Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: In Love’s Bright Coils (Genesis Theatre)

Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?

 

 For Web (2 of 4)

  
Genesis Ensemble presents
 
In Love’s Bright Coils
   
Written by The Genesis Ensemble
Directed by Kat Paddock
at The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through August 30th  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian 

Relationships are complicated. Depending on what side a person is on, it can be the greatest adventure or the cruelest fate. Either way, people crave love and affection, often communicating their feelings through the written word. Genesis Ensemble have taken this notion and used it to form their new, original piece In Love’s Bright Coils (the title based on a poem by E.B. White). Directed by Kat Paddock, this experimental piece based on found work seeks to answer the question, “Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?”

For Web (1 of 4) There’s a sense of theatricality even before entering the performance space. The Charnel House is loaded with character and charm. Before the show begins, the audience is led down a hallway lined with letters, text messages, Facebook messages and other types of correspondence. Entering the theatre, the actor’s are already on, filling the space with simultaneous readings of these messages as the audience takes their seats. It’s a sensory overload in a good sense, keeping the eyes moving about the room as this word cluster encapsulates the audience.

In Love’s Bright Coils then officially begins – opening on John and Abigail Adams reading letters they’ve sent each other; then flashing to present time with an angry man (Chris Acevedo) being broken up with through email. His emotions are clearly right at the surface and it’s evident that he understands the character is near breaking point.

The show switches back and forth between earlier times (late 1800’s, 1920’s and 1960’s) with handwritten letters and post mail correspondence to currents times (Facebook, blogs and text messages). The scenes feel a bit disjointed as they jump between time periods, causing one to be momentarily pulled out of the action. Additionally, within the older time period pieces, some of the actors have trouble connecting with the words of the letters, thus losing characterization in the process. More of a back story feels necessary with these vignettes because the letters and actions don’t offer a clear enough explanation. It might make more sense to set the action chronologically – not only would this inform us on how people relate over time, but we’d also experience how communications evolved and what this does to relationships.

The stage throughout the show is bare with a multimedia backdrop, displaying dates, logos and images. The multimedia adds another layer, increasing the interest in what’s occurring on stage. It also acts as a transitional piece, helping to somewhat smooth out the switches between time periods.

A present day scene based on LiveJounal posts is a riot. In a short amount of time, McKenzie Gerber’s character has a clear arch with a fleshed out back-story, which proves to be quite funny. Gerber also moves throughout the space, taking his scene off the stage, which helps the sketch grow as he delves further into the reality of the character.

Karie Miller offers an interesting portrayal of a woman’s careening Facebook addiction, becoming increasingly scattered and spread too thin until her “relationship status” goes from “in a relationship” to “single and unfriended.” Miller fully embodies this social networking addiction and is present in the scene, keeping the audience engaged.

For Web (3 of 4)

Another stand-out vignette comes from present day as well. Two women (Amanda Jane Dunne and Natalie Burtney) have just gone on their first date. Once home, Burtney’s character sends a post-date text. Having yet to receive a response the next day, she spirals into a state of temporary insanity, agonizing over the one meeting, until finally she receives a reply. The scene is wonderfully relatable to the audience, and what comes to mind is, “It’s funny because it’s true” – if we haven’t experienced this personally, then we probably know someone who has. Paddock and Dunne completely embody the characters and portray real, raw emotions that radiate into the audience.

Throughout In Love’s Bright Coils, a man, dressed in black, appears as a messenger and the vocalization of different character’s inner thoughts. Played by Jake Carr, this character is often confusing. In some scenes his purpose is clear as he announces blog posts, email subjects, text messages and instant messages. At other times, however, his character adds nothing save for distraction, once again pulling us away from the main action.

Overall, it’s nice to see Genesis taking these risks. This is a hugely unique show, which is a good thing. The trouble with risks, however, is that sometimes things don’t work out. But by not playing it safe, the ensemble is free to explore new territory, making some very impressionable discoveries.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

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In Love’s Bright Coils plays at the Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton. The show plays on Friday/Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through August 30. Tickets are $10, and can be reserved by sending an e-mail to genesis.ensemble@gmail.com.

   
   

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REVIEW: Medea with Child (Sideshow Theatre)

When the Goddess devours her own

 

MedeaWithChild6

 
Sideshow Theatre Company presents
 
Medea with Child
 
by Janet Burroway
directed by Jonathan L. Green
at La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston  (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Medea With Child by Janet Burroway confronts the shallowness of modern-day existence still under the burdens of sexism, racism, age-ism, and nationalism; only these age-old fault lines are compounded further by contemporary image obsession, especially as political manipulation. It’s also a play about a (supernaturally) powerful woman reeling over lost love, lost youth, lost dignity, and, therefore, needing no more pretenses regarding motherly devotion. Sideshow Theatre Company clearly has too much fun with this material, yet they are simply co-conspiring with the playwright’s fast-paced, satirical wit and inspired juxtapositions.

MedeaWithChild4 Based on Euripides’ classic play The Medea, Media (Sojourner Zenobia Wright) acts out as the ultimate, ethno-folkloric Mommie Dearest—slaughtering her children in revenge against her husband’s infidelity and his total sociopolitical displacement of her. Burroway keeps the theme of Media’s barbarism completely intact from the Ancient Greek original but stretches its metaphor of the total stranger to its outer limits. Perhaps even more than Euripides’ heroine, Media is the eternal sister outsider.

Rising mythically out of Africa’s primordial depths, Media’s expansive, magical perception of reality extends far beyond normal human experience. As a result, she lives in the perpetual state of no one ever really getting her. She can talk on and on to slippery politico Crayon (Richard Warner) or to wayward husband Chasten (John Bonner)—but no one truly understands what she is saying and thinking.

Indeed, given their own total self-absorption with image and all its ramifications, no one around Media may even be trying. This establishes to some of most sublime contradictions in the course of the play. Glossy (Nicole Richwalsky), Crayon’s daughter and Chasten’s new secretary/squeeze, proclaims herself a feminist and claims Media as her feminist icon. But she is wrong on both counts. Media is not a feminist; her powers do not come from feminism–they come from a more primal place and go well beyond anything so dry as feminist political theory. She is what every feminist wishes she could be—especially the old school, Second Wave warriors who claimed witches for their feminist role models. Likewise, Glossy’s upstaging of Media in her affair with Chasten could hardly be recognized as a feminist act. Indeed, Glossy seems more fascinated with Media’s celebrity feminist status than any actual empowerment for herself or other women. When all is said and done, she basks in Media’s reflected glory by bedding her husband.

It’s a fine example of Burroway’s wry, twisted wit winking through the dialogue. Sisterhood is powerful; but not when young feminist sister stabs sister in the back because she has a mistaken idea of what feminism is. It may be completely mute in the company of men who have no interest in contradicting Glossy and every interest in moving Media aside for a brand, new (post-feminist?) order. It’s not just that the prospect for women’s empowerment goes down the tubes. Puerility replaces substance; swapping out Glossy for Media is like substituting The Runaways with The Spice Girls.

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By no means is that the limit of this play’s comic scope. Indeed, several viewings might be needed to savor every flavorful drop of its juicy, wicked goodness. Director Jonathan L. Green has assembled a superlative cast, all evenly sure and subtle in their delivery. As Media’s children, both in their play and their prognostications about mother, Fairies (Andrew Sa) and Murmurous (Lea Pascal) have the sacrificial victim thing disturbingly down pat.

So much meticulous attention has been given to every detail in performance and design each moment brings new discoveries and revelations. Joshua Lansing’s set design not only provides versatility, it places surprises in every corner. David Hyman’s construction of Media’s costume alone deserves an award and Wright certainly wears it well. She may be a killer, but girl knows how to bring the Hoodoo Mama chic!

One thing remains peculiarly striking, however. For all the humorous and inventive ways Burroway plays with the myth of Medea and Jason of the Argonauts, Media remains comparatively serious and unable to use humor as her weapon or shield. Wright’s portrayal of Media is nothing but fiercely and sensually witty, but Media herself seems unable to step back and realize the laughable ridiculousness of Chasten’s mid-life-crisis affair with shallow Glossy. In having Media feel too much and without ironic perspective, Burroway preserves the tragicomic nature of the play—exploring, as she wishes, the dark psychodynamics of enmeshed anti-motherhood and love’s betrayal. But is she, consciously or unconsciously, re-inscribing a humorless proto-feminism in the character of Media?

At the start of the play, Crayon holds up a list of possible options for the outcome of the story, in the hope that this time no one would have to die. I didn’t see a palimony option on that list. But palimonied freedom for Media and custody of the kids for Chasten and Glossy would be a completely different play, shifting the myth from tragedy to tragicomedy to comedy. The kind of 5th century BCE political comedy that made Aristophanes famous–wherein the hero, through his trickster nature, overcame his opponents and got everything he wanted. Is Media, for all her dark power and mystical nature, still not a trickster? Does that kind of comic ending still only look good on men and not on women?

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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