Reivew: Ribbon Around a Bomb (Prologue Theatre)

     
    

New musical needs to choose an audience

     
     

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

 

Prologue Theatre Company presents

 

Ribbon Around a Bomb

 

Books and Music by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee
Directed by Kiana Harris
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through May 3   |  tickets: $15   |  more info 

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a little unbelievable and absurd to think that in 2011 any collegiate art department would exclude all female painters from a list of 45 great historical artists. Even in my own five minute research (ala Google) I could not find a single list that left out the likes of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. That said, it’s certainly a heavily one-sided battle of sexes in the art history world. This is at least part of what the new identity-stricken musical, Ribbon Around a Bomb by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee, which recently premiered with Prologue Theatre Company, focuses on. At one point a professor (Melody Latham) hands the audience a thesis list of historical painters, who are all men. It was not only a contrived theatrical convention, but also made me feel a little odd sitting in the cabaret bar setting of Mary’s Attic watching what, as far as I could tell, was a children’s musical. When Chamblee implements the “adult” sections though, it feels even more awkward.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The story follows a painter, Kalakara, through three phases of her life. The younger Kalakara (played with perfect wonderment and rebellion by Krysten Williams) is “haunted” by three female painters from history (Angela Alise Johnson, Melody Latham and Kathleen Wrinn). She is an aspiring painting prodigy (although we never get an actual glimpse of her artwork) whose father (Christopher Tucker) disapproves of her career choice. The ghosts are there, at first, to help guide and inspire her. The college student Kalakara (Charlitha Charleston) is traumatized by these experiences and is also dealing with her rebellion against men, particular the one man in love with her, James (a vocally challenged Lance Newton). Finally, there is the older Kalakara (Tinuade Oyelowo) who paints from her mental institution.

It is within the stories of the older Kalakaras, and their mutual haunting of each other, where the script gets muddled, pointlessly depressing and dramatically trite. Chamblee seems to suggest that the only true way to become a great artist, if you’re a female, is to embrace insanity and reject family, happiness and men. It projects a skewed feminist message.

Chamblee clearly has a knack for infectious musical numbers. However, the musical style in this play lacks unity and instead stretches to showcase a hodgepodge of numerous styles that don’t usually mesh. In addition, there is most certainly an overabundance of belting. Chamblee is clearly influenced by several contemporary composers of the musical world including Sondheim, Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The trick is to serve the story first and this story lends itself to more intimate and simple music than is currently written.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The cast is just about as split as Chamblee’s script. While there is some wonderful talent (most notably the impressive vocals of Charleston and Wrinn), there are also several uneven performances in director Kiana Harris’ cast. Harris’ direction serves the first half of this musical well with a decidedly presentational staging. It helps communicate the educational values and emotional relationships clearly, however it is far more suited for a middle-school audience rather than a bar full of adults. For the most part it seems that Chamblee’s script cofuses Harris’ concept – and understandably so: Chamblee’s book and music combat each other caught between a fun historical educational children’s musical revolving around themes of gender equality, and a tediously confounded psychological adult drama. For example, although Tamara de Lempicka was a mid-twentieth century Polish painter, she is instead portrayed and costumed as though she’s a 2011 “Real Housewife of the Netherworld.” This causes a confusing disconnect between her and the other ghosts who are costumed and portrayed in a more period style.

I’d say that Chamblee needs to choose one storyline, and one play to tell, however I’d strongly encourage fleshing out the tale of the young girl painter inspired by historical women who have defied sexism in the art world. She can simply drop the schizophrenia, f-bombs and stripper number that add nothing but a lack of clarity. Allow these women of the past to empower the girl rather than mentally damage her for life. In this sense she should also choose her audience, and if that happens to be a room full of 6th grade girls, then so be it. Finding strength in the past is a lovely message, and the music during these segments is the strongest. It could be cut to 45 minutes and shipped out on a children’s theatre tour. While it is clear Chamblee has greater personal musical ambitions and another deeper story to tell with bold orchestrations, Ribbon Around a Bomb may be better off simple. She can save the center stage belts and diva numbers for the next go-around of musical scribing.

   
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

Ribbon Around a Bomb, Prologue Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical continues thru May 3rd. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $15. For more information visit www.prologuetheatreco.org

Photos by Cole Simon 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Dream of a Common Language (Prologue Theatre)

   
   

Must good-girl painters always finish last?

 

 

Clovis at the wall w Victor, Pola, and Marc (high def)

   
Prologue Theatre presents
    
Dream of a Common Language
     
Written by Heather McDonald
Directed by
Margo Gray
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through Nov 18  |  tickets: $16-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value are women’s gifts? What value are women’s talents, women’s work, or the creativity of women? These are the questions Heather McDonald’s play, Dream of a Common Language, focuses on. No amount of armchair theorizing about women’s critical place in cultural creation can erase the reality that women’s abilities, talents and artistic perspective often get placed at the low end of the hierarchy. Men’s creativity, like men’s work, is invariably classed above the creativity executed by women—and often because men are the judges of what is or is not art.

Clovis and the Train (high def)Director Margo Gray and Prologue Theatre struggle mightily against the restrictions of Oracle Theatre’s space and their own low-budget difficulties in order to carry off McDonald’s impressionistic language and scene structure. Unfortunately, serious lack of vision in doing more with less handicaps the execution of this play’s impressionist style. Especially in the first act, cumbersome, start-and-stop scene changes and awkward, unnecessary puppetry dooms this show to fits of embarrassing amateurism.

That’s really too bad, because Gray has collected a cast that capably teases out the delicate moods and emotional shifts that sculpt McDonald’s focus. Clovis (Carrie Hardin), a woman painter, suffocates under not having her painting taken seriously, as well as the stifling proscriptions of her new role as wife and mother in the mid-19th century. Victor (Michael John Krystosek), her husband, also a painter, is at a loss to understand just what is bothering her. Consumed with planning a dinner to organize an exhibition that will feature artists rejected by the establishment, he fails to see how leaving women artists out of the dinner, and out of the exhibition, disturbs his wife. Her long-time friend and fellow woman artist, Pola (Lara Janson), arrives by bicycle in time to lift Clovis’ spirits. Together with the housekeeper, Delores (Hayley L. Rice), the women stage a revolt. They hold a dinner of their own with food stolen from the men’s dinner.

Hardin is most expert in making the audience palpably feel Clovis’ pain. Shakiness and uncertainty plague Clovis’ attempts to re-establish herself, to find the core of who she is and not be swayed by the roles that have been scripted for her as a woman. We sense Clovis’ uneasiness of self and appreciate her struggle to define just what it is that bothers her. Alex Knell turns in an accurate and natural performance as her neglected son, pushed to the side because Clovis cannot accept her restrictive motherly role.

Clovis and Victor - Touch Me (high def) Clovis Poses Victor

Janson’s performance as Pola aptly contrasts her ruddy mental and physical health with Clovis’ shakiness. However, Janson’s constant good nature contradicts all indications that her character is not totally happy–a little more nuance could let the audience catch her frustration at being reduced to painting flowers, just like “all the good-girl painters.” The appearance of Marc (Les Rorick) kicks up the stakes, both because of the secret affair he’s had with Clovis and because Rorick captures a good, full-bodied 19th-century character within a few lines.

Other performers took more time to warm to their roles on opening night, but it’s difficult to discern whether that is their particular dilemma or the direction. Whatever the source, the cast finally congeals into a cohesive, lively and idyllic whole in the second act, sans scene changes and, mercifully, sans puppets. The restoration of Clovis’ self and her relationship with Victor delicately evokes real wonder and profound beauty.

If at all possible at this juncture, it would be wise for Gray to revise her direction for the first act. Flow from scene to scene is needed to preserve McDonald’s impressionist intent. Furthermore, shadow puppets and other forms of puppetry really should be saved for the budget and expertise to do them well. If the intent was to create a more dreamlike, childlike state, then McDonald’s language alone, as well as the energetic game playing of the women in the second act, connect us to the creative children in these characters. What other accoutrements are needed? Absolutely none.

 
   
Rating: ★★½   
   
   

Centaur in the Garden (high def)

Continue reading

Review: Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” by Mae West

Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” Only Puts Out a Little

 Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 2 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Prologue Theatre presents:

Sex

by Mae West
directed by Margo Gray
thru November 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 5 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) I’ve long wanted to see Sex, the play that put Mae West in jail. Mae West was one of America’s great crossover artists, bringing more risqué influences from vaudeville and jazz to the so-called “legitimate” stage on Broadway. She appropriated elements from African-American artists and the drag balls of the Pansy Craze, lifting comic styling wholesale from female impersonators Burt Savoy and Julian Eltinge. For her part, West daringly imported queer culture into the mainstream with her plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man. But then Mae West was about all sex, not just the straight variety.

Prologue Theatre Company is obviously conscious of the historical value of these American theatrical and cultural developments, staging Sex at the turn-of-the-century Gunder Mansion, now serving as the North Lakeside Cultural Center. The play occurs en promenade, an element that both does and doesn’t work for the production. Transitioning the audience from room to room certainly emphasizes shifts in place from Montreal to Trinidad to Connecticut. However, the time it takes for the audience to make it into their seats from one room to the next also produces clumsy delays between scenes and the travel up and down stairs definitely limits accessibility.

What created scandal in West’s time seems tame in ours. Yet Jes Bedwinek, as the savvy working girl Margy Lamont, infuses her leading role with the right amount of suggestiveness. She borrows just enough of West’s timing and inflections without devolving into an utter Mae West caricature–successfully acknowledging her illustrious forebear while at the same time making the role her own. Anne Sheridan Smith molds her role as the philandering society matron Clara Stanton, to be the perfectly balanced foil to Bedwinek’s Margy—just as lusty, yet hemmed in by cultural refinement and conventional restraints. As the doomed prostitute Agnes, Rebecca L. Maudlin brings realism and sympathy to a role that could have been rendered as simply pathetic. It’s a woman’s play, after all; the things of greatest consequence happen to the women characters.

 

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex1 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 3 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)
Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 6 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 4 (Photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Director Margo Gray has honed the cast to adhere to naturalism, as opposed to the heavily stylized acting of West’s era. It’s a choice that definitely scales the production to the more intimate setting of Gunder Mansion, as well as clarifying and updating the play for a modern audience. It’s also a choice that exposes the weaknesses of uneven casting. Gray has brought from her successful run of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret Sean Patrick Ward (Jimmy Stanton) and Christopher Chamblee (Lt. Gregg), yet many cast performances are too scattershot to convey a cohesive ensemble. Nathan Pease’s turn as Margy’s pimp, Rocky, is sleazy enough yet still doesn’t contain the menace needed to threaten convincingly.

For my money, the audience gets stinted the most during the more vaudevillian portions of the play. The opening of the first scene in Trinidad should shine with musical numbers that warm the audience to Margy’s culminating performance of “Shake That Thing”—a classic Ethel Waters tune that Mae West appropriated. A little more jazz and enthusiasm, as well as a little more shakin’ that thing, might easily make up for musical deficiencies. Or perhaps Tinuade Oyelowo should be given more numbers to rock the audience with that voice of hers. Whatever the case, this is supposed to be the Roaring Twenties, not the Ironic 90’s or the Tight-ass 50’s. It’s not a good sign when there’s more fun to be had listening to the singing of drunken sailors on shore leave.

All in all, the shortcoming’s of Prologue’s production resigns it to community theater status for all their efforts. As Mae would know, it takes performers with a lot more on the ball than this to produce good old-fashioned entertainment.

Rating: ★★

 

Continue reading

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