Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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REVIEW: Betrayal (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
  

Who’s zoomin’ who? The tangled webs of betrayal

 

 

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 1 - photo by  Michael Rothman

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
   
Betrayal
   
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by
Kevin Christopher Fox
at The Performance Center, Oak Park (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nobody gets a break in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now produced by the Oak Park Festival Theatre at the Performance Center of Oak Park. Everyone is suspect, everyone’s version of events is dubious, and unspoken motives lurk beneath the most mundane conversations. One fumbles to guess at what a character really means, whether he is repeating invitations to play squash or inquiring into the latest authors worth reading. Pinter’s highly educated and exceedingly well-mannered characters seem weighed down and contained by civilized behavior. A long-running adulterous affair, once discovered, instead of being the source of passionate rage or outcry is dealt with only in the most repressed and passive-aggressive ways.

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 5Director Kevin Christopher Fox well sustains the closed, inbred relationship between this terrible triangle. Jerry (Ian Novak) has had a seven-year affair with Emma (Kathy Logelin), who is the wife of his best friend, Robert (Mark Richard). Part of the intrigue of Betrayal is that Pinter starts the audience at the very end of Jerry and Emma’s affair and then winds backward, through all its stages, toward its origin. One sees what the affair has become before one sees how it began; one sees the relationship after the love has been exhausted, which gives a completely new twist on how one interprets the beginning, when Jerry woos Emma with an explosive profession of love.

Indeed, it interrogates Jerry’s motives for starting the affair with Emma or Emma’s motives for capitulating to Jerry’s effusive language. It interrogates Robert’s motives for letting the affair go on for so long, as well as his motives for ending his marriage to Emma. Who’s zoomin’ who—and what do they hope to get out of each power play or emotional twist?

The play is adultery viewed in hindsight, based upon Pinter’s own extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, a BBC Television presenter, which lasted seven years. With the beginning placed at the end, one notices those inklings of repressed jealousy and competitiveness between Jerry and Robert taint the affair from the start and make its origins suspect. One hopes that, at least at the start, Jerry and Emma’s affair soared with the kind of romance that movies and advertising sell – but that is never certain. Nothing is ever allowed room for certainty in this play. Betrayal makes us doubt love itself, as well as the possibility for love’s survival.

Since we learn from the beginning that the affair is over, the rest remains with the characters’ interactions. Oak Park Festival’s production feels like it is operating with a slightly defective third wheel. Kathy Logelin’s performance pulls the greatest emotional impact—the burden of secrecy, lies and deceptive silence show up clearly in Emma’s face. Logelin’s emotional accuracy Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 2wins sympathy for her character, in spite of the fact she is cheating on her husband and not totally truthful to Jerry. Mark Richard may have the least sympathetic role, cruel, dry and manipulative in his relationship with Emma. But one commiserates with his desperate defensiveness in the veiled conversations Robert holds with Jerry once he’s found out about the affair.

Ian Novak delivered an excellently timed and crisp performance as George Tesman in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler—but, as Jerry, he’s still trying to find his way and his occasional slippage in English dialect certainly doesn’t help matters. Pinter writes Jerry so suspect that he comes across, at certain moments, as a real cad. However, Jerry’s cannot be a role totally devoid of sympathy or the delicate balance that leaves the audience in uncertainty becomes undone. Here is a character that at least began as a fool for love. His desire for a love larger than life is very like Madame Bovary’s–a deep, inchoate longing for something more than the finite emotional space that civilized society allows us.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Philanderer (ShawChicago)

A no-frills sophisticated comedy

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ShawChicago presents:

The Philanderer

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
Ruth Page Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn)
Thru March 1st (more info)

By Katy Walsh

Leonard wants to marry Grace as a way to finally break-up with Julia. Although this sounds like the plot of the next Hugh Grant romantic comedy, it’s not. ShawChicago presents The Philanderer, a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893. Unlike many contemporary movies, The Philanderer is a sophisticated comedy with many layers of humor. On one level, the love affairs are discussed with polite sensibilities. Whether it’s the prudish time period or British formality, love is an unemotional state. Another dimension of absurdity is the Ibsen Club. Most of Shaw’s characters are members of this new-age association requiring members to denounce being a “womanly woman” or “manly man” to generate true equality of the sexes. The club’s premise must have been shockingly hilarious at the turn of the century. Even in modern times, it’s still funny. Encouraged by the young men, women are smoking and drinking in the “old boys club” and it’s freaking their fathers out.

With the tradition of producing shows more like readings, ShawChicago stages The Philanderer without scenery, costumes or other design elements, thus relying heavily on the talents of its playwright and its cast to stimulate the audience. And this talented cast delivers, providing brilliant dialogue with British wit.

Lydia Berger is outstanding as Julia Craven. Berger scores the emotional character and plays it out to the maximum. Very much a “womanly woman”, Julia’s club membership is threatened by her tendency to resort to crying to manipulate men. Berger is hilarious in her struggle to be less womanly. Kevin Christopher Fox is the philanderer, Leonard Charteris. Fox amuses as the nonchalant playboy. Without any hint of self deprecation, Fox states he’s not gallant, handsome or well-dressed. In a very matter of fact manner, Fox takes no responsibility regarding why women keep falling in love with him. Making a smaller role memorable, Richard Marlatt has a ludicrous melt-down as the bumbling physician, Dr. Paramore. Even though the show is auditory, as Col. Craven, Skip Lundby looks very natural saying words like “vexed” and “confounded.” Despite the presence of the script, most of the cast have memorized their lines. On occasion, when an actor resorts to actually reading, there is stammering.

Throughout, ShawChicago showcases its namesake George Bernard Shaw with The PhilandererWithout the distraction of movement on a stark stage, Shaw’s words are the focus. With clever twists and entertaining banter, Shaw wittingly promotes his social agendas of the time period still relevant a century later: feminism, casual sex, animal testing, medical research, and vegetarianism.

CRAVEN: … How jolly it must be to be able to go to the theatre for nothing! I must ask him to get me a few tickets occasionally. But isn’t it ridiculous for a man to talk like that! I’m hanged if he doesn’t take what he sees on the stage quite seriously.

CHARTERIS: Of course: that’s why he’s a good critic. Besides, if you take people seriously off the stage, why shouldn’t you take them seriously on it, where they’re under some sort of decent restraint?      *Act I: The Philanderer

 

Rating: ★★★

Review: Strawdog Theatre’s “St. Crispin’s Day”

Strawdog season-premiere struggles to find the funny

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Strawdog Theatre presents:

St. Crispin’s Day

by Matt Pepper
directed by Christopher Fox
thru October 31st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Crispin-2 Strawdog’s St. Crispin’s Day looks pretty, but just isn’t all that funny. The show’s striking set (Anders Jacobson, Judy Radovsky) and lighting design (Sean Mallary) is weighed down by the plodding rhythm of the action, and the production seems to drift in a haze of average with the occasional flash of promise.

Matt Pepper’s anti-war comedy, set during the Battle of Agincourt of Shakespeare’s Henry V, tells the story of three soldiers that find themselves engaged in a plot to kidnap the king, masterminded by Irishman Will (Kyle Hamman). Along the way they’ll have their way with French prostitutes, rob a few churches, and occasionally fling shit at each other like monkeys. The problem is that director Christopher Fox and his cast haven’t found the humanity behind the humor, creating caricatures instead of characters.

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Pepper’s script juggles themes of patriotism, conscientious objection, and pacifism with slapstick physical antics and toilet humor, but the contrast would be more effective if the comedy came from a place other than lowest common denominator sight gags. The laughs begin to feel stale and cheap after a while, and the slow pace of the dialogue sucks the energy out of scenes, creating jokes that crash to the ground long before landing in the audience’s laps.

Marika Engelhardt and Caroline Heff bring a much-needed spark to the proceedings as two French prostitutes with ulterior motives, and Heff’s scenes with Carlo Garcia, playing sheepish young soldier Tom, capture all the innocence and naïveté of young love. Unfortunately, the rest of the show lacks the nuance of these few scenes and does not ever manage to rise above being a didactic farce.

Rating: ««

 

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