Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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About Face announces 2010-2011 Season, future plans

Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar Announces 15th Season

 

about face logo

Including Three World Premieres, New Artistic Associates, and XYZ Festival

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of About Face Theatre, it looks like Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar and new Executive Director Jason Held have upped the ante for the start of their next 15 years.  Included in the upcoming season is Float by Patricia Kane, Pony by Sally Oswald and The Homosexuals by Phillip Dawkins, are their second annual XYZ Festival of New Works

 

 

 

 

About Face is excited to roll out our 15th anniversary with a season that examines individuals at the precipice of change,” says Bonnie Metzgar. “As our organization and society at large both make pivotal choices, this season looks at the risks and exhilarating possibilities available to us in periods of transformation.

 

October 2010

XYZ Festival

The XYZ Festival will introduce Chicago audiences to the most innovative LGBTQA artists and artworks at all stages of development. Presented over the month of October, projects will include a workshop production of TINY ROOMS by Carson Kreitzer, and new works from AFT About Face Artistic Associates Tanya Saracho and Patrick Andrews, as well as a performance lounge series featuring AFT Artistic Associate Dan Stermer’s performance art/dance trio Double DJ, curated by AFT Marketing Director Jane Beachy. From the hundreds of scripts received for the XYZ Readings Series, four new plays by acclaimed emerging playwrights round out the festival.

XYZ Logo

November 11 – December 12

Float

FLOAT, a new play written by About Face Theatre (AFT) Artistic Associate Patricia Kane and directed by 500 Clown founder Leslie Danzig with dramaturgy by Jessica Thebus. The all-female cast includes Wendy Robie, Adrianne Cury, Peggy Roeder, Rengin Altay and AFT Artistic Associate Amy Matheny. FLOAT will run from November 11 – December 12 at Theater Wit (1229 West Belmont).

 

April-May 2011 

Pony

 

In April/May, About Face Theatre will present the world premiere of PONY by Sally Oswald, a play inspired by Georg Büchner, at the Chopin Theatre. Directed by Bonnie Metzgar, PONY will be featured as part of The Woyzeck Project, a city-wide festival hosted by About Face Theatre, The Hypocrites, and Collaboraction in which artists around the city will produce hybrid works inspired by the classic anti-war play. Set near the location of the famous murder scene in Woyzeck, PONY is a tale of shifting gender roles and the dangers of obsessive love.

 

June/July 2011

The Homosexuals

About Face Theatre will conclude its season in June/July with The Homosexuals by Chicago playwright Phillip Dawkins, starring Patrick Andrews at Victory Gardens Studio. The Homosexuals presents the interwoven lives, friendships, and relationships among six homosexual men over six years. Set at present time in a Midwestern city, Dawkins’ comedic and heartbreaking work examines the fears, doubts, and hope among the gay community in a 21st century perspective on the queer classic, The Boys in the Band.

About Face Theatre’s 15th Anniversary Season exemplifies how far the LGBTQ community has come from being defined by one issue to being seen as complex. In our 15 years, AFT has given voice to that changing dialogue around issues facing the queer community. As we move forward, we understand the need to bring the conversation around sexuality and gender to all people,” says Executive Director Jason Held.

 

 

 

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Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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