Review: HE/SHE (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

A stark stage filled with robust emotion

  
  
Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren. Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.
  
  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
HE/SHE
  
Music by Robert Schuman and Leos Janáček
at Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $25-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Act One

  

Act Two

        
     Frauenliebe und Leben     The Diary of One Who Disappeared
            by Robert Schuman                             by Leos Janáček
         

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

She loves him.  He loves her.  A woman and man express the spectrum of emotions for loving the wrong person.  Chicago Opera Theater concludes its 2011 Spring Season with HE/SHE, a operatic tribute to obsessive loveDeviating from a traditional show, Chicago Opera Theater presents a concert experience.  In the first half, a mezzo-soprano sings in German Frauenliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann.  Following the intermission, a tenor sings in Czech The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leos Janáček.  The combination proves an intriguing and entertaining gender sing-off. It’s not just another he-sang/she-sang side of the same Jennifer Johnson Cano in story.  The pieces are totally separate but connected through the misery of mutual unrequited love.  HE/SHE passionately sings his/her heart out for the love of her/him.  

After the stunning spectacles of Death and the Powers (our review ★★★) and Medea (review ★★★★); the simplicity of the HE/SHE set-up startles initially: a piano; he or she.  There is no elaborate scenery, costumes or chorus.  The orchestra pit is empty.  It has a no-thrills send-off feel.  When the music starts, the stark stage fills up with robust emotion.  Jennifer Johnson Cano sings exquisitely the story of her man.  Cano shares the relational joys and pain with a controlled ‘this must be a dream’ desperation.  Cano poignantly sings about ‘staring into an empty world.‘  Her sadness permeates the audience with lingering despair.  It’s a powerful contrast to Joseph Kaiser.  Kaiser commandingly sings with a fury of intensity. An animated Kaiser thunders about the bewitching powers of a gypsy.  His emotional rant engages through to a climatic finale.  Brandy Lynn Hawkins (gypsy) and the off-stage voices of Lelia Bowie, Hannah Dixon and Megan Rose Williams aid the storytelling with sweet, haunting melodies.

For both segments, the back of the stage turns into a full-length movie screen.  Traditionally, supertitles are projected in snippets above the stage.  For HE/SHE, the supertitles become illustrations of the emotion.  For Frauenliebe und Leben, the supertitles are romantic, handwritten script.  They gradually appear and disappear in a montage of old fashion photographs.  The black and white photos beautifully Jennifer Johnson Cano in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.chronicle a woman’s life from childhood to marriage to death.  The Diary of One Who Disappeared  uses a chaotic, bold font.  The words are spliced onto lush, vibrant images of nature.  Within the abstract artistry, a ghostly woman sporadically appears.  Projection designer Hillary Leben effectively gives the audience snapshots of what’s going on inside the heads of the tormented lovers.

The entire show is accompanied by a solo pianist Craig Terry.  The uncomplicated choice continues to draw focus to the complex emotional singing.  In theory, the decision is simple and strong.  In reality, the Harris Theater’s concrete facade is an echo chamber.  Without an orchestra to provide a sound buffer, every cough, whisper, dropped program is an audible distraction.  Despite that unwanted soundtrack, HE/SHE boldly finishes off Chicago Opera Theater’s innovative season with a return to the basics: spectacular operatic singing!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
     

Joseph Kaiser in Chicago Opera Theater's "HE/SHE". Photo by Liz Lauren.

HE/SHE is sung in German with English supertitle and in Czech with English supertitles. Run Time: 90 minutes including one intermission

All photos by Liz Lauren 

   

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Review: Medea (Chicago Opera Theater)

  
  

Medea casts its dark, irresistible spell

  
  

Anna Stephany as Medea, ensemble in background. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Chicago Opera Theater presents
  
Medea
  
Written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Stage Directed by James Durrah
Conducted by Christian Curnyn
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map)
thru May 1  |  tickets: $30-$120  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Visually stunning, musically sumptuous, Director James Durrah’s vision for Marc-Antione Charpentier’s Medea (Médée) unifies contemporary minimalism with the controlled, ritualistic stateliness of French Baroque opera. Every sleek and suggestive element of Chicago Opera Theater’s production not only buttresses the underlying power and deadly magnificence of its central character, Médée (Anna Stephany), the sorceress who’s been done wrong by her man, but also establishes the pernicious atmosphere at the court of mendacious royalty.

Anna Stephany, as Medea, stands with her 2 children. Photo by Liz Lauren. From modern dance movement to costuming (also Durrah), to the stark, bold set design of bent wood clashed against metal (François-Pierre Couture), to the lighting design’s color palette of sepia, gold, pale yellow, copper, dark blue and smoky black (Julian Pike), COT’s design elements load their production with chic sophistication that meshes easily with the lush and powerful elegance of Charpentier’s compositions. Such a well-integrated design not only pays off in building to and amplifying Médée’s mournful rages and witchy moments, but also frames and supports the intrigues carried out at the court of Corinth.

Jason (Colin Ainsworth), Médée and their sons have fled to Corinth in the wake of Médée’s murder of Thessaly’s King Pelias. While Jason sues for protection from King Creon (Evan Boyer), Médée already suspects that he has fallen in love with the king’s daughter Creuse (Micaëla Oeste). Stephany’s deeply psychological performance strikes the right tenuous balance, wavering over Médée’s love for Jason, for whom she has killed and sacrificed, and yielding to jealous suspicions that become confirmed with each hour. Once Jason arrives, Ainsworth and Stephany convincingly render the sensual tension between this troubled pair. Jason tries to persuade Médée that every favor he pursues with Creuse he does only to secure their refuge. Adding insult to injury, Jason persuades Médée to give her cloak to Creuse, since the princess has admired it and such a gift may help their plea.

The cloak is everything. Rich, velvety black with a glossy persimmon lining, the cloak sets Médée apart, particularly as she enters at the back of the stage, hand-in-hand with her two sons in their pajamas of blue white. It’s an otherworldly moment that contrasts potent, mysterious danger with unsuspecting innocence. Likewise, once Creuse dons the cloak in Act Four (already poisoned by Médée), she flaunts it like a spoiled rich girl who has usurped Medee’s power. Certainly much fun is had in interim scenes, wherein Médée calls upon the spirits of the underworld to poison the cloak for Creuse’s undoing. (Trust the Chorus to act out their zombie best!) But the more accessible power plays come through each woman’s possession and manipulation of the cloak.

Micaela Oeste as Creuse, background: Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Anna Stephany as Medea, Colin Ainsworth as Jason. Photo by Liz Lauren Paul LaRosa as Oronte, surrounded by Ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Being baroque opera, manipulation and intrigue is key. King Creon lures Oronte (Paul LaRosa) to Corinth’s defense against the Thessalians with the promise of marriage to Creuse. But Creon really intends Creuse for Jason and makes every move to remove the threat of Médée’s presence by sending her into exile without her children. Fools–they should know not to mess with Médée. But often, more compelling than her carrying out her revenge are scenes in which characters are still sorting out everyone’s hidden agenda.

The cast is theatrically adept and vocally powerful. The Baroque Band, a Chicago-based ensemble since 2007, conducted by Christian Curnyn, provides rich, majestic and period-perfect musical underpinning to each character’s lies and deceptions. Under the veneer of civilization beats passionate hearts, just as driven to satisfy desire as Médée’s — they only lack the mojo to back it up.

Well, COT’s Medea has tons of mojo. More’s the pity that there are only three more performances before it closes–run, do not walk, to see them.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The ensemble of Chicago Opera Theater's 'Medea' surrounds Anna Stephany (Medea).  Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Medea continues at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater through May 1st, with performances April 27 and 29 at 7:30, and May 1 at 3pm.  Tickets are $30-$120, and can be purchased by phone (312-334-7777) or on the web (HarrisTheaterChicago.org).  For more info, visit the company’s website:  www.chicagooperatheater.org. Medea is sung in French, with English supertitles.

 

     

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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: The Weir (Seanachai Theatre)

 

Irish Eeriness Done Right

 

from left, Valerie (Sarah Wellington), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Jack (Brad Armacost) have great craic in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photo courtesy of Eileen Molony.

   
Seanachai Theatre Company presents
   
The Weir
   
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Matt Miller
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Considering the resumes of those involved, it’s surprising that Seanachai’s production of The Weir went unmentioned in many of those “fall previews” the theatre press is so fond of. First off, the play was penned by a young Conor McPherson, the Irishman who also wrote The Seafarer and Shining City. Both of those had hugely successful Chicago premiers at Steppenwolf and the Goodman, respectively. To  direct, Seanachai nabbed Matt Miller, the one behind the much-hyped Finbar (Kevin Theis, right) and Jack (Brad Armacost, left) have it out in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.Graceland (our review ★★★) at Profiles Theatre last year. And the small cast includes local stage stars like Sarah Wellington and Brad Armacost. Brad Smith, the youngest actor on-stage, even had a song featured on the “Up in the Air soundtrack. There’s so many accomplishments listed in each bio, I’m a little surprised the program didn’t explode.

What the lean, focused production made clear, however, is that Seanachai spent their time creating a terrific product instead of manufacturing buzz.

The talky play is a perfect fit for Gaelic-centric Seanachai and their ensemble of vibrant storytellers. That’s what the piece is, essentially—a couple rounds of storytelling, all relating brushes with the supernatural. The attractive, urbanite Valerie (Wellington) finds herself in a rural pub usually occupied by several lonely men. The locals attempt to impress her with regional folklore and their meetings with the spirits that inhabit the country alongside them. However, as the beer bottles and dirty glasses pile up, Valerie reveals the most personal and unnerving close encounter of them all.

The set-up might avail itself to some cheap, M. Night Shyamalan twist (“She’s really a ghost!”), but McPherson crafts a tale far richer, as well as much more disturbing. Miller and the cast don’t shock or frighten, but softly drill into the dark parts of the psyche.

Like most of McPherson’s other tales, the show boils down to a few characters sitting around and talking. Does anything actually happen? It’s a valid question. There are only a handful of entrances and exits, and the whole thing takes place in real time with no intermission. Fistful of monologues after fistful of monologues wears you down after awhile. However, when one goes a level deeper, they find that McPherson is fiercely concerned with his characters’ internal struggles and the small, everyday friendships that keep us all sane. The script might make a slow pace appealing to a lesser director, but that would be suicide. The performers here know to keep moving at a fast clip while choosing moments to open up the play so the audience stays hungry.

from left, Jack (Brad Armacost), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Finbar (Kevin Theis), try to curry favor with Valerie (Sarah Wellington) by sharing betting tips, in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.

The play opens with Brendan (Smith), the owner of the bar, and Jack (Armacost), his best customer. Armacost goads, blathers, and flirts with the hilarious disregard of an aging bachelor. He also manages to drag the audience along the hills and valleys of loneliness and redemption. Smith retains an aloofness that occasionally borders on being uninteresting, but he stays plugged in with the rest of the cast over the duration, playing along with the more eccentric patrons of his bar. Jeff Christian exudes all sorts of awkward charm as the tightlipped Jim, a man that can get closer to horseracing statistics than other people. Kevin Theis’s Finbar, the married man who takes it upon himself to show Valerie around town, rotates between sliminess and sincerity. Even though the character is obviously a tool, Theis musters up enough charm to make sure that the audience can never really hate him. The heart of the show, though, is Wellington’s Valerie. Through the course of the play, she moves from a passive object of affection to a revealer of heartwrenching yet relatable experiences. And Wellington truly shines, never shying away from visiting the most vulnerable parts of herself.

Irish writers are known for their lyricism and long-windedness, and Seanachai eats it up. With The Weir, Miller spits out a dialogue-packed product that’s still able to tap into our deepest fears of the unknown. I’m guessing the buzz will quickly mount.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

The Weir - Seanachai Theatre 02

   
   

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Review: Shakespeare’s King Phycus (Strangetree Group)

A hilarious romp through Shakespeare’s tragedies

 phycus-eyeout

   
The Strange Tree Group presents
  
Shakespeare’s King Phycus
  
Written by Tom Willmorth
Directed by
Ira Amyx
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Written in 1988, Shakespeare’s tale of King Phycus and his children Juliet and Hamlet is the bard’s first tragedy, a clunky amalgamation of characters and situations that could best be described as a rough draft of the legendary Tragedies that followed. Thought lost for centuries, the play reappeared in the 19th century, but phycus-plotting productions were halted for their connections to the Astor Place Riot and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Yes, the history of Tom Willmorth’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus is completely fictional, but it is the sort of detail that shows Strange Tree’s commitment to their concept. This isn’t a Monty Python-esque farce (it totally is) – this is Shakespeare’s lost tragedy, and the actors perform it with all the grandeur and importance a forgotten Elizabethan masterpiece deserves. In contrast with the ridiculous content of the play, the actors’ stern execution of their craft enhances the comedy of the piece, whether it is the street battle waged with weaponized fruit or the Nurse’s stream of dead baby retorts.

Shakespeare’s King Phycus is at its best when the humor comes from exaggerating the absurdities of Shakespeare’s plots and language. The language of the play, like any rough draft, needs a lot of work. The alliteration is overly aggressive, the rhymes are awkward and many times nonsensical, and wordplay is used so frequently that oftentimes characters lose track of what they’re even talking about. But that’s the point, especially when it comes to the heaps of classic lines that Willmorth butchers with his horrendous poetry, e.g., “By the picking of my nose, something wicked this way goes.” Yuck.

phycus-stareoutWithout the work of the talented ensemble, the script would collapse under its own weight, but the actors’ handle on Shakespeare’s language adds integrity to the play. An Elizabethan rendition of “Who’s on first?” is funnier because the actors are on point with the rapid fire banter of broken up iambic pentameter. Conversely, Friar Don’s (Scott Cupper) final monologue is completely unintelligible, showing that this cast doesn’t need consonants and vowels to be funny.

With each actor playing multiple roles, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a demanding show performed admirably as the versatile ensemble transitions between roles  seamlessly. Michael T. Downey is noteworthy in the title role, particularly post-eye-gouging, playing the fantastic physical gag so well that the joke never gets old. phycus-chorus-pointingBob Kruse’s wonderfully creepy necrophile Gloucester and Carolyn Klein’s vulgar Nurse are also standouts, with both actors taking the exaggerations of the language and matching it with appropriately outrageous physicalizations.

As funny as Shakespeare’s King Phycus is, when Willmorth relies too heavily on pop culture references (“Isn’t it Ionic, don’t you think?) and unnecessary fan service (Friar Don is a ninja!), the results are groan-worthy and take away from the timelessness of the concept. Some of the jokes go on a little too long, like a dance sequence between Brutus, Romeo, and Sardonicus that could use a good minute of cutting, but the production still stands up well despite these flaws. Like the play’s fictional history, the little details are what make Shakespeare’s King Phycus great, the chamber arrangement of “La Cucaracha” playing in the background of the ball, the improv warm-ups of Hamlet’s friends Goldenberg and Rosenstein. For anyone that loves Shakespeare and wants to see some of his best plays reconstructed then put together in the most haphazardly hilarious way possible, Strangetree’s productions will not disappoint.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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