REVIEW: The Last Daughter of Oedipus (Babes With Blades)

A New Sophistication for a New Kind of Savior

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Babes With Blades presents
   
The Last Daughter of Oedipus
   
Written by Jennifer L. Mickelson
Directed by
Tara Branham
at
Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

It’s a good thing there’s an afterlife in The Last Daughter of Oedipus or we mere mortals could easily write off its heroine, Ismene (Kimberly Logan), as a failure at everything she attempts in life. With her new play, produced by Babes With Blades at Lincoln Square Theatre, Jennifer L. Mickelson totally revises Ismene’s traditionally meek and incidental role in Classical myth and literature. More importantly, Mickelson re-imagines her heroine within absolutely appropriate parameters of Ancient Greek religion. The characters of this drama thoroughly believe in the gods, in prayer, in Logan Begale JK 4848 ritual and in the less glowing side of Greek religion, the shadowy beliefs about the supernatural and the underworld. Classical geek alert: The Last Daughter of Oedipus is mythologically correct.

Her sister, Antigone (Sarah Scanlon), is dead and buried, making Ismene the last of her bloodline. Now a mournful Kreon (Michael Sherwin), her uncle, rules her dynasty’s city. Creon’s judgment has always been suspect and now crumbles under the guilt of the deaths of his son Haemon and Antigone. If only Ismene could break the original curse that has brought her family and city low, she might be able to rebuild Thebes after its terrible period of war and strife.

Ismene escapes Thebes to seek Theseus’ counsel at Athens, accompanied by her ruddy servant Zeva (Eleanor Katz). On the way, three Athenian women, Amaranta (Mandy Walsh), Cassia (Jasmine Ryan) and Alcina (Katie Mack) redirect her to the Oracle at Delphi. Theseus had just departed to march on Thebes and now Ismene must consult the Oracle in order to understand and break the curse before war breaks out in earnest between her city and Athens. All the while, dark dreams of her incestuous mother Jocasta and her doomed sister Antigone haunt Ismene, driving her onward but giving her no rest or hope. Soon it becomes apparent that Ismene’s dreams and visions are not just in her head but, rather, originate from the ancient Furies who act to fulfill the curse against her family.

Tara Branham’s direction reigns almost effortlessly over the smooth flow of action from fight scene to fight scene. Additionally, her incorporation of Mercedes Rohlfs’ movement direction with Libby Beyreis’ fight choreography truly inspires and evokes stronger veracity for the play’s supernatural elements. The dreadful Furies, Tisiphone (Moira Begale-Smith), Alekto (Amy E. Harmon), and Megaira (Sarah Scanlon), recall the Witches in Macbeth or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who could be leading the protagonist to truth and/or destruction.

The Last Daughter of Oedipus exhibits increasing theatrical depth for Babes With Blades, in both its writing and execution. Lighting (Leigh Barrett), sound (Stephen Ptacek), and costumes (Emma Weber) reveal a powerfully cohesive artistic vision. Furthermore, this play re-awakens, for modern audiences, the original purpose of tragedy in the city-state of Athens, which was to use familiar myth cycles to examine social and political challenges for the health of the state. Ismene’s final monologue before the end of the first act interrogates the sources of terror as much for our own times as for her own.

 

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Kimberly Logan brings intelligent desperation to her interpretation of Ismene. The role itself swings from feeling badly to feeling less bad to feeling profoundly bad before Ismene’s final redemption in the underworld. It’s up to supporting characters to realize the plays’ lighter side—to which end, Harmon’s turn as the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi makes for amazing and insightful comic catharsis. Here is a scene that both spoofs and takes seriously our era’s Goddess spirituality movements.

If there’s any fault to be found, it’s in pacing problems, which could easily be resolved in the course of the run. The cast has mastered Mickelson’s heightened language for intention and now needs to pick up the pace in some scenes for crisper realism. As for the fight scenes, standard to BWB productions, a bit too much control undoes the edge that makes for the realistic and thrilling danger of actors swinging swords around. The cast shouldn’t hurt themselves, but they’ve got to make it look like they could!

Of the very few venues in which Attic women actually held power, the exercise of religious offices and duties gave them the greatest social prestige and political influence. Hence, it’s only logical that Babes With Blades’ latest production sees Ismene battling with supernatural forces beyond her control. Yet, it is the their theatrical handling that displays the company’s increased sophistication in its mission to train women in combat roles and develop new dramas featuring fighting roles for women.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
 

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REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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