Review: The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (Geopolis Theater)


Centuries of Japanese theatrical tradition in show bogs down clear storytelling



Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

Geopolis Theater Company presents
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick
by Kobo Abe
Translated by
Donald Keene
Directed by
Eric Turner
Japanese Cultural Center, 1016 Belmont (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $10-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Geopolis is a newer company in Chicago that has taken on a noble mission by choosing one culture to focus on each year. For their inaugural season they’ve chosen the theater of post-war Japan. These worldly minded artists have housed themselves in Chicago’s beautiful Japanese Cultural Center. Here they have staged acclaimed Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s compilation of three plays written from 1957 – 1969, collectively titled The Man Who Turned Into a Stick. Eric Turner’s direction utilizes space well, creating several visually stunning pictures. But ultimately, this Stick misses the magic and resonance of Abe’s world.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.Upon entering the space (after leaving your shoes at the door), you can almost justify the admission price alone while admiring Mike Mroch’s cherry blossom influenced design, at first sight calming and alive. Four actors are motionless standing guard entombed in their quarters of the set, whereupon you take in Jerica Hucke’s varied and thought-provoking costumes.

The first play on the bill, and the strongest of the night, is “The Suitcase.” A married woman (Miona Harris) shows an unmarried visitor (Marissa Cowsill) a curious suitcase (played with distinctive physical work by Chris Sanderson). This peculiar suitcase emits sounds such as radio clicks and stock market quotes vocalized by Sanderson. The married woman’s husband has forbidden her from opening the suitcase, yet the visitor manipulates the woman’s curiosity. Abe takes a jab at patriarchal society here alluding to denying women access to worldly knowledge (a man’s affairs). Debate upon whether the suitcase contains dead ancestors or a horde of insects ensues. Cowsill’s playfulness keeps this game fun. However, there is a good amount of time when Sanderson’s disembodied reports and the women’s dialogue overlap at such a volume that it becomes difficult to discern what is happening. Eventually, the women accuse each other of the terrible sin of changing, which surely resonates with an isolationist post-war Japan. Finally, the married woman decides upon ignorance and keeps the contents of the suitcase a mystery.

The next piece is titled “The Cliff of Time.” This play puts Sanderson on display. He is a boxer past his prime who needs to win a pivotal fight to avoid dropping in the rankings, and ultimately into oblivion. Along the way Abe makes an elegant allegory to climbing the ladder in life and in the workplace. Turner makes clever use of the ensemble as puppeteer gods controlling the boxer with streams of red cloth. Josh Hoover proves to be a strong presence in this piece, helping to raise the intensity of the stakes while remaining calm and omnipresent. Nevertheless, Sanderson’ performance as the boxer is far from a knockout. The abrasive interpretation and lack of physical specificity during this piece takes away from the possibility of nuance and pathos in Abe’s text. The demanding monologue overcomes Sanderson, forcing the humor and clarity of the story to suffer.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The conclusion is the title piece, “The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.” Two hippies (Jon Beal and Miona Harris) come across a stick (played by Sanderson). The stick is without meaning to them until two individuals (Hoover and Cowsill) appear with great interest in the stick and offer to purchase it from them. These individuals turn out to be agents from hell given the task of surveying what objects the dead turn into. Apparently, “98 percent become sticks.” Once again, there is some humor and irony that is lost in this piece. While Hucke’s costumes were impressive initially, one desires a transformation in this act to clarify the roles. Harris’ hippie is still dressed in a traditional kimono while attempting to represent the youth counter culture of the 1960’s. One high point is watching Cowsill develop an intriguing fascination with the stick. However, when Sanderson, as a dead man trapped inside the stick, is left alone for eternity we should sense the frustration of his/our mortality. Unfortunately, as too much of the actors’ focus is centered on muddled stylistic movement, empathy is sacrificed.

Overall, Turner’s concept takes too much precedence over telling Abe’s tales with clarity. Action and character are hindered by attempts to incorporate ritualistic movement, in the likes of Suzuki and Noh theatre, to a point that it detracts from the subtlety and poignancy of Abe’s writing. What we get is a somewhat watered down hodgepodge of Japanese theatrical physicality that could take an ensemble years or decades to master.

To communicate the story of a play is the foremost job of any production. As this company continues to tackle other great theatrical cultures it might do well to remember that if it clearly conveys the story, it already has succeeded greatly in its global endeavor.

Rating: ★★½
Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company. Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The Man Who Turned Into a Stick continues at The Japanese Cultural Center through April 3rd, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00pm.  Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15 online, $18 at the door, and $10 student tickets. For more info visit:


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Review: 8th Annual ‘Cut to the Chase’ One-Act Play Fest

The Artistic Homes’ 8th Annual One-Act Play Fest, Cut to the Chase – go for the late-night fun and stay for the great acting.

Last Days of the Dinosaurs

Cut To The Chase
The 8th Annual One-Act Playfest

Palace of Riches, directed by John Mossman.
The Waiting, directed by Matthew Welton.
Last Days of Dinosaurs, directed by Luis Crespo.
Sponsored by The Artistic Home

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Late-night theater like this inspires a lot of drinking and frolicking among the audience, who are typically friends of the cast and playwrights, out for a bit of fun. Still, who would suspect that some of the best acting of the season could take place in a little known venue such as this? And yet it does. The dramatic skill and maturity of the actors makes The 8th Annual Cut to the Chase compelling theater to watch, even when sometimes the material is a little lacking.

The Artistic Home sponsors this one-act play fest each year, and, at least for this year, it seems each play must fulfill these requirements: they must start with the line, “Like most alcoholics, he drove a van . . . .”; they must make use of a gasoline can, a parking meter, and chicken on a silver platter; they must conform to a certain theatrical genre. Palace of Riches by Jim Lynch, though set on Chicago’s west side, seems to be based on Damon Runyon’s work; The Waiting by Christine Hodak seems to be pretty much a one-act mock-up of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; and Last Days of Dinosaurs by Matt Welton is a surrealist train wreck.

Palace1 Lynch’s play, Palace of Riches,strikes the happiest balance between written material and actors’ talents. The down-and-out trio of Zeke (Eric Simon), Eddie (Tim Musachio), and Sara (Kathryn Danforth) could have degenerated into simplistic stereotypes, but all three actors exemplify the actor’s craft, displaying maturity, depth, timing, making human connections between all three characters that lie at the heart of the heart of this play. Humor that might have been too hokey in someone else’s hands comes off as witty, charming, and humane from these pros. Tim Musachio makes his Eddie almost valiant with the hope of someday being something more than “a mook” for his own daughter; Kathryn Danforth portrays a messy drunk with sympathy and humanity; and Eric Simon embodies the cunning resourcefulness, mischief, and even poetry that characterizes Zeke.

Waiting3 The Waiting practically rewrites half of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but to what end? Beckett had a thing about not wanting women to take on roles in his plays and Christine Hodak creates a Pozzo-style character in Audrey (Samantha Church), worshipfully served by her own Lucky Joe (Buck Zachary)–complete with leash, suggesting some BDSM humor. Hodak also gives a satirical nod to women’s spirituality feminism with a little goddess-y ritual that Audrey performs before she departs from Oscar (Michael Denini) and Felix (J. P. Pierson). But what is the point to be made—that women can be as domineering and dictatorial as men? Forgive me for sounding a little jaundiced, but I lived through the Reagan/Thatcher years—that’s nothing new to me. The only pay-off in the end is the deeper development of Felix, who takes on a greater aspect of consciousness, even if he remains somewhat under Oscar’s control. But whatever its shortcomings, The Waiting benefits from the unflagging zeal, commitment, and nuance of the actors.

LastDays3 Sad to say, actor talent and commitment cannot save Last Days of Dinosaurs. Matt Welton has taken stereotypes—Alice (Liz Ladach-Bark) as the June Cleaver housewife, the flatfooted Cop (Matt Ciavarella), Carol (Marissa Cowsill) as the raving fundamentalist evangelical daughter, and Stephen (Kirk Mason) as the ravening Alpha-male son—and geared them all up for their own cataclysmic melt-down. While each character is introduced to good humorous effect, without deeper development, why should the audience care about them? Once one gets the joke and can see the train wreck coming within the first five minutes, what is there to hold one’s attention? What is more, each of these characters need greater development in how or why they identify as they do and what they want from each other, beyond the overplayed one-note of dominating the scene. It’s only the sexual titillation between Alice and the Cop that begins to branch out from the original premise. All the rest is shouting.

Still, The Artistic Home provides a vital space for new work. Go for the late-night fun and stay for great acting.

Rating: ««