Review: The Metal Children (Next Theatre Company)

     
     

A fiery display of uncompromising conflict

     
     

Laura T Fisher, Caitlin Collins, Sean Cooper in 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

   

Next Theatre Company presents

 
The Metal Children
 

Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $25 – $40  |  more info  

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The inspiration for Adam Rapp’s 2010 play, The Metal Children, now having its Midwest premiere with Next Theatre Company directed powerfully by Joanie Schultz, stems from Rapp’s own personal experience with the subject matter. Rapp’s 1997 real-life young adult novel, “Buffalo Tree”, deals with very different topics than the heated novel his fictional character, Tobin Falmouth (Sean Cooper), has written with The Metal Children. “Buffalo Tree” was a fictional account of a 12-year old boy in a juvenile detention center (something Rapp is also familiar with), while Falmouth’s The Metal Children is a novel revolving around teenage pregnancy and abortion. However, both were banned from the school curriculum lead by an opposition of the Christian right. In Rapp’s play, this sets the stage for a fierce debate between art and religion, modern feminism and the purpose of education.

Bradley Mott and Laura T Fisher in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael BrosilowBack to Rapp’s real-life novel, in 2005, “The Buffalo Tree” was banned from the school curriculum of a Middle American high school, causing a heated debate involving students, teachers and parents. The school board meeting was attended by Rapp and was covered by the New York Times. This was the incident causing Rapp to write The Metal Children, which brings his fictional author into the same scenario—only in many ways the similarities between Rapp’s life and his play end there. The journey he takes us on is both unpredictable and disturbing, as any fan of Rapp’s plays has come to expect from the playwright of such unflinching plays as Red Light Winter.

The play is set in the fictional town of Midlothia. While there are no specifics other than “Middle America” on the exact location, it could be assumed as Pennsylvania due to the moderate distance to New York implied, references to hills and the fact that Muhlenberg, PA was the actual site of Rapp’s 2005 controversy. Tobin Falmouth begins the play filming a video address for the school board debate addressing his controversial book, using a camcorder belonging to his agent, Bruno (Marc Grapey). Tobin is the picture of self deprecation: living in filth, receiving visits from his drug dealer and slutty neighbor, drugs, drinking and clinging onto any scrap of hope his ex-wife will return to him.

Bruno eventually persuades Tobin to make the trek to Midlothia and personally appear at the debate. He is largely convinced by an impassioned letter from a progressive English teacher, Stacey, defending his book. His first remarks after hearing Bruno read the letter are, “She sounds hot. Do you think she’s hot?” Well, flash-forward to a motel room in the middle of nowhere and we learn that Stacey (Paul Fagen) is not the attractive woman Tobin had in mind, but rather a gay man in his thirties who appears very on edge.

As events unfold, Midlothia begins to seem more like a Steven King setting with spray painted cryptic warnings, gold painted teenage girls, driving rain, phone calls with vacuum cleaners on the other end, means of escape destroyed and one creepy looking pig-masked man with nunchucks. Tobin meets his devotees in Edith (strongly played by veteran actor Meg Thalken), who runs the motel, and her daughter, Vera (a defiantly complex Caroline Neff). Our hero continues to test our expectations, however Rapp excels in creating empathy for unspeakable actions.

The school board debate arrives after an evening of unbelievable occurrences. It is led by a civil and church leader, Otto (Bradley Mott). Shultz and her design team create the most perfect atmosphere for this scene. (There were several moments where I felt the urge to raise my hand, shout out and participate in the debate.) Caitlin Collins, as Tami, the conservative Christian student opposed to the book, is terrifyingly fascinating in her accusations that “Tobin Falmouth is attempting to glorify teen pregnancy.” Vera’s rebuttal is determined exclaiming, “To remove art from a culture, is to name that culture dead!” Laura T. Fisher is yet another standout in the debate as Roberta Cupp, the conservative community leader. When Tobin finally speaks, he clearly is less passionate than anyone about his book; he instead tells the heartbreaking story of what compelled him to write The Metal Children. The brilliance of Rapp lies in that the more we learn of the content of this book and its consequences, the more that even the most progressive audience members find it difficult to choose which side is “right.” What is clear is that each side is far too invested in their own cause to ever understand the other.

Shultz’s direction is masterful in her gradual unraveling of these strange events. Scenic designer, Chelsea Warren, creates efficient use of the space using tracked blinds to frame each scene. Shultz’s cast is also of the highest caliber. Cooper is decidedly subtle in his soft-spoken, yet versatile performance as Tobin. A conversation he has with a certain voicemail is devastating. In addition, Cooper has a strong resemblance to Rapp in this somewhat autobiographical role.

Rapp’s plays rarely take place in a realistic world. There are numerous events in his plays that defy society’s logic. However, Rapp is also one of the gustiest playwrights today and embraces fiction without reservation. His plays are decidedly “messy” with open questions, plot points left unsettled and mixed visceral emotions. The Metal Children is no exception, and with this intelligent, emotional and honestly executed production, the boundaries are tested of what contemporary realism can achieve on the stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Sean Cooper and Marc Grapey in Next Theatre's 'The Metal Children' by Adam Rapp. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Next Theatre Company’s Midwest Premiere of Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children continues through May 8th at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street in Evanston. The performance schedule is: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Saturdays, April 23 and 30 and May 7 have an added 4 p.m. matinee. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 – $40, and can be purchased at nexttheatre.org or by calling 847-475-1875 x2.

  
  

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Review: At Home At The Zoo (Victory Gardens Biograph)

 

A fascinating evening at the ‘Zoo’

 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
At Home At The Zoo
  
Written by Edward Albee  
Directed by Dennis Zacek
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Halsted (map)
through October 31  |   tickets: $35 – $50 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“You are very good in bed,”  a wife tells her husband with imploring sincerity during the Edward Albee’s  Homelife, “I just wish you’d be bad once in a while.”  So goes the one-act piece’s conversation of domestic crisis,  an emotionally complex and elegantly worded discourse between a long-time couple, deeply in love with each other and deeply restless within lives of sheltered security.

By pairing Albee’s new work Homelife with his career-launching The Zoo Story, the Victory Gardens Theater creates a mostly fascinating evening.  Alone, The Zoo Story is a harshly compelling, self-contained  cryptogram of a play – nasty, brutish, violent and short and embedded with disturbing questions about the origin of its violence. Seen with Homelife, The Zoo Story receives a rich, contextual background that makes the piece blaze with heightened immediacy.

To see The Zoo Story is to recoil in shock as an encounter on a Central Park bench moves from civilized pleasantries to bestial bloodsport. The Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Laurentransition is both inexorable and unexpected. With a final, stabbing climax, Albee makes his audience confront more than a few scary concepts. Among them: The tragic fruit of incurable isolation and the disquieting notion that for some people, the world will always be an unwelcoming and awful place. Then there’s the whole idea that no matter how well you insulate yourself – no matter how carefully you cocoon yourself with the trappings of a stable home and family and career – you cannot protect yourself from random outbreaks of life-altering chaos. Your well-appointed home, loving wife and pleasant career can’t save you from mayhem.

Directed by Dennis Zacek, both Homelife and The Zoo Story (produced together as “At Home At The Zoo”) make for a provocative production. The primary problem with the evening is that Homelife is more of a prolonged set-up for The Zoo Story than a drama that can stand on its own. Even so, the issues of the upper-middle class white couple Peter (Tom Amandes) and Ann (Annabel Armour) are delivered with sharp-shooter precision straight to the core of the heart.

Armour’s Ann captures the yearning dissatisfaction of someone trapped in a gilded cage, a spirit so completely tamed that only a flickering spark of its original self remains. That spark, however, is enough to ignite a wildfire of discontent.  When Peter protests that the couple long ago made a decision to live their lives as a  “pleasant journey,” and to “stay away from icebergs,” Ann counters that decades within that safety have left her pining for something “you can’t imagine,” something “terrifying, astonishing, chaotic and mad.”  That yearning is exquisitely rendered by Armour. Live your life as a placid and wholly secure voyage, Ann notes, and you never even really die – you just sort of “vanish.” There’s undeniable terror in that view of the end: Is there anything more scary than the prospect of reaching the end of your life only to realize you’ve never fully lived it? In Homelife, Albee convincingly argues that there is not.

Yet for all the incendiary dialogue of  Homelife, “A Home At The Zoo” doesn’t fully start clicking until its second act with The Zoo Story, when Marc Grapey bursts onto the stage as the unbalanced Jerry. He’s a hilarious loose cannon as the sort of crazy New Yorker whose tone of voice falls just short of overt menace  and whose overall presence is both clownish and embedded with an unmistakable threat of implicit danger.

Tom Amandes - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer2 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 2
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 4 Tom Amandes  - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer

Albee’s contrast between Peter and Ann – a couple so sheltered they’ve lost all track of their own, authentic cores  – and Jerry, whose raw exposed soul is buffeted on all sides by the world’s unkind wildness – is striking and vividly depicted by this pitch-perfect ensemble.

As Peter, Amandes is the very soul of quiet desperation – until he’s not. When Peter finally unleashes the primal howl that he’s squelched for years, the moment is one of supreme destruction and catharsis.  Armour’s Ann is equally powerful in a more subtle manner, mining deeply rooted dissatisfaction and plumbing the fearsome depths of subconscious with intense bravery and dogged effort. And then there’s Grapey, spinning a world of lucid delirium (not as paradoxical as it sounds) and forcing Peter to let loose the great and terrible beast within.  It’s a powerhouse performance, a whirlwind of tragedy and comedy, of inconsolable sorrow and impish playfulness.

Zacek sees that the cast makes the most of Albee’s profound and lacerating dialogue, shaping the trio into a tight-knit ensemble leading its audience into confrontation with some of the darkest pockets of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 3 Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Lauren 2

Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Richard III”

Richard 3

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Richard III is among Shakespeare’s earliest and most enduring successes and Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King of England, perhaps his most thoroughly evil character. Despite the ingratiating manner he can turn off and on at will, Richard’s heart is as ugly and twisted as his body is deformed. Trusting no one, and thinking of nothing but his own gain, he is by turns vicious, conniving, dishonest – and utterly fascinating to audiences since Shakespeare’s colleague Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage to declaim, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

And that tradition continues unabated at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Richard III once again works its magic of simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Briskly paced and sensibly edited, this "Richard III" is relentless in its march towards its anti-hero’s tragic, self-inflicted destiny.

Wallace Acton as the amoral royal of the title brings a surprising amount of humor to his role. His soliloquies and asides to the audience succeed in drawing us in, making us complicit in his mad determination to seize the throne. By the time the culminating battle is approaching, Acton’s Richard has come completely undone, but with a mania and a desperation entirely in keeping with the vicious joker of but a few hours earlier.

Richard 3

Other standout performers in the generally strong company include Kevin Gudahl as Richard’s cousin and accomplice, the Duke of Buckingham, John Reeger as the steadfast Lord Stanley and Dan Kenney as Catesby, Richard’s personal enforcer. Brendan Marshall-Rashid brings authority and gravitas to the small but pivotal role of Richmond, the future King Henry VII and founder of the royal House of Tudor after Richard’s death.

Interestingly enough, it is the women of this "Richard III" who truly shine – women who give lie to the assumption that politics in the Fifteenth Century must have been a man’s game. Wendy Robie, as Richard’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to the soon-deceased Edward IV, and Mary Ann Thebus as his mother, the Duchess of York, are fine, strong actors and women to be reckoned with; they deal with Richard on their own terms. Angela Ingersoll as Lady Anne Neville brings a delicate intensity to a notoriously difficult role. One can feel her chaotic emotions as she is wooed literally over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, by the monster who killed not only that monarch, but Anne’s husband and her father. Ms. Ingersoll makes Anne’s impossible choices seem understandable – not an easy task.

Richard 3

Gaines makes terrific use of the sleek, heavily reflective multi-level set clad in plexiglass – designed by Neil Patel and lit beautifully by Robert Wierzel – including inventive use of exits and entrances all through the CST’s auditorium. Special mention needs to be made of Susan E. Mickey‘s brilliant costuming. Evocative of traditional Elizabethan shapes and silhouettes, but executed in muted palettes and of lighter weight fabrics, these are clothes that suggest and reference, without encumbering actors in layers and layers of detail (see video of Ms. Mickey’s perspectives on the visual world of the play here). The director and this designer all star team continue to surprise with images of startling beauty, right up to the closing moments.

Richard III may be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar vehicles, but this is a "Richard III" to remember.

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Steppenwolf

Jean is a rather dull, introverted woman.  She spends her free-time reading at coffeehouses whilst the world hums and haws around her.  One day, however, while engrossed in a book, a man next to her refuses to answer his cellphone.  After repeatedly admonishing the man to answer his phone, Jean ventures over to his table, and discovers the stunning reason why the phone was not answered – the man is dead.  As this morbid realization overtakes her, the cellphone again begins to ring; Jean answers it.  So starts the beginning of Jean’s madcap, surreal and at times frustrating journey as created and presented by playwright Sarah Ruhl and Steppenwolf Theatre’s associate director Jessica Thebus – a journey that steamrolls Jean from a dinner with the family of the dead guy (Gordon), a tryst with Gordon’s brother Dwight, separate outings with Gordon’s wife and mistress, a zany afterlife detour, and culminating with a tumultuous South African rendezvous with underworld dealers of body-organ smuggling.  Whew!

There is a lot to love in Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Above all, it’s a fun and unpredictable.  There are times where Thebus has masterfully created truly refreshing and whimsical stage pictures – the most memorable for me being a scene involving Jean and Dwight: as the two lust-birds go at it in Dwight’s stationary store, glowing paper houses appear in the background, and sheets of stationary flutter and weave down from the ceiling.  Why is this happening?  I don’t fully know, but it sure is amusing.  Ruhl’s skillful writing shines most in her coupled dialogues, especially the hilarious interchange with Jean and Gordon’s widow Hermia over cocktails.  Though all of Dean Man’s technical aspects mirror Steppenwolf’s usual mastery, the lighting outdoes itself.  Lighting designer James Ingalls’ use of illumination to showcase the story is especially evident in his glowing houses (see above) and umbrellas and body parts (see pictures below). 

I have a few misgivings with this production.  Most pertinently, the role of Jean (Polly Noonan) seems to be miscast and a bit misdirected.  Jeans presents herself as a single, twenty-something woman, naively zoned-out, part airhead and part manipulator.  But according to the script she’s actually well into her 30’s, which is not how Jean looks or appears.  Adding to this, we’re denied an ending that matches the quirkiness and magic of the rest of the play, which is unfortunate.

Summary: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, despite a few misdials, is an offbeat, boisterous production that lends itself well to Steppenwolf’s usual topnotch output.  Recommended.

Rating: «««

Production: Dean Man’s Cell Phone
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Jessica Thebus
Featuring: Molly Regan (Mrs Gottlieb), Sarah Charipar (Other Woman, Stranger), Geraldine Dulex (Ensemble), Marc Grapey (Gordon), Coburn Goss (Dwight), Mary Beth Fisher (Hermia), Polly Noonan (Jean), Ben Whiting (Ensemble) and Marilyn Dodds Frank (Mrs Gottlieb after June 1).
Design Team: Scott Bradley (Scenery), Linda Roethke (Costumes), James F. Ingalls (Lighting), Andre Pluess (Sound and Original Music), Ann Boyd (Choreography) Joe Dempsey (Fight Choreography),
Technical Team: Christine D. Freeburg (Stage Manager), Michelle Medvin (Asst. Stage Manager)
More Info: www.steppenwolf.org

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Polly Noonan) answers the dreaded cellphone

(left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan  in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Dinner at the Gotlieb’s with (left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan.

– Marc Grapey in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Marc Grapey as the Dead Man.

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Polly Noonan (Jean) with glowing umbrellas. 

Ensemble member Molly Regan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Mrs. Gotlieb (ensemble member Molly Regan) speaks at funeral. 

Polly Noonan (left) and Mary Beth Fisher (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Happy Hour with Jean (Noonan) and Hermia (Mary Beth Fisher). 

Sarah Charipar (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008

The Other Woman (Sarah Charipar) and Jean (Noonan) with glowing kidney.

Polly Noonan and Coburn Goss in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Noonan and Dwight (Coburn Goss) build a paper house.