Review: The Voodoo Chalk Circle (State Theatre Chicago)

  
  

Brecht adaptation successfully unearths New Orleans of old

  
  

Sarah Addison Ely, Ellenkate Finley, Alexis Randolph, Genevieve Lally-Knuth in a scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'

   
State Theatre presents
  
The Voodoo Chalk Circle
  
Adapted by Chelsea Marcantel
Based on the original play by
Bertolt Brecht
Music by
Chris Gingrich and Henry Riggs
Directed by Tim Speicher
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There was a unique and fascinating collaboration that occurred between two small theatre companies this year. The “Full Circle Festival” may have unfortunately fallen off the radar for many theatergoers; however, it began with Theatre Mir’s powerfully resonant production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (our review ★★★★). Now, the State Theatre has given us the wonderful opportunity to revisit this story in a new light with Chelsea Marcantel’s New Orleans set adaptation, The Voodoo Chalk Circle. Marcantel has been an up and coming playwright in Chicago for a few years, and this may be her most ambitious and successful endeavor to date. Tim Speicher’s intelligent and creative direction creates a captivating visual and aural experience that is heavy on theatrics and light on political Brechtian alienation. After experiencing Theatre Mir’s substantial production, this abridged retelling is a fresh and exciting compliment.

A scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'Before the play begins, the multi-talented Nick Demeris warms up the crowd as a street performer, similar to those that frequented the tourist areas of pre-Katrina New Orleans. We are then catapulted into a pre-hurricane New Orleans by our narrator, Josh Hambrock. He introduces us to Grusha (Ellenkate Finley) on her 21st birthday, which is being celebrated at a downtown nightclub on the eve of an encroaching hurricane. As opposed to Brecht’s Grusha, who is the servant to a governor, Marcantel perfectly casts her as the servant to the mayor of New Orleans’ wife, Nathalie (a strong performance by Jodi Kingsley). Playing her opposite is Simon (Caleb Probst), who proposes marriage on that evening. After her night out, Grusha returns to the boarded up mansion where she resumes her duties as the surrogate mother to the infant son, Michael, of the neglectful mayor’s wife.

And then there’s the storm. Speicher and music director, Chris Gingrich create an ingenious cacophony of sound, utilizing the evocative Sound Chorus. Combining crashing sheets of metal, jugs of water, wind vocalizations and drumming, the sense of calamity is created magnificently. During the post-storm, Grusha, along with Nathalie’s forgotten baby, flee for the suburbs of the North Shore seeking refuge with her sister. Instead, she finds what is essentially a Voodoo commune living in the ruins. They have rendered rebuilding pointless and have embraced the ways of “the old.” Their leader is the morally ambiguous Baron Samedi (played by Mark Viafranco with remarkable physicality and dexterity). Her sister does finally appear, now reborn into this ancient religion as Erzulie (Cara Olansky). Olansky is compelling in her performance as a woman who has lost everything and has turned, as often people do after traumatic events, to religion. However, Olansky gives us glimpses of loss and grief behind the stone face of a religion that celebrates the eternal, rather than mourns death.

Although engaged to Simon, Grusha agrees to be wed for security reasons to Zeke (Zachary Kropp), a man who appears to have been crippled from a roof collapse. Kropp gives a somewhat unconvincing performance, and the true motives of the character remains vague. However, for utilitarian purposes, the character serves the plot well during Simon’s discovery of Grusha living a life he had not expected to find her in. The final chalk circle scene remains faithful to Brecht’s original text, yet is modified just enough to allow for the ending to carry a certain element of surprise.

While there is strong acting and talent throughout, the casting could benefit from more diversity in ethnicity and age to truly provide the authenticity of New Orleans. Overall, the cast plays slightly on the younger side for a play focused on old traditions. Nevertheless, formidable performances are given by Finley and Probst. Hambrock is engaging as part Our Town Stage Manager: floating in and out of the world of the play, omnipresent, setting scenes and introducing characters—and part Orson Welles in The Third Man: revealing his true function as the judge of morality only in the final act, playing Brecht’s “walking contradiction”, Azdak.

Marcantel’s script is entirely worthy of this fine production. She has found an appropriate contemporary setting for this story and carries the action briskly with high stakes. She perhaps misses an opportunity to connect to Brecht’s original play further due to the fact that she treats the hurricane solely as a natural disaster without examining the political catastrophe in the city more in depth. Whereas Brecht’s war of rebellion was more concerned with the manmade cycle of oppression and corruption, the hurricane in Marcantel’s adaptation is rather “Oz-ian”, a dramatic tool in the form of a catastrophe turning the world upside down. I was also left wondering why Marcantel goes to great authentic lengths in setting this story richly in New Orleans, yet never quite goes as far as referencing New Orleans, Katrina or any other specifics directly. It’s possible some immediacy was lost with this decision. Her dialogue is best in the earlier sections of the story discussing class struggles and Voodoo practices, but falls slightly flat in the oversentimentality of the Grusha and Simon love story.

In the end, it is Speicher’s concept, the emergence of the past from the ruins of modernity, which makes this play a must-see. He truly understands the ritualistic nature of Marcantel’s setting. Gingrich and Riggs’ music is a driving force of nature throughout the play. The Sound Chorus serves as the spiritual voice and heartbeat of old traditions made anew. Shaun Renfro’s set design condenses the action to an intimate section of the barn-like Viaduct space by the use of hundreds of cardboard boxes, reminiscent of essentials that were airdropped to Katrina survivors. In addition, Renfro creates an ingenious playground of set pieces that allow for interaction with the actors. Taylor Bibat’s shadow puppetry represents the concept perfectly by providing an ancient theatrical tradition as opposed to video projections.

The final monologue Marcantel writes for Azdak is poetic and resonant stating, “It’s hard to see how everything comes together, until everything falls apart.” While this production soars, I am left hoping that Marcantel may continue to develop the script into a full adaptation finding more parallels and urgency in the injustice that occurs in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is of high compliment that I wished to spend even more time with these characters and in this world Marcantel has transplanted them to—nevertheless, it is immediately an important piece of theatre this season that should not be overlooked.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Voodoo Chalk Circle presented by State Theatre Chicago

The Voodoo Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through May 8th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:15pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10-$20, and can either be purchased online or by calling (773) 296-6024.  For more information, visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.

The Voodoo Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with Theatre Mir to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre closes the festival following Theatre Mir’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Jonathan Berry.

 

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Review: The Warriors (The New Colony)

     
     

Survivor story speaks from the heart, but the message Is muddled

  
  

Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne Peterson - New Colony

  
The New Colony presents
  
The Warriors
  
Conceived by Mary Hollis Inboden
Written by Evan Linder
Directed by Benno Nelson
at Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I cannot possibly begin to fathom the experience that Mary Hollis Inboden has lived through. The New Colony company member and the conceiver of its new production, The Warriors, was a student at Westside Middle School in 1998 when two students opened fire on their peers. When the carnage had ended, five people, including Mary’s best friend, were killed.

An incident as horrific as the Jonesboro Massacre—as the press dubbed it—sticks with you, sending shockwaves throughout the rest of your life. Although most of us are not survivors of school shootings, we do eventually suffer a life-changing tragedy that stamps itself on our psyches. And with each individual, it affects him or her differently.

Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne PetersonThat is what The Warriors attempts to explore, the notion that a shared horrific experience affects the lives of those involved in different ways. We do not witness the actions of that day, but we do watch the fallout.

The play begins in the present day with Mary, as herself, on a date with Jeff (Wes Needham). Jeff mentions that he heard Mary’s NPR interview, the one where she is speaking as a school shooting survivor. In the interview, she advises the students at Virginia Tech to band together and collectively cope with their pain. Mary tells Jeff that because she abandoned her Westside peers, she feels her advice was disingenuous.

Mary decides to send an e-mail to her old student body, informing them she wants to discuss the shooting. And so she returns to Jonesboro where she interacts with several old friends, each of whom has dealt with the weight of remembering in a unique way.

Mary Hollis Inboden’s performance is a testament to how much passion she has for the material and compassion she has for the other survivors. Playing yourself as others may see you takes courage, vulnerability and humility. I also commend Mary on her drive to get The Warriors on stage. So many would rather suppress the darkness Sarah Gitenstein, Michael Peters and Mary Hollis Inbodenin their lives. But Mary understands that the past is not your choice, and it is an inseparable part of you, a part that as an artist must be explored and shared.

However, this piece would have been significantly more powerful had it been scaled down to either a one-woman show or a series of monologues. Instead, the characters busily interact with each other, which diminishes the audience’s ability to connect with them and vice versa.

In addition, this kind of personal piece doesn’t seem conducive to The New Colony’s process. Instead of relying on a single playwright, the theatre company collaboratively creates its productions. I’m not clear on how a group of individuals who did not live through the experience and cannot speak for Mary’s point of view can adequately contribute to the piece. Furthermore, by having them contribute, the lines between reality and dramatization begin to blur. And that undercuts some of the play’s intensity.

If we’re going to plunge into personal tragedy, I want as much vulnerability on stage as possible. And although Mary lays her heart on the line, the other characters lack a certain genuineness. It’s not about the acting. It’s about the way the story is told. And I think Mary can tell this tale better herself.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(L to R)  Whit Nelson, Nicole Pellegrino, Michael Peters, Sarah Gitenstein, Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden

The Warriors runs March 17 – April 17 at the Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield Ave. Opening/Press night is Sunday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are now on sale. The production runs Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at 773.413.0TNC (0862) or thenewcolony.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: Dream of a Common Language (Prologue Theatre)

   
   

Must good-girl painters always finish last?

 

 

Clovis at the wall w Victor, Pola, and Marc (high def)

   
Prologue Theatre presents
    
Dream of a Common Language
     
Written by Heather McDonald
Directed by
Margo Gray
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through Nov 18  |  tickets: $16-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value are women’s gifts? What value are women’s talents, women’s work, or the creativity of women? These are the questions Heather McDonald’s play, Dream of a Common Language, focuses on. No amount of armchair theorizing about women’s critical place in cultural creation can erase the reality that women’s abilities, talents and artistic perspective often get placed at the low end of the hierarchy. Men’s creativity, like men’s work, is invariably classed above the creativity executed by women—and often because men are the judges of what is or is not art.

Clovis and the Train (high def)Director Margo Gray and Prologue Theatre struggle mightily against the restrictions of Oracle Theatre’s space and their own low-budget difficulties in order to carry off McDonald’s impressionistic language and scene structure. Unfortunately, serious lack of vision in doing more with less handicaps the execution of this play’s impressionist style. Especially in the first act, cumbersome, start-and-stop scene changes and awkward, unnecessary puppetry dooms this show to fits of embarrassing amateurism.

That’s really too bad, because Gray has collected a cast that capably teases out the delicate moods and emotional shifts that sculpt McDonald’s focus. Clovis (Carrie Hardin), a woman painter, suffocates under not having her painting taken seriously, as well as the stifling proscriptions of her new role as wife and mother in the mid-19th century. Victor (Michael John Krystosek), her husband, also a painter, is at a loss to understand just what is bothering her. Consumed with planning a dinner to organize an exhibition that will feature artists rejected by the establishment, he fails to see how leaving women artists out of the dinner, and out of the exhibition, disturbs his wife. Her long-time friend and fellow woman artist, Pola (Lara Janson), arrives by bicycle in time to lift Clovis’ spirits. Together with the housekeeper, Delores (Hayley L. Rice), the women stage a revolt. They hold a dinner of their own with food stolen from the men’s dinner.

Hardin is most expert in making the audience palpably feel Clovis’ pain. Shakiness and uncertainty plague Clovis’ attempts to re-establish herself, to find the core of who she is and not be swayed by the roles that have been scripted for her as a woman. We sense Clovis’ uneasiness of self and appreciate her struggle to define just what it is that bothers her. Alex Knell turns in an accurate and natural performance as her neglected son, pushed to the side because Clovis cannot accept her restrictive motherly role.

Clovis and Victor - Touch Me (high def) Clovis Poses Victor

Janson’s performance as Pola aptly contrasts her ruddy mental and physical health with Clovis’ shakiness. However, Janson’s constant good nature contradicts all indications that her character is not totally happy–a little more nuance could let the audience catch her frustration at being reduced to painting flowers, just like “all the good-girl painters.” The appearance of Marc (Les Rorick) kicks up the stakes, both because of the secret affair he’s had with Clovis and because Rorick captures a good, full-bodied 19th-century character within a few lines.

Other performers took more time to warm to their roles on opening night, but it’s difficult to discern whether that is their particular dilemma or the direction. Whatever the source, the cast finally congeals into a cohesive, lively and idyllic whole in the second act, sans scene changes and, mercifully, sans puppets. The restoration of Clovis’ self and her relationship with Victor delicately evokes real wonder and profound beauty.

If at all possible at this juncture, it would be wise for Gray to revise her direction for the first act. Flow from scene to scene is needed to preserve McDonald’s impressionist intent. Furthermore, shadow puppets and other forms of puppetry really should be saved for the budget and expertise to do them well. If the intent was to create a more dreamlike, childlike state, then McDonald’s language alone, as well as the energetic game playing of the women in the second act, connect us to the creative children in these characters. What other accoutrements are needed? Absolutely none.

 
   
Rating: ★★½   
   
   

Centaur in the Garden (high def)

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