REVIEW: Bordello (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Superbly cast and acted, ‘Bordello’ exposes a claustrophobic world

  
 

Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris - in 'Bordello' at Chicago Dramatists.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
  
Bordello
  
Written by Aline Lathrop
Directed by
Meghan Beals McCarthy
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If prostitution is performance, then Aline Lathrop’s world premiere play, Bordello, at Chicago Dramatists gives audiences a backstage pass to the reality of sex workers at a legal Nevada brothel. Director Meghan Beals McCarthy drives Lathrop’s intricate, tightly woven script forward with beautifully humanized performances from a taut all-woman ensemble. The show opens with the women lined up to present their hooker aliases during the bordello’s yearly “customer appreciation night.” But what happens in the front of the house stands in sharp contrast to the stark reality these women reveal in the break room, where they unglamorously dress down in t-shirts, sports bras, exercise pants and bathrobes.

A scene from 'Bordello' by Aline Lathrop, playing at Chicago Dramatists.Far from being a source of titillation, Bordello is a study in claustrophobia. Each character’s individual circumstances restrict her as surely as the bordello’s bizarrely regulated sex work environment. Indeed, the women call their workplace “Pussy Penitentiary.” No phone calls allowed from Thursday through Saturday. No privacy in their rooms since locks on the doors are forbidden. Every room is bugged. Of what they earn, 50% goes to the house; 20% goes to transportation if the johns take a cab all the way from Vegas. Even though they live at the bordello and pay its overhead, meals are $7. Further restricting their liberty is the fact that so many work for a pimp outside the brothel. Indeed, “Who’s your pimp?” becomes the first question asked of a new inmate. Finally, there’s the bell that summons the women to the line-up like a cattle call.

Like all good prison dramas, once it’s been established how thoroughly the characters are controlled, how they attempt to control and upstage each other becomes the central dynamic. Sisterhood isn’t terribly powerful in Lathrop’s drama—an extremely depressing thought, considering all the other conditions the women endure. But Lathrop’s dialogue is tough, fast-paced, and humorous as well as cutting. As much as the characters jealously defend their place in the bordello’s hierarchy—particularly with regard to Andy, the owner–they also exhibit tremendous vulnerability and capacity for nurturing in the middle of a dog-eat-dog environment.

It would be difficult to find more well cast production. Joanne Dubach plays Kitten for all the heartbreak the role has in store, turned out by her pimp Jimmy at 11, now struggling to find her way at the bordello at 18. Katherine Keberlin plays Jewell, the bordello’s porn star celebrity, with tough and glorious panache. Dana Black’s rendering of Mandy seals her problem child attitude with spontaneous vulnerability. Her relationship with the sharp and sassy Lotus (Melissa Canciller) is an inspired choice. Ariana Dziedzic strikes the right note of desperate and exploited co-dependency as Michelle. Kyra Morris’ Godiva, an Iraq War veteran, is rendered with fierce assurance and nuanced cracks in her otherwise strong facade. Honey (Marguerite Hammersley) warmly and sensually rounds out the cast as the older working girl of the bunch.

If there is any criticism to be made, it’s the way the playwright structures a mystery she’s planted within the plotline. At one point, razor blades are discovered in one prostitute’s bar of soap and the break room becomes tense over who among the women planted them there. But it’s a mystery that becomes lost in the interplay of the women’s lives. By the time the real culprit is revealed in the second act, the discovery lacks impact and the play’s ending cuts short of any time to consider its ramifications for the characters involved. A little editing to build foreshadowing and suspense would make for a more united, cohesive and compelling drama.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bordello at Chicago Dramatists - legs

 

Aritists:

CAST: Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Chicago Dramatists Associate Artist Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris

PRODUCTION: Set Design by Marianna Csaszar, Sound Design by Victoria DeIorio, Costume Design by Christine Pascual, Lighting Design by Jeff Pines, and Props Design by Jenniffer J. Thusing.

  
  

REVIEW: Wild Nights with Emily (Caffeine Theatre)

The dead lesbian’s poet society?

 

emily3

Caffeine Theatre presents:

 

Wild Nights with Emily

by Madeleine Olnek
directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy
at Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt
through April 11th
(more info)

review by Catey Sullivan 

Emily Dickinson: Spinster virgin in perpetually buttoned-up white, or sensual lesbian lover who let loose after dark in wild nights entwined with her sister-in-law? Wild Nights With Emily would have us believe the latter. To those who would argue it’s Dickinson’s poetry and not her sexuality that matters, we’ll point out that the title of Caffeine Theatre’s roll in the literary hay is taken directly from the Belle of Amherst herself.

emily5 The lady love Dickinson pined for when penning “Might I but moor/ To-night/in thee?”. That would be Susan Dickinson, her brother’s wife. Or so it would according to Madeleine Olnek’s curious, quirky portrait of the poet as a lesbian lover. In Wild Nights, director Meghan Beals McCarthy instills Olnek’s time-tripping tale with the playfulness this 90-minute romp demands.

But while Caffeine’s literary production is as fun as flirting, it falters in one significant aspect, and that is in the person of Emily herself. Reciting passages of longing and frustration and ecstasy from Dickinson’s body of beautiful work, Jessica Bennett’s Emily is more slouching, angsty, over-dramatic adolescent than anguished mature woman.

According to firebrand (or lightning rod, depending on who you talk to) feminist scholar Camille Paglia, Dickinson’s brutality “would stop a truck.” You’d never know to watch this version of Emily. Here, the poet is skittish, fragile, birdlike and childlike in a portrayal that doesn’t hint at the strength within a lioness of arts and letters.

Yet despite that flaw – and since Dickinson is the focus of the piece, it is not inconsequential – Wild Nights is a winning endeavor. There’s a delicious humor to be found as cartoon academics peer down their weighty spectacles into pronouncements such as “We cannot say whether Emily Dickinson was gay any more than we can conjecture that Ben Franklin would have chosen a car with airbags.”

With her ensemble bending gender portraying Dickinson’s contemporaries as well as a parade of posthumous editors, biographers, and tourists (the last tramping through various Dickinson exhibits with amusing degrees of enthusiasm), McCarthy keeps the pace spritely and the visuals vivid.

Wild Nights is a crazy quilt of times and places, bouncing between imagined scenes from Dickinson’s life (and death) and contemporary declarations about the poet’s life. Liberal sprinklings of irreverence (including one memorable wherein an earnest speaker during Mount Holyoke Parents Weekend assures the assemblage that one or two or even three “homosexual” encounters does not a lesbian undergrad make) ensure that this pseudo-biography of Dickinson never gets fusty.

emily4 emily5

As Emily and Susan (Dana Black, hold that thought for just a moment please) rapturously discover oral sex, as Susan’s husband (Ian Novak) splutters angrily about insinuating secrets discovered folded among his wife’s “underthings,” as whist games play out and formal dances twirl about, the hidden life of Emily Dickinson unfurls as a colorful collage of eccentricity seemingly at odds with the deliberate, controlled beauty of her writing.

With the exception of Emily and Susan, McCarthy has the cast playing with the broadness of caricatures – which is wholly appropriate given the intermittent over-the-top bubbles of lunacy Olnek instills into many of her scenes. Novak, long one of the Off-Loop’s curiously unsung talents, makes great comic hay as prototypically saucy Irish maid and – more significantly – as Susie’s increasingly suspicious and snappish husband. As Emily’s biographer, Amanda Hartley is a primly outrageous, scissor-happy villainess.

Then there’s Susan, the most complex and intriguing person in this story thanks to Black’s deceptively gentle performance. She’s the quintessential still water running fathoms deep, richly contemplative one moment, smoothly calculating the next, head-over-heels-fall-down-crazy-in-love the next.

The core problem with the performance? It’s difficult to imagine this woman infatuated with the pretty but superficial snip we’re given as Dickinson.

Samantha Umstead and Alarie Hammock’s gorgeous and lavishly detailed costumes add a layer of lush visual beauty to the production and an intriguing contrast to the minimalist velvet drapes and framed poetry fragments of Stephen H. Carmody’s simple, effective set design.

The secret life of Emily Dickinson may forever remain just that. Even so, there’s intrigue in speculating what may have gone on between the lines.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Wild Nights With Emily continues through April 11 in the Berry Methodist Church (Lincoln Square Arts Center), 4754 N. Leavitt. Tickets are $15 – $20. More information is available buy going to www.caffeinetheatre.com

emily2

Continue reading

REVIEW: Awake and Sing (Northlight Theatre)

Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at

 Nussbaum, Gold, Whittaker

Northlight Theatre presents

Awake and Sing

 

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.

Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold v From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.

Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.

Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.

In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.

Lazerine, Francis Francis, Whittaker

When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.

Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."

Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.

Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.

Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.

Gold, Gallagher Gallagher, Nussbaum at table, h

Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.

Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.

Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

Continue reading

Goodman Theatre’s 6th Annual New Stages Series

Via Kenneth Jones at Playbill Online

Goodman’s New Stages Series – September 12th to 21st

goodmantheatre

The free series of script-in-hand staged readings of six emerging American playwrights takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800.

Now in its sixth year, the Goodman’s New Stages Series has provided the first look at nearly 30 new plays, many of which have gone on to receive world-premiere productions at the Goodman.

 

 

2008 New Stages Series

Pa’s Hat: A Liberian Legacy by Cori Thomas, directed by Chuck Smith, Sept. 12 at 7 PM “Civil unrest, national heritage and family responsibility converge in this one-act drama that follows an elderly former ambassador and his daughter as they are abducted by a child soldier in war-torn Liberia.”

Safe House by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by Hallie Gordon, Sept. 13 at 7 PM. “A family of color, free since their great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, cannot resist the temptation to help a young woman escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad. In the great American tradition of historical romance, two brothers compete for their birthright of freedom.”

Household Spirits by Mia McCullough, directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy, Sept. 14 at 7 PM. “It’s Christmas Eve in Westchester County and Philip, an entertainment lawyer, and Evelyn, his new wife and agent to the stars, are preparing for a party. Unfortunately, Philip has recently revealed that he’s an alcoholic, and the couple’s teenage children are conspiring to complicate Evelyn’s perfect soirée. In this bitingly funny and unexpectedly thoughtful new play, Chicago playwright Mia McCullough grapples with the complicated nature of family and inheritance.”

Without by Sean Graney, Sept. 19 at 7 PM. “In the back room of a space-themed bar, Rocketman and White White meet for the first time in 15 years. White White has something she needs Rocketman to do – but does he have what it takes to do it? Chicago writer/director Sean Graney (The Hypocrites) pens a devastating look at responsibility and regret.”

Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi, directed by Jackson Gay, Sept. 20 at 7 PM. “How’s a queen to keep her head in the middle of a revolution? A satirical, irreverent portrait of the famous queen and her downfall, this vividly rendered study of celebrity, power and privilege is painted in sad, funny and surrealistic strokes.”

The Long Red Road by Brett C. Leonard, Sept. 21 at 7 PM.

“A devastating new play about the impact of addiction, The Long Red Road introduces Sammy, who has fled his past and landed in South Dakota where he is slowly drinking himself to death. When his young daughter arrives desperate to reunite with her father, Sammy must decide between the self-hatred that consumes him and the responsibilities he has tried to leave behind.”

The free series of script-in-hand staged readings takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800. For more information visit the Goodman Theatre website.  

For the entire article, visit (and subscribe to) Playbill Online, at www.playbill.com