REVIEW: Under Construction (Jackalope Theatre)

   
  

Finding meaning from life’s little knick knacks

 
 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Brenann Stacker, Christopher Meister, & Dan Conway

    
Jackalope Theatre presents their adaption of
   
Under Construction
   
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by
AJ Ware
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Step onto the set of Under Construction and you immediately suppose that you’re about to witness the typical family melodrama.  Audience seating is minimal; right onstage with the players in Jackalope Theatre’s intensely intimate adaptation of Charles Mee’s original play (adapted by Andrew Burden Swanson, Melanie Berner and AJ Ware, who also directs).  But the usual Thanksgiving gathering serves up a platter of multicolored feathers, glasses stuffed with random textiles to suggest different kinds of beverages, dinner rolls cut out of memory foam and candles on the table crafted from colored pencils.  This is not a “real” Thanksgiving but a creation, a re-creation based on fallible and impressionistic memory. 

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerBoth the memory and its recreation belong to Abbey (Brenann Stacker), an artist who creates sculptures from found objects, the detritus of knick-knacks that survive us.  What Abbey tries to reconstruct is her relationship with her father Sam (Christopher Meister), a prickly man at war with himself in his staid role as family breadwinner and working class Joe.  Continuously frustrated, he cannot help taking it out on his family.  Not a model dad, Sam eventually leaves his family, which also includes son Jack (Dan Conway) and wife Emily (Mary Jo Bolduc).

Reconciling her feelings after her father passes away becomes the driving force in Abbey’s work, as well as her livestream conversations with her brother Jack, who wonders himself just how much he is turning into his father.  Under Construction jumps around between present events and Abbey’s continually revised and reconstructed past.  This structural element to the play has its pay-offs, but also sacrifices continuity, which probably is the point.  Uncertainty purposefully suffuses past events.  But the play’s transitional demands make the actors start cold with some scenes and that sort of emotional scramble makes its demands on the audience as well.  Nevertheless, both Stacker and Meister expertly render some very hard-boiled truths—she, about the barren depths of an artist’s creative malaise and he, about the life-draining impact of a man’s labor exploited under capitalism.

Jackalope’s production also does an excellent job of taking Mee’s pastiche of 1950’s social etiquette books and father/daughter scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and replaying them with totally transformed impact between the characters themselves.  Family may indeed be a replay of scripts handed to us from a variety of comforting and familiar sources, but that replay’s actual outcome might not comfort or reassure like some safe and predictable “Father Knows Best” scenario.  Sam does not know what to make of his life and Abbey has a hard time knowing what to make of their relationship once he is gone.

Under Construction - Jackalope Theatre Co. - L to R - Christopher Meister, Dan Conway, & Brenann StackerIn the context of uncertainty, forgiveness becomes a creational act.  Gently conveying this well are the actors cast as the grandparents, Sophia (Margaret Kustermann) and Henry (Jim Schutter).  Even as bit parts, they provide the foundation for this family. 

If there is a weak point to Under Construction, it’s the role of Emily, who for the most part gets pigeonholed as a long-suffering wife with little room for nuance or variation.  Here is another character that needs some process of forgiveness.  If she has any, it goes mysteriously and failingly silent.  Abbey, at least, has her work—an art form wherein she can take the scraps of what’s left of a life or a relationship and make it into something with meaning.  It’s what we do with the detritus left behind, after all, that truly matters.    

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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