Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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REVIEW: A Crowded House (State Theatre of Chicago)

   
   

Inside each room lies a literary genius gasping for breath

 

State Theatre - A Crowded House - Image

  
State Theatre presents
  
A Crowded House
   
Adapted from a collection of Virginia Woolf novels
Directed by Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher
at
Gunder Mansion, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

That Virginia Woolf created anything is a testament to her drive, razor-sharp intelligence and prolific, intense imagination. That her work emerged as a leading voice in Modernism, despite immense social and mental health obstacles, is nothing less than incredible. Being raised in an ultra-literate Victorian household certainly gave Woolf the educational foundation on which to succeed, but recurring nervous breakdowns and perennial depression plagued her from adolescence.

A bit of hallmark Victorian shame and silence, especially regarding mental illness, swathes and muffles the rough sketch of Virginia Woolf (Casey Searles) that is A Crowded House; but that tactic seems only appropriate. State Theatre selected the period perfect Gunder Mansion to present her life, through her work, en promenade. While I’ve seen other theater companies defeat themselves with that sort of set up, State Theatre fulfills their mission with great poetry. One is almost overwhelmed by the production’s impressionistic simplicity and also its meticulous attention to detail. Not one, but eight playwrights sculpt the miniature dramas that take place in each room and each room represents one of Woolf’s novels. But more than that, like Woolf’s novels, each room becomes a moment in time or a place in the mind, a A Crowded Room - State Theatre - posterthought or emotion that exists to be revisited. Mrs. Dalloway (Catherine Bullard) is our guide; Woolf’s perfect hostess, hosting the tour of her creator’s mind—another nice bit of turnabout.

Co-directors Lisa Siciliano and Tim Speicher succeed in truly breaking down barriers between audience and cast by establishing each character immediately. “The Voyage Out” by Lisa Siciliano throws the audience into the middle of a wedding party celebrating Virginia and Leonard’s nuptials, as well as the publication of Virginia’s novel by the same name. While a tactic like that can feel stagy, it’s surprising how quickly one acclimates to their eccentric, literary milieu. Outrageous Lytton Strachey (Zach Kropp) and Clive Bell (Caleb Probst) dominate the social scene–poor, sweet Leonard (Joe Zarrow) rendered quite meek and unadorned in their company.

But one quickly realizes, by inference, the critical if quiet role that Leonard plays in Virginia’s life and work. “Night and Day” by Rob Smith drives home the monstrous arrangement between Virginia and her half-brothers. George and Gerald Duckworth, who molested both Virginia and her sister Vanessa after their mother’s death, control the publication of her works—at least until Leonard sets up an independent press to produce them instead. Likewise, in “Mrs. Dalloway” by Greg Edwards, Leonard becomes protective of Virginia when the party celebrating the publication of her novel breaks down entirely. The frenzied self-absorption of their guests and the pressure to be all things—great writer, great hostess—finally gets to Virginia.

The perpetual fragility of Virginia’s mental state is the running thread behind each play—in ways large and small A Crowded House attempts to unravel the reasons behind Woolf’s eventual suicide. Indeed, one whole room is devoted to Virginia’s mentality. Even the erotic reverie that is “Orlando” by Lisa Siciliano, regarding Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West (Cara Olansky), centers on Virginia’s isolation from everyone—even the lover closest to her.

Obviously, this is not the whole Virginia Woolf. State Theatre runs the risk of portraying her as just another woman writer, fulfilling the “madwoman in the attic” stereotype. At the same time, Casey Searles is at her best in Virginia’s final act. All that the woman wanted to do was write, but mental illness was stripping that away from her. All that can be offered in reply is silence. The gorgeous shadow puppetry of Tim Speicher’s “Between the Acts” gives us that silence . . . and wonder . . . and beauty.

While one might wish for other, more diverse elements of Woolf’s life and work to be fleshed out, A Crowded House is one to see.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
        
   

 

Review: Point of Contention’s “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret”

Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s

“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”

Point_of_Contention_The-Wonder

Point of Contention Theatre presents:

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret

by Susanna Centlivre
Directed by Margo Gray
Running thru August 26th (buy tickets)
Location: BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio (map)

Review by Paige Listerud

This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.

Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.

Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.

Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.

As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?

One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.

Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.

Rating: «««½