Review: Solo Works (Theatre Zarko)

  
  

Fragments of a puppeteer’s life

  
  

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

  
Theatre Zarko presents
   
Solo Works
       
Created and performed by Michael Montenegro
at Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
through May 21  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Michael Montenegro has long held a singular place as Chicago’s master puppeteer. With Solo Works at Theatre Zarko in Evanston, he returns to his roots —a set of simple performances that recall his early days performing for children at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Most of Chicago’s theater community remembers him through his haunting, ethereal contributions to Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautica in 2006 or Writers’ Theatre production The Puppetmaster of Lodz in 2007. Plus, critical accolades have heightened attention to his brainchild Theatre Zarko, with Klown Kantos/The Sublime Beauty of Hands in 2009 and Haff the Man/Falling Girl (our review ★★★★), which we named as one of the top 25 shows of 2010. Montenegro eschews the limelight, but, more often than not, his ever-changing artistry draws a small but extremely devoted following.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011Solo Works displays the craftsman alone with his puppets—a modest presentation pared down to the most basic elements of light and darkness, spare proscenium, and one musician, long-time collaborator Jude Mathews, at a low lit keyboard, providing most of the production’s carnival atmosphere. As such, each short theatrical piece forms a fragment or a mediation on the puppeteer’s life. “Myself at Ten” starkly sets a black and white photo of Montenegro at 10 years old atop his darkly dressed adult body, with a simple four-legged puppet that he manipulates to run, walk, stretch and leap. It wordlessly explores a boy’s budding discovery of the ability to animate inanimate objects–filled with enigmatic wonder and not a little hint of control. But the question of who controls whom pops up again and again.

“Sing” cunningly portrays a man coming home to disrobe and unveil his latest purchase, a bird in a birdcage that he exhorts to sing. But nothing can be exacted from bird without a little performance from the man first. Likewise, both “A Man with A Bag” and “A Short Lecture” reveal the ever-present danger of puppets taking control, once they assume a life of their own. Even “Gustavo” depicts a puppet violinist being dictated to by his own violin, which opens its toothy mouth and makes demands like, “I want to go to Hawaii,” or “I want to be a cello.” Time and again, Montenegro’s creations make Id-like pronouncements that inform, critique or disrupt the puppeteer’s course of action. It’s a testament to Montenegro’s skill that he can transform his bare hand into a puppet with a menacing presence. But more to the point, the puppeteer must respond to what he has vivified.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011By far, the evening’s boldest, most enigmatic and existential work may be “Giacco,” wherein a grotesque, almost ghostly head is manipulated to speak, urging another puppet, formed only by Montenegro’s back, to run toward the crowd. But Solo Works mixes intricate, esoteric puppetry with elements of crowd-pleasing, Punch-and-Judy street puppetry. Childlike rudeness and joy blends with the graceful, the magical and the profound. What is more, Theatre Zarko always produces work in constant evolution through the course of the run–the show an audience sees one night may not be the same the next.

At times, the fragmentary nature of Solo Works frustrates because it lacks a strong cohesive arc. But that will not prevent anyone from becoming absorbed, moment-by-moment, by the master’s dreamlike figures sculpted from wood, wire and cloth. The figures may reflect a life made up of pieces and bits–found, repurposed, and re-awakened.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
     

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Solo Works continues through May 21st at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15 at the door, and reservations can be made by calling 847-350-9275.  For more information, visit www.theatrezarko.org

  
  

REVIEW: Haff, the Man – Falling Girl (Theatre Zarko)

 

The Gossamer Poetry of Light and Dark

 

Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko

   
Theatre Zarko presents
   
Haff, the Man and   Falling Girl
   
Haff, the Man: written and directed by Michael Montenegro
Falling Girl: co-directed by Ellen O’Keefe and
Michael Montenegro 
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $13-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Theatre Zarko does something far more profound than ably tell stark, simple tales with charming puppets. They revive the very meaning and value of Symbolist Theater for Chicagoland audiences. Artistic Director Michael Montenegro has a vision—and that vision is to mount productions that reawaken the Symbolist mission of creating drama as poetry, not just re-do Symbolism as a period movement, creaky with inbred art house nostalgia. He and his ensemble of performers succeeded last season with The Sublime Beauty of Hands and Klown Kantos. They win once again with Haff, the Man and Falling Girl at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.

In fact, the show provides the best of both worlds. It contains all the immediacy and risk of live theater, while integrating light (Scott Lee Heckman), music (Jude Mathews), sound, projections (Ellen O’Keefe) and movement to almost pristinely pure cinematic effect. Even the performers’ stately movements – setting up between scenes – take on a ritualistic element within the overall performance, replicating the economy of modern poetry. Nothing is wasted. Every word, every sound, every puppet’s shaky gesture or turn of the head generates deep and lasting poetic impact.

Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko Haff, the Man generates tension and suspense through the two warring halves, literally, of one desolate man, Lou. The left half of Lou retreats reclusively and bitterly at home. The arrival of his right half is an unwelcome visit, as if from a dangerous stranger or an enemy with which he’s achieved an uneasy détente. But the right half of Lou has met a young woman and wants to take the rest of him forward into a new and promising future. Lou’s woundedness recalls left brain/right brain theory and the puppeteers are masters at suggesting mood, as much as the orchestra sets up perfect atmospherics with singing bowls and African djembes.

Montenegro and O’Keefe have adapted Falling Girl from a short story of the same name by Dino Buzzati (English translator Lawrence Venuti). A young woman jumps off the top of a city skyscraper, not to end  her life but to begin it. She jumps, not from depression or desperation, but out of anticipation.Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko “They’re waiting for me down there. Opportunity. Romance. The true inauguration of my life. I hope I’m not late.”

Is she delusional? Is her jump really a cry for help? Or is it a daring act beyond the comprehension of the people who witness it? Her witnesses are many–jaded party-goers who think that young women throwing themselves off of buildings are “an interesting diversion for the tenants.” Others urge her, as if to stop her in mid-fall, “You still have time to rush around and be busy.” A line of identical secretaries begs her to take them with her. What’s more, Falling Girl’s fall seems interminable, suspending her and all who watch her in a dreamlike state.

Falling Girl and Haff, the Man are the stuff of dreams. Theatre Zarko’s interplay of light and dark with each story evokes the silver screen. At the same time, their production is homey, earthy and intimate. They have achieved both epic and minimalist theater; they have found the macrocosm in the microcosm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Show runs October 8 thru November 21 at Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  (Friday and Saturday at 7pm & 9pm; Sundays at 3pm).  Note: This production is not recommended for children.

Haff the Man - Theatre Zarko - Noyes Cultural Center - a photo of Haff, the Man. Carl Wiedemann photographer. 

 

   
   

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

war-with-newts2

  
Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2

Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½