Review: The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll (The Mammals)

  
  

Mammals’ dream journal struggles to maintain balance

  
  

Gabe Garza as Hyde, Sarah Scanlon as Eve - The Mammals - Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll

   
The Mammals present
   
The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll
  
Written by Jason Adams, Scott Barsotti, Randall Colburn, Bob Fisher,
Reina Hardy, Warwick Johnson and Jeremy Menekseoglu
Directed by
Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ste B-1 (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  | 
more info

Reviewed by by Barry Eitel

In their The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll, The Mammals are quick to dismiss Robert Louis Stevenson, decrying his novel as a “penny dreadful.” Instead, at the onset of the play, our guide Professor Oliver Mastodon Peale says that we are about to get a taste of the real story. He claims that next to the titular doctor’s eviscerated body laid a book, half written in neat cursive, half written in near-illegible handwriting. This adaptation, as we’re led to believe, is actually a dramatization of that story. It’s a bold move; one that breathes life into the Victorian-era tale.

Gabe Garza as Hyde - Dream Journal of Doctor Jeckyll - The MammalsKnown for their exploration of the horrific and grotesque, Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego Mr. Hyde provide ample fodder for the Mammals. However, the play can never decide whether it is a gothic descent into hell or a smartly-done spoof. In the end, the show becomes a victim of taking itself too seriously.

In lieu of actors, claims Peale (Jason Adams wrapped in a robe and marvelously fake moustache), he has hired sleepwalkers. We watch as Jekyll (Scott Barsotti) battles, comforts, and eventually succumbs to Hyde (Gabe Garza). Basically, it’s a story dwelling on the well-explored turf of Apollonian versus Dionysian. The Mammals make very clear that Jekyll is a man of science while Hyde concerns himself with art and magic (usually through harming cats). We watch as Jekyll, through Hyde, tears into those around him and, finally, into himself.

The play was written by committee, with contributions by Jason Adams, Scott Barsotti, Randall Colburn, Bob Fisher, Reina Hardy, Warwick Johnson, and Jeremy Menekseoglu (whew). It works best when Jekyll and Hyde play off each other like some sort of bipolar comedy duo. The most memorable scene is when the boorish Hyde becomes Jekyll’s wingman, giving him terrible advice for wooing Eve (Sarah Scanlon).

The writers seem to have taken for granted that we all know how the story ends, and the play clumsily spirals into the finale without much concrete motivation. The last couple of scenes, although striking, don’t really connect into a fully-realized arc. The framing device, although funny, doesn’t help things. For some reason, a pair of Siamese twins (Ashlee Edgemon and Anne Marie Boyer, who are not real conjoined twins) do what they can to derail Peale’s demonstration. It also seems like flute-wielding demons are trying to take over the show? Whatever they’re up to, the soundtrack they provide is eerily excellent.

Gabe Garza as Hyde, Sarah Scanlon as Eve, in The Mammals' original production of 'The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll', now playing at Zoo Studio.I take issue with the writers’ casual remarks about pedophilia and rape. Some of Hyde’s comments seem like cheap shots for shock value. The play’s moments of high tension are usually overblown, like when Scanlon and Garza scream at each other as they discuss the nature of screams. Again, it’s the comedy that should’ve been the star—the funniest moments can be subversive yet push the story forward. While not one of the smartest points of the show, Garza rolling around on the floor after a punch to the groin and groaning “My balls!” is a highlight.

Either way, the cast fully commits to the material, whether they’re playing a short tune on the dulcimer or screaming at the audience. And some fascinating moments are pulled out of the general chaos. In the last few scenes, a tired Peale goes into a beautifully metatheatrical monologue about the nature of art. John Ross Wilson’s cabinet-o-curios set provides a feast for the eyes, with plenty of drawers and doors for the cast to open and close. Like a dream, a lot of Dream Journal doesn’t quite make sense, but it definitely keeps your interest. Claiming ‘but that’s the point!’ seems a lazy argument to me, but it works well enough to keep this massive collaboration hammering along.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Gabe Garza as Hyde, in The Mammals' 'The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll'

The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll continues through April 2nd at Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood #B1, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 10pm.  BYOB! Tickets are $20, and reservations can be made by calling  866-593-4614.

  
  

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REVIEW: Blood Wedding (Oracle Theatre)

 

A Spooky Spanish Time at Oracle

 

 

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre 2

  
Oracle Theatre presents
   
Blood Wedding
   
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by
Ben Fuchsen
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: by donation  |  more info

Not often do classic canonical plays get featured as a Halloween fright fest. Yeah, ghosts and witches show up in many lists of characters, but they’re usually too heavily laden with symbolism and plot development to cause any nightmares. So Oracle Theatre is going out on a limb this year with their Halloween offering, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The results are mixed. Although Lorca’s lush language evokes plenty of chills, director Ben Fuchsen’s production lacks clarity and cohesiveness.

Lorca, one of the key purveyors of tragedy in the 20th Century, lived a pretty tragic life himself. A gay writer in Spain between the wars, he found himself spurned by men like Salvador Dali as well as facing the stresses of immense critical and commercial success at a young age. He ended up face down in a ditch somewhere, silenced by Franco’s Fascists in 1936. Yet his unsettling plays, many of which seem directly inspired by Sophocles or Euripides, have enjoyed popularity the world over. Blood Wedding is Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatreone of the best known. It follows a pretty standard storyline: longstanding feuds between families, nuptials, infidelity, murder, etc. What makes the piece stand apart is Lorca’s gorgeous poetry and his inclusion of vengeful supernatural forces in this very human story. The Moon, angry that man shuts their windows at night (and therefore shun him), decides to join Death in the manhunt for the runaway bride and her lover. Something much heavier than simple jealousy is going on.

Oracle mines the otherworldly elements of Lorca as much as they can. Instead of a small scene in the latter half of the play, Fuchsen places the Moon (a nearly-nude Justin Warren) and Death (Sasha Walloch clad as a flamenco dancer) in almost every moment. The duo brings a sinister vibe to the whole piece. They conjure all the spookiness in the production, wielding bloody, spine-chilling noises, and frenetic movements.

As their supernatural characters, Warren and Walloch take on all the supporting roles as well. This is where it everything starts to get muddled. We start wondering who is who—is Walloch playing Death now, or a servant woman, or Death pretending to be a servant woman? The concept is engaging, but the execution needs retooling.

The production could really benefit from a plot synopsis in the program. This is due to the fact that the cast focuses on creating atmosphere over storytelling. With its myriad of metaphors, Blood Wedding’s mood is intoxicating, but it’s impossible to stay engaged in that world when you’re just trying to keep up with the story. The style also fluctuates—some actors (like Sarah Pretz, who plays the ominous Mother), stick with heightened realism. Others, Alexander Gerber, for example, who portrays the unwitting (and slightly goofy) Groom, choose to face the audience and speak their lines with an expressionist slant. Both work for the piece, although the realism is far more grounded. The problem is that the stylization isn’t consistent, causing more plot and character confusion.

When you just sit back and let the show flood over you, there’s some great stuff. James Ogden’s gloomy set, consisting of several lacy screens, is appropriately creepy and smartly used. The statuesque Pretz commands the tiny Oracle stage like a captain on a ship. And there were two solid moments that terrorized me. Most of all, Lorca’s tremendous poetic skill, translated here by Michael DeWell and Carmen Zapata, is delicious and heartwrenching all at once.

Oracle is no stranger to the Halloween show. They’ve put up some well-received haunted house-style experiences in the past. I’m not completely sold Lorca can be repackaged as a Halloween treat, but the cast definitely puts forth tons of effort. But with more plot clarity, the production could earn a whole lot more screams.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre - poster

REVIEW: The Ghost Sonata (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle’s ‘Ghost Sonata’ doesn’t sing

 

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Oracle Theatre presents
 
The Ghost Sonata
 
by August Strindberg
directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata is a tough play to crack open. Written over a century ago, the masterpiece is considered a wonder of Modernist drama. Therefore, it has plenty of bizarre twists and characterizations (vampires and ghosts, anyone?).  Especially now, when we’re used to straightforward stories force-fed through movies and television, the piece is hard to navigate. Oracle Theatre and director Max Truax certainly take up this challenge with their heavily-expressionistic version. Even though they engage Strindberg with honesty and compassion, the end product leaves us bewildered and groping for answers.

ghost_sonata_press_2_resizeYou may want to read a translation of the play before setting out for this production. Truax and his driven cast seem very concerned with conveying mood and themes, but to the detriment of plot and clarity. I had the feeling that everyone onstage knew what was going on but I wasn’t completely welcome. It was like looking through a very dusty window. After a few scenes, it is possible to piece together the general story, but this production doesn’t help much in terms of leading the audience through Strindberg’s dense text.

Truax and his design team create a bizarrely fascinating world, conquering the sometimes awkward Oracle space. There were some amazing stage pictures formed by Truax (doubling as set designer), who whipped up some awesome forced perspective. Although the video projections sometimes confuse the storyline, Michael Janicki’s work fits the twisted world well, with vaguely Victorian black-and-white images appearing in a frame above the action.

The audience enters to Rich Logan looking all comatose in a wheelchair. As the elderly Jacob Hummel, he pushes and manipulates the play forward, imparting plenty of creepiness to the already dark script. Strindberg’s text revolves around a Student (Federico Rodriguez), who meets a cast of wacky characters, including the scheming Hummel, a mummy (Ann Sonneville), a ghostly maid (Lily Emerson), and a dead guy (John Arthur Lewis). Again, even though each of the actors understands and brings life to their characters, the gothic world is not very well explained. Rodriguez carries the show, although sometimes he doesn’t recognize the close relationship he has to the audience. Stephanie Polt fits well into the oppressive world as the object of the Student’s affection, but Sean Ewert as her father, the Colonel, doesn’t match the others. Justin Warren can also fall out of the production’s universe, but he brings some much needed comic relief.

While the performances usually deeply connect to the text, they don’t fit into the space. Truax and his actors seem unaware of how to utilize Oracle’s intimate stage. When emotions run high, the actors often resort to screaming. The audience gets irritated and interest flags. In such an enclosed and small theatre, overplaying can be disastrous. This Ghost Sonata isn’t ruined by yelling, but some over-the-top moments knock down the impact of the play.

Besides clarity, the biggest issue afflicting Truax’s production is a lack of humor. Yes, this is a dark, turn-of-the-century, proto-Expressionistic script, but there has to be some releases—Strindberg, being a master dramatist, pens them in. Avoiding the humor can make the play feel highly melodramatic and uninteresting. There are some nuggets of humor, but most of it is swept away to make way for dreariness.

Truax’s production is very conceptual and looks pretty cool, but fails to respect Strindberg’s text. The focus is too much on theme and not enough on story. The talent is obviously there; with a few exceptions, it seemed like the whole cast was on-board and clicking with each other. The design makes some very innovative choices that you might not expect from a storefront. Oracle’s Achilles’ Heal here is storytelling; Truax finds great skin but uses a weak skeleton.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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REVIEW: The Castle (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle bites off more than it can chew

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The Oracle Theatre presents:

The Castle

 

by Howard Barker
co-directed by Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen
through March 6th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

The Oracle Theatre did something really hard when they decided to take on Howard Barker‘s 1985 play, "The Castle." Barker, who calls his work "Theatre of Catastrophe," writes plays that are intentionally convoluted, morally ambiguous and linguistically challenging. This is the type of play that needs to be tamed by it’s cast and crew, because of the unruly chaos on the pages of the script. 

the-castle3 Entering the theater, the audience is greeted by an attractive young cast masquerading as a flock of crazy townspeople, meandering through the space, improvising conversations with one another about things like "braiding their lovely hair" in creepy voices. When the lights go down, Howard Barker’s dark story begins. In a nutshell, it’s about a solider returning home from the Crusades, to find that the women have taken over the village and turned it into a Sapphic baby-farm with no government. 

Barker writes in poetry, and over-saturates his work with images so that not everyone catches everything. That way, he creates a show that everyone has a personal relationship with, and no one can quite agree on. Everyone understands things a little differently in life, why try to deny that in art? He also believes that art should be "an irritant in consciousness, a grain of sand in the oyster’s gut." That is, something unsettling that gnaws at your thinking. He also claims to write without any moral absolutes, leaving the audience swimming in a sea of grey at the plays end, not knowing what to think.

It’s a little bit intellectually overwhelming to think about all of the elements that you are supposed to keep track of when watching this play. Unfortunately, it may have been a little overwhelming for the earnest and likable cast as well. Huge portions of the play are lost to garbled speech and the occasional slip into the dreaded faux Brit accent. Co-directors Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen have missed the mark here, instead of presenting a play without a moral compass, they’ve presented a play with no focus. The lack of an absolute morality; the absurd, complex violence and language call for excessive attention to detail, which is lacking in this production. The set is lazy, with a back wall that is a vehicle for shadow puppets, an awesome concept that falls flat half the time, and unforgivable fake ivy. Sean Campbell‘s expressive lighting is a winning element of the play, especially when it brings the shadow puppets home.

the-castle2

The production comes so close to hitting a home run but gets lost at third base. The inherent anger in the text is clearly communicated, and the actors come across as being infatuated with their words. It’s the kind of production with a lot of yelling, and a lot of passion but not a lot of depth. One standout performance comes from Victoria C. Gilbert, who manages to find some truth in Skinner the Witch. Although a lot of the show does not work, she’s got a powerful presence, especially in the killer second act. Although a lot of choices are bland, these are actors who all really get it. Watching them work together, it’s clear that they are coming from the same place, and fundamentally understand the work of Barker. Often, when a work is too heady, the performances suffer under the weight of the theory. Baker is the masochistic type of playwright who needs to be tamed; not worshiped. His ideology is too rigid too see actors worrying about it on stage. It’s the type of thing that needs to be infused into the performances, by the directors, not explained away by the actors sly knowingness. From the audience on Sunday night, this seemed like a young theater company biting off more than they could chew up and spit out.

Rating: ★★

 

 

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Review: Point of Contention’s “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret”

Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s

“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”

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Point of Contention Theatre presents:

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret

by Susanna Centlivre
Directed by Margo Gray
Running thru August 26th (buy tickets)
Location: BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio (map)

Review by Paige Listerud

This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.

Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.

Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.

Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.

As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?

One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.

Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.

Rating: «««½