REVIEW: Unveiled (Next Theatre)

When Clothing Makes, or Unmakes, the Woman


Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Next Theatre presents
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through September 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Rohina Malik’s one-act play, Unveiled, could not have come at a more crucial moment. Hate crimes against Muslims are up, Muslims are denied opportunities to build places of worship all over the US (including Chicago), established mosques face vandalism and arson, and a self-righteous nut case in Florida threatened to burn the Koran to get national attention. Meanwhile, it’s an election year and job recovery crawls at a snail’s pace. Too many people are out of work and too many people still think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Directed by Kevin Heckman at Next Theatre, five Muslim women, each from a different culture, share two things in common: they all wear the veil, or hijab, and they all live in the West. What must it be like to be so visibly different from other women and be rendered a moving target by American uncertainty, fear and rage over 9/11? Malik unveils a Muslim womanhood that meets this challenge with strength, outspokenness, clarity, poetry, humor and faith.

These hardly seem like women cloistered behind a wall of restrictive and repressive tradition. They are very aware of the world they live in and its ongoing melding of East and West. They fiercely and graciously adhere to their principles of hospitality. They speak up for themselves, drawing from a deep well of cultural riches.

The first woman designs wedding dresses from her small shop on Devon Avenue. Yet she is no mere seamstress. In every way she is an artist. “You’re not the first American girl who wants the Bollywood look,” she chats up her current client. “All the girls have wanted it since ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” Wedding dresses are her art and that art is just as dependent on the personality of the client as her own imagination. “You are not choosing me. I am choosing you,” she tells the prospective bride.

Weddings and family are what she knows, but a hate crime almost destroys her drive as an artist. Attending the wedding of a woman getting married in one of her creations, she and her children become the targets of the inchoate rage of an American couple attending another wedding nearby. What brings her back to her art again are her friends and a poem by Rumi: “Dance, when you’re broken. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. . . Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”

Malik’s one-act starts strong. Her characters are not just Muslim, not just from the Middle East or South East Asia; their multicultural backgrounds position them uniquely in the world. One is a Texan mother of the American South, not converting, but “reverting” to Islam. The other is a hip hop teen raised in West London who can’t stand her mother’s assimilationist choices. This girl’s own reaction to her mother’s generation has to do with the way her mom applied lemons to her daughter’s skin, when she was younger, to make it whiter.

Malik clearly wants to show a wide range of Muslim women and their individual reasons for claiming the veil. As such, most of her characters’ psychology is well-developed and their life stories powerfully integrate tradition, poetry and passages from the Koran. Of all the characters, only the Southern Muslim belle seems the weak and underdeveloped one. Upon opening night, Malik’s performance of this character also waned in accuracy. Her troubles with American Southern dialect were too apparent.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston
Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Of greater concern is the play’s repetitious monologue structure—the introduction of tea, the particular tea made the emblem of each Muslim woman’s culture; the introduction of a story which reveals a violent hate crime; and finally the character resorts to faith and culture to stand against it–by the time the fourth and fifth characters are introduced, the pattern becomes worn. Also, physical violence and verbal harassment are the only kinds of hate crime and speech directly addressed by these characters. Beyond the introduction of strong, self-determining Muslim women, Malik digs no further into the ways feminist critiques of the veil have been based on cultural and religious ignorance, and thus used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly, American feminists had to learn the hard way just how their work could be used by a right wing administration to further its imperialist ambitions.

Next’s production itself runs almost seamlessly and poetically. Unfortunately, sound problems, at opening, rendered the rap from the young hip hop Londoner almost indiscernible. The fuzz from the speaker system, cranked up to play over the drums, got in the way of the script.

However, no one can dispute the essential timeliness of this play, or its vitality and humanism. In the middle of anti-Muslim hysteria, how hopeful it is to discover a promising young playwright just beginning to explore terribly relevant themes. Next should be applauded for opening their season with such immediate work from a practically unknown playwright. Unveiled’s series of monologues has strong bones and beautiful language. The incorporation of Alex Wing’s music and Cynthia Sopata’s movement beautifully correspond to and amplify the storytelling. Rohina Malik is one to watch. Get to know her.

Rating: ★★½

Rohina Malik, in the poster for her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Productions Personnel

Written and performed by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
Scenic & Lighting Design by Jim Davis

Music by Alex Wing

Movement by Cynthia Sopata

Review: Babes With Blades’ “Macbeth”

Babes With Blades Macbeth a sword-rattling good time

Review by Paige Listerud

Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) and Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) face the final conflict. They dare do all that may become a man in this Babes With Blades all-female production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–from vying for honor, to scheming unholy murder; from wavering in the face of evil, to charging recklessly into carnage; from chafing under oppressive surveillance, to engaging in out-and-out rebellion; from enduring unspeakable loss, to succumbing, as one’s life drains to nothing.

Directed by Kevin Heckman of Next Theatre for this production, Babes With Blades is an all women’s theater troupe. Their mission is to provide women with stage combat skills, to expand powerful fighting roles for women in drama, and to undermine “the preconception that strength and power are inappropriate for women.” Yet their work also helps to preserve and update the craft and discipline of stage combat for all actors, which often goes by the wayside when theaters downsize casts and drastically cut scenes. Unfortunately, removing traditional battle and fight scenes from plays like Macbeth, while understandable for the modern, minimalist, or cash-strapped production, can have the unwanted effect of diminishing the gravitas of the characters’ choices.

Throughout history, women have fought and participated in battle, often donning men’s clothing to get into military service. Theater history also has its famous women warriors, such as Esme Beringer and Ella Hattan, aka Jaguarina. Staging the traditional combat scenes places physical demands upon actors that few may be prepared for today. To speak one’s part is one thing, to speak it after a full scene of running around, swinging a sword, is quite another. “Most of these women have been with the troupe for years,” said Delia Ford (Duncan), when I asked about getting into shape for the play. “But I’ve just come out of retirement, so I really felt it.”

Murderer (Stephanie Repin) and Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) struggle to the death. The other challenge for companies like these is finding the theater space that will support battle. La Costa is a little hole-in-the-wall theater that one could walk by but for the sandwich-board sign demarking its location, but it has enough stage area plus plenty of routes for exits and entrances. The troupe rushed to find it in 48 hours after losing their previous theater space in Pilsen.

Very likely, what teamwork was needed to produce these battle scenes has strengthened the cohesiveness of this ensemble cast. In fact, their collective paranoia under Macbeth’s gory, volatile regime is performed so convincingly that, by the time we see Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) at Dunsinane, we feel the suffocation of tyranny as palpably as Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Here, the young girl players from The Viola Project are cast to greatest effect, as children dressed in uniforms and thrown into battle because Macbeth’s thanes have all fled to his enemies.

The most dramatic scene may be of Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) taking up arms to defend her home and child from Macbeth’s assassins.

Although, in the end, the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) was so anticipated and so well executed, it received its own applause.

LadyMacduffkillsm What is the theatrical impact of seeing women fight for themselves, their loved ones, their country, or their ambitions? Be prepared to see, by contrast, a still forceful yet vulnerable and human Lady Macbeth (Nika Ericson). Unlike productions that suffuse Lady Macbeth with sexual and demonic power, both Ericson and the direction show a woman as much under the influence of the Witches (Rachel Stubbs, Melanie Kibbler, and Gillian N. Humiston) as her husband. After the disastrous banquet wherein Banquo’s ghost appears, during which Macbeth freaks out enough to brandish his knife in the guests’ faces, Macbeth slices his hand and pours his blood into a cup. At that moment, Lady Macbeth realizes she has no control over the evil she has unleashed. It is a moment of pure horror.

Furthermore, the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth potently render, in agonizing increments, their relationship’s progressive disintegration. This production does not overplay this couple’s sexuality, yet illuminates their essential, integral partnership, before, during, and after their downfall.

Kathrynne Wolf’s Macbeth is also vulnerable. While this vulnerability brings Macbeth’s character closer to Hamlet’s, especially when vacillating over murder, it differs by exposing his lack of a moral center. It is this lack of center, more than fear or astonishment, which prevents him from accosting the Witches just like Banquo does. Stephanie Repin, as Banquo, conveys the honor and judicious caution of a morally stable foil.

MacbMacdClinchsm The rub for this production remains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most famous speeches. These are always troublesome challenges for every actor because they are, for lack of a better word, accursed by comparisons to past performances. They are operatic in nature. Like arias, the soprano and tenor are expected to step downstage and blow the audience away. That being said, the limited mastery of such critical moments makes this Macbeth an uneven, if exciting production. Particularly Lady Macbeth’s opening “invocation” speech–I question the effectiveness of the director’s choice to have the Witches take over whole lines of Lady Macbeth’s. Far more effective was having the Witches chant specific words within Macbeth’s lines, to emphasize their encroachment on his mental state.

The action and pacing never flags, however. One can be assured of a thrilling demonstration of women’s strength and ensemble unity in the delivery of this classic tale about the battles within and without the human soul.

The Viola Project introduces young girls to Shakespeare and trains them in both male and female roles. The young actors playing in this production trained in a stage combat workshop in 2006 sponsored by both Babes With Blades and The Viola Project.

Rating: ««½

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