Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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Review: Sleuth (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

A delightfully cunning mystery in Munster

     
     

SLEUTH Lance Baker playing game & Larry Yando

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Sleuth
     
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by
William Pullinsi
at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster (map)
thru March 20  | 
tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Let the games begin. They’re rarely more intriguing and diabolically delicious than they are as played in Anthony Shaffer’s cork-screw twisting crime caper Sleuth. The suspensor has the intelligence of an international chess match and the tension of a frayed high wire poised to snap under the weight of a two-man aerial team, sending those who would traverse plummeting it to their deaths. With director William Pullinsi helming the master-class cast of Larry Yando and Lance S. Baker, Theatre at the Lance Baker as clown breaking in - a scene from Theatre at the Center's 'Sleuth'.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Center‘s production of Sleuth is a first-rate cut-throat thriller.

Actually, forget the corkscrews. This is a murder mystery with more twists than a switchback trail up a Finlandian Matterhorn. Sleuth isn’t merely a whodunit; it’s also a who-has-been-done, meaning that you’re never quite certain which of several apparent victims has been slain until the final curtain. Is it the Nordic mistress, strangled with the silk stocking? The cuckolding travel agent, executed with the revolver? Shaffer builds illusion upon reality until the two mirror each other in a whacked-out, fun-house reflection, toying with the audience much as the story’s dueling gamesmen toy with each other.

And oh, such gamesmen are at play in Munster. Larry Yando plays Andrew Wyke, a mystery writer whose disdain for the plodding numbskull police is inversely proportional to his love of a good, old-fashioned match of wits. Watch him as he sits contemplating his chess board: The man’s eyes veritably gleam. Listen as he reads a passage from his latest detective novel: This is a fellow enraptured with both the sound of his own voice and the romance of role-playing, a man who is never so happy as he is when he’s putting on a charade.

Lance Baker plays Milo Tindle, a rather condescending travel agent who has been called to Andrew’s aptly Gothic old mansion (an elaborately spooky two-storey set by Rick and Jackie Penrod) for reasons that become clear only gradually. It wouldn’t do to reveal much more about the connection between Andrew and Milo, so suffice to say, the snare that binds them creates an elaborate labyrinth of a live-action brain-teaser. And every time you think you have it all figured out? You haven’t.

Baker and Yando are at the top of their craft; watching them turn and turn back the tables on each other is sheer delight. Milo has quite a journey, going from contained, arch smugness to quivering desperation to scary, dead-eyed psycho to gloating triumph, and Baker carries it off with dizzying grace. Yando cackles like a gleefully demented child as he manipulates his quarry, moving around the stage like a spider hopped up on amphetamines. When predator becomes prey, Yando morphs from elegantly controlled, slightly sadistic alpha male to clawing underdog, wild-eyed with fear and yet somehow also secretly joyous because he’s finally met a worthy opponent.

     
SLEUTH Lance Baker, Jack & Larry Yando, Theatre at the Center Munster SLEUTH Larry Yando with gun & Lance Baker in clown

Director Pullinsi keeps the pace crackling along like a brushfire. In between its trio of Big Reveals, Sleuth is an inherently talky play. Its rich, almost Stoppardian dialogue doubles back on itself as schemes, counter-schemes, crosses and double-crosses volley across the stage. Yando and Baker parry with the ease of fencers, making the intricate wording sound as spontaneous as an unexpected gunshot.

Our one criticism of the production is that Pullinsi downplays the narrative’s essential homosexual subtext (and regular text, for that matter) substantially. That means the end-game lines about diminished manhood and blackmail don’t make quite the sense they should. Still, Pullinsi has constructed a house of games that’s totally worth the drive to Munster.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

SLEUTH Larry Yando & Lance Baker - smoking jacketSleuth continues at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana, running February 17 through March 20. To purchase individual or group tickets call the Box Office at 219.836.3255 or Tickets.com at800.511.1552.  For more information on Theater at the Center, visit www.TheatreatTheCenter.com.  All photo by Michael Brosilow.

     
     

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REVIEW: Speed-the-Plow (American Theater Company)

Strong “Plow” ends in the slow-lane

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 3

   
American Theater Company presents
   
Speed-the-Plow
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by
Rick Snyder
at
ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Although I’ve never actually seen someone’s eyeballs turn into dollar signs, Lance Baker’s portrayal of Charlie Fox in ATC’s Speed-the-Plow comes pretty close. There’s plenty of greed in David Mamet’s 1988 play, which tears into the artist’s antithesis, the Hollywood producer. Rick Snyder’s production of this usually hilarious, occasionally stomach-churning look behind-the-scenes fires on all cylinders. While the weaker of the two parts that make up their Mamet Repertory, this Speed-the-Plow will definitely make you feel slimy by the end.

Bertolt Brecht once claimed that he wanted to write plays about everyday, yet crucial, aspects of society, such as grain prices. Although his style is pretty far from Brechtian, Mamet’s choice of subject matter is pretty similar to Bertolt. Pulitzer prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t about such oft-mined topics like love, death, or family – it’s about business. Speed-the-Plow stays in the same vein, pitting profits against artistic merit with several souls hanging in the balance.

The play centers on producer Bobby Gould (Darrell W. Cox), who wields the power to greenlight one project a year and needs to make his decision count. His friend and subordinate Charlie brings him a buddy flick with a big star attached, if they make the call within 24 hours. But then Karen (Nicole Lowrance, in a role originated by Madonna, no joke), a temp worker covering for Bobby’s secretary, catches his attention. In an attempt to impress her, he throws her a novel to read, something which he knows can’t translate into a blockbuster. However, the book changes her outlook on life, and she does what she can to change his mind.

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 2Compared to Oleanna, the other talk-a-thon in American Theater’s David Mamet repertory (our review ★★★½), I find Speed-the-Plow hard to crack. For me, the cataclysmic last moments between John and Carol resonate so much deeper than the scheming of Bobby and Charlie. Speed-the-Plow is part cynical comedy, part morality tale, and part artist’s manifesto; there’s a lot to take in, especially when the dialogue moves faster than NASCAR. Also, the play may also be predicting the Apocalypse, but I’m never sure.

Maybe the best part of the whole “repertory” concept is watching Cox switch from John’s loose sweaters and glasses to Bobby’s slicked-back hair and gold chains. The man obviously has a lot of fun with Gould’s skeeziness. Sitting at the top, Gould has no friends, only people who want to get stuff from him. Cox makes this clear throughout the play, through both jokes and breakdowns. He’s helped by Baker, who is great at conniving. Baker bounces around like he’s had far too much coffee, or maybe not enough. Cox keeps right up with him. Lowrance’s Karen is strikingly different than Carol—she’s way more flirtatious and paints her fingernails, although both women have a mousey timidity about them. The text calls for Lowrance to slow down the pace after the lightning rounds between Gould and Fox, but here it’s a bit too much. The second act, which features mostly monologues from Karen as she tries to communicate the effect the novel has on her, drags considerably. There’re a lot of big words, very little movement, and it just gets hard to follow after awhile. The pacing would probably be perfect for most other plays, but for Mamet it feels like a piggyback ride on a sloth.

The production regains it’s ferocity in the last act, and one leaves the theatre feeling hollow inside. Yes, everyone is sad that art gets the shaft, but I felt more pity for Bobby, whom everyone has a fork stuck in. You can find out more about his fate in the one-act semi-sequel Mamet wrote, Bobby Gould in Hell.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company

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REVIEW: Spin (Theater Wit)

Theater Wit opens new space on a dark note

 

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Theater Wit presents
 
Spin
 
By Penny Penniston
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
Thru June 5  |  Tickets: $25 (suggested donation) |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"I know you’re watching."

That phrase repeats over and over again in smart new play, Spin, as characters break the fourth wall and address the audience in a series of creepy monologues that compel us to consider life as art and everything we do as theater.

Wit_Spin_9_72dpi The solidly acted and impeccably staged world premiere by Penny Penniston, directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, inaugurates Theater Wit’s terrific new Lakeview home. Theater Wit confusingly calls this somewhat murky black comedy, Penniston’s first play since the 2000 time-travel romance now then again, a "modern-day farce." It’s often funny and sometimes absurd, but don’t expect slamming doors, mixed-up bedrooms, mistaken identities or lightweight humor.

Set in a modern bachelor pad, designed by Jack Magaw, that effectively illustrates what one character describes as a "Pier One explosion," Spin follows Brent, a 40-ish advertising creative in mid-life crisis. Played by Coburn Goss in an Alan Alda-ish vein, Brent’s out of work, recently divorced and questioning the reality of his life. He also has the hots for a gorgeous, teenage homeless girl whom he’s just "rescued" from a fight with her would-be radical boyfriend.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and old friend Redge, now heading his own agency, recruits Brent for a beer campaign. Joe Foust gives the soulless Redge just the right level of slime. They bring in self-made sports figure Ruby Jones (a cross between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods) — the slightly stiff Austin Talley – as a spokesman, and create a campaign aimed at a demographic oddly like Brent himself. But an unfortunate viral video and Brent’s unraveling self-image intervene.

The murkiness comes in most strongly with the troubling Lolita-like character of the homeless teenager, Danielle. Is she opportunistic or exploited? Alice Wedoff’s diffident portrayal leaves us guessing, and the role just gets ickier as the play progresses.

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Danielle’s boyfriend, Aaron (played with puppyish avidity by Michael Kessler) relies on her to feed his ego. Brent deludes himself into thinking she’s 19, when she’s really much younger. Redge takes out-and-out advantage.

She adds little to the play’s themes other than shock factor, though, and it would be a far funnier comedy without her, and particularly without her Act II monologue. Although they address interesting concepts, the introspective monologues obscure the humor generally — and sometimes feel like add-ons meant to stretch a one-act play into a full-length show.

Yet when the dialogue pokes fun at modern memes and 21st-century life, this comedy shines. Lance Baker’s wonderfully understated performance as Jack, a dry-witted account executive offhandedly commenting on the action, forms the highlight of the play. Elements like these overcome the tired tropes of crazy creative, materialistic ad man, impractical idealist and avaricious slut, and make Spin well worth watching.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

 Requiem - smaller 1  

 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

 columbinusruinedcolumbinus2 amadeus

Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.