Review: The Metal Children (Next Theatre Company)

     
     

A fiery display of uncompromising conflict

     
     

Laura T Fisher, Caitlin Collins, Sean Cooper in 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

   

Next Theatre Company presents

 
The Metal Children
 

Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $25 – $40  |  more info  

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The inspiration for Adam Rapp’s 2010 play, The Metal Children, now having its Midwest premiere with Next Theatre Company directed powerfully by Joanie Schultz, stems from Rapp’s own personal experience with the subject matter. Rapp’s 1997 real-life young adult novel, “Buffalo Tree”, deals with very different topics than the heated novel his fictional character, Tobin Falmouth (Sean Cooper), has written with The Metal Children. “Buffalo Tree” was a fictional account of a 12-year old boy in a juvenile detention center (something Rapp is also familiar with), while Falmouth’s The Metal Children is a novel revolving around teenage pregnancy and abortion. However, both were banned from the school curriculum lead by an opposition of the Christian right. In Rapp’s play, this sets the stage for a fierce debate between art and religion, modern feminism and the purpose of education.

Bradley Mott and Laura T Fisher in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael BrosilowBack to Rapp’s real-life novel, in 2005, “The Buffalo Tree” was banned from the school curriculum of a Middle American high school, causing a heated debate involving students, teachers and parents. The school board meeting was attended by Rapp and was covered by the New York Times. This was the incident causing Rapp to write The Metal Children, which brings his fictional author into the same scenario—only in many ways the similarities between Rapp’s life and his play end there. The journey he takes us on is both unpredictable and disturbing, as any fan of Rapp’s plays has come to expect from the playwright of such unflinching plays as Red Light Winter.

The play is set in the fictional town of Midlothia. While there are no specifics other than “Middle America” on the exact location, it could be assumed as Pennsylvania due to the moderate distance to New York implied, references to hills and the fact that Muhlenberg, PA was the actual site of Rapp’s 2005 controversy. Tobin Falmouth begins the play filming a video address for the school board debate addressing his controversial book, using a camcorder belonging to his agent, Bruno (Marc Grapey). Tobin is the picture of self deprecation: living in filth, receiving visits from his drug dealer and slutty neighbor, drugs, drinking and clinging onto any scrap of hope his ex-wife will return to him.

Bruno eventually persuades Tobin to make the trek to Midlothia and personally appear at the debate. He is largely convinced by an impassioned letter from a progressive English teacher, Stacey, defending his book. His first remarks after hearing Bruno read the letter are, “She sounds hot. Do you think she’s hot?” Well, flash-forward to a motel room in the middle of nowhere and we learn that Stacey (Paul Fagen) is not the attractive woman Tobin had in mind, but rather a gay man in his thirties who appears very on edge.

As events unfold, Midlothia begins to seem more like a Steven King setting with spray painted cryptic warnings, gold painted teenage girls, driving rain, phone calls with vacuum cleaners on the other end, means of escape destroyed and one creepy looking pig-masked man with nunchucks. Tobin meets his devotees in Edith (strongly played by veteran actor Meg Thalken), who runs the motel, and her daughter, Vera (a defiantly complex Caroline Neff). Our hero continues to test our expectations, however Rapp excels in creating empathy for unspeakable actions.

The school board debate arrives after an evening of unbelievable occurrences. It is led by a civil and church leader, Otto (Bradley Mott). Shultz and her design team create the most perfect atmosphere for this scene. (There were several moments where I felt the urge to raise my hand, shout out and participate in the debate.) Caitlin Collins, as Tami, the conservative Christian student opposed to the book, is terrifyingly fascinating in her accusations that “Tobin Falmouth is attempting to glorify teen pregnancy.” Vera’s rebuttal is determined exclaiming, “To remove art from a culture, is to name that culture dead!” Laura T. Fisher is yet another standout in the debate as Roberta Cupp, the conservative community leader. When Tobin finally speaks, he clearly is less passionate than anyone about his book; he instead tells the heartbreaking story of what compelled him to write The Metal Children. The brilliance of Rapp lies in that the more we learn of the content of this book and its consequences, the more that even the most progressive audience members find it difficult to choose which side is “right.” What is clear is that each side is far too invested in their own cause to ever understand the other.

Shultz’s direction is masterful in her gradual unraveling of these strange events. Scenic designer, Chelsea Warren, creates efficient use of the space using tracked blinds to frame each scene. Shultz’s cast is also of the highest caliber. Cooper is decidedly subtle in his soft-spoken, yet versatile performance as Tobin. A conversation he has with a certain voicemail is devastating. In addition, Cooper has a strong resemblance to Rapp in this somewhat autobiographical role.

Rapp’s plays rarely take place in a realistic world. There are numerous events in his plays that defy society’s logic. However, Rapp is also one of the gustiest playwrights today and embraces fiction without reservation. His plays are decidedly “messy” with open questions, plot points left unsettled and mixed visceral emotions. The Metal Children is no exception, and with this intelligent, emotional and honestly executed production, the boundaries are tested of what contemporary realism can achieve on the stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Sean Cooper and Marc Grapey in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Next Theatre Company’s Midwest Premiere of Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children continues through May 8th at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston. The performance schedule is: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Saturdays, April 23 and 30 and May 7 have an added 4 p.m. matinee. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 – $40, and can be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

elvis-end-days

Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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Review: "Relatively Close" at Victory Gardens

Review written by Jackie Ingram.

RelativelyClose3 Victory Gardens’s Relatively Close, written by James Sherman and directed by Dennis Začek is – by all judgments – an excellent production. The theatre is beautiful, so forget about bringing your binoculars, because from any seat you have a great view of the ingenious set, designed by John Stark. Relatively Close takes us into the lives of three sisters, domineering Jan (Penny Slusher), sexy Beth (Laura T. Fisher), and shy Marlene (Wendi Weber).  The sisters must decide in one week how to settle their deceased parent’s summer home. The sisters and their husbands, a doll, and what seems to be an angry teenager completes the fresh, hilarious, and very talented cast. The relationships are easy to relate to and you are slowly pulled into their web of bantering, lies, hip-hop, electrifying rhythmic poetry, Lily, and the lust for another sister’s husband. The unexpected twists and turns keep you guessing right until the end. Do yourself a favor – to get the entertainment pleasure of this show you must see it for yourself. It is funny and heartwarming and you might just see a little bit of your own family on stage. This show is truly a must see event.

Rating: ««««

The three sisters for 'Relatively Close' - Penny Slusher, Laura T. Fisher, and Wendi Weber)

The cast of 'Relatively Close'

 

Production Relatively Close
Producers: Victory Gardens
Playwright James Sherman
Directed By: Dennis Zacek
Starring: Usman Ally (Yousef), Daniel Cantor (Ron), Laura T. Fisher (Beth), David Gonzales (Dylan), Penny Slusher, (Jan), Wendi Weber (Marlene), Dexter Zollicoffer (Arthur)
Set Design: John Stark
Costumes: Christine Pascual
Lighting: Julie Mack
Sound: Andre Pluess
Stage Manager: Tina M. Jach
More information: www.victorygardens.org