REVIEW: And a Child Shall Lead (Adventure Stage)

   
  

Against Genocide, Art Endures

 

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Adventure Stage presents
   
And a Child Shall Lead
   
Written by Michael Slade
Directed by
Tom Arvetis
at Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through December 9  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Feeling a little depressed, now that “hope and change” from the 2008 election has thoroughly lost its gloss? Head on over to Adventure Stage Theatre’s production, And a Child Shall Lead. Take a good look at young people fighting insurmountable odds to sustain creativity and to speak truth to power.

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 011Under the Nazis, from 1941 to 1945, the 18th-century fortress of Terezin, located in present day Czech Republic, was a nightmare place where youthful promise was meant to die. It was a transit camp where deported Jews either succumbed to starvation and disease or were shipped out to Auschwtiz, Majdanek and Treblinka. But Terezin was also a place where the Gestapo deported Jewish artists. Such a strong repository of cultured European Jewry yielded over 6000 hidden works of art created by Terezin’s children—hidden because any evidence of cultural creation or education at Terezin was punishable by death.

Michael Slade’s drama focuses solely on the child artists of Terezin. They draw, write poetry, stage puppet shows, play music and run their own newspaper. While mostly young adults take on child roles for the production, no adult character disturbs the world of this play. And a Child Shall Lead is meant for younger audiences but adults can also benefit from getting back to basics. Just an hour into the play makes one realize the perennial nature of their struggle–simply to be heard, to have the truth told, no matter how terrible, and to create a vision of a better future worth surviving for. Unlike us, the child artists of Terezin carry out their mission under far deadlier and more dehumanizing circumstances.

Heavy stuff for children’s theater; yet Director Tom Arvetis preserves the youthful drive and perspective of his cast through an energetic and rigorous pace of playing games: hide and seek, hiding from Nazi guards, hiding their artwork and newspaper articles in their own secret places, stealing paper from trash bins (because paper has been forbidden them) and carrying on lessons while a child stands lookout. Even while portraying hunger, illness, and an ever-present terror of arbitrary execution, Arvetis’ cast brings excitement, suspense, and playfulness to their characters’ fight for survival, beauty and meaning. Play and preserving play in the midst of horror is this production’s most successful feature. Well-balanced scenic (Jessica Kuehnau), sound (Miles Polaski) and lighting design (Brandon Wardell) perfectly supplement and supports the action.

 

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Getting the truth out to others about the atrocities they endure proves far more overwhelming for Terezin’s children. The Third Reich showcases the city as the “Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” a place where they can be safe from the war. But, in reality, Terezin functions as a distraction from The Final Solution. The Gestapo produces a propaganda film about the city, complete with staged scenes of healthy and contented Jewish residents engaged in crafts. As the Red Cross visits Terezin, the children attempt to get their newspaper Vedem to the inspectors, but fail. All the Red Cross perceives is whitewashed Nazi reality.

What endures from Terezin is the artwork and the bits of their newspaper. Death comes for nearly every character in the play–certainly, 15,000 children died in the actual ghetto. The production displays artwork copied from the artwork produced by the children of Terezin. Every poem recited is poetry that survived this awful place. While Slade’s play could benefit from a small amount of editing, no one can deny the emotional impact of his clear, simple and forthright work. It touches the primal core in us all and Michael Slade places our need for human dignity at the very center of childlike self-expression.

  
   
Rating: ★★★½
      
   

Recommended for ages 11 and up (6th thru 8th grades).

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REVIEW: Lovers (City Lit Theater)

Half winner, half loser

 

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City Lit Theater presents
  
Lovers
  
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Brian Friel’s Lovers is divided into two stories, “Winners” and “Losers.” The former shows a day in the life of two teenagers preparing to be wed, the latter recounts the history of a middle-aged married couple. United by their Irish setting and a common thread of underlying sorrow, the two stories reveal how the fantasies people associate with love are crushed by the circumstances of the real world. Bleak. But the poster is two withering roses, so don’t say City Lit Theater didn’t warn you.

Ironically, Winners is the weaker of the two, suffering from a lack of clarity that makes the monologue-heavy script drag. The main action shows teenaged lovers Mag (Catherine Gillespie) and Joe (Joey deBettencourt) studying for their last set of exams, not allowed to return to school due to Mag’s unplanned pregnancy. As they expose their hopes and fears for married life, two narrators (Walter Brody and Maggie Cain) describe the events that lead up to and occur after the study session, City Lit Theater - Lovers2 emphasizing the moment’s significance for the lovers. There isn’t much action in the script, with characters spending most of their time recounting past experiences or ruminating about the future, so the actors have to work even harder to keep the audience’s attention.

Gillespie and DeBettencourt succeed in capturing the innocence of their characters – with moments like an Old West style shootout between the two and an imaginary gang of their enemies – but they struggle at giving weight to their new adult problems. Much of this is due to the pace of Mag’s early monologues, rushed to the point where emotional shifts are lost and the Irish dialect is compromised. As Mag and Joe’s fate is revealed by the narrators, dramatic irony keeps the proceedings moderately interesting, but “Winners” never regains the momentum it loses at the start.

“Losers” is the saving grace of the evening, with Brody and Cain retuning to the stage as Andy and Hannah, a middle aged couple saddled with the burden of Hannah’s pious mother (Kay Schmitt). Forced to join the matriarch for nightly prayers and devotions to Saint Philomena, Andy learns the hard way that “the family that prays together, stays togethers.” The actors get an immediate hand up on the earlier scene by getting a script where things actually happen, but they also are much more adept at capturing the melancholy that runs underneath the humor. Director Terry McCabe provides plenty of slapstick physical comedy as the lovers try to find ways to fool around without disturbing Mrs. Wilson, and Brody is able to make the transition from youthful exuberance to seasoned seriousness that are lost on the young actors in “Winners.”

Lovers concludes on a cynical note, with the characters’ failures overweighing their triumphs. City Lit’s production is able to escape that fate, with a second act that overcomes the missteps of the first to create an ultimately enjoyable evening of theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The League of Awesome (Factory Theater)

This “League of Awesome” fails to live up to its name

 

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The Factory Theater presents
   
The League of Awesome
   
Written by Corri Feuerstein and Sara Sevigny
Directed by
Matt Engle
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston  (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

(Before I launch into my review of the Factory Theater’s The League of Awesome, I’d like to thank the theater staff for assisting me after I suffered heat exhaustion the first time I tried to see this play. Like a good critic, I cut out early so as to avoid passing out in the audience and stealing the show, so to speak.)


The idea of staging a comic book must have been alluring to the Factory Theater ensemble.

“We can have sound effects! And fight scenes! And super powers! And title cards!” you can imagine them saying as you watch The League of Awesome, the quirky theater company’s newest comedy about an all-female group that, after banishing their arch-nemesis, finds itself stuck with nothing to do.

DSC_0082 But although these little gimmicks are fun and inventive, they do not make a strong play. A strong play requires a sturdy backbone of a story, and unfortunately, this backbone is fractured. That’s not to say that the supplemental sound effects and superpowers—done in Kabuki fashion where assistants dawn black garb to remain invisible to the audience—don’t intermittently work to their desired effect, but without a captivating context to stick these things into, it’s just a lot of noise and flashy ribbons.

The story centers around the “League of Awesome”, a group of superhuman females that rid the city of crime and super villainy. The Beacon (Corri Feuerstein, who also co-wrote the play) has the power to redirect beams of energy. Cat Scratch (Erin Myers) uses sharp claws to scratch her enemies, while her teammate and thinly veiled lover Rumble (Melissa Tropp) uses her brute strength. Finally, there’s Sylvia (Sara Sevigny, who also co-wrote the play), who has the power to conjure anything at will by preceding it with the words “The way I see it…”

At the play’s opening, the team is combating The Sorrowmaker (Dan Granata), a villain who has the power to make people sad. (Coincidentally, the villain is also the ex-boyfriend of The Beacon.) The team defeats The Sorrowmaker after Sylvia banishes him to the pages of a lost installment of the Hardy Boys series.

One-year later, the league has eliminated all crime, thereby eliminating their usefulness. Now they are bored and drink all day. Then, Sylvia’s sister stops by—a plot point that contributes nothing to the story—and reveals her ability to make people break out into song at will. The characters spend more time drinking and being bored as we the audience are bored along with them, but unfortunately have expired our drinks.

Of course, The Sorrowmaker breaks out and seeks to exact his revenge. Meanwhile, Sylvie drunkenly conjures a new superhero named Ms. Great, whose hard-lined sense of justice and morality would make Jesus feel like a sinner.

There’s more to the story, but it quickly becomes a jumbled morass, with subplots dead-ending, floundering and being forgotten about. There’s just too much going on at once for us to become invested. Will Cat Scratch and Rumble get past their petty fighting and stake their purpose within this story? Will Sylvie’s sister come to terms with her powers and will her character become developed enough for us to care? And why is Sylvie’s proclivity to get drunk such a big part of the first half of the play but is kind of forgotten about in the second half?

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Despite all the flaws in the script, the acting is solid. Granata lays it on thick as the spurned villain. He’s got the maniacal scowl and laugh down to a T. Sevigny’s brashness as Sylvie pays off for its comedic effect. But the biggest show-stealer of all is Wm. Bullion as Gladys, a vagrant and the play’s narrator. His delivery and aloofness is laugh-out-loud funny.

With a much tighter script, The League of Awesome could be an awesome production. It has strong performances, unique effects and interesting fight choreography. But without a reason to care about all the whiz and bang on stage, it plays out like a confusing collage of comic book panels.

   
   
Rating: ★★
      
      

 

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REVIEW: The Ghosts of Treasure Island (Adventure Stage)

Rockin’ adaptation reveres original pirate tale

 

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Adventure Stage Chicago presents
 
The Ghosts of Treasure Island
 
script by Eric Schmiedl
Music/lyrics by Captain Bogg and Salty
directed by Amanda Delheimer
at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through May 20th | tickets: $12-$17 | more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Childhood is an existential crisis. Little ones ask their parents "why?" after any conceivable statement, sure that adults are omniscient rulers, who hold in their minds the secrets of life’s mysteries. The grown-ups, unable to answer questions  like, "why does a car go? Not how, but why?" end up distracting kiddies with rules, especially rules about how rude and annoying it is to ask unanswerable questions. Our rules say, "be good, and treasure-island1good things will happen to you." Childhood lore tends to reflect and uphold these laws, good conquers, evil is defeated, and happiness reigns. Young adult novels, plays and movies rarely venture into areas of ambiguous morality, but those that do are rewarded with critical acclaim, and sometimes the promise of timelessness; such is the case with Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1881 Treasure Island. This is a tale that truly respects the emotional intelligence of children, and Adventure Stage Chicago‘s theatrical adaption of The Ghosts of Treasure Island doesn’t shy away from that.

From the opening scenes of this thrilling play, the audience is confronted with themes of familial loyalty, regrets of old age and the beckoning call to youth to "make your mark" on the world. This is a show that – to steal Del Close‘s famous phrase – plays to the top of it’s intelligence. From the creative set designed by Chelsea Warren, which includes a beam which can be raised to transform a flat wooden floor into a pirate ship, to the artful adaptation by playwright Eric Schmiedl, who plays hard on the book’s themes of self-discovery and moral ambiguity.

One of the most striking parts of the play is the performance of Glenn Stanton as the depressive alcoholic pirate Billy Bones, whose life of regret, and pathetic death serve as the inciting incident of this play. He is actually scary as the forlorn pirate, whose drunken state gives way to demented fantasies and violent, erratic behavior. Jim Hawkins, played here by youthful Kroydell Galima, should have been played by an actual teenager, instead of an adult actor who can play young. However, Galima is committed, intelligent and earnestly in touch with the emotional state of a child.

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Punctuating scenes and major emotional shifts in this play is the pirate band Captain Bogg and Salty, who according to the program worked closely with the playwright in creating the adaptation. The music is dark and intense, and the lyrics are poetic. The band transforms a turn of the last century tale into a ballad rock musical, whose emotional intensity matches the complicated 129-year old story.

Ghosts of Treasure Island is a rocking adaptation that reveres the original tale. A perfect blend of childhood angst and modern day craft have made a near perfect children’s play. There are short comings, however. The play, which runs over an hour and a half may be a bit long for some young audiences. Additionally, this play has the potential to be too scary. It holds children to a high level, so make sure the little guys and girls you bring on board are up for an intellectual challenge and can handle the fear factor. In terms of raising the stakes of children’s theater, however, The Ghosts of Treasure Island truly hits the mark.

 
Rating: ★★★

Recommended for ages 9 and up (4th thru 8th grades).

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  • April 24 (Performance is part of ASC’s Spring Fling: A Pirate Party)
  • May 1 (Behind the Scenes Day – Get a VIP tour after the show)
  • Special Evening Performance: Friday May 7th at 7:00 p.m.
  • May 8 (Picture with a Pirate Day – Take photos with the cast)

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REVIEW: Yoni Ki Baat (Rasaka Theatre)

Serious but Scattershot, this year’s Yoni Ki Baat
Takes on weightier subjects

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Rasaka Theatre presents

Yoni Ki Baat

 

Judging from last year’s press, Yoni Ki Baat must have been a light and sexy laugh fest. Even local contributing writers Angeli Primiani and Anita Chandwaney remarked on the more serious tone of Rasaka Theatre’s remount this year at Strawdog Theatre. “It’s not an angry show,” says Chandwaney, “some pieces are racier than last year. But this year there are angrier, more political monologues . . . more socially conscious.”

“The show is a little misleading,” she adds. “People really don’t know how radical it is. On one level there are all the jokes about sex, which the general audience can really enjoy. But the risk is in having South Asian American women talking about clits, rape, domestic violence.”

yoni3 Yoni Ki Baat, running through January 31, is inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, although its content is created by and for desi women and is open to continual change. Playwrights all over the world submit monologues to the global pool of work, so that each production varies from city to city, year to year. Rasaka’s current production boasts five local writers’ original work.

While a boon to a segment of women’s culture that receives scarce representation, this year’s Yoni Ki Baat suffers from all the usual pitfalls of “rebranding”. Monologues such as “Bollywood Breasts,” “Apple Pie,” “Can I Eat You First?” and “The Inevitable Rise” continue to make light and humorous the dilemmas South Asian American women face straddling multicultural responses to sexuality and women’s bodies. But it is its mix with heavier material that tends to scatter focus, which tends to result in a production suffering from comoedia interruptus.

Plus, there’s just as much danger dealing in heavier material with too light a touch. Monologues “Helpline” and “On-track” address absolute violations of women’s liberty: the first deals with a woman being forced into an abortion by her family because her fetus is a girl; the second explores the dangerous environment for women in Nepal because of sex trafficking. A little more rage, not less, might have better served these pieces but it seems instead that punches have been pulled.

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That’s unfortunate—first, because most of the performances given by the cast are warm, earthy, and accessible and provide an immediate, genuine connection with the audience. Secondly, it does seem that advantages for desi women in the West still overwhelmingly surpass what desi women can hope for back in the old country.

“Oh, yes, sex selection of children still goes on,” says Chandwaney. “It’s outlawed but ultra sound is available. Then you have those religious extremist Hindus who were attacking women for socializing in bars. They were subjected to The Pink Chaddi Project, where people sent them pink underwear in protest for their harassment. There are times—comparing my life here to theirs—I’m starting to feel like ‘there but for the grace of God’ . . .”

“I used to think that I was such a rebel,” says Angeli Primiani, “but my mother was the real rebel of our family. She was the first in the family to have her marriage be a love match. Her parents kept trying to force her into an arranged marriage. She would just show up to meetings with the potential groom in old, unattractive saris . . . no make-up . . . hair messy. They finally gave up on her so she could marry who she wanted.”

Rating: ★★½

 

 

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above pictures from 2009 production

 

ADDENDUM:   a portion of proceeds from this show will go to Apna Ghar (Our Home), an organization that provides culturally appropriate services to survivors of domestic violence, including multilingual services and emergency shelter..  Apnar Ghar‘s focuses primarily on South Asian women and other immigrant communities,

 

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