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: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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"Beggars" extended thru July 6th

Due to high demand, Mary Arrchie Theatre’s excellent production of Beggars in The House of Plenty has extended their run thru July 6th.  Beggars, by the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning John Patrick Shanley, is a deeply autobiographical work – a surreal comedy, packed with the wit, insight, confusion, laughter and pain that only family can bring. At once vulgar, poetic and brutally honest, the play leads us on a journey through Shanley’s childhood in the Bronx of the mid-1950’s to the turbulent late 60’s and finally the perspective of adulthood.

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Nina Metz, of the Chicago Tribune, offered these praises:

“the performances here are worth seeing, particularly Daniel Behrendt as Joey, a swaggering, unpredictable force who is charming and dicey and ultimately crushed by forces that Shanley (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, tender and rough around the edges) was better equipped to escape. Mary Jo Bolduc plays Ma, and she has just the right flat accent and abrasiveness.”

And ChicagoCritic.com added:

“…Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Karl Potthoff and Daniel Behrendt anchor the excellent ensemble. This play will shake your world.”

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More information can be found at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre website.

Also, check out this week’s Talk! TheatreInChicago podcast for an interview regarding ‘Beggars’!