REVIEW: Mrs. Caliban (Lifeline Theatre)

Forbidden love and the rebirth of spirit

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Mrs. Caliban

Based on the novel by Rachel Ingalls
Adapted for the stage by Frances Limoncelli
directed by Ann Boyd
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Magical Realism, the melding of fable with cold hard reality, is a term not often heard in mainstream American culture. Fortunately. we find magical realism beautifully rendered in Lifeline Theatre new production of Mrs. Caliban.

MrsCaliban1_web As the play opens, the Calibans go through a stultifying ritual of getting on with the day. Fred communicates with wife Dorothy by checklist. There are no loving words or affectionate pecks on the cheek. Fred can barely look Dorothy in the eye as he stumbles over the worn excuse for those working late –  “I’ll call” – before walking out the door. Dorothy seems to inhale the indifference as she closes the door and forges ahead with her household tasks, habitually turning on the radio; losing herself in the world of music, news and the American “fables” called commercials.

A chirpy announcer is heard extolling the virtues of dishwashing liquid and reasoning that a hot TV dinner can corral a straying husband. Dorothy loses herself in the music and mocks the commercials with interpretive dance. (Brenda Barrie , playing the role of Dorothy, is an ethereal delight to watch – exuding a sprite-like joy and wonder in the character.) Dorothy has lost most of the joy in her waking life and her surroundings are stark and white. Matching the minimalistic set-design, she dresses in varying hues of beige – literally fading into the background. Mrs. Caliban’s only human contact involves forays to the supermarket and coffee with her friend Estelle.

Estelle is literally a siren in red, played by Jenifer Tyler. A divorcee who extols the joys of promiscuity and drinking too much coffee, Tyler gives an edgy performance as a woman who tries to make her fantasies come true through promiscuity and betrayal. What could easily have been a scenery-chewing role, the character of Estelle – as honed by Ms. Tyler – is instead shaded with beauty and vulnerability. Her actions are reprehensible but grounded in insecurity and wanting to be loved.

But this life of ritual and fantasy is starkly interrupted by the appearance of an escaped monster. With menacing tones, the media calls the monster Aquarius Man; warning that he dismembers his victims. The monster appears in Dorothy’s kitchen while she prepares a meal for Fred and his business client. He is a hulking creature played with a man-child flourish by Peter Greenburg. He takes in the scenery and the character of Dorothy with animal senses. Greenburg projects the feeling that all of his senses are heightened, absorbing and then becoming his surroundings as he takes everything in with astonished wonder. The monster’s chemistry with Dorothy is instant and believable.

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There is a lovely comic rapport established between Dorothy and Aquarius Man. She feeds him vegetables and discovers that his name is Larry. The monster speaks tentatively, literally a foreigner learning a new language. Greenberg uses this technique to such skill that it adds hilarity when he tells Dorothy his real name or when he recoils from alleged vegetarian cornflakes and prefers the taste of the box.

Aquarius Man Larry is the antithesis of husband Fred, played by Dan Granata. Fred has become accustomed to ignoring his wife as anything other than someone to go over the checklist as he exits the house. He has long exited her heart or had any intimacy with Dorothy. Mr. Granata imbues his performance with sadness and guilt. Fred is a philanderer and doesn’t have the capability to connect with anything or anyone. Dorothy knows that Fred is cheating but begins to not to care as her relationship with Larry becomes intimate and then erotic. She listens to him and asks about the world of which he longs to return. He listens to her about the loss of her children and then her marriage.

There is a surprising erotic intensity between Larry and Dorothy. The erotic history of the monster and the damsel in distress goes far back in theatre and literature. Dracula and Mina Harker, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, or the Wolf Man and the Gypsy Girl are but a few examples (not to mention pop culture’s “Beauty and the Beast” or “Shrek”). Larry and Dorothy never actually kiss but rather consume each other through their senses of touch and smell. She caresses his odd green skin and seems to become consumed by the tactile sensation.

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This is so much more than a story of interspecies mating. It is a fable of redemption, fate, acceptance, and forgiveness by becoming of love more than in love. Larry is brutally honest with Dorothy about his life and his origins. When he commits what is considered a horrific crime in self-defense, Dorothy is called upon to face her perception of wrong and right. Is it harder to defend Larry because she knows one of the alleged victims? Will she still stand by him and help him get to his native home?These wonderful actors make the questions more than simple romantic flights of fancy.

Special attention must be given to Monica Dionysiou who plays three supporting roles as Estelle’s out of control adolescent daughter Sandra, a pushy saleswoman, and is scary funny as the Supermarket Cheese Majorette. It is a surreal experience that will make you look askance at the sample lady at the market.

Mrs. Caliban” is adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the novel by Rachel Ingalls and directed by Ann Boyd. Ms. Boyd does an exemplary job of bringing archetype and fable into the realm of reality, creating a production void of flat moments or missed beats,.

Brandon Wardell’s lighting add beauty to the action, creating a chiaroscuro effect that enhance the actors without the use of physical props. The silhouette of Larry as he feeds from the energy of the sea was touching and more so when Dorothy becomes one with the sea as well.

“Mrs. Caliban” is an ensemble piece at its best. It is a great theatre experience that leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. I was left wondering about my own fears and presumptions about other beings. Also, it’s a sly and funny indictment of our advertisement-drenched sensibilities. It’s possible that we have all had moments when the box would have tasted better than the contents but let ourselves be deluded into what is supposed to be good or look good by 30 second blurbs.

Take 90 minutes and get a better look at the Lifeline Theatre’s highly-recommended production.

Rating: ★★★★

“Mrs. Caliban” is at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. It is accessible by CTA and there is ample parking at the NE corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free shuttle service before and after the show. The play runs Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00PM, and Sundays at 4:00PM, through March 28th. Contact Lifeline at 773-761-4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com

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What happens in Chicago goes to Kansas City?

About Face Theatre’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Musical Opens in KC

Broadway’s Nancy Anderson, Leslie Dennison, James Judy and Geoff Packard are in the cast of 13. Previews began March 13.

Eric Rosen, who wrote book and lyrics for Winesburg, Ohio, directs the musical based on the novel of the same name by Sherwood Anderson about the desire, hopes and dreams of this small Midwestern town’s residents. Performances continue through April 5th at Spence Theatre, one of the performances spaces of Kansas City Repertory Theatre .

The project marks the final Kansas City production of beloved local musical director Molly Jessup, who died March 15 at the age of 66, after a battle with cancer. The music (and additional lyrics) by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman “is based on a century-old American folk style that is steeped in the land and the people of the Midwest and evokes memories of earlier and simpler times.”  

The show was conceived by and developed in collaboration with Jessica Thebus. Winesburg, Ohio had a successful run in Chicago, where it was created, and received a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play. A subsequent production in Philadelphia won the Barrymore Award for Best Musical.

 The cast of Winesburg, Ohio includes Nancy Anderson (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) as Alice Hindman; Lesley Bevan (of the show’s world premiere for About Face/Steppenwolf Theatre and the Arden Theatre production in Philadelphia) as Kate Swift; Leslie Dennison (of Broadway’s City of Angels) as Elizabeth Willard; Seth Golay (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol, The Pirates of Penzance and The Front Page) as Seth Richmond; Gary Holcombe (the Rep’s in The Drawer Boy) as Wing Biddlebaum; Gary Neal Johnson (an artistic associate at the Rep who has appeared in many productions) as Tom Willard; James Judy (Broadway’s Into the Woods) as The Writer; Jessalyn Kincaid (making her Rep debut) as Young Elizabeth; resident actress Ashlee LaPine (Our Town at Coterie Theatre ) as Helen White; Geoff Packard (an understudy in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera and the national tour of Wicked) as George Willard; Chicago actor Jeff Parker as Rev. Curtis Hartman, a role he created for the original Steppenwolf Theatre Arts Exchange production and the full-length version for About Face Theatre; Bruce Roach (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol and To Kill a Mockingbird) as Joe Welling; John-Michael Zuerlein (making his Rep debut) as Enoch.

The musicians are Ryan Fisher (guitar I), Aaron Fry (guitar II), Michalis Koutsoupides (conductor/piano), Rick Willoughby (bass) and Michael Winer (violin). All but Fisher, who is from Chicago, are Kansas City performers.

The creative team for Winesburg, Ohio is Molly Jessup (music director), Jack Magaw (set designer), Janice Pytel (costume designer), David Lander (lighting designer), Joshua Horvath (sound designer) and Jennifer Martin (choreographer).

For more information call the Rep box office at (816) 235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.

Courtesy of Kenneth Jones of Playbill Online. Photo by Don Ipock Photography

Related articles:

New Musical “Winesburg, Ohio” Opens at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, infozine.com

Winesburg, Ohio Opens At Kansas City Rep On 3/20, BroadwayWorld.com