Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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Review: Woyzeck (The Hypocrites)

     
     

True to form, Sean Graney creates another ‘beautiful murder’

     
     

Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in Woyzeck at The Hypocrites

   
The Hypocrites present
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Directed by Sean Graney
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

When Georg Büchner dropped dead in 1837, he left behind a work-in-progress that has since been a powerful draw for artists and academics…and an even bigger pain in the neck for editors. The original script for Woyzeck–that’s an assumed title, by the way; Büchner never had the chance to choose one himself–was a scribbled hodgepodge of fragments and scenes chronicling a layman’s transformation into a killer written on unnumbered pages.

Lindsey Gavel (Marie, foreground) and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann, background) in The Hypocrites production of WOYZECK By Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Photo by Ryan Bourque.Performing the text as-is is not an option, at least not a compelling one. Producing this soldier story takes a heavy-hand, a willingness to make a directorial mark, and some serious cojones.

Enter Sean Graney.

The Hypocrites artistic director has developed a knack for bold theatre and ranks among the most exciting directors working in Chicago. Graney possesses the ability to unearth the hearts of classic texts and translate them to contemporary audiences by employing an arsenal of visceral elements. In this Woyzeck, he plays maestro–soundscapes, a dumb show, and music by Kevin O’Donnell help forward the plot and give body to heady expressionist ideas. His adaptation streamlines what Büchner left meandering. His rewrites, rearrangements, and omissions are always with clear purpose and are always for the better.

The title tragic hero, played by Geoff Button, is given the full Job treatment from his country, his colleagues and his wife. Subjected to inhumane medical experiments, degrading work conditions and an ungrateful spendthrift spouse, Woyzeck descends into desperation. His misery is amplified by the production’s wry, cruelly detached sense of humor–his child is literally presented as dead weight: a rock.

Visually, it’s captivating. Tom Burch’s set design juxtaposes nature with biohazard plastics in a vast and functional playing space. Dangerous elements get the richest, most appealing colors–appropriate for a show whose characters find beauty in destruction.

The Hyprocrites allow us to pity the tormented protagonist while alienating us just enough to objectively consider the morality of his and our resentment toward his adulteress wife (Lindsey Gavel). Added repetition in dialogue and gestures conveys the soldier’s ability to endure anguish for the people he loves, and suggests a breaking point may be the only solution for escaping the hellish loop of giving-without-return; suggests, but doesn’t dictate. The specific tragic end Graney chooses for his doomed young man leaves some questions open-ended. Unlike in Büchner’s text, they’re the right kind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck).

All photos by Ryan Bourque

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REVIEW: Peter Pan (A Play) – Lookingglass Theatre

     
     

Endearing young cast creates a playful Neverland

 

 

Kay Kron as Wendy in Peter Pan at Lookingglass Chicago

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Peter Pan (a play)   
     
Written and directed by Amanda Dehnert
Based on the books by
J.M. Barrie
at
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map)
through Dec 12  |  tickets: $24-$62  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Amanda Dehnert has adapted and staged a very faithful version of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic (well, almost–it’s too politically correct to retain the island’s Indian tribe). It’s not just faithful to Barrie, with its multiple narrators describing the exotic and imaginary topography of Neverland, detailing the psychology of its make-believe, and providing back stories on the lesser characters like Tootles, Slightly and Smee. It’s even more faithful to the challenges of childhood, all those non-negotiable, first-time joys and fears where from moment to moment everything that happens can seem the end of the world.

It’s not just the runaway or throwaway Lost Boys who are clueless and compass-less in Neverland. It’s also the Darling siblings, the equally abandoned Pirates and their “leader of monsters” Captain Hook, still hurting from being considered nice when he knew he was nasty. Above all, it’s Peter Pan who is terrified of being “grown up and done for.” He is rightly described as “young and innocent and heartless,” which is just how the author saw the beautiful Davies brothers who he immortalized in “Peter Pan.” Barrie, more than Pewter, didn’t want them to grow up–specifically old and ugly. Only one died young and that was because he perished in World War I.

Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art workThat doesn’t mean that Lookingglass’ rampaging staging is really children’s theater, however much the inventive hijinks recall a school pageant. The few kids in the opening night audience seemed more perplexed than enraptured by the pell-mell action. A bit too hip and flippant for its good, this slickly knowing, slyly winking staging is full of in-jokes for former children. But it does capture the renegade power of children’s imagination , as remembered after the fact by Barrie and Dehnert. Practically everything that Ryan Nunn’s Peter – a true and stalwart Alpha boy with cockiness and superiority to spare – proposes is a game, if only because he’s never had anyone older than himself to sober him up into something like seriousness.

The second act in particular slows down enough to really consider the question of whether there’s a point to all these endless adventures that offer no lessons beyond winning or losing. Peter recruits Wendy to be the mother who the boys lost along with everything else (making them pockets, tucking them in, etc.). For him that mostly means telling stories even as they’re actually living them from action-packed day to dream-laden night. The stories provide stability, but then Neverland is nothing but stories: Lacking a context and contrast, they gradually lose their power to charm. At first Wendy (Kay Kron) just revels in the anarchic freedom of Neverland’s total lack of rules and expectations (”I want to DO EVERYTHING FOREVER!”). But slowly she finds that she’s becoming the thing she pretends to be, a nurturing and protective person whose homesickness is just another way to grow up. (The text says that they had no word for “love” and had to make do with “home” instead.) Neverland is a misnomer because, except for Peter, it must end and the lost boys must be found.

It’s not as preciously philosophical as it sounds because Dehnert wisely distracts from the darker doings with all the romper-room exuberance that a young and athletic cast can bring to this escape fantasy. Of course there’s the usual flying (though not on wires but rope lifts). Wendy’s house is created, as children would, entirely from chalk Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art work2drawings by the cast prettily scrawled across the stage. Lily’s (“Tiger” is now missing) escape from Skull Rock and Hook’s final showdown with Peter are performed on dangling ramps and rolling scaffolding. It’s hectic fun and child’s play in the best sense of the term.

Deliberately or unintentionally, the cast could not be more endearing. Kay Kron’s radiant Wendy shows everything she feels with all the naked honesty of open-hearted children. Jamie Abelson’s no-nonsense John recalls his father (a respectable Raymond Fox), while Alex Weisman’s silly Michael seems little more mature than this nursemaid Nana (Royer Bockus, speaking rather than barking). Thomas J. Cox’s Hook is evil incarnate, a caricature built from memories of the meanest adults the children ever met. Aislinn Mulligan’s tomboyish Tinkerbell is mute but memorable as she evolves from fairy petulance to something like battlefield heroism. Above all, Nunn’s valiant, resourceful and incorrigible Peter sets the standard for this young and able cast. We don’t want him to grow up anymore than Barrie did.

   
   
Rating: ★★★ 
   
     

 

 

Extra Credit:

        
     

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Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

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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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