REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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REVIEW: Beautiful City (Theatre Mir)

Solid cast punctuates this urban fairytale

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Theatre Mir presents

Beautiful City

 

Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Rob Chambers
At Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph,
thru April 3rd
(more info)

By Katy Walsh

“Make no little plans” is a phrase coined by Chicago’s infamous urban planner, Daniel Burnham. In Theatre Mir’s play Beautiful City, lead character Tony Raft embraces this philosophy despite opposition from his architect, a witch and the mob.  Performed at the Storefront Theatre in conjunction with DCA Theatre and the Beautiful_City10Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Beautiful City is the story of each person’s quest to get what they want by overcoming ‘the simple ugly truth.’ Tony wants a grandiose shopping mall. His mobster mama wants more money. His architect wants to be healed. The witch wants urban renewal and the freedom to dig through garbage. Beautiful City interconnects three families in an urban fairy tale of betrayal, greed and redemption.

The entire cast has been solidly constructed. Here are some of the pillar performances: Yosh Hayashi (Tony Raft) impresses with his vigorous audacity over a shopping mall obsession. Splendidly rotten in Steep Theatre’s Hollowlands, Hayashi exploits the humor in his every diabolical depiction. It’s Gilbert Gottfried as Hannibal Lector. Walking up and down stairs in 3 inch heels, Rachel Slavick (Mary Raft) is tough. Except for a wonderful salad thrashing scene, Slavick plays it stone faced cold. Mira Vasiljevic (Gina Mae Sabatini) contorts her look with an ongoing skunk face in her portrayal of the witch. Physically and vocally, Vasiljevic showcases her character as a bizarre source of life’s truth. She’s hilarious! C. Sean Piereman (Paul Gallagher) is the one to be rescued in this modern day fable. In the first few scenes, Piereman’s pain is so uncomfortably real, one feels the need to call 911. Other high energy moments of dramedy are Jeremy Kahn (Stevie Moore) as a fast-talking punk, Kristen Secrist (Jane Sabatini) as a wacky hospital volunteer, Kurt Brocker (Rolly Moore) as a desperate thug and Megan Kohl (Dian Black) as the confident gum -chewing cop. It is stellar acting wrapped up in Whitney McBride’s character-perfected costumes.

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Director Rob Chambers maximizes the physical space and the script to establish the framework of this adult fairy tale. Chambers is working from the foundation laid by playwright George F. Walker. Walker illustrates the issues of gentrification with an entertaining myth of mobsters verses witches. The parts are there for a solid built fortress. To nail it, Walker needs to sand it down for refinement. Some of the scenes are longer than necessary. In particular, a pivotal end scene is overly explanatory. This technique feels Hollywood-esque in “dumbing it down for the mainstream.” There are also some transitional moments of clunkiness, like, the scene where Paul is in the witch’s store. When did he decide to seek her out? It’s like realizing you are already in a room when you thought you were walking down a corridor. Walker’s blueprint needs a hallway connecting smaller rooms to more effectively imagine city dwelling. Nonetheless, even without a script renovation, Mir Theatre’s Beautiful City is an entertaining lesson of urban renewal for the entire community.

Making his own contribution to our city landscape, Frank Lloyd Wright says, “eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful city left in the world.” Right with you, Frank!

Rating: ★★★

 

Post-show Discussions

  • Thursday, March 11, with cast and director Rob Chambers
  • Saturday, March 20, with Dr. Michael Bennett, executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center
  • Friday, March 26, with Al Gini, contributor at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and professor of philosophy and business ethics at Loyola University, Chicago

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