Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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REVIEW: Our Town (Theatre-Hikes)

Strong ensemble brings Grover’s Corners to life

 

rebecca, george & emily 25

   
Theatre-Hikes presents
   
Our Town
  
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by
Frank Farrell
at
The Pullman Historic Museum and Morton Arboretum
through September 26  |  tickets: $13-$19  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder, offers a glimpse into the daily lives of average Americans in small town New Hampshire. Set from 1901 to 1913, this play takes the audience on a journey of growth and discovery. Focused mainly on the characters of George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Our Town depicts life typical of how things were at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Pullman Historic Museum provides the backdrop for Theatre-Hikes’ Our Town, creating a feeling of being transported back to the early 1900s. (Note: future performances will occur at the Morton Arboretum). Grover’s Corners, NH, the location of Our Town, is brought to life through this use of this space. Being outdoors however, the cast had to compete with airplanes overhead, car alarms and some rather jubilant church music wafting through the air. The cast succeeds, however, in distracting the  audience from such deterrents with their george & emily A 50 strong, captivating performances. Each scene has very minimal set pieces – only six stools. The rest of the action and props are pantomimed. The cast does a good job acting out different experiences without the use of physical props, allowing for the story to really shine through.

Our Town opens on a typical day in Grover’s Corners with the actions narrated by the stage manager (Dan Scurek). Our Town is a meta-theatrical play that announces it’s a play, breaking through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Scurek’s stage manager/narrator jumps right into character from his first line. He’s incredibly personable and animated with both his words and his actions, creating a character that one looks forward to hearing from. The narrator introduces the rest of the characters in act one, “the Daily Life,” including Mrs. Gibbs (Mary Nigohosian) and Mrs. Webb (Jeanne Scurek). Nigohosian clearly fleshed out her character with a relatable demeanor. She is entertaining to watch as she neatly gets her family ready for the morning – making breakfast and attending to her husband and children. She proves to be the stronger of the two women, set against J. Scurek. Mrs. Webb is, of course, a proper woman, but Scurek plays her a bit too stiffly. She overacts at times, causing the character to feel forced.

The audience is also introduced to young George Gibbs (BJ Engelhardt) and Emily Webb (Courtney Payne). Interacting through typical conversations of homework and baseball, Engelhardt and Payne offer an innocent and sweetly awkward portrayal of two young people discovering their feelings for one another. The first act also introduces the two standout supporting roles of Professor/Constable (Kevin Lambert) and Simon Stimson (Dan Toot). Although these are smaller roles, the actors take them to heart and really make them come to life. Lambert is amusing and proves to be a strong presence while on stage. Similarly, Toot’s character, the choir organist and town drunk, is quite comical, sometimes stealing the spotlight when he’s on.

Act two, “Love and Marriage,” offers a glimpse further into the relationship between Emily and George. There’s a clear chemistry between the two actors, and as the second act progresses, the characters grow and come truly to life. “Love and Marriage” runs a bit quicker than act one, which slightly drags in the beginning. It’s lovely to see George and Emily’s relationship grow; it’s evident that both Engelhardt and Payne have an understanding of their character’s psyche and the reasoning behind their actions and words. Act two concludes with their marriage and all the townsfolk gathering to wish them well.

george, mr. webb stg mang, george, emily, 3 ladies

Our Town concludes with act three, “Death and Eternity.” The townsfolk have gathered in the cemetery to attend the funeral of one of their own. The tone shifts here from light and happy to stark and contemplative. Payne’s character arch becomes even greater as she attempts to deal with the situation at hand, and real, raw emotions come through, connecting her even further to the audience. Mrs. Gibbs proves to be a comforting presence in this time of sorrow, and Nigohosian’s gentle character is a relief for both the characters and the audience members.

Overall, Our Town is a solid show. The acting is generally on point, and the two-and-a-half hours go by quickly. There is quality direction by Frank Farrell, which allows each actor the confidence to move about without fumbling, and the costuming by Melissa Snyder adds another layer to the show. Each outfit is appropriate to both the characterization and the time frame of Our Town, which helps to shape the story.

(Side note: Act three even allowed for a bit of audience interaction when audience member Dale Gallian was asked to step in a fill a small role of Farmer McCarthy.)

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Our Town plays at the Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53 in Lisle, IL. The show runs on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 pm through September 26. Tickets are $13 to $19 and can be purchased at www.mortonarb.org or by calling (630) 725-2066.

Our Town Ae

      
     

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REVIEW: Sun, Stand Thou Still (Ka-Tet Theatre)

Buy a ticket, take the ride.

 

KaTet1

  
Ka-Tet Theatre presents
  
Sun, Stand Thou Still
 
by Steven Gridley
directed by David Fehr
at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield  (map)
through June 5th  tickets: $10-$20  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

Cosmic road trip! Everyone climb into the beat up truck of the human condition for the drive everyone dreams of, but are too afraid to take. The drive wherein souls are lost and found, fate and choice crash – where you can go back and do it again, throwing yourself against the idea that you cannot change outcomes. Or that fate will have its way no matter what, so throw the dice, and make your own way. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Sun, Stand Thou Still, written by Steven Gridley, is a dreamlike adventure across timeless roads to places we’ve been. We visit the destinations made of real life nightmares, and those we consider to be the most joyous of human experiences.

Love and death.

But, what if the sun stood still and we were caught in that singular place; one where love and life are synonymous with death? When the sun began moving again, would we make a different choice.? Take it all back? Do it all again because the moments of good we received were worth the pain we endured? On this road trip, with seven characters in search of internal freedom, the highway is rough and uncertain, sweet, and driven by struggle.

In Sun, Stand Thou Still, these most essential of human events happen simultaneously in a time-order only the cosmos know. This is not linear time, nor time measured by a clock, but time as we know it flows through the spheres, and cannot fully comprehend.

Ka-Tet Theatre’s production is full of energetic and committed performances that drive into this work and remain true to it. The play includes five characters: Officer Peters, The Driver, The Hitchhiker, The Apple Woman, and The Man. The use of kuroko, traditional to Kabuki Theatre as stage hands who move silently on the stage during the performance to manage set and prop changes, are always wonderful to see. Kevin Lambert and Kyle Youngblut perform these roles to perfection. A good kuroko brings a prayerful quality to a production and these two do just that.

Jeremy Clark, as the Driver, elicits a fierce performance that stands as lead, even within such a close ensemble. This is an actor who is very at home in his skin. Zany, with compromised eyesight, The Driver pulls out every stop on what would be deemed appropriate on the ground, but on this ride, pushes every envelope right into true love and death and back again. Part Zen master and part madman, this character cries out to be fully realized in word and deed. Clark throws this role off the cuff with a magical deftness. He does not strive, but owns his performance. It has been awhile since I have seen an actor so in character that nothing breaks his focus.

Emily Waecker designed the costumes for the play, and they are very important to this piece. From The Apple Woman to The Driver, The Man, and The Hitchhiker, the costumes convey the accident of time placement that has occurred. Is The Apple Woman a misplaced renaissance maiden, traveling this lone road in space and time? The Man, a crazed cowboy riding through from another period in search of his bride? The Hitchhiker, lost in the stars in the 1950’s, coming to earth now in this time and place? Meanwhile, the Driver is synonymous with everyman, you and me, dressed for the right now. The costume choices are gorgeous in their simplicity and daring. They stand on their own, making statements about context and providing grounding.

Scenic designer Isabella Ng sets this scene, creating automobiles from suitcases, giving the beautifully strong visual command that we are all travelers, carrying what we have, even into collisions of will and destiny. The set theme carries the idea that one cannot escape their experiences, but bring them along for the ride, even into the place where one moment, one action, changes everything. Again, we are treated to an element from Kabuki Theatre, Hiki Dogu; set pieces designed to move the actors on and off the stage. This use of an 18th-century set conception gives the piece an added mystery and fluidity.

David Fehr directed the production with a very loose hand. It’s difficult, when working with an ensemble that is so well connected, to know when to push and when to stand back. Unfortunately Fehr too often chose the latter, even in those places when his reign was needed to bring the piece into a swifter pace. There is depth and wisdom here that hasn’t entirely grown yet, but would flourish with the right director expanding creative boundaries and letting the ensemble thrive while keeping the fine art of control amongst an enormously talented cast. With a little stronger hand from a staid director, Sun, Stand Thou Still would surely swirl and fly around us gloriously.

The script is, for the most part, exemplary, but given the deep concept of time it presents, more should have been brought from the writer himself. There is something that isn’t being said, but held onto, unexplored. I offer this in the spirit of passion for theatre and excellent work, which this is. In the linguistic sense, this piece left me longing for a greater depth of description of the emotional time and space we were a part of.

Overall, the Ka-Tet Theatre Company, comprising the ensemble of Brian Hurst, Jeremy Clark, Dan Meisner, Kathryn Bartholomew, Mark Pracht, Kevin Lambert, and Kyle Youngblut, work incredibly well together, bringing a reverence to this piece that’s a joy to watch.  Sun, Stand Thou Still strips away place and time and brings our most haunting, frightening, and magnificent human truths tumbling on top of one another.  This piece has so much to offer in terms of bold new theater by Ka-Tet, a relatively new theatre ensemble, that it would be well worth your time to venture out to Lakeview to give the show a look-see.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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