Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: Curse of the Starving Class (New Leaf Theatre)

New Leaf’s “curse” satisfies

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New Leaf Theatre presents
 
Curse of the Starving Class
 
By Sam Shepard
Directed by
Kyra Lewandowski
Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park W. (map)
thru May 22nd  |  tickets: $10-$18  | more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepard’s best work always revolves around families. Some say that the American drama is family drama, and Shepherd definitely makes a strong case for this argument. His scathing True West, Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, and gritty A Lie of the Mind all focus on entangled, screwed-up families. Curse of the Starving Class, one of his other heralded “family tragedies,” is as blazing and cut-throat as the rural svclass2 California homestead it’s set in. It focuses on a family with standard structure—father, mother, son, and daughter—but with destructive tendencies. Transforming the Lincoln Park Cultural Center into the dilapidated familial residence, New Leaf does an excellent job capturing Shepherd’s gangster flick yet Aeschylean essence, although some moments are over-broiled and muddy.

The titular “curse” and the titular “starving class” are mentioned several times throughout the play, but neither is really explained at all. The drunken patriarch Weston (John Gray) describes a curse passed down for generations, from father to son, but doesn’t mention any details as to why their family is possessed or the consequences of this venom. The term is also thrown around in regards to the daughter’s first period, her entrance to adulthood. Shepherd is toying around with Classical ideas of fate, but with a horrifically modern twist: no one remembers what the curse is. The characters also have different opinions on the starving class, which is less of an economic distinction and more of a mental illness. The result is a titillating mixture of Aristotelian theory and post-modern sensibility, like if O’Neill wrote a B-movie.

The family, never given a last name, eke out an existence in a broken-down farmhouse; their front door smashed apart by Weston. We are privy to the kitchen area (they are the starving class, after all), and watch as each member contrastingly defile or rebuild the disgusting room. We see the idealistic son Wesley (Layne Manzer) urinate in the food prep area, yet later he attempts to replace the broken door. Ella (Victoria Gilbert), the matriarch, half-heartedly keeps order, and the much-maligned daughter Emma (Alyse Kittner) can’t stand the place. Weston, for all the destruction he causes, takes a shot at revitalizing the house in the final act. The world is ground-up and fallible; the characters attempt change, but can they escape their curse?

Kyra Lewandowski takes on this powerful script with gusto. Her staging is visceral, but sometimes misguided. A couple of very crucial moments take place in the eviscerated doorway, which is concealed from a good chunk of the audience. The production also adds some spooky shadow-work to push the play into a more abstract realm, but Shepherd’s grinding text doesn’t need it. Lewandowski’s expressionist choice distracts rather than adds, but it is fortunately rarely used. Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set and Jared Moore’s lights fill the otherwise welcoming Lincoln Park Cultural Center with gloom and decay, providing the cast with one unappetizing kitchen.

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The cast finds connections with Shepherd’s sometimes cryptic characters, and the entire show breathes and broods. Manzer’s Wesley can be a bit too manic, but Manzer clearly knows Wesley’s vulnerabilities. Gilbert sits in the world the best, making Ella’s most bizarre moments feel natural and understandable. Against both of these powerful actors, Kittner scratches and scrambles, which works for Emma. Gray shines in the last act, but earlier he overplays the drunken stupor and comes off as ungrounded. As the land-grabbing lawyer, Kevin Gladish can’t really penetrate Shepherd’s realm, seeming wooden and unsure. This is difficult territory to conquer, however, and the cast steps up to the challenge and they are not afraid to tear right into it.

There is a lot of important information that is left unsaid in Curse, leaving the audience unsettled and probing in the dark. Lewandowski and her team understand this critical aspect—they know to close doors as they open windows. Minus a few failings, New Leaf Theatre has a self-destructive, nauseating success.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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Review: Griffin Theatre’s “The Hostage”

Ballast Needed Along With the Blarney

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Griffin Theatre presents:

The Hostage

by Brendan Behan
directed by Jonathan Berry
thru November 1st (tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is a great, hairy monster of a play. Behan wrote this tragi-comedy, with quasi-musical styling, based of his own experience as a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army. While pro-Irish Englishmen and English imperialist pomposity receive heaping helpings of satirical treatment, it’s the IRA Behan savages the most with his robust and agile wit.

hostage2 “I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence,” says Pat (Eamonn McDonagh) about own his service in the IRA. His character comes autobiographically closest to Behan. So, Griffin Theater’s production is a huge, messy meditation on the killing paradoxes of war and patriotism.

An Irish Republican, just 18 years old, is to be executed for killing a policeman, so an equally young and inexperienced British soldier is kidnapped by the IRA and brought to Pat’s teaming bawdy house to be slain in retaliation, should the execution go through. The young British soldier, Leslie (Rob Fenton), becomes a celebrity guest of the household; he is treated to beer by Pat and his mate, Meg (Donna McGough) and pursued by the prostitutes. He even falls in love with the fresh-faced housemaid, Teresa (Nora Fiffer). The whorehouse, filled with various Johns and transgender–as well as female–prostitutes, breaks into song and dance, commenting on the action and breaking the unresolved tensions involved in trying to sort out who is truly friend or truly foe.

hostage3 While humor is the mainstay of this play, much dramatic tension is lost when vital moments within it are not treated seriously enough. The IRA Officer (Kevin Gladish) and Volunteer (Ryan Borque) who bring Leslie in are suppose to be ridiculous, yet they are played a little too close to caricature to add the necessary gravity to take Leslie’s fate seriously. Besides, dedicated assholes like this really exist. Satire allows for characters to hostage4be realistic enough to be recognizable, so that their resemblance jars us to the absurdity of well-worn, politically correct presumptions.

Rom Barkhordar’s interpretation of his role, Monsewer, comes closer to a balance between realism and caricature, perhaps because it is so close to caricature already. Monsewer, an Englishman who fancies himself a patriot to the Irish cause, pretentiously throws around his knowledge of Gaelic and plays the bagpipes badly. Heaven only knows what he is rebelling against, but his show of Republicanism is more a means to an end, than an end in itself, and it is hilarious.

The show benefits mightily from McDonagh, McGough, and Fiffer’s graceful yet rock solid performances. However, Fenton’s portrayal of the endangered British soldier is strangely flat. It’s also not clear whether his Leslie is a Cockney or a recent graduate of Eton. Given Behan’s own allegiance to the working class, such lack of consistency in dialect is a grave mischaracterization.

The cast commits itself completely to the song and dance numbers interwoven into the scenes. Still, I can’t help wondering if the Theater Building space that Griffin Theatre is using doesn’t defeat Jonathan Berry’s direction. Theater in the round might help the fourth-wall removal this play was based on, but dialogue is lost when actors have to turn and direct their address to other sides of the stage. Likewise, sightlines block action from one side of the audience, while the other side may see just fine. The result is a muddled depiction of dramatic action, not necessarily something that brings cast and audience closer.

hostage5 Behan was not interested in dramatically presenting Ireland’s Troubles in a neat and tidy package. War is messy, life is messy, and the ascertainment of who is on your side, who isn’t, and what ought to be done about is fraught with all kinds of doubts, misgivings, and just plain mistakenness. The whorehouse tenants are as loyal to Ireland’s liberty as any, yet they attempt to help Leslie get away. The police raid the bawdy house in order to save Leslie, but get him killed in the crossfire instead.

But if there is a line to be drawn in the sand here, it’s between the intended messiness of the play itself, and the messiness that results when tragic moments are not allowed to be tragic and all necessary contrast is lost. The humor of this play, its jovial ruckus of song and dance, are meant to be temporary relief to the wasteful death and mourning that surrounds these characters’ daily existence. To treat them like simple entertainment, such as we know in a night out to the theater, is to miss why The Hostage was written at all.

 

Rating: ««

 

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