encroaching hurricane. As opposed to Brecht’s Grusha, who is the servant to a governor, Marcantel perfectly casts her as the servant to the mayor of New Orleans’ wife, Nathalie (a strong performance by Jodi Kingsley). Playing her opposite is Simon (Caleb Probst), who proposes marriage on that evening. After her night out, Grusha returns to the boarded up mansion where she resumes her duties as the surrogate mother to the infant son, Michael, of the neglectful mayor’s wife.

And then there’s the storm. Speicher and music director, Chris Gingrich create an ingenious cacophony of sound, utilizing the evocative Sound Chorus. Combining crashing sheets of metal, jugs of water, wind vocalizations and drumming, the sense of calamity is created magnificently. During the post-storm, Grusha, along with Nathalie’s forgotten baby, flee for the suburbs of the North Shore seeking refuge with her sister. Instead, she finds what is essentially a Voodoo commune living in the ruins. They have rendered rebuilding pointless and have embraced the ways of “the old.” Their leader is the morally ambiguous Baron Samedi (played by Mark Viafranco with remarkable physicality and dexterity). Her sister does finally appear, now reborn into this ancient religion as Erzulie (Cara Olansky). Olansky is compelling in her performance as a woman who has lost everything and has turned, as often people do after traumatic events, to religion. However, Olansky gives us glimpses of loss and grief behind the stone face of a religion that celebrates the eternal, rather than mourns death.

Although engaged to Simon, Grusha agrees to be wed for security reasons to Zeke (Zachary Kropp), a man who appears to have been crippled from a roof collapse. Kropp gives a somewhat unconvincing performance, and the true motives of the character remains vague. However, for utilitarian purposes, the character serves the plot well during Simon’s discovery of Grusha living a life he had not expected to find her in. The final chalk circle scene remains faithful to Brecht’s original text, yet is modified just enough to allow for the ending to carry a certain element of surprise.

While there is strong acting and talent throughout, the casting could benefit from more diversity in ethnicity and age to truly provide the authenticity of New Orleans. Overall, the cast plays slightly on the younger side for a play focused on old traditions. Nevertheless, formidable performances are given by Finley and Probst. Hambrock is engaging as part Our Town Stage Manager: floating in and out of the world of the play, omnipresent, setting scenes and introducing characters—and part Orson Welles in The Third Man: revealing his true function as the judge of morality only in the final act, playing Brecht’s “walking contradiction”, Azdak.

Marcantel’s script is entirely worthy of this fine production. She has found an appropriate contemporary setting for this story and carries the action briskly with high stakes. She perhaps misses an opportunity to connect to Brecht’s original play further due to the fact that she treats the hurricane solely as a natural disaster without examining the political catastrophe in the city more in depth. Whereas Brecht’s war of rebellion was more concerned with the manmade cycle of oppression and corruption, the hurricane in Marcantel’s adaptation is rather “Oz-ian”, a dramatic tool in the form of a catastrophe turning the world upside down. I was also left wondering why Marcantel goes to great authentic lengths in setting this story richly in New Orleans, yet never quite goes as far as referencing New Orleans, Katrina or any other specifics directly. It’s possible some immediacy was lost with this decision. Her dialogue is best in the earlier sections of the story discussing class struggles and Voodoo practices, but falls slightly flat in the oversentimentality of the Grusha and Simon love story.

In the end, it is Speicher’s concept, the emergence of the past from the ruins of modernity, which makes this play a must-see. He truly understands the ritualistic nature of Marcantel’s setting. Gingrich and Riggs’ music is a driving force of nature throughout the play. The Sound Chorus serves as the spiritual voice and heartbeat of old traditions made anew. Shaun Renfro’s set design condenses the action to an intimate section of the barn-like Viaduct space by the use of hundreds of cardboard boxes, reminiscent of essentials that were airdropped to Katrina survivors. In addition, Renfro creates an ingenious playground of set pieces that allow for interaction with the actors. Taylor Bibat’s shadow puppetry represents the concept perfectly by providing an ancient theatrical tradition as opposed to video projections.

The final monologue Marcantel writes for Azdak is poetic and resonant stating, “It’s hard to see how everything comes together, until everything falls apart.” While this production soars, I am left hoping that Marcantel may continue to develop the script into a full adaptation finding more parallels and urgency in the injustice that occurs in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is of high compliment that I wished to spend even more time with these characters and in this world Marcantel has transplanted them to—nevertheless, it is immediately an important piece of theatre this season that should not be overlooked.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Voodoo Chalk Circle presented by State Theatre Chicago

The Voodoo Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through May 8th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:15pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10-$20, and can either be purchased online or by calling (773) 296-6024.  For more information, visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.

The Voodoo Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with Theatre Mir to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre closes the festival following Theatre Mir’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Jonathan Berry.

 

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REVIEW: Memory (Backstage Theatre Company)

  
  

Captivating ensemble fills space with raw energy

 

 

Memory - Backstage Theatre 4 - photo by Heath Hays

   
Backstage Theatre presents
   
Memory
   
Written by Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through December 18  |  tickets: $22-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

War is hell. Especially when you’re talking about the Holocaust, an event so horrific in nature that it still rocks people to this day. Or, more recently, this hostility and violence has manifested itself in the Israeli and Palestinian War. Views on these two wars are brought together in the Backstage Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Memory by Jonathan Lichtenstein.

Memory - Backstage Theatre 5 - photo by Heath HaysThe set, designed by Heath Hays, starts out as an essentially bare stage: an open space, with some propped-up backward-facing set wall pieces, a piano and a couch. This arrangement leaves plenty of room for the actor’s to move around the space, both physically and emotionally. As the show progresses, the wall pieces are turned around one-by-one to reveal large-scale black-and-white photos that create background scenery that adds to the story.

Memory – featuring Brenda Barrie, Tony Bozzuto, Samuel Buti, Bilal Dardai, Josh Hambrock, Shane Michael Murphy and Patrick De Nicola is a show about actors rehearsing a play that turns into an actual performance of the play. The show opens on a rehearsal, with the actors all playing themselves, entering and preparing themselves for work. There is no official start to the show in the traditional sense where lights dim and actors take their places. Instead the action just begins, which is slightly confusing, causing one to question what exactly we are watching. Once it becomes clear that the show has in fact started, the action is (intentionally) a bit stressed and scattered. The actors begin to rehearse a scene with their director (Josh Hambrock), moving the scene forward and then stopping it, causing a disconnect between the actors and their characters.

Eventually the rehearsal format falls away and a steady performance begins. Each actor morphs from performing a role and reciting lines to becoming the character and fully bringing them to life.

The show is split between two stories: the story of Eva and the story of Bashar.

Eva’s (Brenda Barrie) story revolves around her long-lost grandson (Shane Michael Murphy) questioning the validity of a long-standing family legend about the Holocaust. It’s told through flashbacks of Eva’s life with her friends Felix (Patrick De Nicola) and Aron (Tony Bozzuto), who later becomes her husband. Bashar’s (Bilal Dardai) story tells of his experience as a Palastinian fighting against an Israeli soldier (Samuel Buti).

Memory proves to be a true ensemble piece, with each actor working in sync with one another. It’s apparent that this cast has come together and bonded, with each member as strong as the next, growing as the show progresses and developing honest portrayals of the characters. The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space.

 

Brenda Barrie in Backstage Theatre Memory - photo by Heath Hays Josh Hambrock & Samuel Buti - Backstage Theatre - Heath Hays photographer
Memory - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays Brenda Barrie & Tony Bozzuto - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays

Barrie plays the role of Eva as both as an older and younger version. Her portrayal of an older Eva is a fascinating one as she embodies the character through her actions, her voice and the emotions that play over her face. Barrie creates a quietly strong persona that seems as though it could snap in an instant, knowing that she’s been carrying around secrets and guilt for years. When it does snap the emotion that’s let loose is so raw and unfiltered that it fills up the entire space.

Murphy’s performance as Peter is lively and full of energy. He’s hungry with a curiosity to know about his family’s past and it drives him to push Eva to open up and reveal the truth.

Eva flashes back to her earlier years where Barrie, Bozzuto and De Nicola are believable as a trio of old friends, discovering who they are and what they’re meant to be. What starts as fun and frivolity quickly turns to fear and anger, causing them to choose sides (or have sides chosen for them) during the Holocaust. All three offer up captivating performances of friendships torn about by lines drawn between the Nazis and the Jews.

The transitions between Eva’s story and Bashar’s story are smooth.  Dardai plays Bashar also with a quiet strength as he stands up for not only his home but his family, his beliefs and his life. An unusual relationship is formed between him and Isaac (played by Samuel Buti). Isaac is torn between trying to help and simply carrying out orders. Buti’s performance shows this struggle through the formation of a relationship that could only happen under these specific circumstances. He’s clear in his devotion to the Israeli army but he’s humanized in his attempts at trying to ease some amount of suffering for Bashar.

At certain times throughout the performance, whether it is from the intensity or excitement of the action, the accents slip out of German/Israeli/Palestinian into something less distinguishable. That being said, the performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating them so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Memory plays at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave., through December 18 Thursday through Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25 and $22 for seniors.

Patrick De Nicola & Tony Bozzuto in Memory at Backstage Theatre

 

 

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REVIEW: The Philadelphia Story (Circle Theatre)

‘The Philadelphia Story’ haunted by ghosts of movies past

 

Kevin Anderson, Laura McClain, and Josh Hambrock

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Philadelphia Story
   
Written by Philip Barry
Directed by Jim Schneider
at Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Through Sept. 5   |   Tickets: $20–$24 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Any production of The Philadelphia Story naturally evokes celluloid comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the 1940 film. Inspired by the real life Main Line heiress Hope Montgomery Scott, the class-conscious play opened in 1939 with Hepburn as spoiled, self-righteous rich girl Tracy Lord — a role she reprised in the Oscar-winning film. The Philadelphia Story also formed the basis for the 1956 musical, High Society, so there are those movie memories to contend with, too.

Katelyn Smith, Jhenai Mootz, and Josh Hambrock Yet that shouldn’t mean a theater can’t put its own spin on the show. In its one big drawback, Circle Theatre’s production too often feels like a ghostly reenactment of the film.

Laura McClain, as Tracy, channels Hepburn for all she’s worth, while Josh Hambrock, as journalist Macauley "Mike" Connor, appears possessed by Stewart, with every drawl and facial twitch down pat. It’s uncannily fascinating, but I went to the theater to see a play, not to participate in a séance.

As Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Kevin Anderson), deserves kudos for not trying to reanimate Cary Grant. Unfortunately, his coolly puckish performance sometimes comes off as more smirking than suave. Moreover, his interactions with the others seem to accentuate their derivative mannerisms.

However, if you can get over the sense that you might just as well have stayed home with Netflix, Philip Barry’s dryly witty script transcends all.

On the verge of Tracy’s second marriage, Connor, who has become reluctantly infatuated, and Haven, with some help from Tracy’s smart-aleck kid sister (spunky, smut-faced Katelyn Smith), are bent on trying to prevent Tracy from wedding her stuffy, middle-class fiancé, George Kittredge (an appropriately stiff Luke Renn). The priggish Kittredge determinedly puts her on a pedestal. Though impatient with human frailties — the philandering of her father (Tom Viskocil), for example, and her former husband’s drinking — Tracy isn’t so sure she likes being cast as an ice goddess.

Josh Hambrock and Laura McClain Luke Renn, Laura McClain, Josh Hambrock, and Kevin Anderson

Bob Knuth’s elegant drawing-room set and Elizabeth Wislar‘s smart period costumes (particularly for lovely Jhenai Mootz, who portrays a world-weary Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer who accompanies Connor to the Lords’ home) give us a handsome look back in time. Director Jim Schneider has wisely kept the original three-act format.

Some of the sensibilities behind this farce seem dated today, but it’s still an awfully funny comedy. If you aren’t bothered by ghosts, you’ll like this production fine.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Entire cast of Philadelphia Story - Circle Theatre - 006

 Entire Cast of "Philadelphia Story”   

 

     
     

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