Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

Dead Pile - XIII Pocket Theater - banner

        
        

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REVIEW: Scorched (Silk Road Theatre Project)

 

A Silence That Speaks Louder Than Words

 

 

Scene from Silk Road Theatre Project's "Scorched" 1
   
Silk Road Theatre Project presents
   
Scorched
   
Written by Wajdi Mouawad
Translated by
Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen
at
Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $24-$34  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Silk Road Theatre Project’s production of Scorched is a cinematic wonder. The play whisks the audience away on an emotional journey that spans oceans and decades. Silk Road chooses to keep things minimal, with a set design that consists of little more than a small platform surrounded by sand, suggesting a far off land somewhere in the Fertile Crescent. Yet under the brilliant direction of Dale Heinen, this small set transforms into other worlds, worlds that reveal a tragic story of war, love, death and destruction.

Scorched, which is receiving its Chicago premier, was written by Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who, as a long-time resident of French Scene from Silk Road Theatre Project's "Scorched" 2Canada and France, has built a reputation as one of the most esteemed French-language playwrights. If Scorched is a testament to his talent, then the reputation is most definitely deserved.

The story is one of the most compelling I have seen. It centers on two twins, Simon (Nick Cimino) and Janine (Lacy Katherine Campbell). Their mother, who has been mute for the past five years, just passed away. There are some odd provisions in her will, specifically two envelopes, one for each of the twins. One envelope is to be given to their father, a man they have never known. The other is to be given to their brother, a man they never even knew existed.

Mouawad crafts a great mystery right from the top, and the pacing in which he reveals the truth behind the twin’s lineage and their mother’s long silence is perfect. As the twins get closer to discovering family secrets, the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree, which makes the ultimate conclusion that much more spine tingling. I will refrain from giving anything away, but I will say that this play has one of the best climaxes I have ever seen.

While the twins conduct their search, we learn about their mother, Nawal, through a series of flashbacks. Portrayed by multiple actresses, we see wrenching scenes of Nawal giving up her first-born child and fighting off hostile militants. Part of the genius of the play is that although Nawal is dead from the beginning; the events of the play reveal the rich life she led.

Scene from Silk Road Theatre Project's "Scorched" 4 Heinen’s direction is really the star of the play. That’s not to say the acting doesn’t stand for itself, which it does, but the effortless execution of a very difficult play is commendable. Flashbacks are seamlessly interwoven into action that takes place in the present day. Such scenes, which easily could have become a confused mess, are staged perfectly to ensure the overlapping never becomes cumbersome. Extra touches, such as the use of the back wall as a projection screen and the sudden backlighting of the same wall evoke images of a bullet-riddled bus, make the brutality of the play more vivid.

Campbell delivers an emotional performance as the daughter. Fawzia Mirza as Nawal’s friend Sawda has a captivating stage presence. And Diana Simonzadeh as the oldest incarnation of Nawal has a stately demeanor and exudes confidence.

Scorched is one of those rare plays that successfully crosses over into multiple genres, from historical fiction to family drama to mystery. If you want to see a great story beautifully told, see this show.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Scene from Silk Road Theatre Project's "Scorched" 1

Featuring: Adam Poss*, Diana Simonzadeh*, Fredric Stone*, Lacy Katherine Campbell, Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, Nicholas Cimino, Justin James Farley, Carolyn Hoerdemann, and Fawzia Mirza.

* Denotes member of Actor’s Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers.

   
   

 

A scene from Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched, featuring Rinska M. Carrasco (Young Nawal) and Nicholas Cimino (Wahab)

   
   


REVIEW: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

dsmw - cast

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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Review: Gift Theatre’s “Summer People”

Keen performances elevate ‘Summer People’s’ tenuous script

 summer_people_Rob_Belushi_Justin_James_Farley

The Gift Theatre Company presents:

Summer People

by Jenny Connell
directed by Paul D’Addario
runs through Dec. 13 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Gift Theatre Company ensemble members Lynda Newton and Danny Ahlfeld open Summer People with a dramatic storm scene. We don’t yet know who this anguished couple is, but we understand that a daughter is missing, possibly dead; her father unreachable; and the relationship between the two on stage troubled.

summer_peopleIt’s a powerful scene, and these two dominate the production with keen performances throughout. Yet it creates a heavy foreshadowing over the rest of the play, which unfolds in a flashback to the preceding weeks.

Five damaged people have come together near Mount Desert, Maine, a place nicely sketched by Brendan Donaldson‘s set. Ahlfeld, we learn, is Scotty, manager of a campgrounds and general store there, a Vietnam veteran whose war experiences left him too emotionally scarred for any more ambitious life. Newton plays Kate, a Maine native who returns from New York City every summer with her family.

This summer, however, is different. Kate and her two daughters, Laura and Sam, arrive at their cottage as usual, but Kate’s husband has deserted them, upsetting all three. Kate struggles with single parenthood, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy.

Kate’s daughter Laura, also troubled by her emerging sexual awareness and the typical angst and rebelliousness of teenaged girls, fights with her mother – particularly as Kate and Scotty draw closer. Imaginative young Sam copes by videotaping everything that happens to show Dad what he’s missing and spends her time snooping around the campgrounds, especially at Site 54, where a clearly disturbed, newly discharged Marine grapples with the ghosts of his time in Iraq.

Ahlfield puts just enough Maine drawl into his voice without overdoing it, perfectly conveying Scotty’s laidback yet neurotic character in a fine counterpoint to Newton’s expressiveness as the often frenzied Kate. They create characters one immediately warms to. Ray Gray, a senior at the Latin School, and 9-year-old Grace Goble put in very natural performances as Laura and Sam.

summer_people_Danny Ahlfeld_Grace Goble As the young Marine, Rob Belushi (yes, his dad is Jim Belushi), often seems stiff -perhaps more so than the awkwardness his role demands. He loosens up only momentarily in a couple of scenes with Justin James Farley and Minita Gandhi, who play characters out of the Marine’s time in Iraq. Or perhaps it’s just that this character isn’t very well developed, but a sort of cardboard case of shell shock. Outside of his war experience, we learn nothing about him – not even his name.

While the first scene let us know something bad is going to happen, when it comes it’s a brief and abrupt anticlimax. The tragic final scene quickly becomes predictable, with far less drama than the opening, and the build up lacks tension. Director Paul D’Addario‘s generally good staging comes apart a bit, too. The restraint that serves most of the play quite well doesn’t fit here.

At 70 minutes, without intermission, Summer People feels like two-thirds of a play – short and somewhat tenuous. What there is, is worth seeing, but I’d have liked to have seen the rest. A longer, two-act script might have overcome the heavy-handed forewarning of the first scene, and conveyed something more than the obvious message that war makes people crazy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Free parking is available in the gravel lot at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. No late seating permitted.