Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: The Sound of the Yellow Flower (Strangeloop)

 

Characters fail to connect in Belarus drama

 

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"

   
Strangeloop Theatre presents
  
The Sound of a Yellow Flower
  
Written by Dustin Spence
Directed by
Letitia Guillaud
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 N. Cortland (map)
thorugh October 3rd |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Dustin Spence’s The Sound of a Yellow Flower revolves around four characters in post-Soviet Union Belarus looking for liberty, justice, and love in their unstable country. Years after violinist Sasha (Rich Logan) and military colonel Nikolai (Mark A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"Pracht) help usher in an era of independence for Belarus, they are faced with the question of what comes next. Nikolai wants to see Sasha takes a position of political power, but Sasha wants nothing to do with it, having married Zoe (Samantha Garcia), an American activist working to expose the injustices done by the current government. Nikolai’s relationship with heroin-addicted prostitute Natalia (Meghan M. Martinez) ends up bringing the four together in an explosive, tragic climax, but Spence’s script fails to capture the setting and the scenes have an unnatural build to them that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage.

Language becomes a hurdle in establishing the play’s foreign setting, as little is done to de-Americanize the dialogue beyond the actors adding eastern European dialects. The opening scene has musician Sasha and Nikolai speaking in semi-broken English, but thankfully it is quickly done away with as it makes no sense to have two educated characters speaking ungrammatically in their own language. The profanity-laced dialogue has an almost-Tarantino stylization that feels out of place in the European environment, but the two actors are able to make the action interesting enough to keep the focus.

Zoe speaks in a thicker accent to show her unfamiliarity with the language, but ends up sacrificing a lot of diction in the process. The playwright doesn’t provide much exposition regarding the current socio-political climate of Belarus, and losing Zoe’s expository lines due to her accent diminishes the clarity of the plot. Dialects prove a further hindrance when the characters become enraged, as the actors often lose their accents in the explosion of emotion.

Sound of the Yellow Flower 3 Sound of the Yellow Flower 1

These sudden fits of rage occur throughout The Sound of a Yellow Flower, as most of the scenes quickly and without warning turn into screaming matches between the characters. Intensity is fine, but without any proper buildup the emotions feel empty. The relationships aren’t given the time to develop completely, making the connections between characters feel artificial. When it doesn’t feel like there’s any danger in watching a hooker get choked, there’s something wrong.

When these jumps into fury are avoided, the play gains actual depth, like a scene that juxtaposes one of Nikolai’s first nights with Natalia with the first meeting of Sasha and Zoe. The actors are given the time to create intimate moments with each other, and the relationships benefit greatly from the newly established chemistry. The scenes that follow are a return to form, but the brief glimmer of love provides a bit of hope for the tragic characters before their lives fall apart.

      
      
Rating: ★★
  
   

Sound of Yellow Flower poster 2

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Sun, Stand Thou Still (Ka-Tet Theatre)

Buy a ticket, take the ride.

 

KaTet1

  
Ka-Tet Theatre presents
  
Sun, Stand Thou Still
 
by Steven Gridley
directed by David Fehr
at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield  (map)
through June 5th  tickets: $10-$20  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

Cosmic road trip! Everyone climb into the beat up truck of the human condition for the drive everyone dreams of, but are too afraid to take. The drive wherein souls are lost and found, fate and choice crash – where you can go back and do it again, throwing yourself against the idea that you cannot change outcomes. Or that fate will have its way no matter what, so throw the dice, and make your own way. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Sun, Stand Thou Still, written by Steven Gridley, is a dreamlike adventure across timeless roads to places we’ve been. We visit the destinations made of real life nightmares, and those we consider to be the most joyous of human experiences.

Love and death.

But, what if the sun stood still and we were caught in that singular place; one where love and life are synonymous with death? When the sun began moving again, would we make a different choice.? Take it all back? Do it all again because the moments of good we received were worth the pain we endured? On this road trip, with seven characters in search of internal freedom, the highway is rough and uncertain, sweet, and driven by struggle.

In Sun, Stand Thou Still, these most essential of human events happen simultaneously in a time-order only the cosmos know. This is not linear time, nor time measured by a clock, but time as we know it flows through the spheres, and cannot fully comprehend.

Ka-Tet Theatre’s production is full of energetic and committed performances that drive into this work and remain true to it. The play includes five characters: Officer Peters, The Driver, The Hitchhiker, The Apple Woman, and The Man. The use of kuroko, traditional to Kabuki Theatre as stage hands who move silently on the stage during the performance to manage set and prop changes, are always wonderful to see. Kevin Lambert and Kyle Youngblut perform these roles to perfection. A good kuroko brings a prayerful quality to a production and these two do just that.

Jeremy Clark, as the Driver, elicits a fierce performance that stands as lead, even within such a close ensemble. This is an actor who is very at home in his skin. Zany, with compromised eyesight, The Driver pulls out every stop on what would be deemed appropriate on the ground, but on this ride, pushes every envelope right into true love and death and back again. Part Zen master and part madman, this character cries out to be fully realized in word and deed. Clark throws this role off the cuff with a magical deftness. He does not strive, but owns his performance. It has been awhile since I have seen an actor so in character that nothing breaks his focus.

Emily Waecker designed the costumes for the play, and they are very important to this piece. From The Apple Woman to The Driver, The Man, and The Hitchhiker, the costumes convey the accident of time placement that has occurred. Is The Apple Woman a misplaced renaissance maiden, traveling this lone road in space and time? The Man, a crazed cowboy riding through from another period in search of his bride? The Hitchhiker, lost in the stars in the 1950’s, coming to earth now in this time and place? Meanwhile, the Driver is synonymous with everyman, you and me, dressed for the right now. The costume choices are gorgeous in their simplicity and daring. They stand on their own, making statements about context and providing grounding.

Scenic designer Isabella Ng sets this scene, creating automobiles from suitcases, giving the beautifully strong visual command that we are all travelers, carrying what we have, even into collisions of will and destiny. The set theme carries the idea that one cannot escape their experiences, but bring them along for the ride, even into the place where one moment, one action, changes everything. Again, we are treated to an element from Kabuki Theatre, Hiki Dogu; set pieces designed to move the actors on and off the stage. This use of an 18th-century set conception gives the piece an added mystery and fluidity.

David Fehr directed the production with a very loose hand. It’s difficult, when working with an ensemble that is so well connected, to know when to push and when to stand back. Unfortunately Fehr too often chose the latter, even in those places when his reign was needed to bring the piece into a swifter pace. There is depth and wisdom here that hasn’t entirely grown yet, but would flourish with the right director expanding creative boundaries and letting the ensemble thrive while keeping the fine art of control amongst an enormously talented cast. With a little stronger hand from a staid director, Sun, Stand Thou Still would surely swirl and fly around us gloriously.

The script is, for the most part, exemplary, but given the deep concept of time it presents, more should have been brought from the writer himself. There is something that isn’t being said, but held onto, unexplored. I offer this in the spirit of passion for theatre and excellent work, which this is. In the linguistic sense, this piece left me longing for a greater depth of description of the emotional time and space we were a part of.

Overall, the Ka-Tet Theatre Company, comprising the ensemble of Brian Hurst, Jeremy Clark, Dan Meisner, Kathryn Bartholomew, Mark Pracht, Kevin Lambert, and Kyle Youngblut, work incredibly well together, bringing a reverence to this piece that’s a joy to watch.  Sun, Stand Thou Still strips away place and time and brings our most haunting, frightening, and magnificent human truths tumbling on top of one another.  This piece has so much to offer in terms of bold new theater by Ka-Tet, a relatively new theatre ensemble, that it would be well worth your time to venture out to Lakeview to give the show a look-see.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Sun_online

REVIEW: Here Where It’s Safe (Stage Left Theatre)

Exposes disturbing trend of foreign surrogate mothers

 safe3

Stage Left Theatre presents:

Here Where It’s Safe

 

Written by M.E.H. Lewis
Directed by
Scott Bishop
through April 3rd
(more info)

Review by Barry Eitel

Stage Left’s most recent offering, Here Where It’s Safe, definitely fits in with their declared purpose of exploring socio-political subjects. The new play sifts through an ethical quagmire that has international implications: the rising issue of barren couples paying foreign women to have children for them. M.E.H. Lewis focuses on Indian surrogates in Here Where it’s Safe, telling a very contemporary story about an American woman’s relationship with the young Indian girl that’s carrying her baby. It’s a massively relevant tale full of current statistics, figures, and headlines, but the social topics of the play overshadow the dramatic gravitas.

safe2 This is the last show Stage Left is doing in their long time space on Sheffield; they will be moving into the Theatre Wit complex for next season. They make a grand exit with scenic designer William Anderson’s gorgeous set. His design envelopes the space, placing us in a traditional Indian world with intricate motifs in metal and wood. Scenes travel thousands of miles and take us from America to India, and the set is open enough to allow all of the scenes to happen with short transitions. Complemented by Jessica Harpenau’s lights and Elizabeth Flauto’s colorful costumes, the production forms a fascinating world.

On the whole, the performances are pretty convincing, although sometimes there seems to be a disconnect among the ensemble. Cat Dean is Abigail, a woman ravaged by her failed attempts to have a child. Dean carries the show, but can also be a bit too stoic at times, which teeters on boring an audience. Her best work is when she is in the scenes with Mouzam Makkar, who plays Beena, the 19-year old girl Abigail is paying to have her baby. Makkar has the best performance in the production, capturing the youthful brattiness of a teenager combined with the emotional maturity of a wife and mother forced to make tough choices. She is a blank slate with the ability to project and withhold intentions and motivations from her scene partners and the audience. Occasionally, though, what drives her forward is hard to read even in the intimate space. Cory Krebsbach is goofy yet lovable as Abigail’s husband and Anita Chandwaney is excellent as Dr. Uma, Beena’s “boss” at the surrogate agency. safe1 The weak link in the cast is Kate Black as Abigail super-liberal friend Jem, who doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides providing a progressive worldview on the matter and saying “breeder” a lot. Supposedly Jem helps flesh out the ethical issues, but Black comes across as detached and uncaring.

I think the cutting of a couple of scenes would strengthen the play. As it is, Lewis’ script extends itself too far, having a lot of shorter scenes. They begin to feel extraneous after awhile. The plot and themes could be consolidated; the play could kick harder. It feels like Lewis was really excited to confront her audience with an issue that gets very little facetime in the media. However, the play that wraps it could be more coherent. The text evolves around themes, instead of a script giving birth to social, political, and economic questions. The characters all have their reasons, personalities, and the plot is logical, but the work as a whole seems more concerned with putting out a message than telling a compelling story.

I was never bored by the show, nor turned off by any of the more overt political discussions, and it does shed light on a little-known yet somewhat disturbing trend. Here Where it’s Safe could just be made a lot more powerful if it didn’t tangle itself in some vague opinions.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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