Review: Solo Works (Theatre Zarko)

  
  

Fragments of a puppeteer’s life

  
  

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

  
Theatre Zarko presents
   
Solo Works
       
Created and performed by Michael Montenegro
at Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
through May 21  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Michael Montenegro has long held a singular place as Chicago’s master puppeteer. With Solo Works at Theatre Zarko in Evanston, he returns to his roots —a set of simple performances that recall his early days performing for children at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Most of Chicago’s theater community remembers him through his haunting, ethereal contributions to Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautica in 2006 or Writers’ Theatre production The Puppetmaster of Lodz in 2007. Plus, critical accolades have heightened attention to his brainchild Theatre Zarko, with Klown Kantos/The Sublime Beauty of Hands in 2009 and Haff the Man/Falling Girl (our review ★★★★), which we named as one of the top 25 shows of 2010. Montenegro eschews the limelight, but, more often than not, his ever-changing artistry draws a small but extremely devoted following.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011Solo Works displays the craftsman alone with his puppets—a modest presentation pared down to the most basic elements of light and darkness, spare proscenium, and one musician, long-time collaborator Jude Mathews, at a low lit keyboard, providing most of the production’s carnival atmosphere. As such, each short theatrical piece forms a fragment or a mediation on the puppeteer’s life. “Myself at Ten” starkly sets a black and white photo of Montenegro at 10 years old atop his darkly dressed adult body, with a simple four-legged puppet that he manipulates to run, walk, stretch and leap. It wordlessly explores a boy’s budding discovery of the ability to animate inanimate objects–filled with enigmatic wonder and not a little hint of control. But the question of who controls whom pops up again and again.

“Sing” cunningly portrays a man coming home to disrobe and unveil his latest purchase, a bird in a birdcage that he exhorts to sing. But nothing can be exacted from bird without a little performance from the man first. Likewise, both “A Man with A Bag” and “A Short Lecture” reveal the ever-present danger of puppets taking control, once they assume a life of their own. Even “Gustavo” depicts a puppet violinist being dictated to by his own violin, which opens its toothy mouth and makes demands like, “I want to go to Hawaii,” or “I want to be a cello.” Time and again, Montenegro’s creations make Id-like pronouncements that inform, critique or disrupt the puppeteer’s course of action. It’s a testament to Montenegro’s skill that he can transform his bare hand into a puppet with a menacing presence. But more to the point, the puppeteer must respond to what he has vivified.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011By far, the evening’s boldest, most enigmatic and existential work may be “Giacco,” wherein a grotesque, almost ghostly head is manipulated to speak, urging another puppet, formed only by Montenegro’s back, to run toward the crowd. But Solo Works mixes intricate, esoteric puppetry with elements of crowd-pleasing, Punch-and-Judy street puppetry. Childlike rudeness and joy blends with the graceful, the magical and the profound. What is more, Theatre Zarko always produces work in constant evolution through the course of the run–the show an audience sees one night may not be the same the next.

At times, the fragmentary nature of Solo Works frustrates because it lacks a strong cohesive arc. But that will not prevent anyone from becoming absorbed, moment-by-moment, by the master’s dreamlike figures sculpted from wood, wire and cloth. The figures may reflect a life made up of pieces and bits–found, repurposed, and re-awakened.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
     

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Solo Works continues through May 21st at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15 at the door, and reservations can be made by calling 847-350-9275.  For more information, visit www.theatrezarko.org

  
  

REVIEW: Cats (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Update – now extended through Jan 20th!

  
  

This show’s the cat’s meow!

 
  

The Company in Jellicle Songs. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James presents
  
Cats  
 
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Book/Lyrics by
T.S. Eliot
Directed and Choreographed by
Brenda Didier
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through January 2  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

How to take a mammoth Broadway production and shrink it without sacrificing dramatic quality or big, broad, showbiz appeal? Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre accomplishes that transformation with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, under the lively direction and choreography of Brenda Didier. Didier’s collaborations with Theo Ubique’s Artistic Director Fred Anzevino bore fruit last spring with their Jeff award-winning production of Chess (our review ★★½). Well, it looks like Cats is poised to pounce on the holiday theater season and swipe all the public’s attention.

Elliot Burton as Skimbleshanks. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward PhotographyWhittled down to two hours and only 13 actors, Theo Ubique’s production is a model of economy and stagecraft. But, rather than going along with the old “less is more” meme, it seems Didier’s modus operandi is to give the audience more with less–driving her exuberant cast to make immediate, intimate and vivid connections with the audience while precisely mixing dance elements to build excitement and evoke huge emotional response. Her gamble pays off—Broadway excitement achieved on a stage 8 feet by 22 feet. In the whirlwind of musical numbers, it’s a wonder none of the dancers bump into each other or fall off the stage.

Naturally, it helps to have a super-tight ensemble orchestra under the direction of Ethan Deppe. They are the train that drives this production. Every other layer of theatricality has been preserved as much as possible. Costumes (Matt Guthier, with Michael Buoninconto on wigs) and makeup (Izumi Inaba) maintain the big, Broadway tradition while Michael Narduli’s lighting design reinforces the magic evoked by orchestra and cast. Even the old-fashioned Christmas lights circling up above the stage imply a magical setting to the audience enjoying dinner before the show.

Opening night’s energy started a bit slow. Beginning with T.S. Eliot giving his poetry to a girl in a white dress with a blue satin sash, the initial introduction of “Jellicle Cats” came off a touch stagy until “The Rum Tum Tugger” (Tommy Rivera-Vega) gave the audience a bit of Brando-slash-Elvis for us to remember him by. “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” (Elliot Burton and Maggie Portman) boost the proceedings with a ton of delightful play and buoyant energy. The cast’s build-up to the entrance of Old Deuteronomy (Matt McNabb) really sets the element of magic and mystery; McNabb’s elegant tenor voice certainly confirms his mystical authority among the Jellicle Cats. At the introduction of Grizzabella and the first round of “Memories,” Sydney Charles delivers an unmistakable depiction of feral abandonment and alienation.

Emily Rogers as a Siamese in Growltiger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Rebecca Pink as Jennyanydots in Old Gumbie Cat - Cats - Theo-Ubique-Cabaret
Roy Brown as Munkustrap in Naming of Cats. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Tommy Rivera-Vega as Rum Tum Tugger in The Rum Tum Tugger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

Cats’ theatricality truly soars in the second act. Growltiger (Brian-Alwyn Newland) and Griddelbone (Hillary Patingre) nearly bring the house down with the lush gorgeousness of “The Siamese Italian Aria.” Costuming goes the extra mile by donning the enemies of Growltiger with elaborate Thai headdresses and tunics and the women of the company really get their Siamese on to take out Growltiger. Burton gets a chance to shine again as “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” but his triumph is really the cast’s in their coordinated build-up to the number’s complex and colorful finale. By the time Old Deuteronomy must select the cat that will go on to live another cat life in “the Heaviside Layer,” the audience has become heavily invested in this alternate world and the logic by which it exists. In fact, so long as the music and dance keep going, we might never want to leave.

Theo Ubique has put another feather in its cap (or should I say “cat on its lap”?). Hooray for them and lucky for us to get this furry, magical and whimsical dream against the darkening winter ahead.

  
 
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The Company in Old Gumbie Cat. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

All photography by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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REVIEW: The Lady’s Not For Burning (Theo-Ubique)

Eloquent Period Piece Is an Endurance Test

 

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 8

   
Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
  
The Lady’s Not For Burning
   
Written by Christopher Fry
Directed by
Fred Anzevino
at
No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Watching Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not for Burning is like a marathon for your mind. For a comedy, the play is incredibly dense. Written in Shakespearean-style prose, the language is beautifully ornate at times while confusingly verbose at others. The whole thing in the end feels like a riddle, a riddle that goes on and on for two-and-a-half hours.

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 9 It is this length that serves as the production’s greatest hindrance. The cast is confident and spot on with their comedic timing. The staging is economic given the awkwardly shaped theater space. You would think that such skillful acting and direction would be able to sustain a play. And although The Lady’s Not for Burning charges out of the gate, it eventually loses steam and limps its way to its conclusion.

Written by Christopher Fry in 1948, the play takes place in the Middle Ages, incorporating period style dress and speech. As Arthur Miller would later do with The Crucible, Fry touches on themes relevant to post-World War II society, including the Red Scare. However, unlike The Crucible, The Lady’s Not for Burning is a comedy, and so it uses satire to address these heavy social issues. Unfortunately, the language and plot are so heavy themselves that these social commentaries get lost within the thick of the play.

To simplify it as much as possible, the play is about a soldier (Layne Manzer) who encourages the mayor (J. Preddie Predmore) to execute him by hanging. Conversely, there is an alleged witch (Jenny Lamb) who wants to live. The two have long conversations about their predicaments, which leads to a blossoming love.

There is of course much more to the story than this. Why else would it stretch on for so long? The problem is the other elements of the story are inconsequential. In fact, it’s unclear as to what purpose the other characters serve other than to occupy space and battle wits with one another for humor’s sake.

And humor is the highlight of the play. Even if the piece becomes crushed under its own weight, the humor adds some much-needed levity.

As mentioned, the acting is superb. Predmore plays the mayor with a wonderful mix of overconfidence and idiocy. Manzer embodies the soldier’s sardonic personality, and Drew Longo, as both the depressed chaplain and the town drunk, proves himself to be a dynamic actor and effective clown.

 

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 5 Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 3
Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 1 Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 6

Director Fred Anzevino, who is also the artistic director of Theo Ubique, characterizes The Lady’s Not for Burning as a musical without song or music. While I can understand the sentiment behind the statement, the play is more akin to an epic poem, emphasis on the epic. There is no denying that there is some fine writing here. The descriptions are clever and unique. The imagery painted through Fry’s words is vibrant. But unfortunately, it is this same diction that serves to disconnect the audience from the play. While interesting sentence structure, word choice and figurative language may be pleasant, coherency should be the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the writing at times impedes understanding.

I’m not sure what instrument from the director’s toolbox could have been employed to help this play. There is little to no downtime between scenes, so there isn’t much that can be whittled away to shorten the piece. In the end, there’s a lot of talent at work here, and there is a lot of potential in the commentary, especially in the play’s first half. But as we stretch into the third act, our patience is tested, and we begin watching our watches rather than the stage.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 4

 

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