Review: Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theatre)

     
     

Bleak, desperate tale remains with you long after blackout

    
   

Louise Lamson, Lisa Tejero and Philip R. Smith - in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Ethan Frome
        
Adapted and Directed by Laura Eason
from novel by
Edith Wharton
at
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20 – $63  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Everything about Ethan Frome is cold and stark. The bare branches of the skeletal trees framing the set. The sharp angles of rough-hewn planks representing a New England farm. The minimalist dialogue. The loveless marriage of the piece’s titular anti-hero. The very name of the town where the story plays out: Starkfield.

From set designer Daniel Ostling’s austere evocation of Massachusetts in winter to actor Philip R. Smith’s depiction of the taciturn Ethan, the world of Edith Wharton’s turn-of the-century tragedy is chilly and severe. That harsh sensibility wholly informs Laura Eason’s adaptation of the classic, a terse, 90-minute telling that captures the chill as well as the relentless longing and frustration that define Frome’s life.

Dan Ostling's bleak, powerful set in Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean WilliamsIn creating a world that’s as bleakly spare as a frozen field, Eason (who also directs) gives Wharton’s prose a memorable impact. But that austere ambiance also serves to distance the audience from both story and characters. With Ethan Frome, you’re watching tragedy unfold from afar, as a spectator separated from the action by a scrim of frost. The effect creates a staging that is powerful but muted. Ethan’s troubles come to life from a distance, seen through a metaphorical lens lightly coated in rime.

The production moves at a slow, matter-of-fact pace that matches the temperament of Ethan himself, a New England family farmer of few words. Up until the penultimate scene – a wind-whipped catastrophe staged with such simple and simply beautiful force that it will leave you breathless – the story is one where torrents of emotion are cloaked in small, seemingly inconsequential gestures and almost monosyllable dialogue. The plot is more feeling than doing, and those feelings – roiling blizzards of love, rage, sorrow and yearning – are trapped like the whirling flakes beneath the dome of a snow globe.

Ethan (Philip R. Smith) initially seems more shadow than substance as silently shuffles across a murky stage, one lame foot dragging behind him. His limp and striking, lonesome figure arouses the curiosity of Henry Morton (Andrew White), the out-of-towner whose pensive narration of Frome’s story bookend the story.

Through Henry‘s recollections, we see that Ethan’s quiet life has been defined by sickness and by the women in it. Coming in from a hard day hauling lumber, he’s faced with a dark house and the wailing, disconsolate wailing of his dying mother. He longs, Ethan murmurs, to hear other voices in the home. He gets his desire when Xena, (Lisa Tejero) arrives to care for Ethan’s mother and then marries him after the old woman dies.

But as Tejero makes implicit in Xena’s unsettling transformation from benevolent helpmate to hypochondriac domestic dictator, the one-time nursemaid soon becomes as onerous a burden as the timber Ethan hauls. Tejero makes Xena’s sickly dominance complete; her character is so noxious as to be slowly drowning Ethan in his own home. In Smith’s fine performance, Ethan’s helplessness and increasing hopelessness become almost palpable. His words are soft-spoken and sparse. His eyes are wild with desperation.

     
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louise Lamson and Erik Lochtefeld in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Into this oppressive atmosphere comes Xena’s young cousin Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), a lively, generous woman whose youthful vitality, curiosity and kindness stand in direct contrast to the prematurely aging, forever sickly and self-absorbed Xena. The romantic triangle that results is not surprising. The controlled intensity with which it plays out is memorable, Lamson as luminous as early spring, Tejero the personification of dour, gray winter.

The contrast among the three principals is subtly emphasized in Mara Blumenfeld’s deft costume design. Mattie sports a scarf the color of cherry blossoms, Xena dresses in drab blacks and grays, Smith’s worn, earth-colored trousers speak to Ethan’s rich love of the land. Color, or the lack thereof, plays a similarly key role throughout the production. The fate of Xena’s ruby-red pickle dish is a tragedy in miniature reflecting the larger destruction of entire lives.

That wind-whipped destruction comes tangled in a moment of wild and breathless joy as Eason’s hurtles toward the drama’s ultimately sobering conclusion. The freeze-frame tableau toward the end of Ethan Frome – a bright pool of cherry-colored blood starkly outlined against the haze of winter whites – is apt to remain with you long after the final blackout.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
       
    

Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

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REVIEW: Sex With Strangers (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

The perils of blogging while shagging

  
  

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Sex With Strangers
   
Written by Laura Eason
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Steppenwolf Theatre’s remount of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which enjoyed its first success during their 2009 First Look Repertory of New Work, is framed as another installment in their seasonal exploration of the public and private self. Now if only Eason’s play had the depth and strength to take on that weighty mantle. As is, Sex with Strangers is a nice and gentle play about an older generation’s discomfort with a younger generation, their new technological toys, and the exponential expansion of sexual frankness as the result of those toys. The play might “spark dialogue” about where the private self has gone in this internet age but it will hardly give body, clarity or insight to that discussion.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.As a result, the play is rather tepid and pleasant but just as easily forgettable. Shy, neurotic and old-school novel writer Olivia (Brenda Barrie for our performance) runs into brash, young, self-promoting blogger Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) at a writer’s retreat. She’s completing her second novel many years after her first and Ethan, who’s compiled his blog of sexual exploits into a bestselling book, has arrived to work on the screenplay for which he already has a Hollywood contract. The scenario is set for seduction—something the audience can see coming a mile away. But Olivia’s seduction isn’t just about booty calls or–what’s that old 70s phrase? The “zipless fuck”? Olivia is introduced, through Ethan, to the whole world of blogging, social media, and no longer relying upon the gatekeepers, i.e., critics, or those dinosaur editors of print publishing.

It’s sad that we don’t get to know these characters beyond their types. Sadder still is that the chemistry between Barrie and Grush is just not believable. Their relationship has be to set up fast so that the rest of the play can continue—one accepts their sexual interaction just to let the story unfold—but by far there isn’t enough of an instantaneous connection of passion between them to make their relationship credible. Grush is a dynamic actor who gives Ethan’s impetuousness and arrogance the right balance of self-effacing candor. Barrie, meanwhile, has the nuance to convey Olivia’s introverted low self-esteem down pat, but missing is Olivia’s sexual, as well as intellectual, allure. If Olivia is the kind of character who only reveals herself on the page, it’s no wonder that even after the first act she seems a kind of cipher.

So far all the you-know-the-internet/I-don’t-know-the-internet stuff is concerned, that’s really just fluff on top of a much older kind of story about the fickle nature of fame and success, about the envy that springs up between friends over who is making it in their careers and who isn’t, about who has more power in the relationship and who doesn’t. While this is the real dynamic of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, it’s one in which the characters sleepwalk their way through, never pausing to observe themselves, what they are doing with each other or why.

Plus, Sex with Strangers sets up a strange dichotomy between what’s old and young but then fails to examine that dichotomy or whether it’s even valid.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Ethan falls in love with Olivia in part because of the excellence of her writing. So, the older writer is associated with excellence while Ethan’s blog is emblematic of flash-in-the-pan dreck that gets rewarded with fame and success. Missing from the play’s interrogation is any recollection of old school pulp novelists and young, excellent, intelligently written blogs—or intelligent blogs written by oldsters. Gone is any acknowledgement that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writers old and young out there who may be every bit as talented, if not more, than the august Olivia—not all of them are going to get publishing contracts, even with a blog to promote their work.

The simplicity of Eason’s set-up is also her play’s downfall. No doubt, many in the audience will find her dialogue humorous and enjoyable, but whether this play will be remembered more than the usual date movie rom-com is anyone’s guess.

  
  
Rating ★★½
  
  

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Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

Review: side project’s “Rewind

‘Rewind’: exquisite production, downer play

 

Prod - Noah, Jim, Elisha, Scaff - couch 3

The side project theatre company presents:

Rewind

By Laura Eason
Directed by Anna C. Bahow
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were the next big thing in rock. But Noah walked away. Elisha married that asshole. And now Jim’s dead — leaving them all to wonder — ‘How did we get here?'”

Prod - Noah, Jim and Elisha - couch That spoiler comes straight out of promotions for Rewind, up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Eason’s new play, now in world-premiere by the side project, in Rogers Park, so I’m not giving anything away. The trouble with plays that start at the end is that they tend to lack suspense.

While the flashback can be an effective theatrical technique to fill audiences in on the back story, it can go too far. This play doesn’t flashback so much as reverse crawl.

Partly inspired by the playwright’s own experiences in Chicago’s indie music scene and influenced by the 1996 suicide of Jim Ellison, front man for the Chicago power pop trio Material Issue, Rewind begins in 1998, when the members of his onetime band, childhood friend Noah and ex-lover Elisha, find the body of Jim, a talented but troubled and unsuccessful songwriter and musician. Then the drama steps back — rewinds, get it? — through the threesome’s life to the band’s beginnings in 1981.

We wait for some startling revelation or inspiring moment, but none appear. What we get is an old, old story — familiar to anyone who knows anything about the music business: Talent is not enough; you also need perseverance, responsibility, belief in yourself and a good deal of luck.

As the play progresses backwards, we see the band’s deteriorating relationships; Jim’s insecurity over whether his music is really good enough; issues of personal loyalty vs. business expediency; troubles with their record label; their opportunistic manager; the bitter contrast of a younger musician achieving the success that’s eluded them; and, finally, their hopeful start. The depressing history of a million failed garage bands.

Prod - Noah, Jim and Ray - couch 2

Side project presents the play in its typically flawless way — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme: Fine acting, an effective set and excellent staging and direction aren’t enough, either.

Chip Davis is suitably intense as Jim, and Zach Buell nicely expressive as his always-supportive pal, Noah. Cyd Blakewell plays the somewhat selfish Elisha with just the right blend of innocence and self-interest. Supporting actors Shane Kenyon and Brett Schneider do good work as well.

Sound Designer Misha Fiksel hunted out local music from the period (a pity it’s only used incidentally). Set Designer Annette Vargas dappled the 30-seat theater with bright spray-paint graffiti and hung the walls with colorful band posters from Chicago print house Screwball Press that list all local indie music spots of the period: Lounge Ax, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Aragon Ballroom.

The audience sits on two sides of the intimate stage, where Director Anna C. Bahow makes adept use of the few stage furnishings to convey 17 different scenes. She moves her cast in and out with exquisite pacing.

Yet although Rewind is performed without intermission in just 90 minutes, its utter predictability makes it seem much longer.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Note: Allow time to find street parking.

Theater Thursday: “Rewind” at the side project

Thursday, November 19

Rewind  by Laura Eason

the side project 
1439 W. Jarvis, Chicago

rewindphotoGet behind the music: join the side project as we kick off our 9th season, and be among the first to see Laura Eason’s latest play Rewind before it’s official opening! The evening includes a special session with the production team, including Sound Designer (and DJ) Misha Fiksel, who will discuss the iconic music from Chicago bands which influenced the show’s story and soundscape. Catering will be provided by Rogers Park favorite Luzzat.Starting in 1998 and told backwards, Rewind follows the life of a would-be rock musician from his premature death to his teenage dreams of a music career. Partly based on Eason’s experiences in Chicago’s independent music scene in the 90s, the play asks what success means when loyalities and lifelong dreams are intertwined.

Event begins at 7 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $20 

For reservations visit www.thesideproject.net or call 773-973-2150 and mention “Theater Thursdays.”

Lookingglass’s J. Nicole Brooks discusses her world-premiere play “Fedra: Queen of Haiti”

Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks discusses her world premiere play Fedra: Queen of Haiti.

 

Meet the cast and crew of Fedra: Queen of Haiti

A candid peek into the first rehearsal of Fedra: Queen of Haiti at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. The cast and crew introduce themselves and the roles they will play in this World Premiere original adaptation of the Greek myth Phaedra.

Review: Steppenwolf’s 5th-Annual First Look Repertory of New Works

You Have Never Seen These Before

For the past five years, Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work has given Chicago audiences the unique opportunity to view works in progress for the very first time in the intimate setting of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater. All three plays in this year’s First Look series are still in development, and are likely to undergo changes before being produced again.

09 First Look PlaywrightsFirst Look Playwrights: (left to right) Ensemble member Eric Simonson with Laura Jacqmin and Laura EasonPhoto by Elizabeth Fraiberg. 


Honest

Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Honest, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, is the tragic story of best-selling memoirist Guy (Erik Hellman), a man whose past is much stranger than his novel’s fiction. When the factuality of his memoir is challenged by a reporter (Martin McClendon), a Mametian game of deception and blackmail unfolds, with both men’s futures hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Guy’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that shaped the pathological liar seen at the start of the show.

The actors are faced with the unenviable task of bringing to life Simonson’s very dark world, and they due so magnificently. Hellman specifically must play the same character in four different time periods with four extremely different circumstances, and he manages to capture the fear and pain of a tormented soul with the charisma of a man who has been lying and getting away with it for years. Kelly O’Sullivan is heartbreaking as Guy’s cousin Casey, and when the two actors share the stage together the production truly shines.

Where the play falters a bit is in the opening and closing scenes between Guy and Martin, the reporter. Martin seems overly eager to share personal information with a complete stranger, and while it can be justified as forward movement for the plot, it simply did not ring true to the general conduct between an interviewer and his subject. Beyond that quibble, Honest is an engrossing examination of one man’s attempt to hide from his past, and the cruel truth that no matter where he goes, it always finds him.

Rating: «««

 



Sex with Strangers

Written by Laura Eason
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Thirty-something struggling writer Olivia’s (Amy J. Carle) world is turned upside down when she finds herself romantically involved with self-proclaimed asshole blogger Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) in Sex With Strangers, the standout production of this year’s First Look series. Laura Eason’s script seamlessly balances romantic comedy with conflict as Olivia and Ethan’s honeymoon affair begins to feel the pressure of his very public sexual past, and director Jessica Thebus, along with an extremely gifted cast and creative team, has created a production that could easily be transferred to any theater as is.

From the first kiss to the last betrayal, Carle and Grush have the kind of chemistry that makes stage magic. Carle has proven herself an actress of immense depth and talent in the past, but her portrayal of Olivia is one of the most fully realized characters to grace the Chicago stage this season. Her relationship to Ethan is completely believable, in large part due to her male costar’s wonderfully charming characterization.

The two actors handle the rapid-fire banter of Laura Eason’s script with ease, further cementing the realism of the play, and it is real. Sex With Strangers is one of the most honest portraits of love in a world where privacy barely exists and sex is just another bodily function, and it is a must see for Chicago audiences.

Rating: ««««

 



Ski Dubai

Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Lisa Portes
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Rachel (Hillary Clemons) is an Environmental Friendliness Consultant relocated to Dubai with the daunting task of helping her company’s man-made island achieve "green" certification in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin. Still reeling from a construction accident that left her New York City apartment on the sidewalk 15 stories below, Rachel must juggle living with randy roommate/colleague Perrin (Cliff Chamberlain), his insane wife Amanda (Sadieh Rifai), and a slew of other quirky characters while trying to establish a home for herself in a foreign world.

Clemons does an admirable job balancing Rachel’s naïveté with her growing apathy for not only the project to which she was assigned, but the modern ideology of "new is better than authentic," but the trauma of losing her New York home never seems as bad as she makes it out to be. The supporting actors seem to have been directed to take their characters so over the top that they lose dimension, and the actors get lost in showing the audience how wild they are without finding the motivation behind the action. Rifai stands out as Amanda, infusing her character with genuine anger at a world that never stops letting her down, and Jennifer Coombs is absolutely hilarious as the tactless Doctor that hates Dubai and everyone in it.

Jacqmin’s script struggles to find a balance between cartoonish hijinx and political commentary, and the end result is two-dimensional characters that never seem to have a voice of their own. Of the three plays, Ski Dubai is the one that could use the most retooling before being produced again, but when it is funny, like when Coombs traverses the space wearing invisible skis, it is hilarious.

Rating: ««

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