Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

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REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 001

   
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 006 The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 002

All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

snowqueen-group

Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

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Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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Review: Chicago Children’s Theatre’s “The Hundred Dresses”

Hilarious and touching – plus pretty dresses!

 Hundred-Dresses

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre presents:

The Hundred Dresses

by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert
directed by Sean Graney
extended through November 22nd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Hundred-Dresses-3 The Hundred Dresses is a pretty show: pretty music, pretty voices, pretty staging, and of course, pretty dresses. The 100 Dresses is also a children’s show. If you don’t get designated nap time or a half hour after lunch to play kickball, then you are probably not the target audience for Chicago Children’s Theatre. Luckily, however, The 100 Dresses is a great show; a musical that speaks to the hearts of anyone that has ever needed a friend.

Wanda Petronski (Lauren Patten) has just immigrated from Poland with her father, and she isn’t the same as the other girls. She speaks with a funny accent, wears the same blue dress to school everyday, and queen bee Peggy (Natalie Berg) just plain doesn’t like her. Caught in the middle is Peggy’s best friend Maddie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who thinks Wanda is actually kind of nice. The girls start teasing Wanda, and when Wanda tells them that she actually has 100 dresses in her closet at home, the conflict escalates. When the bullying becomes too much, Jan (Kurt Ehrmann), Wanda’s father, pulls her out of the school and everyone involved learns a good lesson about the pain that bullying and teasing causes.

Hundred-Dresses-2 G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert‘s script is straightforward but filled with hilarious jokes and inspirational moments, perfect for the children in the house. Meanwhile, the cast and director Sean Graney have found the serious reality behind the bright dresses and colorful schoolhouse, giving the musical a weight that makes it more than fluff theater that kills an hour of the babysitter’s time. When Peggy talks about how easy it is to get a job or spend hundreds on a dress, the people in the audience that are laughing are the teachers and the parents, not the kids. Adult characters like Jan Petrovski and Miss Mason (Nadirah Bost) are used to ground the world in a mature reality that is probably more hundred-dresses-4 engaging to an older audience. When Miss Mason learns about Wanda’s dead mother, Bost reacts with sympathy and tenderness that travels throughout the theater, warming the viewers to the Patrovski’s plight from the very beginning of the play.

The playwright duo brings the same mix of comedy and warmth to their music and lyrics, and the songs are catchy while still carrying great emotional gravity. “The Hundred Dresses,”  Wanda’s heartbreaking solo where she reminisces about her life in Poland and how girls would dance in the dresses their mothers made, is exquisitely handled by Patten, finding the perfect balance between the joys and pains of youth that captures the tragedy of Wanda’s loss. While the script keeps a fairly light feel throughout, the music has a maturity and fullness that is captivating. When Wanda is absent for many days in a row, Maddie sings “Wanda Petrovski is Missing,” a rollercoaster of a ballad that requires a great belt, amazing diction, and razor sharp acting skills. Luckily, Sheppard is more than up for the task, and Maddie is a lovable protagonist that is easy to relate to.

 

All the actors that make up Wanda’s class of six have great chemistry with one another, and group numbers like “Penny Paddywack” are electric. The company’s voices all blend beautifully, and the melancholy “Passing of Autumn” is a wonderful showcase of their talents. Geoff Rice is adorable as class underdog Jack, whether he is stressing about winning the art contest or helping Maddie makes the right decisions, and Elana Ernst and Tyler Ravelson provide great comic relief two of Wanda’s goofy classmates; Ernst as hilariously airheaded diva Cecile and Ravelson as costumed class clown Willie. 

And the dresses? Costume designer Jacqueline Firkins‘ creations are gorgeous.

Rating: ««««

 

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