REVIEW: The Iliad (A Red Orchid)

   
  

Young women and the warrior code

 

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad

   
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
The Iliad
   
Adapted by Craig Wright
Directed by
Steve Wilson
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than a little sly feminism goes into A Red Orchid’s production The Iliad, a one-act play adapted for young female actors by award-winning playwright Craig Wright. The girls take on the masculine roles of this Bronze Age classic and staunchly play out its warrior codes of honor, duty, and submission to fate and/or the gods. The idea is to provide young female actors with roles that they wouldn’t usually get to play and introduce them to the classics. However, employing an all-girl cast pulls double, triple, even quadruple duty by implicitly interrogating the ancient gender roles of Mycenaean Greek culture, wherein dissent between the hero, Achilles (Jaiden Fallo-Sauter), and his king, Agamemnon (Najwa Joy Brown), begins with a dispute over who has claim to a woman they’ve won as spoils of war.

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad posterAs for the women’s roles, they are all played by dolls–dolls to be fought over, to possess, to be prized, to surrender, to be thrown around or to be ordered into submission. It’s this light bit of child’s play between the girls over dolls that brings home the more serious recognition that women were chattel back in the day, no matter how highly born. In the shadow of men at war, women and children could, at best, only hope that their side won–or that whomever won, the victors would be reasonably merciful. Even Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set design reminds one of children caught at play in the middle of violent upheavals in Bosnia or the Gaza Strip.

That’s quite harsh stuff for a very young cast to convey. But Steve Wilson’s direction unflaggingly keeps up the energy and humor in the show’s vivid confrontations between enemies who should be allies, between brothers Paris (Nicole Rudakova) and Hector (Aria Szalai-Raymond), and, oh yes, between the warring Greeks and Trojans. Sarah Fornace’s fight choreography packs a lot of good visual excitement. The final showdown between Achilles and Hector is all the more thrilling for the economy with which it’s executed. Finally, the strutting stuff in Wright’s script regarding male disputes over honor gets its comeuppance from the girls’ deadpan delivery–to even greater comic effect.

Wright cuts out much of the original Iliad for his adaptation and that, for the purposes of this production, is more than fine. If anyone had told me before now that this epic could be performed on stage in an hour, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I mourn the radical alteration of one scene—the final meeting between Priam (Melanie Neilan) and Achilles, when the aged king comes to beg from him the body of his slain son. It’s passing strange that, having come so far, Wright does not simply pull whole and darkly beautiful lines from the original text:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my son.

It is not as if Neilan couldn’t handle that kind of poetry. She, not to mention most of the cast, seems up to it and should be given the chance. If exposure to the classics is part of the actor’s journey in this production then not just gender roles, but also an exploration of the Ancient Greek concept of Ananke, or Harsh Necessity, is just as much part of the process of discovering this culture and these characters. A Red Orchid’s production succeeds with a certain cuteness factor—little girls playing big men’s roles. That works to great effect, especially when 5th grader Eden Strong delivers the lines of the mighty Ajax. But behind the play lies war’s devastation. I say, let the girls bring it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Production Personnel

Featuring Najwa Brown*, Jaiden Fallo-Sauter*, Katie Jordan*, Paola Lehman*, Marissa Meo, Isabella Mugliari, Melanie Neilan*, Madison Pullman, Nicole Rudakova, Kara Ryan*, Elenna Sindler*, Eden Strong and Aria Szalai-Raymond

The creative team includes Steve Wilson (Director), Erin Barlow (Assistant Director), Sarah Fornace (Fight and Movement Director), Michelle Lilly O’Brien (Scenic Design), Joanna Melville (Costume Design), Sean Mallary (Lighting Design), Nick Keenan (Sound Design), Kelli Moreno (Dramaturg) and Mary Ellen Rieck is the Stage Manager, Mackenzie Yeager the Company Manager and the Production Manager is Katherine Welham

*A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble Member

     
       

REVIEW: Blackbird (Guild Theater)

 

Romance Interruptus or the Same Old Coitus Interruptus?

 

 Blackbird - Promo 004

  
Guild Theater presents
   
Blackbird
   
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Daniel Scott
at Stage Left Theatre, address (map)
through August 25th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless! Pitiless! That’s the only way.”
         —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I can’t tell you the extent to which I’ve anticipated reviewing Guild Theater’s production of Blackbird. The success of David Harrower’s 80-minute one-act has been legendary. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award, critical acclaim on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and then local fame generated by Victory Gardens’ superlative production last July, Blackbird was a well-established phenomenon before I stepped through the doors of Stage Left Theatre to see it.

That build-up may have been a little too much for Guild Theater’s Spartan, no-frills rendering. But the problem lies more in Harrower’s basic plot premise and not so much in Daniel Scott’s careful direction or the sincerely wrought performances of David Schaplowsky as Ray and Cassandra Cushman as Una.

A young woman confronts a middle-age man at his workplace; he shows deep anxiety at her presence there and repeatedly asks her to leave. She persists in interrogating him with fragments of past events. It soon becomes clear that they know each other from long ago and the young woman is pursuing with him her unfinished business over a failed relationship. The nature of that relationship reveals its shock, scandal and gravity once the audience learns this couple’s “affair” began when he was 40 and she was 12.

Now as to the “true” nature of their relationship: was it true romance for the both of them or was it child abuse? Was it undeniable passion or overwhelming perversity? Was her interest in him bold, precocious sexuality or was it the vulnerability of childhood loneliness, chaffing under parental oppression? Was his interest in her an inappropriate love he could not master or was it cold, calculated exploitation?

The audience has nothing to rely upon except the fragmented narratives and traded accusations of two unreliable characters. Only one other character enters briefly at the end. The rest is “He Said, She Said,”–only Una was prepubescent when the deed was done. Harrower’s script dangles the audience between the play’s thematic moral absolutes. Is Una a damaged young woman whose innocent childhood was blighted too early, or a bold, sexually rebellious girl whose sexual transgressions went waaay beyond conventional understanding? Was she “asking for it”?

Is she still asking for it by stalking Ray with her confrontation? Is her confrontation about achieving closure or is it about reopening their relationship now that both of them are adults, legally speaking? Is Ray a lying, seducing cad without any moral compass or a repentant sinner striving to adhere to his new, principled life? Can he resist Una’s disturbingly needy bid for his attention and love or will his resistance collapse under replayed memories, emotional immaturity, and unbalanced psychological patterns re-emerging from the depths? Will mad, unbridled and perverse love win again against decency, mental health and morality?

Thus the thematic and ethical juggling of Blackbird leads to its inevitable climax. Or should I say, climax interruptus? Both Cushman and Schaplowsky build deeply sympathetic, if troubling, characters. Scott’s direction emphasizes absolute naturalness and that fits Stage Left’s intimate theater space to a tee. Schaplowsky in particular brings searing emotional exposure to Ray’s troubled soul. Cushman strives to bring psychological verity to Una’s troubled state and Scott’s direction certainly gives the actors the space to grow into these parts. The trouble is that these characters’ troubled souls are dragging on the dramatic pace and Guild’s production lacks the drive that can keep an audience guessing at which moral conundrum will come up next.

Unfortunately Blackbird’s problems are larger than slower-than-necessary, if thoughtful, performances. Essentially, Blackbird is pornography dressed up to look like social consciousness—dressed up perhaps because it thinks its audience will always be polite company. Bad enough that Harrower’s play begins with that stereotypical porn canard—the woman who falls in love with her (statutory) rapist—the whole point of this play’s sojourn is to precisely end up with our star-crossed lovers’ final sexual encounter, which is then immediately thwarted by the entry of Girl (Marrissa Meo – recently seen in the highly-successful 7-month run of Red Twist’s Pillowman). That’s the moment Una and Ray’s psychologically illicit tryst finally falls apart. It’s porn with a conscience but, for all its other stereotypes, Harrower might as well have brought in a character playing the Pizza Guy for good measure.

Let’s be fair. Much more precisely, Blackbird is an almost comically complex melodrama. Comedy, melodrama and pornography are all genres that depend on types for dramatic action more than full-fledged, three-dimensional characters. Those types are put into situations and those situations play out in fairly predictable ways. Blackbird’s ultimate sexual encounter is telegraphed long before the end. One can feel manipulated by all the play’s twisty steps along the way, but ultimately, we’ll get to the porn ending when the woman finally shows she’s wanted her rapist all along. Since they are so true to porn type, can any real connection be built between the audience and these characters? Ray and Una themselves cannot seem to relate to each other beyond type, whether that type is victim and predator or Naughty School Girl and Teacher.

Making it real, making both these characters real enough for the audience to truly care what happens to them, that is the burden that theater artists must bare. Any theater company taking on Blackbird has to battle against the romantic porn fantasy that Harrower sets up at the beginning.

The real pornography of Harrower’s play, however, is not the sex that almost happens between Ray and Una or the sex they had long ago. It’s their wallowing in shame, regret and stifled yearning—that’s the real spectacle put up for our enjoyment. Since few realistic insights about child abuse or under-aged sex can be found here, you’ll excuse me if I turn to the more pleasurable entertainments of “Debbie Does Dallas”.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Blackbird features Guild company members Cassandra Cushman and David Schaplowsky, along with Marissa Meo, and is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Scott. Performances will be at 8pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, August 16-18 and 23-25 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago, IL (map). Tickets are $15 and $10 for industry; reservations may be made by calling (312) 613-8885 or emailing guildtheaterprods@gmail.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door with cash only. The box office will open at 7:30 on the days of the performance.

REVIEW: Redtwist Theatre’s “The Pillowman”

Unrelenting yet still insufficient

 Interr2

We like to execute writers . . . It sends a message . . . I don’t know what message it sends. I don’t know where it sends a message—that’s not my department—but it sends a message.”       –Detective Tupolski

 

Redtwist Theatre presents:

The Pillowman

by Martin McDonagh
directed by Kimberly Senior
thru December 27th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

A local playwright once told me that productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays in Ireland are different from American ones–they are actually very funny. “What you have to remember about Waiting for Godot,” she told me, “is that it’s all pub talk.” Mad Irish humor shuffles side by side with bleak existentialism.

Sons Somewhere in the middle of Martin McDonagh’s bleak, sadistic writing is the fun and play of talk–storytelling for the pure hell of it. Even if the story is supposed to shock, laughter comes somewhere before or after the gasp. Actors in Chekhov’s plays have to balance between making the audience laugh or cry. Here actors have to balance on the razor’s edge between laughter and horror. Suspended in the tension of the moment, audiences must be caught between the discomfort they feel over the violence before them and their own sadistic, humorous reaction to it.

As guest director for Redtwist Theatre’s production of The Pillowman, Kimberly Senior has successfully crafted an exhibition of unrelenting tension and suspense. Nothing disrupts the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room that police officers Tupolski (Tom Hickey) and Ariel (Johnny Garcia) have dragged Katurian (Andrew Jessop) into to account for his life’s work as a writer. A few children have been murdered according to methods described in his macabre and unpublished stories. Protesting his innocence, the author gradually discovers just how he is implicated in those crimes.

A writer’s murder fiction becomes reality. How many times have we seen that device? But The Pillowman springboards from worn-out premise into reason-defying psychological depths. The audience is plunged into the black pool of connections between horror and childhood. According to psychologists, the very state of being shocked or horrified recreates in the victim a childlike state of frozen powerlessness, passivity, and surrealism. McDonagh’s work draws no distinction between that paralyzed, surreal consciousness and the world of childlike creativity and play. In The Pillowman, both are inextricably enmeshed. Horror gives birth to, or deeply informs, creativity and even when creativity seems to transform or redeem the impact of horror, it is, in fact, planting the seeds for more.

Happy JesusFam

Redtwist’s production achieves the suspension of time required to create deep horror. In deep horror, there is no future–only an oppressive present that never improves. Nothing describes The Pillowman’s totalitarian state better than a nameless land, much like the land in many fairy tales, of uninterrupted horror, whose residents are kept in childlike submission. Even the agents of the state, like the good cop-bad cop team of Tupolski and Ariel, reveal their childlike natures through the stories they tell about themselves. Here the production shows its greatest strength. Hickey captures all the nuances of a cop who playfully revels in the arbitrary, meaningless nature of state sanctioned sadism, and then revises in front of Katurian a story about himself, in which he goes from heartless mastermind to ingenious savior. As unwavering bad cop, Garcia gives earnest pathos to a man who yearningly hopes his perpetual brutality will reap the love and adoration of children in old age.

ArielKat The relationship between Katurian and his mentally challenged brother, Michal (Peter Oyloe), does not continue that wicked thread. We learn the authorities have dragged in Michal in order to force a confession. Even if Katurian suffers shock from police brutality and the revelation of real child murders, Jessop’s performance is still a little too somnambulant to realize any core of brotherly connection. For my money—and this is a matter of personal taste—I prefer a realist performance of a mentally handicapped person to a performance that simply alludes to it. At least readers can be aware of my bias. In any case, the scene between Katurian and Michal lacks the emotional range to raise the stakes.

Above all, the cast must go further to pull out all the dark humor that inhabits this play, dancing on that razor’s edge between laughs that undermine and laughs that reinforce its sadism. To this end, the side theaters that depict Katurian’s stories are quite impressive. Special attention should be given Marissa Meo’s depiction of the little girl who believes she is Jesus and willingly goes to violent limits to fulfill that belief. Her performance reflects the essence of play, something this production could use a little more of.

Rating: ★★★

PM-Brothers

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