REVIEW: Once on this Island (Marriott Theatre)

Refreshing as a cool summer breeze.

 

ISLAND- Full Cast

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
Once on this Island
   
Book/Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by
Stephen Flaherty
Direction/Choreography by
David H. Bell
Musical Direction by
Ryan T. Nelson
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island is best when the entire ensemble is on stage. During these group numbers, Flaherty’s score is heavily influenced by the calypso and tribal music of the Caribbean, giving the show a distinct sound perfectly suited for the mystical subject matter. Ti Moune (Chasten Harmon) and Daniel (Brandon Koller) are two lovers from different worlds: the former an orphaned peasant, the latter a mixed-race aristocrat. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Daniel is found by a bewildered once-on-this-island Ti Moune, who prays to the Gods to give her  the power to nurse him back to health and win his heart.

Director-choreographer David H. Bell and his cast work wonders in the Marriott space, using props and movement to create the illusion of rain, birds, trees, and other island phenomena without the need for set dressing. This gives the ensemble ample room to move, a necessity for Bell’s intensely physical choreography, and makes the efforts of the actors to create a fully realized setting even more impressive. The problem with Once on this Island, though, is that these group sequences are much more interesting than the action involving the principals, slowing down the momentum of the production during those scenes.

Harmon captures Ti Moune’s youthful effervescence and naiveté well, but her vocals feel restricted, as if she is holding back her vibrato to keep better control over the notes. It makes the moments when her vibrato creeps in feel out of place, but also gives the feeling that each belt could be taken all that much further. Koller’s songs are fairly typical Broadway fare, but he doesn’t really have much to do until the second half of the show. There’s artificiality to his charm that gives Daniel a very ‘90s boy-band quality, and he takes on a bizarre dialect that sounds nothing like anyone else’s in the show and goes back and forth between French and an odd assortment of eastern European accents. The chemistry between the two finally clicks during the (surprise) group number “The Human Heart,” but it never reaches the emotional heights needed for the show’s climax.

Luckily, the rest of the cast picks up the slack.

Melody Betts’s incredible vocal instrument is used to its fullest as Asaka, God of Earth, her powerhouse belt combined with a motherly affection that gives each note beautiful emotional weight. Erzulie (Melinda Wakefield Alberty), God of Love, achieves the same effect with a gentler touch, maintaining strength but bringing a smoother groove, especially during the pitch perfect “Human Heart.” I’m a big fan of the HBO series Treme, and Nancy Missimi’s god costumes reminded me of the Indian chief garb donned by some of the show’s characters (albeit on a smaller scale), as seen here:

imageThe massive voice of Michael James Leslie, playing Ti Moune’s adopted father Tonton Julian, is almost too big for the Marriott space, but there’s a goofy bewilderment about his characterization that makes it fit, as if Tonton doesn’t realize how loud he really is. Along with Nya as Little Ti Moune, Leslie turns up the adorable factor for this production, creating the kind of good hearted character that you only see on stage.

When Once on this Island embraces its cultural heritage, whether it is in the calypso rhythms of the score or the tribal dance choreography, it is unforgettable. Ahrens’s book embraces the mystical beliefs of the native people, and the direction has an ethereal quality that reinforces the fable aspects of the narrative. Bell and his ensemble of actors transport the audience to an exotic world, and the music is richer when it taps into the vast cultural history of island music. The transformative powers of the creative team are magical in themselves, and a trip out to Lincolnshire is worth the illusion of a cool Caribbean breeze carrying the scent of mangos and the taste of saltwater.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Brandon Koller as Daniel

ISLAND- Nya as Little Ti Moune Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune Joslyn Jones (Euralie) and Chaston Harmon (Ti Moune)
ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Melody Betts as Asaka once-on-this-island-2
       

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Review: Trap Door’s “12 Ophelias”

Begins brilliantly, but has incomplete finish

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Trap Door Theatre presents:

12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs

by Caridad Svich
directed by Kate Hendrickson
through October 31st (ticket info) 

 

   Ophelia: Do you think my heart is any lesser? 
 Gertrude: What do you mean? 
Ophelia: For being born.
 

 Kate Hendrickson’s direction pulls out all the stops for Trap Door Theatre’s current avant-garde production, 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs. Characters emerge from and descend into black pools, suggesting just how close oblivion always is. Projection screens made up of white petticoats hung on a line, when opheliataken down reveal an altogether different space. Musicians stationed in various locations suggest angels, as well as prostitutes, waiting their turn. Above all, rich poetic language and original songs create a potent atmosphere that may carry the production long past the point when characters’ psychological motivations fall short of the play’s premise.

After floating for centuries, Ophelia (Mildred Marie Langford) emerges in Appalachia, reborn from the water into a world in which Hamlet is now known as Rude Boy (Kevin Lucero Less); Gertrude (Joslyn Jones) runs a brothel; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, simply known as R (Jen Ellison) and G (Casey Chapman), are the brothel’s lackeys; and Horatio, now known as H (Noah Durham), spars with Rude Boy in daily camaraderie. It is a world in which Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet seem to have a second chance at love. But there are times when Caridad Svich’s reworking seems so far from the original, the two only connect superficially.

For one thing, Langford and Jones exude natural power in their acting. For another, their Ophelia and Gertrude, respectively, are not the weak, timid, easily manipulated women of Shakespeare’s work. As much as one appreciates the tremendous beauty in their strength, what should their characters’ former lives be to them or to us, if all resemblance breaks with the past? Svich’s Ophelia remembers her former life. “I left everyone unblessed,” she recalls of her suicide. Yet her ability to relish her robust sexual appetites and her outright pursuit of Rude Boy/Hamlet bear no relation to Shakespeare.

The only characters with any clear correspondence to their pasts are R and G, with memory so retained in their present consciousness, they recite Ophelia and Hamlet’s lines in parody before the newly reborn Ophelia. The commentary and interplay between R and G is probably the strongest feature of Svich’s work. Their foolery during the song “Lonesome Child,” which takes place opposite of Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet’s lovemaking, is delightfully inspired.

ophelia-4 ophelia-2 ophelia-5

Sadly, Rude Boy may be the most underdeveloped character of the play. The most layered, erudite, and mercurial protagonist in Shakespeare’s pantheon is reworked with utter and brutal reductionism here. Gone is the princely state and Renaissance learning—Svich’s Rude Boy/Hamlet is little more than a womanizing thug. His final battle with H is an indulgent act of self-immolation; his eventual rejection by Ophelia reduces him to a pathetic, slobbering mass. About their former romance, Ophelia dismisses him with, “You were just a rude boy.” It’s a line that utterly breaks with Shakespeare’s realized creation. This abridged Rude Boy/Hamlet stacks the deck and buys this Ophelia’s empowerment on the cheap.

Amidst lush poetry, it’s this dramatic shallowness that belies Svich’s shortcomings. At least in this work, Svich shows greater psychological depth in conveying the state of loss and brokenness, rather than any true hope of recovery from it. Even R and G’s repeated commentary, “The crushed come back—there is no mending here,” loses all dramatic tension to become disproved. Some may revel in that kind of pre-scripted fatalism, but others may wonder what spending 90 minutes with this work was all about, if there was never any hope for healing and love. In spite of the cast’s talents and imaginative direction, the audience may walk away feeling cheated.

Rating: ««½

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Review – Gore Vidal’s "Weekend"

Weekend

Reviewed by Jackie Ingram

The Chicago premiere of Gore Vidal’s Weekend, directed by Damon Kiely, is pure genius. The 1968 presidential campaign is the setting for this funny, yet politically relevant play. The play introduces us to Republican Senator MacGruder on the weekend he is to announce his candidacy for president, when his son arrives with an announcement of his own.

Weekend_image The strange twists the characters present are funny, politically savvy, and surprisingly in tune with today’s political point of view. The entire ensemble shows off their comedic timing, which I found to be vivacious and fun to watch. All the characters are excellent, my favorite being the funny Janet Ulrich Brooks, a Timeline Company member, as Mrs. Andrews. Her witty words and body language were amazing. I also enjoyed Penny Slusher as Estelle MacGruder – calm, reserved, and powerful under stress. Great stage presence. The rest of the cast includes Mica Cole (Louise Hampton), Ian Paul Custer (Norris Blotner), TimeLine Associate Artist Terry Hamilton (Senator MacGruder), TimeLine Company Member Juliet Hart (Miss Wilson), Joslyn Jones (Mrs. Hampton), Thomas Edson McElroy (Senator Andrews), Sean Nix (Roger), Joe Sherman (Beany MacGruder) and André Teamer (Dr. Hampton).

Amazingly, Weekend shows off a political point of view that, forty years later, still echoes the current issues of today.

Damon Kiely did an excellent job of directing this great cast. Mr. Kiely gave the audience a great show and disappointment will not be on the map.

So come out for a treat of political banter and laughter for two hours and ten minutes of pure entertainment. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a politically fun filled show at the Timeline Theatre Company at 615 W. Wellington in Chicago.

Rating: «««