Review: Romeo and Juliet (Babes With Blades)

  
  

A tale of lovers missing its heart

  
  

Gillian N. Humiston (Romeo) and Ashley Fox (Juliet) in Babes With Blades' Romeo and Juliet

  
Babes With Blades presents
  
Romeo & Juliet
       
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Brian DeLuca
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Babes With Blades has pulled out the production stops for a visually strong and sumptuous all-woman Romeo & Juliet. The rough around the edges, yet classically suggestive scene design (Bill Anderson; Jason Pikscher and Stephen Carmody, brickwork) graces Raven Theatre’s studio space with a versatility that still hints at architectural grandeur. Meanwhile, Ricky Lurie’s costumes, inspired by Italy’s late 19th-century Liberal Period, imaginatively strike the production’s gender-bending balance—functional enough to readily support the cast for their legendary BWB combat scenes and convey class distinctions and individual character.

Eleanor Katz and Amy Harmon - Babes With Blades' Romeo and JulietThen there’s the always-exciting stage combat (Libby Beyreis), in which the gals pack swords, rapiers and pistols into the street warfare between the Capulets and the Montagues. Brian DeLuca’s directorial vision suggests cyclically repeating historical patterns of social and legal breakdown—a solid and sophisticated touch for revisioning Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers.

All the same, there’s no substitute for classical Shakespearean training and experience, especially so far as Romeo (Gillian N. Humiston) and Juliet (Ashley Fox) are concerned. Humiston’s performance is weak to begin with, but as death stalks the lovers and emotional stakes are raised, her performance degenerates into shrill and unwatchable histrionics. Fox fairs better when paired with her Nurse (Eleanor Katz) or facing up to an implacable parent, Capulet (Maggie Kettering), determined to marry her off to Paris (Delia Ford). Shakespeare’s tale of impossible, adolescent love struggling to find expression in a landscape strafed by turf wars needs stronger stars than this show has on hand. Sadly, an otherwise thoughtful and well-paced production misses out at its critical center.

Gillian N. Humiston and Delia Ford in a fight scene from Babes With Blades' 'Romeo and Juliet'Ford JK 7381

That leaves the older cast members to carry the show. By far, Katz delivers the strongest, earthiest, most nuanced performance; Kettering’s Capulet is a force to be reckoned with and Katie Horwitz as Friar Lawrence comes across solidly like a frustrated surrogate parent, trying to keep the kids on track long enough to have it all work out. Amy Harmon has the swagger to give her Mercutio street cred, but could use a little refinement on his monologues. Shakespeare knew that lower class didn’t always mean lower IQ, and Mercutio’s accelerated imagination and verbal agility would make him a rap star if he were discovered today.

Fox and Humiston do pull off their final death scene together but, by the time they do, the audience has missed the heart of the story for too long. Romeo & Juliet was spawned from an era of real traditional marriage—from a time when marriages were set up like business partnerships. What did love have to do with it? Shakespeare’s audience came to see pure, unbridled love daring to violate social constraints. But in the world of art, we know it takes massive skill and discipline to make it that love look raw, spontaneous, free and new.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Gillian N. Humiston and Ashley Fox as Romeo and Juliet, presented by Babes With Blades

 

Artists

Cast

Gillian N. Humiston*, Ashley Fox, Megan Schemmel, Delia Ford*, Amy E. Harmon*, Eleanor Katz, Maggie Kettering, Katie Horwitz, Rachael Miller, and Kim Fukawa*. 

Production Team

Brian LaDuca (Director); Wyatt Kent (Assistant Director); Bill Anderson (Scenic Design ); Leigh Barrett* (Lighting Design ); Libby Beyreis* (Violence Design); Ricky Lurie (Costume Design); Harrison Adams (Sound Design); Kjers McHugh* (Stage Manager); Dustin Spence (Producer).

* = Company member

  
  

REVIEW: A Gulag Mouse (Babes with Blades)

Old-fashioned thrills, new-fashioned heroines

Repin Wolf JK 6401

 
Babes with Blades presents
 
A Gulag Mouse
 
by Arthur M. Jolly
directed by
Brian Plocharczyk
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about A Gulag Mouse feels like an old-fashioned, post-World War II thriller. Showing now at Trap Door Theatre, this award-winning original play by Arthur M. Jolly is densely packed with dark suspense, non-stop tension, well-timed action scenes, Spence Humiston JK 6252and black humor precisely placed and played for all its grim power by the cast. Only . . . only . . .

Only – its story is set in the Soviet Union after WW II–perhaps not a plotline chosen for development in Hollywood during those dangerous post-war years. Only – it has an all-women cast, trained by the intrepid Babes With Blades, the production company that “showcases the strength, vitality, and proficiency of women in the art of stage combat.” Yet another reason why this story would not have come out of Hollywood after the Second World War. With the war over and men coming home, media moguls in America quickly shifted film and television iconography from Rosie the Riveter, and other powerful women’s roles, into the docile, domestic goddesses of the 1950s–something to think about, as you gaze at the Russian versions of Rosie smiling from the period Soviet posters integrated into the set design (Jeff Lisse).

Playwright Arthur M. Jolly won the Joining Sword and Pen 2009-2010 competition for this work, an award sponsored by Babes With Blades to generate good, solid playwriting for fighting women actors. BWB also workshops with its playwrights to achieve the right balance of drama with action and Managing Director Amy Harmon, who plays the role of Masha, informs me that playwriting quality has definitely gone up since they first held the competition in 2005-2006.

The playwriting shows real quality. It’s still a dark, noir-ish thriller, but it’s a thriller with a brain, showing historical and cultural sophistication. Its language leans toward the melodramatic side, but so does a lot of that old thriller stuff, and the cast, wisely, does not over play it.

The young, beautiful, terrified Anastasia (Gillian Humiston) waits on a Moscow street for her husband Evgeny (Dustin Spence) to return from his service at the Eastern Front after the war. We soon learn the reason for her terror. Evgeny’s sadistic nature and abusive relationship with his young wife quickly reveals itself–exacerbated, undoubtedly, by the horrors he has had to survive. Svetlana kills Evgeny with the knife she has brought with her, but that simply propels her into the Siberian Gulag, where she faces greater dangers from her fellow female inmates.

The story shifts back and forth from mental to physical fights for survival between the women prisoners. But this is no Co-ed Soviet Prison Sluts. Both playwright and production take their subject very seriously, although there’s still honest fun to be had watching women battle each other. Overall, there’s an artistic cohesiveness to the storytelling that seemed lacking in the last Babes With Blades production I critiqued.  Director Brian Plocharcyk keeps a sharp pace with the cast, so there’s never a dull moment from dramatic scenes to fight scenes. Blocking alone informs so much of the characterization here, whether an inmate strolls arrogantly to the center of the stage or cringes defensively in a bunk.

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Fight choreography (David Woolley and Libby Beyreis) also serves to inform the audience about a character, crafted to exhibit a woman prisoner’s willingness or reluctance to engage her opponents. Woolley and Beyreis do a lot with the limitations of Trap Door Theatre’s space—they go almost unnoticed in the course of the storytelling. Lighting (Leigh Barrett) and sound design (Adam Smith) add tension to the story and reveal its poignancy.

Babes With Blades is close, so close, to having it all come together perfectly. There’s still some unevenness in the casting and a bit of woodenness in the acting. All these fierce women actors need is just a little more technique to sharpen the spontaneity of their performances and they would have a devastating production on their hands. Powerful women actors in powerful roles doing physically powerful things on stage—it’s almost all there. And what is there, while not perfect, is definitely worth seeing. So whether you want to support the Babes in their endeavors or you’re just looking for a smart, thrilling ride, A Gulag Mouse will not disappoint.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

living-quarter

Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters

 

by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.

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Review: Babes With Blades’ “Macbeth”

Babes With Blades Macbeth a sword-rattling good time

Review by Paige Listerud

Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) and Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) face the final conflict. They dare do all that may become a man in this Babes With Blades all-female production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–from vying for honor, to scheming unholy murder; from wavering in the face of evil, to charging recklessly into carnage; from chafing under oppressive surveillance, to engaging in out-and-out rebellion; from enduring unspeakable loss, to succumbing, as one’s life drains to nothing.

Directed by Kevin Heckman of Next Theatre for this production, Babes With Blades is an all women’s theater troupe. Their mission is to provide women with stage combat skills, to expand powerful fighting roles for women in drama, and to undermine “the preconception that strength and power are inappropriate for women.” Yet their work also helps to preserve and update the craft and discipline of stage combat for all actors, which often goes by the wayside when theaters downsize casts and drastically cut scenes. Unfortunately, removing traditional battle and fight scenes from plays like Macbeth, while understandable for the modern, minimalist, or cash-strapped production, can have the unwanted effect of diminishing the gravitas of the characters’ choices.

Throughout history, women have fought and participated in battle, often donning men’s clothing to get into military service. Theater history also has its famous women warriors, such as Esme Beringer and Ella Hattan, aka Jaguarina. Staging the traditional combat scenes places physical demands upon actors that few may be prepared for today. To speak one’s part is one thing, to speak it after a full scene of running around, swinging a sword, is quite another. “Most of these women have been with the troupe for years,” said Delia Ford (Duncan), when I asked about getting into shape for the play. “But I’ve just come out of retirement, so I really felt it.”

Murderer (Stephanie Repin) and Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) struggle to the death. The other challenge for companies like these is finding the theater space that will support battle. La Costa is a little hole-in-the-wall theater that one could walk by but for the sandwich-board sign demarking its location, but it has enough stage area plus plenty of routes for exits and entrances. The troupe rushed to find it in 48 hours after losing their previous theater space in Pilsen.

Very likely, what teamwork was needed to produce these battle scenes has strengthened the cohesiveness of this ensemble cast. In fact, their collective paranoia under Macbeth’s gory, volatile regime is performed so convincingly that, by the time we see Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) at Dunsinane, we feel the suffocation of tyranny as palpably as Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Here, the young girl players from The Viola Project are cast to greatest effect, as children dressed in uniforms and thrown into battle because Macbeth’s thanes have all fled to his enemies.

The most dramatic scene may be of Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) taking up arms to defend her home and child from Macbeth’s assassins.

Although, in the end, the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) was so anticipated and so well executed, it received its own applause.

LadyMacduffkillsm What is the theatrical impact of seeing women fight for themselves, their loved ones, their country, or their ambitions? Be prepared to see, by contrast, a still forceful yet vulnerable and human Lady Macbeth (Nika Ericson). Unlike productions that suffuse Lady Macbeth with sexual and demonic power, both Ericson and the direction show a woman as much under the influence of the Witches (Rachel Stubbs, Melanie Kibbler, and Gillian N. Humiston) as her husband. After the disastrous banquet wherein Banquo’s ghost appears, during which Macbeth freaks out enough to brandish his knife in the guests’ faces, Macbeth slices his hand and pours his blood into a cup. At that moment, Lady Macbeth realizes she has no control over the evil she has unleashed. It is a moment of pure horror.

Furthermore, the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth potently render, in agonizing increments, their relationship’s progressive disintegration. This production does not overplay this couple’s sexuality, yet illuminates their essential, integral partnership, before, during, and after their downfall.

Kathrynne Wolf’s Macbeth is also vulnerable. While this vulnerability brings Macbeth’s character closer to Hamlet’s, especially when vacillating over murder, it differs by exposing his lack of a moral center. It is this lack of center, more than fear or astonishment, which prevents him from accosting the Witches just like Banquo does. Stephanie Repin, as Banquo, conveys the honor and judicious caution of a morally stable foil.

MacbMacdClinchsm The rub for this production remains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most famous speeches. These are always troublesome challenges for every actor because they are, for lack of a better word, accursed by comparisons to past performances. They are operatic in nature. Like arias, the soprano and tenor are expected to step downstage and blow the audience away. That being said, the limited mastery of such critical moments makes this Macbeth an uneven, if exciting production. Particularly Lady Macbeth’s opening “invocation” speech–I question the effectiveness of the director’s choice to have the Witches take over whole lines of Lady Macbeth’s. Far more effective was having the Witches chant specific words within Macbeth’s lines, to emphasize their encroachment on his mental state.

The action and pacing never flags, however. One can be assured of a thrilling demonstration of women’s strength and ensemble unity in the delivery of this classic tale about the battles within and without the human soul.

The Viola Project introduces young girls to Shakespeare and trains them in both male and female roles. The young actors playing in this production trained in a stage combat workshop in 2006 sponsored by both Babes With Blades and The Viola Project.

Rating: ««½

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