REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

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Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
         
         

REVIEW: Beautiful City (Theatre Mir)

Solid cast punctuates this urban fairytale

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Theatre Mir presents

Beautiful City

 

Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Rob Chambers
At Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph,
thru April 3rd
(more info)

By Katy Walsh

“Make no little plans” is a phrase coined by Chicago’s infamous urban planner, Daniel Burnham. In Theatre Mir’s play Beautiful City, lead character Tony Raft embraces this philosophy despite opposition from his architect, a witch and the mob.  Performed at the Storefront Theatre in conjunction with DCA Theatre and the Beautiful_City10Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Beautiful City is the story of each person’s quest to get what they want by overcoming ‘the simple ugly truth.’ Tony wants a grandiose shopping mall. His mobster mama wants more money. His architect wants to be healed. The witch wants urban renewal and the freedom to dig through garbage. Beautiful City interconnects three families in an urban fairy tale of betrayal, greed and redemption.

The entire cast has been solidly constructed. Here are some of the pillar performances: Yosh Hayashi (Tony Raft) impresses with his vigorous audacity over a shopping mall obsession. Splendidly rotten in Steep Theatre’s Hollowlands, Hayashi exploits the humor in his every diabolical depiction. It’s Gilbert Gottfried as Hannibal Lector. Walking up and down stairs in 3 inch heels, Rachel Slavick (Mary Raft) is tough. Except for a wonderful salad thrashing scene, Slavick plays it stone faced cold. Mira Vasiljevic (Gina Mae Sabatini) contorts her look with an ongoing skunk face in her portrayal of the witch. Physically and vocally, Vasiljevic showcases her character as a bizarre source of life’s truth. She’s hilarious! C. Sean Piereman (Paul Gallagher) is the one to be rescued in this modern day fable. In the first few scenes, Piereman’s pain is so uncomfortably real, one feels the need to call 911. Other high energy moments of dramedy are Jeremy Kahn (Stevie Moore) as a fast-talking punk, Kristen Secrist (Jane Sabatini) as a wacky hospital volunteer, Kurt Brocker (Rolly Moore) as a desperate thug and Megan Kohl (Dian Black) as the confident gum -chewing cop. It is stellar acting wrapped up in Whitney McBride’s character-perfected costumes.

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Director Rob Chambers maximizes the physical space and the script to establish the framework of this adult fairy tale. Chambers is working from the foundation laid by playwright George F. Walker. Walker illustrates the issues of gentrification with an entertaining myth of mobsters verses witches. The parts are there for a solid built fortress. To nail it, Walker needs to sand it down for refinement. Some of the scenes are longer than necessary. In particular, a pivotal end scene is overly explanatory. This technique feels Hollywood-esque in “dumbing it down for the mainstream.” There are also some transitional moments of clunkiness, like, the scene where Paul is in the witch’s store. When did he decide to seek her out? It’s like realizing you are already in a room when you thought you were walking down a corridor. Walker’s blueprint needs a hallway connecting smaller rooms to more effectively imagine city dwelling. Nonetheless, even without a script renovation, Mir Theatre’s Beautiful City is an entertaining lesson of urban renewal for the entire community.

Making his own contribution to our city landscape, Frank Lloyd Wright says, “eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful city left in the world.” Right with you, Frank!

Rating: ★★★

 

Post-show Discussions

  • Thursday, March 11, with cast and director Rob Chambers
  • Saturday, March 20, with Dr. Michael Bennett, executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center
  • Friday, March 26, with Al Gini, contributor at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and professor of philosophy and business ethics at Loyola University, Chicago

Continue reading

New team announced for Theatre Building Chicago’s ‘Musical Theatre Writers Workshop’

Theatre Building Chicago announces it new team of Steinhagen, Holland and Chambers

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Theatre Building Chicago is pleased to announce that Jon Steinhagen and Patrick Holland will join Artistic Director Allan Chambers to “team teach” TBC’s Musical Theatre Writers Workshop. The workshop’s curriculum will continue to focus on the development of the artist in specific fundamentals related to creation of new musicals. The Fall semester focuses on lyrics, music and book and the Winter/Spring semester Practicum takes workshop members through the planning, writing and rehearsal process of a new musical. The introductory workshop sessions will be team-taught by Jon Steinhagen, Patrick Holland and Artistic Director Allan Chambers. This triumvirate of theatre artists brings a wealth of musical theatre writing, directing, and teaching experiences to the workshop. Their years of experience will guide members as they instruct and lead the critique sessions for the introductory first year members.

The 2nd year members and alumni writers will also have the opportunity to work with the three instructors separately or as a team, as they present scenes and songs from full length musicals and one-act children’s musicals. There will usually be two of the three at all session of the 2nd year and alumni workshop. The leader of this group will function as dramaturg/moderator to keep workshop feedback sessions focused and on task.

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Jon Steinhagen is an author, actor, composer/musician, and Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists. His plays and musicals have been produced or workshopped from Manhattan to Seattle; his plays include The Applewood Pistols (an “original Chekhov comedy” based on Chekhov’s notebooks), The Velvet Gentleman, Something More Comfortable, Second Mouse, Dating Walter Dante, Aces, Ponzi on Sunday, Perfectly Natural, a collection of his shorter plays, was produced at the Midtown International Theatre Festival (NYC) in July 2009. Jon wrote the music and lyrics for the musicals The Arresting Dilemma of Mr. K (based on Kafka’s The Trial), The Circus of Dr. Lao, Emma & Company (all developed at TBC and STAGES) and the Jeff and After Dark Award-winning Inferno Beach and People Like Us. Jon is also an award-winning musical director, arranger, and actor who has received four Jeff Awards, six After Dark Awards, and three Jeff nominations for writing, musical direction, or acting. Jon is a graduate of the New Tuners Workshops led by John Sparks. He is an associate member of
The Dramatist’s Guild, a member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and ensemble member of Signal Ensemble Theatre.

Patrick Holland is a professional Music Director, Conductor, Arranger, Orchestrator, Musician, and Educator has had the pleasure of working with Theatre Building Chicago on many projects over the past 10 years on such STAGES projects as Crazy Mary, Bringers, Continental Divide, The Hard Road, Take Me America, Hunger, and Rex. Patrick has also had the pleasure of working with Allan Chambers on Saints & Sinners as part of the workshop mini-musical project in conjunction
with Loyola University of Chicago. Patrick’s Broadway and National Tout credits include The King and I (with Yul Brynner), Hello Dolly (with Carol Channing), Guys and Dolls (with Leslie Uggams), A Chorus Line, Annie, The Pirates of Penzance and La Cage aux Folles to name a handful. He has had the honor of working in New York and Chicago with industry giants Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Tommy Tune. In the Chicagoland area Patrick has worked with The Goodman Theatre, Light Opera Works, Bailiwick, Theatre Building Chicago, and Chicago Cabaret. He has taught music and musical direction at
Northwestern University, Loyola University and Roosevelt University.

Allan Chambers, Artistic Director of TBC, has served in many capacities for Theatre Building Chicago including dramaturg, director, workshop coordinator and actor. Allan oversees theatre company client services and now directs the musical program. He is the past-president of the Illinois Theatre Association,
a founding and former board member of Chicago Alliance for Playwrights, and artistic consultant for Creative Musical Theatre, an honors class dedicated to the development of new music theatre voices at Valparaiso High School. Allan has served as an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris College and at North Park University, and has worked in various capacities with the Goodman Theatre, Music/Theatre Workshop, Our Town Productions, Prologue Theatre, American DreamWorks, Different Drummer Theatre, Bailiwick Repertory, The Western Stage, Cabrillo Stage, Bigfork Playhouse and North Shore Music Theatre. M.F.A., musical theatre, San Diego State University. B.S., theatre acting/directing, University of Idaho.

 


About the Workshop

The first workshop will be the weekend of September 26-27.

Aspiring composers, lyricists and book writers are encouraged to contact TBC’s Artistic Director, Allan Chambers to schedule a personal interview to assess your skill level and to learn if the Musical Writer’s Workshop can benefit you in your quest  to create new musical works.

Allan can be reached at 773-929-7367 ext 229 or at allan@theatrebuildingchicago.org

Theatre Building Chicago has plans to strategically grow the musical program from the ground up. The Musical Theatre Writers Workshop is the first stage in the development of new projects that will then be ready for Monday Night Musicals, STAGES Festivals, Intensive Workshops,  and eventually onto full-scale productions.

The New Musicals for Kids development pipeline is filling up with exciting new projects from TBC’s workshop as well as the NYU Tisch School MFA program.
TBC also produces the Monday Night Musicals series of concert readings of works in progress. The first Monday Night Musical of the 2009/2010 season is The Spark, October 26, 2009. TBC’s New Musicals for Kids series will open with Tantrum on Tracks October 14, 2009.

TBC’s Musical Theatre Writers Workshop produces the STAGES festival of new musicals. STAGES will be held August 20-22, 2010.  Attendees include producers, directors, writers, composers and musical theatre aficionados from all over the country. STAGES is an opportunity for authors and composers to see and hear their work interpreted by a production team and performed for Chicago audiences. It is also an opportunity for producers and directors to assess new musicals
and musical theatre talent.

Other Christmas Theater and Cultural Events

lawfer_ongreen Strawdog Theatre Company is presenting their annual holiday benefit “Strawdog Yuletacular 2008” on Monday, December 8th, 7-10pm, at Morseland in Rogers Park. The evening will feature a retro-style variety show with comedic sketches, a holiday cooking demonstration, a raffle and silent auction, and live, big-band style music provided by Strawdog’s guest band, The Jenn Rhoads Project. Sounds like fun to me!  Find more info here.

 

 

Steppenwolf Theatre has announced the final extension of their Christmas hit “Dublin Carol”, by playwright Conor McPherson.  The extended closing date will be Sunday, January 4th.  More info here.

comedysportzDue to popular demand, ComedySportz Theatre, now in their new home on Belmont and Clark,  has added extra performances for during the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  More info here.

UPDATE: ComedySportz will also be offering New Years Eve performances, at 6pm and 10pm.

 

 

 

 

On Wednesday, December 3rd, at 7:30, Loyola University will present its annual Holiday Concert, Joyola,  with performances from the Loyola Orchestra, Chamber Choir, Wind ensemble, University Chorus and Jazz band.  More info here.

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College Watch – "Intimate Apparel" at Loyola

I recently received an e-mail from a publicist at Loyola University, asking me to post info on their upcoming show, Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage.  As I have yet to cover theater within Chicago area universities, I was a bit undecided whether or not to make the postings.  But then it occurred to me that, for many, the love of live theater actually occurs in upper education, so why not?  In fact, I’d love to have a person on my blogging team that covers the college theater-scene; probably not reviews as much as just wassup.  So if anyone out there (or someone you know) might be intrigued by this, let me know… 

So here you go:

 

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Production: Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage directed by Jonathan Wilson
Synopsis: Set in New York City in 1905, the play follows a young African-American
seamstress, Esther Mills, and the trials she faces creating undergarments for a wide array of clientele, ranging from upper class white women to prostitutes. 
Performance Dates: September 26–October 5, 2008
Thursday through Saturday performances taking place at 7:30 p.m. and
Sunday performances at 2:00 p.m. 
 
Location: Loyola University’s Kathleen Mullady Theatre is located just a crosswalk away from the Loyola “L” stop on the Red Line.
More info:  http://blogs.luc.edu/artsalive