Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

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American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: Night and Day (Remy Bumppo Theatre)

 

The Real Story Vanishing in the Dead of Night

 

Ruth (Linda Gillum) unleashes her rage over the death of Milne at Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company presents
   
Night and Day
   
Written by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by
James Bohnen
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What to make of Remy Bumppo’s latest production Night and Day? On one hand, the whole production is a sexy, easy fit. James Bohnen’s spot-on cast slips casually and effortlessly into Tom Stoppard’s dialogue–just like an old-school lounge lizard would slip into a dry martini or a pair of silk pajamas. On the other hand, what with the United Nations releasing its recent report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Wagner (Shawn Douglass) risks an upclose interview with dictator Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. Congo, Stoppard’s cunning 1978 play still looks like a bunch of white people sittin’ ‘round, talkin’ while a country made up of darker-skinned people burns all around them. Set in the fictional African nation of Kambawe, the home of copper-king ex-pat Geoffrey Carson (David Darlow at our showing) is hardly the Court of Versailles. Nevertheless, on the brink of civil war, who has time to talk about fickle fame, sex, Scotch or the role of the media? These characters do.

Into this jaded milieu, Stoppard interjects the question: Does a free press matter? Define what you mean by a free press, etc. It’s this et cetera that Bohnen’s actors handle so well. Dick Wagner (Shawn Douglass), an Australian-born reporter for the Globe, solidly provides most of the sly, tough cynicism through his omnipresent worry over getting scooped. His colleague and comrade, photojournalist George Guthrie (Jeff Cummings), brings battle weariness and much-needed urgency and passion to a very talky show. Greg Matthew Anderson, playing freelance journalist Jacob Milne, achieves likeability and freshness with a character who sees no problem with blurring the line between serious and tabloid news. If Night and Day reveals anything, it’s Stoppard’s gift for prophecy.

These few, these happy few, descend on Carson’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth (Linda Gillum), because he possesses an untapped, unsevered line and a Telex machine to get the news out to the West. They are the true seekers of the story,  since the rest of Western press is still hanging out in the lobby of the local Sheraton. Carson also has connections with the rebel leader, Colonel Shimbu, whose Ruth (Linda Gillum) seduces young reporter Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight. scheduled late-night meeting with the dictatorial President Mageeba (Ernest Perry, Jr.) leads to devastating consequences.

Politics aside, Stoppard situates blithe and cynical Ruth at the center of his satire, being the only character whose unspoken thoughts are transparent to the audience and being the one whose name–meaning mercy, sympathy and compassion–contrasts starkly with the ruthlessness all around her. Cherchez la femme, right? And what a femme she is. Gillum doesn’t hit a wrong note, negotiating dialogue directly to the audience and exchanges with her fellow actors like a master magician. Hers may be a performance that redefines the word glib. She excoriates the tabloid press for their paparazzi stalking of her divorce and marriage to Carson in one scene, only to fall for the young, idealistic defender of the tabloid press in another. I’m still pondering how she makes it look so easy, believable, and above all, sympathetic.

For the most part, Night and Day flows as smoothly single malt Scotch from a never-ending stream. Bohnen successfully builds tension with Guthrie’s suspicion of Carson, Milne and Guthrie’s departure to meet Colonel Shimbu, and the anticipated, nerve-racking visit from President Mageeba.

Perry’s entrance as Mageeba, certainly does not disappoint. He’s every bit as gracious, intelligent and threatening as a Western-educated, media-conscious despot should be. Regrettably, Mageeba’s ad hoc interview with Wagner drags and the play’s bit of stage violence comes off as unconvincing. It seems strange that Remy Bumppo should stumble here at such a critical moment. My hopeful assumption is that this was an off performance in an otherwise impeccable production.

Wagner (Shawn Douglass) gives Milne (Greg Matthew Anderson) a lesson in the ethics of journalism in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.  Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Does Stoppard ever resolve the question of the necessity of a free press? Tough to say—on the one hand, you don’t want the Mageeba’s of the world in charge of what’s fit to print; on the other, the media is a capitalist enterprise that trivializes critical news and foregrounds trivia, until all information turns into fodder before its gaping maw. Guthrie’s defense of a free press remains the most poetic in the play:

People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.

That is a plea appropriate to 1978, long before the 24-hour news cycle and the digital age. Now we are awash in information, both qualified and unqualified, and we can hardly now call all information light.

We few, we lucky few citizens of open, industrialized nations have, for a long time, used the media as much as a distraction from daily cares as for timely and relevant news. That’s a very human tendency. All the same, I found myself wanting to turn away from the diverting chatter of Stoppard’s principal characters. I grew weary of the same jaded arguments from people still living in a bubble of white and colonial privilege. I longed for Stoppard’s most silent character of the play, Francis (Michael Pogue), the Carson’s servant, to report his truth and have his perspective brought front and center.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit

Guthrie (Jeff Cummings) relays to Wagner (Shawn Douglass) and Carson (David Darlow), the tragic end of reporter Milne's life, in Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, Sept. 22 through Oct. 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets at www.remybumppo.org or 773-404-7336.   Photo by Johnny Knight.

Important Event on October 11th:

 

October 11: "Is the Truth Front Page News?" Journalist Panel

A free journalist panel hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele

Performance excerpts from Night and Day, highlighting the risks and responsibilities of foreign correspondents, will springboard a charged panel conversation, hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, on where readers now turn to get the truth.

 

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REVIEW: Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Court Theatre)

What defines identity, your name or your soul?

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Court Theatre presents
  
Sizwe Banzi is Dead
 
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jon OJ Parsons
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets:  $35-$56  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The grand, although accidental, Athol Fugard Chicago experiment ends this season with Court’s production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, one of the South African writer’s lesser-produced works. Like The Island (which closed at Remy Bumppo in March – our review ★★½), Sizwe was co-written by the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who ended up with Tony Awards for both plays.

sizwe-banzi-is-dead008 Court Theatre’s production is anchored by two masterful actors as well, Chike Johnson and Allen Gilmore. It’s a powerful, if slow, exploration on what makes us human beings. Director Ron OJ Parsons’ steady hand keeps the course of the verbose piece, which could easily be upset by weak performances. Johnson and Gilmore mire themselves in Fugard’s semi-absurdist world, though, and make the gritty political play shine and resonate.

One of the most striking features of Fugard’s drama is the lack of action. Instead, it works as a dissertation on the sins of apartheid, as well as linking into some bigger issues like identity and freedom. The play starts with a half-hour monologue from Johnson as Styles, who used to work at a New Brighton Ford plant but now owns a photography studio. He opens his door to the next customer, the weathered Sizwe Banzi (Gilmore), who needs a picture to send to his wife. We then see the taciturn visitor’s backstory, revealing how Banzi’s ID booklet expired, which makes him an illegal resident of the city. While out with his friend Buntu (Johnson again), the two come across a dead body. Things get really complicated when they discover the body has a booklet stamped with the work permit Sizwe needs to stay. Buntu hatches up a plan to steal the identity, and Sizwe must decide if he wants to kill off his old self.

The play is marked by discourse and meditation on identity and what and who defines it. Athol Fugard questions the importance of a name. According to Gilmore and Sizwe, the decision to envelop someone else’s humanity is a tough choice, a struggle of the soul. Buntu, always the pragmatist, sees it as a simple issue of survival. Pride, he attests, isn’t for those who have to support a family.

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The play definitely sits in the world, trudging towards Sizwe’s final decision. The pacing of the production is right for the play, which is a slow-burning piece. If not very exciting, it is very powerful. But it helps to be prepared. Compared to Fugard’s more based-in-reality Master Harold…and the boys (put on TimeLine Theatre, the first of the Fugard Chicago productions – our review ★★★½), Sizwe drags us through the muck. The payoff is worth it, but it can be a tough journey.

Gilmore and Johnson have brilliant chemistry between them. Gilmore’s Sizwe is awkward and a bit slow, but he has a puppy-dog quality about him. Johnson is sharp and brimming with charisma as Styles and Buntu—he is the one who really forces the play forward. There is a great scene in the middle of the play where the two enter the audience and share their excitement of being treated like human beings at a bar, adding some theatrical spice to the mix.

The two actors carry the burden of this production on their shoulders, as well as the audience. They do it in grand fashion. The only glaring issue with the production stems from the play itself, which can lull rather than incite. Considering you are now forewarned, you can prepare yourself to see a moving theatrical dissection of the politics of racism, which brings to mind events taking place over in Arizona. Does our identity boil down to what’s on our birth certificate? Or does our humanity burn somewhere deeper in our conscious?

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   

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Extra Credit:

Related articles and Interviews:

 

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