Review: The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens)

  
  

History is anything but black and white in “Gospel”

  
  

André De Shields as James in Victory Garden's "The Gospel According To James" by Charles Smith (photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
  
The Gospel According to James
   
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana. The two African-American men allegedly murdered a white local factory worker and raped his white girlfriend. Instead of allowing the justice system to weigh whether the men were truly guilty, the townspeople took the law into their own hands and tore down the jailhouse doors. Beaten and bloody, the bodies of both men were strung up on an tree. Studio photographer Lawrence Beitler managed to immortalize the horrific event, snapping a picture of the bodies swinging from the tree as a crowd of joyful onlookers stand below. Today, that picture serves as a powerful and grizzly reminder of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Tyler Jacob Rollinson as Abe Smith in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According to James. (photo: Liz Lauren)No one knows precisely what events transpired that led to the charges against Thomas and Abram. James Cameron, a third black man initially identified as an accomplice to the crime, was spared from death at the hands of the mob. He would later state in interviews that he fled the seen before the murder took place. Marie Ball, the woman who was allegedly raped, would later testify that she was, in fact, never raped.

This ambiguity makes the case of Thomas and Abram ripe for speculation. And so playwright Charles Smith has embarked on crafting a script that dramatizes what may have transpired throughout those days leading up to the lynching. What results is an intriguing work of historical fiction that wisely steers away from tired cliché and instead focuses on the inherent flaws of memory.

The play is about an imagined meeting between James Cameron (portrayed by André De Shields and Anthony Peeples) and Marie Ball (portrayed by Linda Kimbrough and Kelsey Brennan). Fate has brought them back to Marion. In the passing years, Cameron has taken it upon himself to be the vocal historian of that tragic night. His account parallels that of the real-life history of the event: Abram (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) and Thomas (Wardell Julius Clark) held up former foundry worker Claude (Zach Kenney), and before the murder occurred, Cameron fled the scene.

But Marie does not remember it this way. She resents Cameron for spreading lies and threatens to reveal her version of the truth to the public. As Marie recounts her recollection of the events that led to that ugly night, we see her memories take dramatic form. According to her, Claude was hardly an innocent victim. James was more involved than he claims to be. And she and Thomas were much more than mere acquaintances. But despite her compelling account, Marie’s cognizance is called into question, and we are forced to wonder whose story, if anyone’s, is the real deal.

The cast is captivating. Shields is energetic and expressive as the aged James, while Kimbrough serves as an effective forlorn foil. Meanwhile, the scenes between Marie’s parents (portrayed by Diane Kondrat and Christopher Jon Martin) are powerful, while Kenney is a believable slime ball. There is real chemistry between Rollinson and Brennan, which makes Abram’s lynching that much more heartbreaking. Peeples is the only odd man out here. His portrayal of the youthful version of James is cartoonishly juvenile. He speaks in a childlike tone and talks like an imbecile. This is a complete disconnect from the adult James, who is well spoken and refined.

Smith is a smart playwright. He could have used the Marion lynching as a platform to soapbox about the ills of racism, a trite topic that always falls on agreeable ears. Instead, he focuses on memory and the subjectiveness of history. This is a much more interesting subject to parse, and he does a good job of portraying it dramatically. However, there are a few bumps in the script, particularly when the dialogue veers too far into poetry, creating a sense of melodrama.

Victory Gardens’ production of The Gospel According to James is an engaging fictional account of a historical event. Despite its minor flaws, the solid acting and a strong script prevail, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Anthony Peeples as Apples, Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Wardell Julius Clark as Tommy Shipp in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According To James" at Victory Gardens Theatre (photo: Liz Lauren)

Ticket Prices: $35-$50, Students with I.D.- $20, and can be purchased by phone 773.871.3000 or via e-mail (tickets@victorygardens.org).   Performance Times: Tues-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee: 4pm, Sunday Matinee: 3pm, Wednesday Matinee: 2pm.   Recommended Age: 16 & up

  
  

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REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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