Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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REVIEW: 2,000 Feet Away (Steep Theatre)

Sex offender drama criticizes but struggles to connect

 

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Steep Theatre presents
 
2,000 Feet Away
 
Written by Anthony Weigh
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 26th | tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Anthony Weigh’s 2,000 Feet Away isn’t your ordinary pedophile play; this time, the criminals are the victims. In the town of Eldon, Iowa, fear and paranoia drive citizens to terrorizing local sex offenders, and state legislation requires the criminals to stay 2,000 feet away from schools, parks, libraries, and bus stops. Sex offenders are forced out of their homes and into repulsive motels barely good enough for arson.  The play’s only erotic encounter between an adult and child shows the youth as more of an instigator 2000-feet-02than a victim, and an 18 year old boy is exiled for having sex with his girlfriend. Weigh has bold ideas regarding sexual crime in America, but never quite develops a solid plot and characters for his ideas to manifest through.

Weigh’s Eldon doesn’t feel like a real town but rather a collection of convenient personalities to assign philosophies to. His witch-hunting Iowans bare little resemblance to our libertarian-leaning western neighbors, and don’t have much personality beyond their one-dimensional stances on the issue of sexual crime. Why Eldon is packed to the gills with pedophiles is never explained, and makes the location seem like a cheap way to connect the play to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” an image that appears throughout the production.

There is an obvious sentimental attachment Weigh has to Wood’s painting, but its prevalence in the play is never made quite clear. Does the stern-faced patriarch represent of the citizens of Eldon, protecting their children from predators as he protects his gothic barn? Perhaps the pair are the ghosts of an America that doesn’t exist anymore, where hard work and obedience have been replaced by sexual deviance and social injustice? Its purpose is unclear, and does little to advance the plot.

/Users/hdleemiller/Pictures/Capture One Library/Output/.IMG_6917.tif After a creepy opening scene between adult A.G. (Benjamin Sprunger) and preteen Boy (Alex Turner), 2,000 Feet Away falls into a pattern of scenes where the citizens of Eldon express their personal feelings about sex crimes to their Deputy (Brendan Melanson), scenes that suffer by telling us the character’s emotions rather than showing them through meaningful interactions. The pace during these opening scenes drags due to a lack of forward motion, but Melanson’s portrayal of a lovable loser corrupted by the world around him is a highlight of the production. When Deputy encounters Girl, the SVU tween (deceptively mature Grace Goble), the play gathers steam and the plot finally gets rolling. As Deputy looks for a home for the displaced A.G., their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play, and the actors share good chemistry on stage.

Director Jimmy McDermott does a fine job with the material at hand, but the flaws of the script hurt the momentum too severely to fully recover. The ensemble works to build relationships where Weigh’s script struggles to connect, but the pace of the piece ultimately proves its undoing.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

 

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REVIEW: Harper Regan (Steep Theatre)

Kendra Thulin shines in U.S. premiere

Harper 3 

Steep Theatre Company presents:

Harper Regan

 

By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Through Feb. 27 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

My long-suffering husband, whose theatrical taste runs to comedies and musicals, tends to react to the odder dramas I drag him to with a question, "Why did they produce this play?"

I can’t answer on behalf of Steep Theatre Company, whose U.S. premiere of the quirky, dysfunctional-family drama Harper Regan is one of a raft of British plays in Chicago this season, but I can make some guesses. One is that Simon Stephens is one of England’s hottest playwrights, and the chance to introduce one of his newer works — "Harper Regan" premiered in 2008 at London’s National Theatre — had to be very Harper 1tempting. Another is that it has three very juicy roles for women and a lot of other parts that could be doled out to ensemble members. (Having grown accustomed to the shrunken casts of these straitened times, it’s refreshing to see a different actor for every part in a play, though several male roles might easily have been doubled.)

Exquisitely acted and painstakingly directed as it is, however, Harper Regan may be more satisfying for its cast than for audiences. The plot follows the breaking up or breaking out, depending on how you look at it, of Harper Regan, 40-ish, middle-class and troubled. Her father is dying, her boss is a creep, she hates her job, her husband’s out of work, she’s not getting along with her 17-year-old daughter, they had to move from her northern England hometown to unfamiliar suburban London, she’s not speaking to her mother, and she is deeply insecure.

In an exceptional performance in the title role, Kendra Thulin shows us Harper’s discomfort and self-doubt in every line of her body, cringing and hesitating as, having asked her supercilious employer (Alex Gillmor) for time off to visit her ailing father, she listens to his hectoring refusal. Later, apologizing to her daughter for some sharp words, she says, "I’m so weird, aren’t I?"

Harper 2Caroline Neff is intense and believable as Harper’s nerdy, conflicted daughter, more comfortable with her iPod than her mother. Chelsea Warren’s costumes, notably for Harper and her daughter and mother, show a fine attention to detail.

Act I lags somewhat as the initial facts of Harper’s life slowly emerge, mostly in talky monologues and peculiar conversations she has with unsettling strangers. At last, she leaves home, not telling anyone she’s going. In Act II, we get more disturbing revelations: Why her husband can’t find work. Why they had to move. Why Harper and her mum are at odds. And, most importantly, we see that Harper is even weirder and more unstable than she seems.

Melissa Reimer puts in a strong performance as Harper’s estranged mother. Peter Moore performs sensitively as her down-and-out husband. Curtis M. Jackson is realistic as a teenager she meets near home, while Dan Flannery seems stiff as an older man she encounters during her time away. Julia Siple, Jonathan Edwards, Brendan Melanson and Adam El-Sharkawi fill out the cast.

Marcus Stephens’ stark, leaf-strewn concrete set echoes the harshness of Harper’s world, yet seems inappropriate for many of the indoor scenes, among many off-kilter aspects of this unlikely psychodrama.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Notes: Adult language and themes.  All photos by Lee Miller

WITH ENSEMBLE MEMBERS Jonathan Edwards, Alex Gillmor, Brendan Melanson, Peter Moore, Caroline Neff, Melissa Riemer and Julia Siple
AND Adam El-Sharkawi, Dan Flannery, Curtis Jackson and Kendra Thulin
PRODUCTION MANAGER Julia Siple* STAGE MANAGER Jon Ravenscroft SCENIC DESIGN Marcus Stephens LIGHTING DESIGN Brandon Wardell COSTUME DESIGN Chelsea Warren COSTUME ASST Gwen Smuda SOUND DESIGN Matthew Chapman PROPS DESIGN Jesse Gaffney DIALECT COACH Eva Brenneman DRAMATURG Gemma Hobbs            *denotes company member

Review: Griffin Theatre’s “The Hostage”

Ballast Needed Along With the Blarney

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Griffin Theatre presents:

The Hostage

by Brendan Behan
directed by Jonathan Berry
thru November 1st (tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is a great, hairy monster of a play. Behan wrote this tragi-comedy, with quasi-musical styling, based of his own experience as a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army. While pro-Irish Englishmen and English imperialist pomposity receive heaping helpings of satirical treatment, it’s the IRA Behan savages the most with his robust and agile wit.

hostage2 “I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence,” says Pat (Eamonn McDonagh) about own his service in the IRA. His character comes autobiographically closest to Behan. So, Griffin Theater’s production is a huge, messy meditation on the killing paradoxes of war and patriotism.

An Irish Republican, just 18 years old, is to be executed for killing a policeman, so an equally young and inexperienced British soldier is kidnapped by the IRA and brought to Pat’s teaming bawdy house to be slain in retaliation, should the execution go through. The young British soldier, Leslie (Rob Fenton), becomes a celebrity guest of the household; he is treated to beer by Pat and his mate, Meg (Donna McGough) and pursued by the prostitutes. He even falls in love with the fresh-faced housemaid, Teresa (Nora Fiffer). The whorehouse, filled with various Johns and transgender–as well as female–prostitutes, breaks into song and dance, commenting on the action and breaking the unresolved tensions involved in trying to sort out who is truly friend or truly foe.

hostage3 While humor is the mainstay of this play, much dramatic tension is lost when vital moments within it are not treated seriously enough. The IRA Officer (Kevin Gladish) and Volunteer (Ryan Borque) who bring Leslie in are suppose to be ridiculous, yet they are played a little too close to caricature to add the necessary gravity to take Leslie’s fate seriously. Besides, dedicated assholes like this really exist. Satire allows for characters to hostage4be realistic enough to be recognizable, so that their resemblance jars us to the absurdity of well-worn, politically correct presumptions.

Rom Barkhordar’s interpretation of his role, Monsewer, comes closer to a balance between realism and caricature, perhaps because it is so close to caricature already. Monsewer, an Englishman who fancies himself a patriot to the Irish cause, pretentiously throws around his knowledge of Gaelic and plays the bagpipes badly. Heaven only knows what he is rebelling against, but his show of Republicanism is more a means to an end, than an end in itself, and it is hilarious.

The show benefits mightily from McDonagh, McGough, and Fiffer’s graceful yet rock solid performances. However, Fenton’s portrayal of the endangered British soldier is strangely flat. It’s also not clear whether his Leslie is a Cockney or a recent graduate of Eton. Given Behan’s own allegiance to the working class, such lack of consistency in dialect is a grave mischaracterization.

The cast commits itself completely to the song and dance numbers interwoven into the scenes. Still, I can’t help wondering if the Theater Building space that Griffin Theatre is using doesn’t defeat Jonathan Berry’s direction. Theater in the round might help the fourth-wall removal this play was based on, but dialogue is lost when actors have to turn and direct their address to other sides of the stage. Likewise, sightlines block action from one side of the audience, while the other side may see just fine. The result is a muddled depiction of dramatic action, not necessarily something that brings cast and audience closer.

hostage5 Behan was not interested in dramatically presenting Ireland’s Troubles in a neat and tidy package. War is messy, life is messy, and the ascertainment of who is on your side, who isn’t, and what ought to be done about is fraught with all kinds of doubts, misgivings, and just plain mistakenness. The whorehouse tenants are as loyal to Ireland’s liberty as any, yet they attempt to help Leslie get away. The police raid the bawdy house in order to save Leslie, but get him killed in the crossfire instead.

But if there is a line to be drawn in the sand here, it’s between the intended messiness of the play itself, and the messiness that results when tragic moments are not allowed to be tragic and all necessary contrast is lost. The humor of this play, its jovial ruckus of song and dance, are meant to be temporary relief to the wasteful death and mourning that surrounds these characters’ daily existence. To treat them like simple entertainment, such as we know in a night out to the theater, is to miss why The Hostage was written at all.

 

Rating: ««

 

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