REVIEW: Devilish Children-Civilizing Process (Dream Thtr)

   
  

Naughty children demand gnarly punishment

 

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Dream Theatre presents
   
The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process
    
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Based on German tales by Heinrich Hoffmann
at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $12-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Are children little monsters? Do they need constant discipline in order to be molded into socially acceptable beings? Is terror a useful and appropriate tool to insure obedience and good behavior? Is a certain level of cruelty always necessary when raising children? Dream Theatre has long produced disturbing archetypal works by its Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu. But his new play, The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process, digs deep into the very foundations of what we like to believe is cultured order and proper education. Beneath the veneer of discipline lies violence to spontaneous playfulness, emotional well-being and childlike innocence.

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 031All of which is just fine with the cast. Directed by the playwright, they plunge with relish into their new production’s dark savagery, based on the 19th century collection of German cautionary children’s tales by early psychologist Heinrich Hoffmann. “Der Struwwelpeter” became a European classic in its day and served as the inspiration for the breakout 1998 musical, Shockheaded Peter. Anna Menekseoglu, who plays Pauline, remembers an English version of the book from her childhood—as a little girl, its illustrations absolutely fascinated her.

Little Karl, Age 3 (Judith Lesser) has been banished by her German father, referred to only as Vati (Chad Sheveland), to a dark and foreboding place because he misbehaves. Here, Vati tells him, he will learn to become civilized, to act like a gentleman, and earn the right to associate with the rest of world. Once abandoned, he falls under the instruction of the other abandoned, macabre and threatening children in the garret. They perform one story after another on the essential lessons that will make Karl, Age 3, ready for society—never suck your thumb, don’t be a crybaby, don’t run and jump about, don’t play with matches, etc.

Each cautionary tale is a minor adventure in horror. It is not enough to instruct. Karl, Age 3, must be terrified into learning his lessons. To this end, Dream Theatre employs simple stage effects, masks and some pretty traditional, but well-timed horror sound design (Jeremy Menekseoglu). The Tall Tailor (Annelise Lawson), who comes to cut off the thumbs of little boys and girls who won’t stop sucking them, is absolutely frightening. In fact, 19th century children’s costuming (Rachel Martindale) so perfectly complements the cast’s crisp and creepy German dialect it’s difficult not to think of the Third Reich and all its mind-blowing cruelty in the pursuit of the racially pure perfect order.

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Menekseoglu and company execute their demon-child roles with sadistic vigor and gruesome enthusiasm. Mishelle Apalategui’s monstrous glee as Romping Polly and Bil Gaines’ calm and sinister delivery as Conrad are particularly memorable. Anna Menekseoglu’s little pyromaniac, Pauline, is just a delight. Humor and play always lurk right beneath the horror, yet the most horrifying lesson for Karl to learn is that he is innately bad and that this place he cannot leave is what he deserves. For him, as well as the rest of us, it’s a relief to see another, more beneficent model of adult masculinity appear near at end of this play–to bring light, generosity and joy to an otherwise hopelessly benighted existence.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Devilish Children runs Thursday, October 28 through Sunday, November 21, 2010 with two additional Monday performances on November 8 & 15 at 8:00pm and a special 9:00pm performance on October 30. Performance times are 8pm on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays. Performance location is Dream Theatre, 556 West 18th Street, Chicago.

Featuring Annelise Lawson, Chad Sheveland, Judith Lesser, Bil Gaines, Rachel Martindale, Mishelle Apalategui, Anna Menekseoglu and Jeremy Menekseoglu

Design by Anna Weiler, Giau Truong and Jeremy Menekseoglu.

Based on the German cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

        
         

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REVIEW: Stage Door (Griffin Theatre)

Huge, hugely talented cast gives their all to ‘Stage Door’

 JeanineBowlwareMechellemoeStacieBarraErinMeyerSkylerSchremmpJenniferBetancourt

 
Griffin Theatre Company presents
 
Stage Door
 
By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Robin Witt
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
though May 23 | tickets: $18-$28 | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the most overlooked and underrated writers of the 20th century, Edna Ferber brilliantly showcased the lives of working women in her keenly stories. In the 1936 Stage Door, Ferber and George S. Kaufman crafted an impressive and charming drama about one such downtrodden group.

MechelleMoeatpaino Set in the Footlights Club, a New York boardinghouse for theatrical women, the story follows the lives of the young contenders of Broadway. Hoping for their big break, they subsist on hope and pennies … and often succumb to temptations away from the stage. For the luckiest, Hollywood lures; for others, love, or security, or pure hopelessness.

No one would write a play like this today, and Griffin deserves tremendous props for producing it all. It’s not that its themes haven’t been covered in subsequent plays — 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, for instance, takes on similar Broadway vs. Hollywood issues — but that the cast is huge. There are 32 distinct characters, played in this production by a cast of 27. Quite literally, they don’t make ’em like this anymore!

What’s more, when I say "distinct characters," I mean just that. Each is skillfully introduced, significant and a unique personality that adds to the heart and spunk of this rich play. Director Robin Witt brings out those traits to the fullest.

Mechelle Moe stars as the central character: plucky, generous Terry Randall, who’s been trying to make a go of it on Broadway for three years. Despite her lack of success, she remains stagestruck. "We live and breathe theater and that’s what I’m crazy about," she says.

Her friends tell her she’s talented, but she hasn’t managed more than a few weeks of work in all her time in New York. The play suggests that’s because she’s not beautiful and doesn’t appear well offstage. It’s perhaps a slight flaw in the script that we never see Terry acting, and can’t judge for ourselves. Moe’s own performance occasionally seems too gung-ho, like the young Judy Garland enthusing about putting on a play in the barn, but she makes the audience care about Terry.

We do get to judge the talents of Olga Brandt, a classically trained pianist who earns a living playing for dance rehearsals. "For that I studied fifteen years with Kolijinsky!" she says in disgust, and solaces herself by playing Chopin on the boardinghouse piano. Janeane Bowlware is both a skilled musician and delightfully funny in this difficult role. (In a nice theatrical in-joke, during most of the play, the piano’s music stand displays sheet music from Show Boat, the Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein musical based on Ferber’s 1926 novel.)

We also see some fine comic turns from Sara McCarthy as Bernice Niemeyer, the house busybody; Erin Meyers as the man-hating Ann Braddock; Ashley Neal and Christina Gorman as Big Mary and Little Mary, a Mutt and Jeff duo; and Kate McGroarty as Pat Devine, a leggy dancer earning her living in nightclub shows.

Other notable performances include Stacie Barra, archly dry as Terry’s cynical friend Judith Canfield, and Jeremy Fisher, strong as Keith Burgess, the earnest young playwright on whom Terry pins her hopes. Lucy Carapetyan is ardent as Jean Maitland, who urges Terry to go with her to Hollywood.

mechellemoeJamesFarruggio Maggie Cain gives us a matter-of-fact Mattie, the boardinghouse’s maid of all work, and Chuck Filipov a subtle performance as Frank, a teenage household helper, while Mary Anne Bowman alternately fawns and frowns as Mrs. Orcutt, a one-time actress turned boardinghouse manager.

Judith Lesser and Mary Poole play a compelling scene as Linda Shaw, sneaking in after a night with wealthy married man, and her unexpectedly visiting mother.

Marika Engelhardt plays Madeleine Vauclain, an actress from Seattle, trying to find a double date for visiting hometown conventioneers — Jeff Duhigg and Paul Popp, as a pair of buffoonish Pacific Northwest lumbermen. Rakisha Pollard is brave as Louise Mitchell, an unsuccessful actress sadly leaving Broadway to marry the boy back home in Wisconsin.

It feels like hair-splitting to point out the few flaws. James Farruggio seems a little stiff as David Kingsley, the moviemakers’ agent who urges Terry to stick to the stage, and Caroline Neff is a bit too detached as Kaye Hamilton, Terry’s desperate and destitute roommate.

D’wayne Taylor doubles as a Hollywood producer and as Terry’s father, a small-town Indiana doctor. He acts well in both parts, but he stands out oddly as the one African American in the company, making me wonder what led Witt to cast him. Color-blind casting works well when it’s done with consistency, but if you’re going to suspend historical accuracy for the sake of diversity, you need more than a token. When all the rest of such a large cast is white, it jars suspension of disbelief to have the sole black person in the show play the father of a white woman.

Filling out the cast, Jennifer Betancourt plays Bobby Melrose, a Southern belle; Morgan Maher is her boyfriend, Sam Hastings, an actor from Texas. Joey deBettencourt portrays Jimmy Devereaux, a confident would-be actor who hasn’t ever auditioned for a professional part; Skyler Schrempp, Susan Paige, perpetual understudy; and Erin O’Shea Kendall Adams, daughter of a family of Boston Brahmins.

Witt stages the show in three acts, with two intermissions — a 1930s convention that always makes feel as if I’ve really been to the theater — and blocks it beautifully, particularly in a wonderful Act III scene that puts nearly all the cast onstage. Marianna Csaszar‘s convincing set, built around a central staircase, helps to give the wide-ranging scenes focus.

Stage Door was the basis of the 1937 film of the same name, but the movie’s plot bears little similarity to this delicious play (which seems rather a meta-joke in itself). Don’t miss this rarely performed gem.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Aelita and Shiny Boxes (Dream Theatre)

More work-in-progress than job-well-done

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Dream Theatre presents:

Aelita and Shiny Boxes

 

by Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui
directed and designed by Anna Weiler
through February 21st (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Aelita and Shiny Boxes are two original one acts by young playwrights Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui, presently premiering at the Dream Theatre. This theater company, which produces only original work, has never before done a show written by anyone other than the artistic director, Jeremy Menekseoglu.

aelitaAelita, by Bil Gaines, is an allegorical story about a young woman who has to kill in order to free her soul. It’s a short play that dives right into big questions about god, violence, and love, while skipping details like relationships and characters, in a quasi postmodern style. The characters are very loose sketches of actual people, often speaking in bold, fragmented ideas rather than traditional dialogical thoughts. They seem to have a minimal point of view in order to bring home philosophical points of the play, and this break down in speech seems to have affected the opinions of the actors. The singular exception is Giau Truong as Amboy, the giant, who is older than death. This is the most clearly written character, and Truong is a charming and amenable actor that is fun to watch. This not totally lacking in humor, Aelita takes itself pretty seriously. The whole production leads up to a moral at the end which is always a tough sell, especially from a young playwright. 

Shiny Boxes, written by Mishelle Renee Apalategui is a tightly structured and nicely staged play about haunting childhood memories and the traumatic transition into adulthood. The set needed for this avant-garde piece is perfect for companies working with smaller budgets, as it uses inexpensive, everyday items to create the suggestion of a nineteen-year-old’s apartment and a child’s birthday party. A multi-colored metallic “happy birthday” banner hangs from the wall, and when the light hits it, it creates an amazing sparkling effect that is as full of nostalgia as the writer intended. The playwright does a nice job of weaving in and out of flashbacks, but this play, like Aelita (maybe even more so) takes itself a little too seriously, and the subject matter verges on melodrama.

As a whole, these plays both possess a didactic, college theater feel. The work and themes show promise.  No doubt both playwrights will grow and mature – creating amazing work in the future, but for now, however, the writing veers towards the immature.

SPECIAL NOTE: Because of a medical emergency that took place on stage during opening weekend, I saw this play twice. I have to make a mention on how professionally and seamlessly the actors improvised and performed the second half of the play without a key actor. The work was so committed that I could not tell that anything was wrong until I received a phone call from the executive director the next day. Another mention to the poor actress who fell ill, her performance while sick was so good, again I had no idea that anything was wrong. Bravo to the cast.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Performances occur Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 21 at Dream Theatre 556 W 18th Street.  Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Street Parking is available.

Tickets are $15-$18, 773-552-8616 / annainthedarkness@gmail.com

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AELITA & SHINY BOXES is a double feature of world premiere plays directed and designed by Dream Theatre Company member Anna Weiler (Somewhere In Texas). Dream Theatre Company invites two new playwrights, Bil Gaines and Mishelle Apalategui. Each writer has a unique style that complements the Dream Theatre Company tradition of high art. Featuring Dream Theatre Company members: Giau Truong, Megan Merrill and Judith Lesser and introducing: Chad Sheveland, Meredith Rae Lyons, Alicia Reese, Sean Murphy and Zach Livingston. Featuring soundtrack music written by Oh My God, Abraham Levitan and Coehlo. Photographs by Giau Truong. Graphic design by Lou Rocco Centrella.