Review: The Conquest of the South Pole (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

The Ultimate Downer

  
  

Tom Hickey, Michael Dailey, John Ferrick in Strawdog Theatre's 'The Conquest of the South Pole'. Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Conquest of the South Pole
   
Written by Manfred Karge
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 28  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The title suggests a sprawling epic, not this intriguing 90-minute allegorical comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge (a Brecht protege who has worked for the Berliner Ensemble). A richly surreal trove, The Conquest of the South Pole is an action portrait of four unemployed workers who, vaguely sensing they’ve lost their usefulness, pass their time recreating Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the bottom of the earth.

Strawdog Theatre presents 'The Conquest of the South Pole' by Manfred Karge and directed by Kimberly Senior.With no glory to seek themselves, they ape a long-gone fame. (It beats playing pinball, swilling schnapps or pretending that they’re force-feeding political prisoners.) This borrowed lusters is one of many pungent ironies archly detailed in Kimberly Senior’s staging for Strawdog Theatre.

Mired in the dying industrial town of Herne, the twentysomethings congregate on their crowded tenement rooftop (evoked by Jack Magaw in a sparely neutral dormer set design). Their make-believe offers them a refuge from the bleak life of the Ruhr valley. (Envying the boredom of "unemployed millionaires," one worker comments: "They don’t even want to work. I want to, and I can’t!") Well, they’re not attacking immigrant workers like so many German skinheads.

But, far from offering an escape, their ritualized polar saga perversely mirrors their own dark plight and it’s easier to connect with Scott’s doomed expedition than Amundsen’s successful one.

Led by gruff Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the crew–skeptical Buscher (John Ferrick), mysterious Seiffert (Michael Dailey) and very married Braukmann (Tom Hickey)–are joined by the dimwitted but doglike Frankieboy (Joel Ewing), as they meticulously recreate the Norwegian’s race to the Pole, scrounging around for antarctic-ish costumes, using a laundry line as an icy landscape, rappelling across the stage, breaking into song and dance.

Inevitably the fantasy must be paid for or, as they put it, "Watch out for crevasses." Sexually confident even if strapped for funds, Slupianek seduces Brauckmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery), who’s furious that their boyish “monkey games” are keeping her husband from going to work.  Buscher almost derails the pageant by demanding that they enact Scott’s doomed expedition, a reflection of failure a lot closer to their own.

Oddly, the event that renews their ardor to resume their "play" is an ugly encounter with Rudi (Anderson Lawfer), a boorish and fatuous Hitler lover and his divorced trull Rosi (Justine C. Turner); nothing could be worse than his idea of fascist pleasure.

When they finally "reach" the Pole, it’s a glorious, redeeming moment, followed all too quickly by the inevitable let-down (even a suicide). Clearly art was not enough.

In its pell-mell energy and kinetic stage pictures ”Conquest” strongly recalls past Chicago productions of English plays about bored and wasted youth–Road, Stags and Hens, Bouncers, (It also resembles Marat/Sade in its inspired yoking of an historical event with a dysfunctional present.) What’s unique to Karge’s 1986 work is the depiction of untapped ingenuity; in the desperation of the men’s elaborate theatrics, midlife crises and frenetic male-bonding, you taste the loss of so much thwarted art, squandered by hard times and bad luck.

With a translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt, the script is a volatile mix of cascading street poetry, no-nonsense confessionals, and the rigid, haunting prose of the original antarctic journals.

Unfortunately, this revival is much less thrilling than the play’s first Chicago production in 1992 by the late Famous Door Theatre. The Strawdog stage just isn’t big enough for the men to take real risks in recreating their polar hero journey. The script’s adventurous aspects get short shrift and we’re left with undiluted desperation.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: Wuthering Heights (Lifeline Theatre)

 

Gothic gone ghostly

 

 Nelly (Cameron Feagin, right) comforts Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left), who suffers from tortured visions; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
   
Wuthering Heights
   
Adapted by Christina Calvit
From the novel by Emily Brontë
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through October 31   |  
tickets: $20–35  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In a sense, Emily Brontë’s classic romance is about an anguished love that endures beyond the grave. Despite many gothic elements, it is not, however, a ghost story.

Yet in Lifeline Theatre’s disappointing version of Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Leopold as Cathy Earnshaw, spends way too much time creeping about the stage in a white gown, grasping hands out claw-like, while the rest of the company stands around dismally making "woo-woo" sounds in the background. Where’s the Halloween candy?

Heathcliff (Gregory Isaac, right foreground) is haunted by the memory of his lost love Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left background); in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë Adaptor Christina Calvit dumps the eminently dispensable Mr. Lockwood, who frames the original story, and leaves all of the narration in the hands of Nelly Dean (the capable Cameron Feagin), who does most of it in the novel, anyway. But Lockwood’s nightmare about Cathy at the start of the book makes it clear that the dead Cathy’s influence is psychological, not supernatural, paving the way for the dying Heathcliff’s visions of her. Here we have a very solid Cathy pounding at the window to get in, over and over again.

Calvit also excises the pious Joseph, removing the whole theme of religious intolerance and hypocrisy that’s in the novel. Even at that, the production runs nearly 2½ hours.

We’re left with the everlasting triangle of the brooding and increasingly dangerous Heathcliff (darkly handsome Gregory Isaac), the highly strung, self-centered Cathy and the prissy Edgar Linton (nicely played by Robert Kauzlaric), and the second-generation repetition of Cathy’s daughter (a straightforward performance by Lucy Carapetyan), Healthcliff’s sickly and selfish son (Nick Vidal) and the degraded Hareton Earnshaw (Christopher Chmelik), here turned into a kind of cringing Gollum.

The deteriorating Hindley Earnshaw (John Henry Roberts), Cathy’s mean and profligate brother, and Healthcliff’s unfortunate wife (Sarah Goeden) get short shrift. The comparison between Earnshaw’s decline at the death of his beloved wife and Heathcliff’s reaction to Cathy’s marriage and subsequent demise is all but buried.

For all their scenes together, we never really see the sensual attraction that so haunts Heathcliff that he spends his life plotting revenge over his lost love, or Cathy to say that Heathcliff is her self. (Which, of course, makes it OK for her to marry another guy.)

WutheringHeights2Calvit juxtaposes the two generations fairly well, but she introduces each character in such a way that audiences are never left in any suspense about what’s going to happen and who’s going wind up with whom. So she tells us that Cathy marries Linton, not Heathcliff, and that her daughter ends up with Hareton well before the scenes that show us. Perhaps Calvit assumed that no one would go to see this play who wasn’t familiar with the novel. She might be right.

Certainly, no one who isn’t already a fan of the Brontë will become one as a result of this very screechy play, in which the characters are constantly yelling at one another. (To be fair, some of that is straight out of Emily Brontë melodrama — but it’s not comfortable to hear.)

Stylized. dancelike sequences add nothing to our understanding of the story and only take up time and slow the action. So much of the script and Elise Kauzlaric direction get in the way, that it’s hard to tell whether the cast does a good job or not.

Alan Donahue’s platform set captures little of the vastness of the Yorkshire moors and the up and down slide of the window and door become tiresome quickly.

If you’re an avid fan of the novel, you might want to see this. If not, skip it.

   
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: The Ring Cycle (The Building Stage)

‘The Ring Cycle’ Is a Family Affair

 WotanValkyries

The Building Stage presents:

The Ring Cycle

 

based on Richard Wagner “Der Ring des Nibelungen”
directed by Blake Montgomery and Joanie Schultz
adapted by
The Building Stage
through March 14th (more info)

Review by Paige Listerud

The Building Stage has obviously made no small plans. Since their own press admits an aversion to playing it safe, even in the midst of economic crisis, one might easily presume that they’d proceed with greater flare, more flash, or more complicated effects in the execution of their latest production, The Ring Cycle. Instead, Artistic Director Blake Montgomery and Associate Artistic Director Joanie Schultz have given us an adaptation of Richard Wagner’s classic Der Ring des Nibelungen that seems almost puritanical in its lean storytelling. If anything, this monumental production adheres to strict interpretation of Montgomery’s vision for a physical theater—relying full force on the use of mask, clown, movement and mime. Whatever effects exist, they are only the most elemental kind. It’s a theater that celebrates the actor and the actor’s body. In this case, that celebration pushes the endurance of The Ring Cycle’s cast and crew to their limits with a six-hour long marathon of a show.

Building Stage_The Ring Cycle Set designers Meghan Raham and Lee Keenan are almost unforgiving in the productions spare, industrial structure. Only a few gracefully draped aerial silks relieve its exacting right angles and hard surfaces of brick, aluminum, and steel. Spare, elegant lighting (Justin Wardell) and a good, old, effectively timed fog machine suggest otherworldliness. Truly, the world of The Ring Cycle is not a kind or gentle one: its characters prefer warrior strength to anything that smacks of softness. Much here reminds us why Wagner was a Nazi favorite. Against this backdrop, the unabashed femininity of the Rhinemaidens (Sarah Scanlon, Lindsey Dorcus, and Lucy Carapetyan) provides much needed respite.

For all the promotion of The Ring Cycle as “a play that rocks,” the band is surprisingly unobtrusive. Composer and Music Director Kevin O’Donnell only underscores the action on stage; he never overwhelms it. His arrangements, quoting many of Wagner’s leitmotifs, are respectful and modest. The band itself remains semi-hidden in its own pit toward the back of the stage’s first level, reinforcing the theatricality of the overall production and the subterranean presence of the music. It’s a discreet, vital pulse–for a rock band.

In fact, it’s this lack of rock opera flash and pretentiousness that most marks The Building Stage’s production. Scene after scene is simply good, solid storytelling—the kind that takes place around campfires. Even the mid-show dinner break, when cast and audience dine, picnic-style, onstage together, produces a kind of family feeling. Given its rudimentary storytelling and the clowning that exhibits vaudevillian showmanship, one could almost recommend this as entertainment for the whole family. Then again, those passionate, unapologetic incest scenes just might carry that family feeling a little too far. I’ve use the word “puritanical” – but fear not. That’s only in reference to style. All the rampant, Oedipal mania of Wagner’s original has been preserved.

Rhinegold

There are some critics who think of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as Alberich’s tragedy. If so, it’s a tragedy born of frustrated attempts at getting nookie. The Rhine maidens, costumed in coy, sexy homage to Esther Williams, take a moment away from guarding their magical gold to taunt the ugly, hapless dwarf. Forswearing love, but not pleasure, Alberich (William Bullion) steals their gold and fashions a ring of power with which he plans to enslave all–starting with his brother Mime (Bill O’Connor) and the rest of the Nibelung. Here, the set design is its most effective, evoking a nightmare vision of an oppressive industrial underworld. Alberich enslaves his workforce not only with the Ring, but also a magical helmet fashioned by Mime that allows him to take any form—even invisibility–by which he can surveil and terrorize his overworked slaves.

Montgomery and Schultz can thank whatever gods they worship for Bullion and O’Connor’s agile and superbly timed clowning. Whether playing dwarves or giants, not only do they provide much needed levity, they make the darker moments more monstrous. In these two talents, The Building Stage has truly struck gold.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing among the beautiful people. Once again, costuming (Meghan Raham and Marianna Csaszar) lodges tongue firmly in cheek by dressing the gods as 1970s jet setters. An excellent impulse—if only they had the budget to bring on the vintage Halston and Versace. In any case, Wotan (Chris Pomeroy) has enough on his hands just trying to pay–or not pay–the Giants who have built his legendary fortress. Using his wife Fricka’s (Mandy Walsh) sister, the goddess Freia (Daiva Bhandari), as barter is bound to win him an eternity in the doghouse—especially since Freia grows the golden apples that keep the gods forever young.

Loge, the demigod of fire (Darci Nalepa), arrives just in time to throw both Ring and Rhinegold into the mix. Wotan depends on Loge’s wit to get him out of this jam, but Nalepa slays most when Loge’s wit turns on the gods in sly, scathing commentary.

The Earth goddess, Erda (Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan), emerges from her chthonic lair long enough to warn about the Ring’s dreadful power—a striking bit of puppetry, but still not enough to make everyone heed her advice. As Wotan surrenders the Ring, magic helmet, and gold he has stolen from Alberich, the Giants turn against each other in deadly combat, fulfilling the Ring’s curse. Accompanied by the mournful song of the Rhinemaidens, made more eerie by their blue-lighted presence contained downstage, the gods’ crossing of the rainbow bridge to Valhalla seems more like a retreat from the devastation they’ve colluded in, rather than a triumphal procession.

erda

Valkyrie

Time has passed. Wotan has stuck his dick into just about everything—including Erda, by whom he’s sired the Valkyries, and a mortal woman by whom he’s fathered the twins Siegmund (Nick Vidal) and Sieglinde (Bhandari). The twins have been separated at birth only to unwittingly meet again, when Sieglinde is trapped in a loveless marriage and Siegmund is on the run from a tribal quarrel over–guess what?–a girl about to be trapped in a loveless marriage.

It must be said that, while the entire cast grounds the heightened language of the original libretto with flesh and blood vitality, Vidal’s execution of it is especially strong. Particularly since professing fiery love as Siegmund in the second act, and Siegfried in the third, can get a little, well, repetitive. But Vidal never allows a moment’s loss of interest. In fact, it’s a real sensual pleasure to hear spoken words of love take on operatic power, whether between Siegmund and Sieglinde or Siegfried and Brunhilde (Nalepa). As for “incest is best,” no artist defends that ardent, narcissistic bond like Wagner. It also helps to have a patriarchal asshole of a husband, like Hunding, for a foil–played with relish by Pat King.

Leave it to the nagging wife to spoil everyone’s fun. Playing Fricka, goddess of marriage, may be a thankless job, but at least Walsh’s cramped harridan throws the estrangement between her and Wotan into high relief, bringing greater psychological veracity to Wotan’s quiet moment of confidence in his Valkyrie daughter, Brunhilde. This is, in fact, Pomeroy’s finest moment. In earlier scenes, his aloof style can make his king of the gods come across like a glorified spear-carrier. But in the course of revealing his secret scheme to use Siegmund and Sieglinde to retrieve the Ring, Pomeroy effectively captures Wotan’s vulnerability and anxiety over losing those he longs to protect by fulfilling his role as upholder of the law.

Pomeroy and Nalepa so thoroughly cement the bond between father and daughter that Brunhilde’s choice to disobey Wotan’s orders manifests the very definition of tragedy. He tells her to let Hunding kill Siegmund, according to Fricka’s wishes, but she disobeys, knowing her father’s true feelings and witnessing the love Siegmund has for Sieglinde. Things get a little rough around the edges, though. The shattering of the sword Necessity in Siegmund’s hands remains one of the clumsier effects of the production. Brunhilde and Sieglinde’s pleas for protection from the Valkyries also get a bit shrill. But for all that, the act closes profoundly on Wotan’s farewell to Brunhilde, as he puts her to sleep with a kiss and rings her body with a wall of fire that only a hero can penetrate. Plus, the ensemble puppetry of the ride of the Valkyries is pretty cool, too.

 

Siegfried

Two main things brighten the stage during the third episode: O’Connor’s hilarious interpretation of the dwarf Mime and the goofy, delightful, spring-fresh presence of the Woodbirds (Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan).

AngelofDeath Mime is not a nice guy. He raises young Siegfried, surviving son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, only in order to have him defeat Fafner, the surviving Giant who, with Mime’s magic helmet, has turned himself into a dragon and now guards both Rhinegold and Ring in a cave nearby. Once Fafner is slain, Mime has only to murder Siegfried and the Ring will be his. Dastardly designs indeed! And O’Connor wrings every drop of joyous comic book evil out of the premise.

Of course, Siegfried (Vidal) is Mime’s perfect straight man. Even after he’s magically acquired the ability to read his thoughts and knows all of Mime’s evil plans, he still doesn’t fully get their implications. Similar humorous exchanges occur between Siegfried and the Woodbirds–only with all the charms that the flying girls can bring, which are considerable.

An early visit from Wotan, now in Wanderer mode, reveals that only one who has never known fear can reforge the sword Necessity and defeat Fafner. Siegfried has never known fear because of a) his sheltered upbringing by Mime and b) he’s not the brightest crayon in the box. Still, he’s our hero. He reforges the sword, kills the dragon, and gets the Ring, the magic helmet and, ultimately, the girl—Brunhilde.

Granddad, however, is not doing so well. A brief visit with Erda confirms to Wotan that the end of the gods is nigh. This time, that fabulously bizarre, triple-goddess puppetry that brilliantly informed the first episode falls flat. There simply isn’t a strong, clear-cut emotional exchange between Wotan and Erda during this crucial scene. And, for all the “eternal woman” build-up before Erda’s entrance, she really just looks like a giant Blair Witch with headlights. On top of that, the Oedipal showdown between Wotan and Siegfried, hurrying to Brunhilde, is far too telegraphed and choreographed to maintain interest. It’s a perfunctorily performed scene that only manages to fill dead space.

But, once lovers are united, Vidal and Nalepa make the language soar. Brunhilde may anticipate the loss of personal power in her relationship with Siegfried, but her acquiescence makes the scene a flaming incest fest.

 

Twilight of the Gods

I hardly know which I like more—Gunther (King) and Gutrune (Bhandari) as the feckless and amoral aristocratic brother/sister pair or the black velvet evil of Hagen (Bullion), Alberich’s half-human offspring. Bullion really knows how to let the darkness in, especially during a difficult scene in which Alberich communicates with Hagen during a dream state. That kind of thing would be a sloppy mess in lesser hands, but Bullion’s energy and precision pulls it off with all its uncanny psychological undertones.

rescue But then King and Bhandari toss off their lines and make their characters’ choices with all the careless ease of the over privileged. Too blithe to consider the ramifications of their actions and too spineless to devise or execute their own schemes, they facilely wreak enough damage being led around by the nose by Hagen. Again, this Wagnerian prelude to Nazi theories about class-consciousness and certain people with “bad blood” rises to the surface.

Siegfried, ever the guileless hero, wanders into this pit just after he has bestowed the Ring as a token of love on Brunhilde. One quick sip of a love potion makes him forget all about it. Plighting himself to Gutrune and swearing blood brotherhood to Gunther, he vows to win Brunhilde for Gunther’s wife. Using the magic helmet to disguise himself as Gunther, he penetrates the fiery barrier once again, steals back the Ring, and Gunther drags Brunhilde back with him to the castle.

All through three episodes, Nalepa has carefully plotted Brunhilde’s progress with visibly subtle and nuanced changes in consciousness. Going from immortal shield maiden to mortal woman, independent, inexperienced virgin to sensually dominated lover, Brunhilde now reaches the depths of barren patriarchal disempowerment that make her as embittered and vindictive as Fricka. Lo, how the mighty Valkyrie has fallen. It may be painful to watch but at least every piece is in place. She retaliates Siegfried’s mindless betrayal by revealing to Hagen and Gunther his Achilles’ heel—or, rather, back. It’s one step from there to Siegfried’s demise.

How nice that Siegfried gets one more chance with the eternal feminine through his encounter with the Rhinemaidens at the river. It’s the last big moment for Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan to shine, where the excellence of their dramatic and acrobatic unity reveals how essential they have been all along. Their deceptively light and playful warning to Siegfried plumbs all kinds of depths about chances not taken and fortune breezily passing one by. How nice it is that, after the death of the hero, the drowning of Hagen, the end of the gods and the retrieval of their Rhinegold, even without sword or shield, the girls finally get what they want.

Rating: ★★★

 

NOTE: Building Stage encourages the audience to bring a picnic or purchase a boxed dinner at least 24 hours in advance from our catering partner Bari Italian Deli. Bring your blanket and join in an onstage wintertime picnic. Snacks and beverages will also be available at the theater during the run of the show

Wotan3 .

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