REVIEW: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire Chicago)

The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama

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LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents
       
Hideous Progeny
  
By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_05 Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.

It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.

Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.

Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.

The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.

Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.

Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.

Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)

 

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There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.

While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.

Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.

If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle.  The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_08 Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.

Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.

Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.

In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

 

  

        
        

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Adventure Stage Chicago forms new artistic ensemble

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Adventure Stage Chicago announces new Artistic Ensemble

As Adventure Stage Chicago (ASC) prepares to end their sixth season with the Midwest premiere of the pirate musical The Ghosts of Treasure Island, ASC announces the formation of a new artistic ensemble.

The eleven-member ensemble is comprised of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, teaching artists and writers committed to achieving artistic excellence through long-term collaboration and the creation of original work. The ensemble will be directly involved in the proposal of new projects, script development, season selection and the production process. A number of ensemble members also work in classrooms as teaching artists, implementing the company’s Neighborhood Bridges program in Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, ensemble members will serve as ambassadors for the company within the community, playing their part during outreach events at libraries, park districts, neighborhood street festivals and celebrations.

The creation of the ensemble re-focuses the development of new and original work to come from within the company, creating dynamic and transformative theatre experiences by Chicagoans for youth and families of Chicago.

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ASC Ensemble Members:

 

Tom Arvetis
  Tom Arvetis is the founding Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Stage Chicago, where he has directed world premieres of Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back by Jason Tremblay, The Blue House by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, and I Dream in Blues, which he co-wrote with Chicago blues singer Katharine Davis. Additionally, he recently helmed a workshop reading of Dragon/Sky by Elizabeth Wong (Silk Road Theatre Project). Tom is an Emeritus Company Member with Barrel of Monkeys, has acted in award-winning productions with the Neo-Futurists, Bailiwick Repertory Company (now Bailiwick Chicago) and Pyewacket Theatre, among others, and is a veteran sound designer. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.

 

Brian Bell
  Brian Bell recently directed Gossamer for ASC (where he also serves as a teaching artist) and will appear in their upcoming production The Ghosts of Treasure Island. Previously he completed a directing internship with the Carrousel Theater an der Parkaue in Germany and went on to direct The Retreating World by Naomi Wallace at Berlin’s Acud Theater. Brian graduated with a B.A. in Theatre Performance from the University of North Texas, where he directed and adapted Woyzeck by Georg Buechner as a final thesis. Brian is the artistic director of Chicago’s Cabaret Vagabond and has worked with Lincoln Square Theatre, Darknight Productions, Piccolo Theatre, Apple Tree Theatre and Collaboraction. He is an alumnus of the Chicago Directors Lab.

 

Brandon Campbell
  Brandon Campbell has worked for Adventure Stage Chicago as a teaching artist, stage manager and production manager since moving to Chicago in 2001. He is also an Associate of Collaboraction, serving as production manager for Sketchbook 5, 6, 7, 8 and Carnaval. Other production credits include the world premiere of Jose Rivera‘s Massacre at Goodman Theatre (with Teatro Vista), Chicago Sketchfest and several shows with the Neo-Futurists. In his creative time he has worked as a writer/performer (Dark Eyed Strangers), a puppeteer and designer (Laika’s Coffin, The Cay, Joe’s Garage, Beowulf Vs. Grendel), and a sax player (Seeking Wonderland, 2nd Story, Jenn Rhoads Project).

 

Sarah Rose Graber
  Sarah Rose Graber graduated from Northwestern University’s theatre program and received her Acting Certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She was the Circumnavigator Foundation’s Travel Around the World Study Grant Scholar, which enabled her to travel the globe while researching the way theatre is used as a tool for communication and education to encourage social change. She chronicled her journey in a play called Time For Take-Off! She adapted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into a bilingual play for English and Spanish viewers and Edmund Spenser‘s epic poem “The Faerie Queene” into a mask play she directed called IMAGO, for which she received the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts Grant (CIRA) and the Program in the Study of the Imagination Grant (PSI). Chicago credits include Northlight Theatre, Metropolis Performing Arts Center, Strawdog Theatre, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, Village Players Theatre, and Factory Theatre, where she is also a company member.  As a teaching artist, Sarah has taught and directed for Northlight Theatre, Arts Berwyn, Chicago Children’s Humanities Festival, the National High School Institute at Northwestern, Neighborhood Bridges, and many residencies at Chicago area schools.

 

Laura Kollar
  Laura Kollar attended Loyola University Chicago, where she earned degrees in Theater and Psychology. Costume design credits at Adventure Stage Chicago include Gossamer, Holes, The Blue House, The Cay and Shakespeare Stealer. She co-designed Still Life With Iris with fellow ASC ensemble member Jessica Kuehnau and helped create costumes for Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back and I Dream in Blues.  Laura’s work has also been seen with Actor’s Theatre Company, Theatre Mir, Lookingglass Theatre, Collaboraction, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Serendipity Theatre, North Park University and Pegasus Players, among others.

 

Jessica Kuehnau
  Jessica Kuehnau‘s previous designs for ASC have included sets for Eye of the Storm, The Shakespeare Stealer, and The Blue House, and costumes for Still Life with Iris, Search for Odysseus and Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back. Since completing her MFA in Scenic and Costume Design at Northwestern University, Chicago design credits include Rivendell Theatre, Pegasus Players, Lifeline Theatre, Griffin Theatre, Backstage Theatre Company, MPAACT, The Building Stage, Metropolis Performing Arts Center, and Light Opera Works. She is also full time faculty and resident scenic designer at Northeastern Illinois University, as well as the resident set designer and design professor at North Park University.

 

Allison Latta
  Allison Latta is a graduate of the theatre program at Virginia Tech. She has also studied Commedia dell ‘Arte with Anotonio Fava in Reggio Emelia, Italy. Chicago performance credits include Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, Strawdog Theatre and Redmoon Theatre. She was a founding member of TriArts, Inc. and created four original Commedia shows with that company, including Hfob-N-Ffos, which was named a Best of Fringe show at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. She has appeared in ASC’s productions of Sideways Stories from the Wayside School, And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, Still Life With Iris, The Ash Girl, Holes and Gossamer. She can also be seen in a number of national commercials and independent films. She has worked as a teaching artist with ASC, Gallery 37 and Metropolis Performing Arts Center

 

Scott Letscher
  Scott Letscher is currently the Managing Director of Adventure Stage Chicago. He was a company member of the late, lamented Terrapin Theatre for over ten years, where he served for two years as their Artistic Director. At Terrapin, he directed the After Dark Award-winning production of Aunt Dan and Lemon, the world premiere of Requiem in a Light Aqua Room by Sean Graney, The Rimers of Eldritch, The Sneeze and Public/Privacy. He appeared in the Terrapin productions Nina Variations, Blue Remembered Hills, The Pooka and Daniel O’Rourke, The Kramer and Laurel and Hardy Sleep Together. He also spent four years with the Children’s Theatre Fantasy Orchard as an actor and adaptor. He received a Theatre Arts degree from Marquette University.

 

Jana Liles
  Jana Liles came to Chicago after receiving her B.F.A. in Theatre from Emporia State University in her home state of Kansas. She completed her M.F.A. in Theatre from The Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. She has performed with such theatre companies as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Light Opera Works, Quest Theatre Ensemble, The GreyZelda Theatre Group, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy and Adventure Stage Chicago, while also appearing in numerous films, local television programs and commercials. An accomplished singer and dancer, she has also been fortunate enough to perform in front of thousands of people at the Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park. In addition to serving as ASC’s Marketing Coordinator, she is the Casting Director at BackStage Theatre Company.

 

Merissa Shunk
  Merissa Shunk has been with Adventure Stage Chicago since 2007 as the Director of Education. Before moving to Chicago she lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She is originally from sunny California where she studied theatre, taught theatre, and studied how to teach theatre at UCLA and Santa Clara University. She has freelanced as a curriculum writer and teaching artist for the Silk Road Theater Project, is the Fine Arts Curriculum Advisor at Rowe Elementary School, and has been a mentor (Drama Mama) in Redmoon Theater‘s Mentoring program, Drama Girls.  In fall of 2008 she co-founded the Chicago Arts Educator Forum and also serves on the board of the Illinois Theatre Association.

 

Brandon Wardell
  Brandon Wardell is a freelance Lighting and Scenic Designer in Chicago. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University and teaches at several universities, including Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, The University of Chicago, and Illinois Wesleyan. Recent lighting credits include The Hollow Lands (Steep Theatre), On An Average Day (Backstage Theatre Company), The Arab-Israeli Cookbook (Theatre Mir), John & Jen (Apple Tree Theatre), The Robber Bridegroom (Griffin Theatre) and The Blue House (ASC).  Scenic Designs include Maria’s Field (TUTA), In Arabia We’d All Be Kings (Steep Theatre), Holes (ASC), Dracula (The Building Stage) and Be More Chill (Griffin Theatre). 

REVIEW: Orange Flower Water (BackStage Theatre)

Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma

Orange Flower Water (4 of 7)

BackStage Theatre Company presents:

Orange Flower Water

 

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Chopin Studio Theatre thru March 27th (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.

Orange Flower Water (2 of 7)Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.

Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.

The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.

Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.

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The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.

The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.

The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.

Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Orange Flower Water (6 of 7)

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