Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

MannersWilettachair

  
The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

     
MannersJohn WilettaSheldon
WilettaManners MannersWilettachair

The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

JudyWilettaJohn


Artists

 

Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress

  

  
     

REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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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: ««