Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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INTERVIEW: Sweet Bird of Youth – now extended to Jan 16!

        
        

Sex and Power in Artistic Home’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’

 

chanceprincesssmoking

Just how shocking was Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth to the average American in 1959? It certainly titillated New York audiences, as well as secured 3 Tony awards and an adaptation to the screen in 1962, with leads Paul Newman and Geraldine Page from the original production. The movie itself offers only expurgated Williams—no explicit mention of racism, syphilis, or castration. Thank goodness, The Artistic Home’s production recalls us to the play’s lusty roots and its lyrical interrogation of the psychology of desperation that leads to corruption (see our review here ★★★½.)

Sweet Bird of Youth may be William’s most political drama, slamming Southern racism and the South’s campaigns against desegregation during this era. Plus, he shows no end of contempt toward the moralizing hypocrisy that keeps corruption in place and blights all kinds of youthful promise. But we wanted to look at the sexual politics inherent in the text and the chanceprincessdiagonal_thumbunderlying constructions of youth, beauty, age, money and fame that mold the relationship between gigolo Chance Wayne (Josh Odor) and his aging actress sugar-momma, Alexandra del Lago (Kathy Scambiatterra). Who’s using whom, who really has the upper hand, and is their any hope for human interaction between these two demoralized sexual partners?

One warning: I commit a little faux pas at the end of the video. Going into the interview, I believed that Director Dale Calandra and actor Frank Nall, who plays Boss Finley, would be joining us for a second 15-minute segment. But Dale was knocked out by a fierce fever and Frank couldn’t get away from his construction job. Something about being stuck on a scaffold three stories up—and in some nasty, windy weather. We hope both are okay. Get well, Dale!

In the interview I talk with the Sweet Bird leads – Kathy Scambiattera (sugar-momma Alexandra de Lago) and Josh Odor (gigolo Chance Wayne).  Enjoy!!

 

        
        

REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

ChancePrincessdiagonal

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

ChancePrincessSmoking

     
     

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REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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Review: Artistic Home’s “Days to Come”

  The Artistic Home Shows Weaknesses, Not Strengths, of Days To Come

 

DTC02_Firth after fight

The Artistic Home presents:

Days To Come

by Lillian Hellman
directed by Kathy Scambiatterra
thru November 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.         — Lillian Hellman

DTC06_Wilke and Easter Is it possible to be too reverential while executing a particular work? True, Days To Come was written by the larger-than-life Lillian Hellman. In it, tragic things happen, lives are irreparably damaged, and the play is full of social import. All the same it is still a melodrama, not a tragedy. One’s impression upon seeing it onstage now at The Artistic Home is that director Kathy Scambiatterra has seriously mistaken one for the other.

This is not to write off Days To Come as a lesser Hellman work and I hope no one reads my use of “melodrama” in any pejorative way. Melodrama is an extremely versatile, complex, and enduring genre. One for which, as the above quotation shows, Hellman had immense respect. Most of all, more often than not, melodrama is intensely personal. In the end, Days To Come is about the very personal costs of falling for fast, slipshod, and cutthroat solutions to both personal and larger social problems.

Artistic Home’s production succeeds most when it fulfills the melodramatic mode of the play—as it does in those scenes centering on the strikebreakers/thugs hired by the Rodman family to disrupt the ongoing strike at their factory. Scenes where Mossie (Eustace Allen) and Joe (Jeremy Glickstein) play cards while they “guard” the Rodman house build with crackling intensity; while Wilke (Gerard Jamroz) their boss oozes criminality out of every pore. Jamroz absolutely shines in this role—coy, sleazy, and unctuous when he needs to be; pouring on coarse brutality when it serves. His performance almost steals the play.

In fact, Hellman’s criminals seem to come from the pen of her lifetime partner, Dashiell Hammet. But then, they had been together for five years by the time Days To Come premiered.

DTC04_Julie and Henry DTC03_Julie and Andy

In stark contrast, Scambiaterra chooses to keep the rest of her cast buttoned down until the final scene. Sadly, what goes missing is a sense of history between all characters and a strong ensemble sensibility between cast members. Plus, direction during the first act often seems as stilted as some of the dialogue; the actors often look like chess pieces moved around upon a board than people inhabiting a living room.

Patrick Raynor as Tom Firth, the working class best friend of Andrew Rodman (Joe McCauley), brings refreshing intensity upon his entrance into the family hothouse environment. Tim Patrick Miller, as the labor organizer Jim Whalen, brings a nice touch of Humphrey Bogart toughness to his role, even if some lines bring him dangerously close to sounding like a pompous white knight.

Once the strike devolves into violence, Scambiaterra’s direction finally unleashes the cast in a big family blow-up, a dramatic impact lessened by the lack of any reasonable foreshadowing. Still, the biggest, most enjoyable scene-stealer is Justine Serino as Cora, venting her jealous rage at philandering sister-in-law Julie (Leavey Ballou).

It’s here Joe McCauley’s role as the family scion, Andrew Rodman, finally comes into its own—and it’s a palpable relief when it does. His character’s trajectory veers the closest to tragedy. What is not clear is whether, at the start of the play, he realized that he could lose the town that he loved the most through his own passivity. If Hellman’s writing does not make that clear, then the actor must make that choice—as if the whole world of this play depends upon it.

Rating: ★★½

 

DTC01_Whalen waiting for pick-up DTC05_Julie and Whalen

 

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Theater Thursday: Modigliani at The Artistic Home

Thursday, February 26
Modigliani by Dennis McIntyre

The Artistic Home

3914 N. Clark St., Chicago (map)

modiglianipicThe Artistic Home is proud to present Modigliani by Dennis McIntyre, a play about passion, art and everything in-between. Immediately following the production enjoy a dessert and coffee reception, followed by a discussion on the topic of process and building the title role of Modigliani with actor John Mossman, facilitated by Artistic Director Kathy Scambiatterra.
Show begins at 7:30 p.m.
Reception and post-show discussion immediately following at 9:30 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $23
For reservations call 866.811.4111 or go to
www.theartistichome.org

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