Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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August: Osage County set to close on Broadway

The Broadway cast of “August: Osage County” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)August: Osage County, written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, winner of five 2008 Tony Awards, as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and currently starring Tony and Emmy award winner Phylicia Rashad, will play its final performance on SUNDAY, JUNE 28th, 2009. It will have played 648 performances and 18 previews, surpassing The Heidi Chronicles, Master Class, The Real Thing, and Doubt, among many others, to become one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  

 

 

August: Osage County will begin its National Tour, starring Academy award winner Estelle Parsons, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on July 24th, 2009, before travelling to more than 18 locations all around the country. For more information and dates, please visit WWW.AUGUSTONBROADWAY.COM.

The show currently boasts the most Award winning cast on Broadway: Tony winners Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”, Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean), John Cullum (Urinetown, Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century), Elizabeth Ashley (Dividing the Estate, The Best Man), and Frank Wood (Side Man), with Original Cast member (and Tony nominee) Amy Morton, and Anne Berkowitz, Guy Boyd, Kimberly Guerrero, Brian Kerwin, Michael Milligan, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, and Troy West.

august_osage_county The original Broadway company, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, featured Ian Barford, Deanna Dunagan, Kimberly Guerrero, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Dennis Letts, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Rondi Reed and Troy West, with understudies Munson Hicks, Susanne Marley, Jay Patterson, Dee Pelletier, Molly Ranson and Kristina Valada-Viars.

august_01a The design team included Todd Rosenthal (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Ann Wrightson (lights), Richard Woodbury (sound) and David Singer (original music).

The production received 5 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director of a Play – Anna D. Shapiro, Best Actress in a Play – Deanna Dunagan, Best Featured Actress in a Play – Rondi Reed, and Best Set Design of a Play – Todd Rosenthal.

August: Osage County welcomed many prestigious new cast members throughout its run, including Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Tony Award winners John Cullum, Elizabeth Ashley, and Frank Wood. The cast also welcomed Tony nominee Johanna Day, Robert Foxworth, Molly Regan, Michael McGuire, Michael Milligan, Guy Boyd, Scott Jaeck, Anne Berkowitz, Samantha Ross, Jim True-Frost, and Amy Warren, with understudies Aaron Serotsky, Stephen Payne, Avia Bushyhead, Frank Deal, and Emily Walton.