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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REVIEW: Seven Snakes (The Mammals)

 

No Country for Young Women—or Anyone Else

 

Seven Snakes - The Mammals - Roy Gonzales as the Man

   
The Mammals present
  
Seven Snakes
   
Written and Directed by Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru Nov 6  |  suggested donation: $20 – BYOB  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

This past spring, under Bob Fisher’s deliciously skewed playwriting and direction, The Mammals really brought the excessive testosterone with their retro boxing melodrama, The Meatlocker (our review ★★★). They do no less with their current ode to spaghetti Westerns, Seven Snakes, staged in the dungeon-like confines of the Zoo Studio. While every line and gesture expresses sensual longing for the heyday of Eastwood films, Fisher sagely places Seven Snakes a full 30 dystopian years into the future. This is a desperate futuristic Western, playing off of nostalgia for rugged Seven Snakes - The Mammals - dont-want-to-be-coldblooded individualism and the joys of Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, it cites those American cultural qualities as the source of our current military misadventures in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Our story begins “in the remains of what was once the Arizona desert.” Heaven only knows where the rest of the USA has gone, but only two women and six Octogenarian Veterans of Foreign Desert Wars survive to live out dry days and lonely, love-starved nights in Skillet County. When The Mother, played in drag by Don Hall, gives up the ghost and leaves The Daughter (Erin Elizabeth Orr) to fend for herself as the solitary nurse at the VA, the elderly vets turn increasingly, dangerously frisky. Their sexual tension turns to outrage and suspicion when a wounded stranger arrives—a drifter who could be either a sexy, lone gunslinger or a terrorist out to destroy what’s left of America. Mother’s ghost returns both to spur on her Daughter and to comment on the action. But for the most part, girl is on her own with these crazy mens.

The real comic heroes of this play are the vets, led by the leadenly appropriate but no less sex-starved or suspicious Colonel (Matt Kahler). The action and humor grow decidedly freakier with the old boys’ growing frustrations. The further their young nurse progresses in her intimate relations with the Man (Roy Gonzalez), the more the vets believe he is one of a mythical terrorist team, the Seven Snakes.

Like most new works, Fisher’s comedy could use a strategic editing, but the lead-up to the second act is well worth the wait. The play achieves the surreal state of 60s Westerns, parodying and doing homage to them at the same time. The priceless comic timing of the Colonel, Radar (Ian Brown), Sgt. Ringo (Adam Dodds), Corporal Cheese Grits (Vincent Lacey), Private Toadsuck (Shane Michael Murphy) and Mr. Hey (Sean Ewert) make lines like, “So, what about that drifter’s penis?” and “That is the art of camouflage, girly” ring hysterically and resonantly funny.

 

Seven Snakes - Mammals - kahler-gods-mouth Seven Snakes - The Mammals - erin-orr-3 Seven Snakes poster

Completing the show’s testosterone is the rest of the Seven Snakes and the American Psychic Surveillance Team. As for the Snakes’ Segundo (Riso Straley), Chupa Fuerte (Bert Matias), Cuchillo (Miguel Nunez) and Angel (Fernando S. Albiar), these are men who have been fighting so long, their culture and history are as mythically-based as their reputation. Their roles don’t carry the comic impact of the Desert Wars Vets–happily, Matias plays his role as a “dirty-old-snake” to the goofy hilt. The rest of the Snakes are mournfully hip and fiercely outlaw–not to mention desperately needy for human touch. But one wonders if a little political correctness has crept into their character development. As for Agent V (Jim Hicks) and Agent Fido (Warwick Johnson), much as I appreciate how they represent the USA, their torture scene goes a little too long for either comedy or political commentary.

Since Erin Orr is the only player with XX chromosomes, one can only salute her no-holds-barred approach to keeping octogenarian lechers at bay, while struggling to get the young guys to open up emotionally. The former keeps the action going at a hilarious tilt, even as things turn dicey. Be prepared for fun stage violence and bloody bandages. Sadly, her romance with the Man drags. Their last crucial scene together doesn’t ring true. There still isn’t enough chemistry between them to sell lines like, “I don’t want to be cold-blooded anymore.” Seven Snakes is a man’s comedy and has to be appreciated as such. Still, even the Marx Brothers knew the importance of producing romance between their romantic leads, film after film. Besides, the world of the Seven Snakes could use a little tenderness. It helps to make the laughs complete.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Seven Snakes- The Mammals - erin-orr-4

 

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