REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

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Non-Equity Jeff Nominations – Ubique & Lifeline lead

JeffAwards

 

2009 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD NOMINEES

PRODUCTION – PLAY
Enchanted April Circle Theatre
In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mariette in EcstasyLifeline Theatre
The Mark of Zorro Lifeline Theatre
Our TownThe Hypocrites
Rose and the Rime The House Theatre

PRODUCTION – MUSICAL OR REVUE
The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre
Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
The Robber BridegroomGriffin Theatre
Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

DIRECTOR – PLAY
Nathan Allen – Rose and the RimeThe House Theatre of Chicago
David CromerOur Town The Hypocrites
Elise Kauzlaric – Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Joanie Schultz – In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Rick Snyder – Men of Tortuga Profiles Theatre

DIRECTOR – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Fred Anzevino – Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Fred Anzevino – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Mary Beidler Gearen – The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre
Paul S. Holmquist – The Robber Bridegroom Griffin Theatre
Nicolas Minas – Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

ENSEMBLE
Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Men of Tortuga Profiles Theatre
Our Bad Magnet Mary-Arrchie Theatre
Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Don Bender – Old Times City Lit Theater
Esteban Andres Cruz – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train Raven Theatre
James Elly – The Mark of ZorroLifeline Theatre
Ryan Jarosch – Torch Song Trilogy – Hubris Productions
Brian Parry – ShadowlandsRedtwist Theatre
Brian Plocharczyk – After Ashley Stage Left Theatre
Bradford Stevens – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train Raven Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Courtney Crouse – Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical Bohemian Theatre
Chris Damiano – EvitaTheo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Brenda Barrie – Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Laura Coover – Blue SurgeEclipse Theatre
Cameron Feagin – Private Lives City Lit Theater
Nancy Freidrich – The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery The Strange Tree Group
Betsy Zajko – Beholder Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Laura McClain – The Christmas Schooner Bailiwick Repertory
Maggie Portman – Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Rachel Quinn – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Circle Theatre
Bethany Thomas – Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James

SOLO PERFORMANCE
Janet Ulrich Brooks – Golda’s Balcony Pegasus Players
Alice Wedoff – The Shape of a Girl Pegasus Players

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
Paul S. Holmquist – The Picture of Dorian Gray Lifeline Theatre
Matthew Sherbach – The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler Dog & Pony Theatre
Kevin V. Smith – Our Bad Magnet Mary-Arrchie Theatre
Madrid St. Angelo – A Passage to India Premiere Theatre & Performance i/a/w Vitalist Theatre
Jon Steinhagen – Plaza SuiteEclipse Theatre
Nathaniel Swift – Blue Surge Eclipse Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL
Chris Damiano – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Chris Froseth – Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre
Jim Sherman – The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
Susan Veronika Adler – Torch Song Trilogy Hubris Productions
Jeannette Blackwell – The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler Dog & Pony Theatre
Nora Fiffer – The Autumn Garden Eclipse Theatre
Mary Hollis Inboden – Torch Song TrilogyHubris Productions
Elise Kauzlaric – On the Shore of the Wide World Griffin Theatre
Lily Mojekwu – Greensboro: A RequiemSteep Theatre
Rinska Prestinary – In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mary Redmon – Enchanted April Circle Theatre

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Amanda Hartley – The Robber Bridegroom Griffin Theatre

NEW WORK
Tony Fiorentino – All My Love – Diamante Productions
Robert Koon – Odin’s HorseInfamous Commonwealth Theatre
Frank Maugeri & Seth Bockley – Boneyard PrayerRedmoon Theater
Andrew Park – The People’s History of the United States Quest Theatre Ensemble
Ken Prestininzi – Beholder Trap Door Theatre

NEW ADAPTATION
Fred Anzevino, Arnold Johnston & Joshua Stephen Kartes – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Cristina Calvit – Mariette in EcstasyLifeline Theatre
Robert Kauzlaric – The Picture of Dorian Gray Lifeline Theatre
William Massolia – Be More Chill Griffin Theatre
Terry McCabe – Scoundrel Time – City Lit Theater Company
Katie McLean – The Mark of Zorro Lifeline Theatre

For Production and Artistic Team nominations, click on “Read More

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