REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

ChancePrincessdiagonal

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

ChancePrincessSmoking

     
     

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Tallest Man (The Artistic Home)

 

Great News: Due to high ticket sales, The Artistic Home

has extended this fine production through August 22nd!!

Of travelers and tall ghosts

 

The Tallest Man

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
The Tallest Man
   
Written by Jim Lynch
Directed by John Mossman
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark  (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, and have heard a good deal of what is called Irish tradition and superstition. Ghosts, feuds, remedies for bad luck, and  pride in one’s culture abound in the Artistic Home production of The Tallest Man. This fine production brings to life a land and culture in a humorous and touching way.

Tourmakeady, County Mayo Ireland around the turn of the 20th-century is the setting for this tale based on the stories told to playwright Jim Lynch. The people have survived the Great Potato Famine and live under British rule on Irish land. Here they The Tallest Manscramble for survival; land ownership is brutal and unrelenting with the collector looming around every corner.

The characters are introduced around the centerpiece of Breda Kennedy’s pub. Breda and her daughter Katie run the pub and Breda demands respect as the only Catholic woman who owns anything in County Mayo. Miranda Zola plays Breda with lusty ferocity, looking like a woman who has been ten rounds and won bare-knuckled. It is a brilliant performance from Ms. Zola, who I last saw playing a more deluded matriarch in The Artistic Home production of The House of Yes (our review ★★★).

The action begins in the pub with local sots Tommy Joe Lally (Frank Nall) and Johnny Mulligan (Bill Boehler). The two men sit at a barrel table drinking steins of whiskey and telling tales of the Tall Man, whose presence has altered life in Tourmakeady. Katie Kennedy tends the pub and dismisses the two men as yokels who are full of blarney. Katie (played with deep longing and courage by Marta Evans) yearns to go to a mythical New York where she can be a fine lady with furs and jewelry. She refuses to be tied down to the only other landowner – Tommy Joe. Early on it is apparent that Lally and Mulligan are always getting into absurd situations. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of County Mayo, showing their comedic genius in a scene where they pose as Cain and Abel after losing a card game to the parish priest.

The town of Tourmakeady is a character as well in this production. Set designer Mike Mroch has represented this environment through a darkly-painted stage replete with foreboding hues of green and fully-embellished with leaves.  It is not quite the rolling and verdant hills of Irish legend, but instead a survivor of famine and blood spilled over land rights. The cemetery and church have the same aura. Along with Mroch, playwright Jim Lynch and director John Mossman have crafted a complete fusion of time, character and place without compromise.

The Tallest Man The Tallest Man

The history of the Irish Travelers is a motif of the story. The main characters of Finbar McDonough and his cousin Frankie Walsh are from the Traveler tradition. They are called Tinkers in The Tallest Man, and represent a shameful and unwelcome part of Tourmakeady to Breda Kennedy. They are scoundrel, thieves, and worse. Finbar McDonough is in love with the beautiful lass Katie. Shane Kenyon plays Finbar with a devilish and sexy glint that is most appealing. He and Katie make out in the dark outside the bar and make plans for the future. Katie wants out and Finbar want to settle old scores. They have a wonderful chemistry without the airbrushing or any false notes.

The Tallest Man also exposes the Catholic Church as a seedy partner in the people’s struggle of Ireland. Malcolm Callan plays the local priest, Father McLaughlin, of Tourmakeady with unctuous vigor. He is seen extorting kickbacks from the landlord’s The Tallest Man representative. Father McLaughlin couches his demands from Newcomb (delightfully played by Eamonn McDonogh) under the guise of helping ‘his people’. The dialogue of how ‘their dirty faces look to me every Sunday’ made my skin crawl considering the current events with some of the priesthood. Devout lad Frankie Walsh discovers Father McLaughlin’s underhanded activities. Frankie remembers his daddy fondly, and feels responsible for his death by speaking at the wrong time. He cannot forgive McLaughlin’s duplicity of blessing his father’s funeral while being responsible for his death. Walsh projects wrath, grief, and guilt so beautifully in a part that could be really over the top. Darrelyn Marx as Finbar’s mother Mary is also wonderful, possessing a gorgeous voice when she sings of her son. It’s a moment to bring tears to the eyes.

Jim Lynch also brings tears of laughter through his capturing of Irish wit and tradition without false embellishment. The Tallest Man is a rowdy good time. The language is coarse and the action is naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit, and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly; every scene and character flows as well as fits in what could easily be a complicated puzzle. More than just a tale of Tinker ingenuity, the work is the story not told in the history books but instead around the table, or at the corner bar, or at your grandfather’s knee no matter your genealogy. See it, and you’ll also see your family somewhere within.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

The Tallest Man plays on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through August 22nd, 2010. The Artistic Home Theatre is located at 3914 N. Clark near Irving Park. For tickets call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.theartisthome.org

   
   

Featuring Ensemble members Marta Evans, Nick Horst, Frank Nall, and Miranda Zola; and Guest Artists Shane Kenyon, Eamonn McDonagh, Darrelyn Marx, Malcolm Callan, Brandon Thompson and Bill Boehler.

Directed by John Mossman
Produced by Jimmy Ronan and Samantha Church
Assistant Directed by Kristin Collins
Stage Manager: Rose Kruger
Lighting design by Josh Weckesser
Scenic Design by Mike Mroch
Costume design by Ellen Seidel
Sound/Original Music design by Aaron Krister Johnson

     
     

REVIEW: Lower Debt (Livewire Chicago Theatre)

Down in the dumps..

Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_7

Livewire Chicago presents:

Lower Debt

 

written by Joshua Aaron Weinstein
directed by
Rebekah Scallet
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 4th
(more info)

by Keith Ecker 

As has been pointed out by many smarter than me, it is worse to be the recipient of apathy than the target of hatred. That said, I don’t hate LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s  world premier production of Lower Debt. No, instead I just couldn’t care less about it, Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_5and it appeared that neither did anyone in the play. And this is supposed to be an “Everyman” tale?

The play’s got a solid synopsis. I’ll give it that. It’s set in the beginning of the 21st century, resembling a time that is as economically uncertain as present day but personal suffering is considerably worse, where a house is a tent tucked away in an abandoned building. CW (Brian P. Cicirello) is a copywriter at an ad firm. As we learn through video flashbacks, CW is laid off and left to simultaneously sell a screenplay and beg for change on the street, which we see in a scene where CW rambles to himself about pennies and dimes. The clip is so pregnant with self-importance I found myself rolling my eyes at the screen.

Eventually CW appears on stage in the tent town that nomadic bums Claude (Malcolm Callan), his wife Val (Melissa diLeonardo) and her sister Wendell (Annie Rix) have established. Claude is a bossy, hot-headed man who is protective of his property. He’s not hesitant to hit or push CW, which he does frequently. Meanwhile, Wendell takes a liking to CW, a feeling that is reciprocated. We know this because CW tells Wendell in hushed whispers that she doesn’t have to stay in Claude’s compound. It is a cliché love.

The tent town is also inhabited by a pill-pushing self-described pharmacist named Ames (Tamara Anderson), a kind-hearted cab driver named Rash (Josh Johnson), his dying lover Leah (Miriam Reuter) and a bum (Noah Lepawsky) whose periodic slips into existential ponderings are about as deep as Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts”.

Nothing much really happens throughout the play. A lot of people look angry at one another and walk from tent to tent. Alcohol is drunk. People occasionally leave the compound and then come back. Near the end of the play, there’s a twist, one that will jerk you awake because it involves a gun. But don’t get too excited. It’s laughably convoluted.

There’s little to no characterization. We as the audience don’t get to know any of these people. When some die, we just kind of shrug it off. Sure, there’s plenty of exposition about what life used to be like and who we all used to be before things went to hell. But it’s all talk and no action.

Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_2 Lower Debt_LiveWire_1
Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_6 Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_3

Speaking of talk, the dialogue in Lower Debt is atrocious. It plays like a transcribed conversation between high school stoners. The playwright, Joshua Aaron Weinstein (aka LiveWire’s Executive Director), obviously wants to tackle some big-picture concepts, but needs to learn to do it with more finesse. You can discuss life, death, society and materialism in a play, but you have to find some way to interweave it into interesting characters and plot. Otherwise it just sits there for everyone to stare at like a pet stain.

With no characterization and clunky speech, it is difficult to place much blame on the actors for their lackluster performances. They aren’t bad – just flat. Glenn Proud stands out the most as Claude’s cop brother, Damon, probably because he’s one of the only characters who doesn’t talk like a freshman philosophy major.

The use of video, which is completely dropped in the second half of the play, serves little purpose. The clips provide flashback about CW, but a clever director could just as easily stage these scenes with much greater effect. Also, the audio on the video is too low. Though sitting in the front row, I still had a very difficult time hearing. Hopefully this is just a technical sound issue with an easy fix.

Lower Debt is meant to be a commentary on contemporary times, exploring themes of community, ownership, loss and hope. But without interesting characters or a solid story to ground these lofty topics, the picture gets fuzzy and the audience’s attention spans and patience are tested.

 

Rating:

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Living Newspapers Festival (Jackalope Theatre)

A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie

 Living Newspapers - John Milewshi - phot by Ryan Bourque

Jackalope Theatre and Silent Theatre Company presents:

Living Newspapers Festival

Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Living Newspapers - AJ Ware - photo by Ryan Bourque So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.

Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.

Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.

The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.

There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.

Living Newspapers - Eric Prather - photo by Ryan Bourque The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.

The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.

 

Rating: ★★★

living-newspaper-poster