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: Three Sisters (Piven Theatre Workshop)

   
   

Chekhov’s naturalist classic enjoys lively revival at Piven

 

Nofs-Snyder, Underwood, Batista - H

   
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
 
Three Sisters
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Adapted by
Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Joyce Piven
at
Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
thru November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

For sisters Olga (Joanne Underwood), Masha (Saren Nofs-Snyder), and Irina (Ravi Batista), the road to Moscow is long and bumpy in Piven Theatre’s finely acted, elegantly directed production of Chekhov’s naturalist classic Three Sisters. Tethered to their provincial town by occupation, spouse, and status, they struggle to find the meaning in their tiresome existence, dreaming of a utopian Moscow that is just out of reach. As their hopes fall apart around them, they learn that the only people they can trust are each other, and the three actresses develop the relationship between the Smith, Barnes, Nofs-Snyder - Vwomen beautifully. Under the guidance of director Joyce Piven, the relationships between the sisters and the men around them come to life, creating believable drama that is thick with emotion.

For Olga and Irina, the oldest and youngest, returning to Moscow is not near the fantasy it is for their middle sister Masha, in a loveless marriage with tenuous schoolteacher Kulygin (Brett T. Barnes), and Nofs-Snyder’s melancholic portrayal of Masha captures the sense of helplessness that defines the character. When the handsome Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin (Daniel Smith) enters Masha’s life, she is given a reason to live, and their romance smolders despite Smith’s distracting dialect. The first kiss between the two is one of the highlights of the production, a wonderfully awkward moment filled with hesitation that erupts into lust as the creaking of the wooden sofa breaks through their sensual silence.

Masha is the heart, Irina the soul, and Olga the mind of the play, allowing these core elements to dictate the direction of their lives. Meanwhile, their brother Andrei’s (Dave Belden) wife Natasha (Amanda Hartley) lacks all three, and she sucks them from her husband as the story progresses. A petulant, anxious ice queen with a superiority complex and unhealthy levels of self-righteousness, Natasha is played with villainous gusto by Hartley, who fearlessly depicts the character’s power trip once she marries Andrei. Her treatment of house servant Anfisa (Kathleen Ruhl, mother of adapter Sarah) is appalling, and creates great conflict with Olga, who cherishes Anfisa like a member of the family.

Ruhl, Batista - HDirector Joyce Piven uses the space beautifully, crafting spatial relationships to build tension between characters that explode when they finally come together. Solyony (Jay Reed), the play’s most combustible character, hates everything and never backs down from an argument, his intense misery venturing into comedic territory in its exaggeration. His love for Irina, a love shared by Baron Tuzenbach (Andy Hager), is unreturned by the youngest sister, who is more concerned with discovering fulfilling work than a man. Batista gives an emotionally resonant performance, especially as Irina begins to understand the kind of work available to her in town, but there’s a maturity in her voice and carriage that takes away from the character’s youthful energy. There is an early moment when Vershinin describes the sisters’ old home in Moscow and the older two’s faces become teary-eyed at the memory while Irina struggle to recapture the image, likely too young to truly remember. It’s a small moment, but it helps solidify her position in the trinity.

It’s a good time to be a Chekhov fan in Chicago. Goodman’s The Seagull (our review ★★★★) as the theatrical theory and situational humor, while Three Sisters eloquently showcases Chekhov’s philosophical genius and occasionally nihilist world view. As the lights go down on the three sisters standing united against the world, it’s like they are watching Moscow burn before their very eyes. The power of these three women together is the play’s beauty, the reality of their circumstance its tragedy.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Smith, Nofs-Snyder - H

Cast:

Ravi Batista* (Irina)
Saren Nofs-Snyder (Masha)
Joanne Underwood (Olga)
Brent T. Barnes (Kulygin)
Dave Belden (Andrei)
Marcus Davis (Fedotik)
Kevin D’Ambrosio (Ferapont)
John Fenner Mays (Chebutykin)
Andy Hager (Tuzenbach)
Amanda Hartley (Natasha)
Jacob Murphy (Rode)
Jay Reed (Solyony)
Kathleen Ruhl (Anfisa)
Dan Smith (Vershinin)
Susan Applebaum (Understudy – Anfisa)

 

Production Staff:

Producer: Jodi Gottberg
Production Stage Manager: Wendy Woodward*
Scenic Design: Aaron Menninga
Technical Director: Bernard Chin
Lighting Design: Andrew Iverson & Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Costume Design: Bill Morey
Composition & Sound Design: Collin Warren
Sound Engineer: Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Properties Design: Jesse Gaffney
Asst. Director & Dramaturg: Stephen Fedo
Asst. Stage Manager: Chad Duda
Asst. to the Director: Skye Robinson Hillis
Costume Assistant: Melissa Ng
Production Intern: Nathaniel Williams

* Member, Actors Equity Association

Nofs-Snyder, Batista, Underwood - H