Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Review: Terre Haute (Black Elephant Theatre)

  
  

Two extremes create their own middle

  
  

Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

  
Black Elephant Theatre presents
  
Terre Haute
  
Written by Edmund White
Directed by Michael Rashid
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What if brilliant gadfly Gore Vidal (here called “James”) and mass murdering domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (“Harrison”) had actually met, instead of simply corresponding with each as happened? The very speculative results are on harsh display for 90 minutes, the setting a basically bare stage that suggests the prison contact area where they might have met. It’s neutral ground between opposites that attract in this Chicago premiere of a very telling, if imaginary, encounter between American poles.

Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.71 and suffering from osteosclerosis as he hobbles on a cane with characteristic dignity, Vidal, radical politico and openly, if not happily, gay (a richly nuanced Danne W. Taylor), is drawn to his seeming nemesis (despite being repelled by all of Indiana).

(It’s much as Truman Capote was to the multiple murderer Perry Smith or straight Norman Mailer was to killer Gary Gilmore. All three great writers seemed to shadow the executions of their subjects, though, unlike vultures, their interest was in how they faced the end, not the aftermath.)

28, unrepentant, and possibly a virgin, Cole Simon’s macho McVeigh is attractive and forbidding enough to make daredevil Vidal want to kiss him or at least touch his prison-toned chest. (So it goes at least in this fictionalized treatment by Edmund White.) Showing his usual perverse sympathy with the devil, Vidal understands that the sociopathic white supremacist/survivalist was in fact avenging an equally gratuitous slaughter of scores of supposedly innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco (exactly three years before McVeigh’s 1995 bombing).

They both find common ground in their distrust of the government and the elites who own it. Vidal fears that the American republic is endangered by the American empire and the “constant warfare” by which the populace is distracted from being raped by the rich. McVeigh dreads a “New World Order” in which the U.N. will invade America and give it up to its Jewish “owners” while enslaving the “true” citizens, deprived of guns with which to fight back. For him no sacrifice is too great to thwart the coup, including losing his life to a lethal injection. He calls it a “state-assisted suicide.”

But, as Vidal tapes McVeigh’s halting confessional, it’s clear what really unites them—what Vidal calls “the American loneliness.” Though Vidal argues that life is sacred (even if he’s an unbeliever) and McVeigh dismisses the 19 children his 7,000 fertilizer bomb killed as “collateral damage,” they both agree on the alienation they feel from and for their native land. Both are veterans who distrust the U.S. military and the constant surveillance of civilian authorities. Both are nearing death: Vidal loves life enough to fear it but, like a true jihadist, McVeigh has already crossed to the dark side: The execution will only finish the journey. Most interestingly, McVeigh reminds Vidal of his first lover Bud, who was equally eager to find easy answers and immediate gratification.

     
Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White. Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.
Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.  Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Director Michael Rashid does a fine job of using body language and the caged pacing of inmate and interviewer to reveal the intricate psychodynamics that connect and repel them. (They have a ferocious donnybrook that oddly resembles a lover’s quarrel.) When Gore finally mentions the broken bodies of the many victims, McVeigh almost sees them for the first time, far more real than any abstraction of anti-government revenge could ever be.

It’s not exactly a meeting of minds. McVeigh is too much the militia-minded thug of action to be any more than a nightmare clad in flesh. But, despite its highly imaginative pretend-encounter, Terre Haute goes far to explaining how much American extremes—Vidal’s kneejerk cynicism about American ideals and McVeigh’s lethal paranoia and self-pity—seem to deserve each other. Most of us are happy enough to live in between.

     
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Terre Haute runs through April 10th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available online or by calling 800-982-2787. Terre Haute runs 80-minute with no intermission.

     
     

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REVIEW: Gross Indecency – Oscar Wilde (Black Elephant)

A Modern Take on Indecency


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Black Elephant Theatre presents
 
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
 
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by
Michael Rashid
Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through November 14 | tickets: $18-$22   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

We humans love a good scandal. We love to put people on the pedestal of fame and notoriety and then topple the perch. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde puts a modern slant on the Victorian era scandal that was made of Wilde’s personal life. There is a preamble of sorts set in present day at the Green Carnation Bar on karaoke night. The Green Carnation is a gay bar and the men are mostly Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant Theatre 015 young and a study in beauty. The characters are happily drunk and indulging in what could be at best naughty behavior but the fact that they are all men still leaves a dangerous edge to this drama.

The walls of the bar are covered in art that scandalized the Victorians. Aubrey Beardsley’s line drawings of engorged phalluses are joined by a portrait of a Greek boy, an absinthe advertisement, and, of course, Oscar Wilde at his languid best. This preamble serves as an unnecessary distraction – we are not needing a peek behind the walls of what is no longer forbidden, and I find drunken karaoke to only be fun when I am also inebriated. When the lights finally go down, the people in the bar become the characters in Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial.

Wilde made no secret of his love for young men and found a willing partner in Lord Alfred Douglas who he affectionately called Bosie. The Marquis of Queensbury , Bosie’s father, called Wilde a Sodomite and was subsequently sued for libel. It is certain that Wilde was more upset at being called something so common. He was also famous for his wit and aestheticism. To be a mere Sodomite was beneath Mr. Wilde.

The actors portray historical characters with a farcical quality and post modern edge. Mark LeBeau Jr. speaks the dialogue of Sir Edward Clark as if he were in a screwball comedy of the 1930’s – talky and fast.  Unfortunately LeBeau garbles some of his words, and the staging has his back to the audience for some his scene.

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Casey Chapman is glorious to watch as Sir Alfred Douglas-Wilde’s beloved Bosie. Chapman portrays a glowering and somewhat petulant Douglas who defies his father and revels in his sexuality in the times when even the piano legs were covered in the parlor. Chapman looks the part of an aristocrat in his carriage and his enunciation. He and Kevin Bishop as Oscar Wilde bring erotic shading to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The fact that the staging is in a modern bar takes away the bodice ripping illusion of Victorian times.

Danne W. Taylor is menacing as the Marquis. He dons an eye patch for the role and it is a nice addition. In one moment Taylor is the chicken hawk in the bar and in the next a hypocrite with a title disowning his son.

Jake Szczepaniak is great comic relief as George Bernard Shaw. It is known that Shaw was a champion for equal rights and quite the curmudgeon, but his appearance is a welcome non sequitur to the proceedings.

Alex Polcyn plays one of the judges to great comic effect as well. The hypocrisy of the times and the ridiculous nature of making an example of one man is a great premise for a farce. Polcyn dons a U.K. style court wig and orates like a Monty Python character. The timing and elocution are perfect and a lot of fun to watch in spite of the heavy subject matter.

Gross Indecency of Oscar Wilde - Black Elephant - Emily Granata 013 In the second act, Kevin Bishop is seen more as Wilde. He is wonderful in the role and portrays Wilde’s famous wit and refusal to be common. Michael B. Woods is very funny as the cardigan -wearing judge in Wilde’s trial that sends him to prison. Woods is the quiet and observant bartender for most of the play and then transforms into a perfect vision of a cranky old man banging on the table for order in the court.

It is fortunate that the comic moments are in this production. Wilde was funny and acerbic with little tolerance for fools. Moises Kaufman incorporates a lot of the trial and Wilde quotes, but runs a bit on the talky side. It’s a razor-thin balance that Kaufman’s dialogue treads. He attempts to show how anyone’s life can be misconstrued as a criminal act just by how they choose to live. Black Elephant Theatre uses the subtitle ‘love is a crime’, recalling the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were targeted as the means by which a plague was unloosed. The same thing happened to Oscar Wilde and just as painful and ignominious death awaited him when he was released from prison.

Michael Rashid’s direction is skillful, though one wonders what he could have done if time were shaved off of the production and if farce and drama were more seamlessly blended. At times the action feels like one of the Beardsley’s exaggerated drawings, and  then suddenly it’s as murky as the absinthe that Wilde supposedly imbibed.

I recommend this production with a caveat. Unless you dig watching drunken karaoke, take a pass on the pre-show. It’s meant to get the audience into the mind frame of the times and the characters, but it adds more time to a production that clocks in at two hours without karaoke.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a presentation of Black Elephant Theatre and runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sundays at 8:30pm through November 14th. The production is located in the West Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago. A trailer of the play and more information is available at www.blackelephanttheatre.com

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Review: Project 891’s “Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story”

 An Ode to the Wrong at Heart

Loeb and Leopold

Project 891 Theatre presents:

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story
by John Logan
directed by Michael Rashid

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre’s first stage venture, Never the Sinner: the Leopold and Loeb Story, resonates with unresolved issues from the last century. These issues continue into the 21st century as part of our unresolved daily discourse: justice, mercy, the cause of callous criminal conduct, the value of human life, the death penalty, sexuality and its causes. When one considers the implications of this play by Academy Award screenwriter John Logan, what amazes is that both the infamous murder and its prosecution are central to the history of Chicago and the nation, yet receive little serious attention today beyond true crime enthusiasts.

Guest director Michael Rashid was completely surprised when the producers offered him the project:

“They sent the script down in front of me at IHOP. We were just heading out for coffee and fries. I had known about the script for a while and had been fascinated with the story from my teens. After seeing Swoon! I was fascinated by the villains, the dark side and, being a gay man myself, the gay relationship in the story. John Logan emphasizes, first and foremost, this is a love story between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.”

The performances are the greatest power of the production. Matt Hays (Richard Loeb), Ron Popp (Nathan Leopold), Gary Murphy (Clarence Darrow), and Robert Kaercher (Robert Crowe) are its four pillars. Each actor has been cast with precision. Gary Murphy is pitch perfect as the weary, yet undaunted humanist Clarence Darrow. Leopold and Loeb2Matt Hays conveys Loeb’s boyish amoral enthusiasm with humorous but terrifying accuracy. Robert Kaercher’s States Attorney is the quintessential man of his times, in his demeanor, delivery, and over-reliance on expertise to prosecute criminals.

Actors playing the press provide the necessary relief from the heaviness of the play’s themes, but Logan’s first work is not the easiest with which to create an uninterrupted dramatic arc. Its structure contains a lot of stop-and-start from scene to scene and Rashid’s direction has not resolved all those problems, given the spatial limitations of Chemical Imbalance Theatre. The incorporation of a high tech large digital flat screen as backdrop to the simple 1924 set and costuming is effective for the most part, conveying period newsreel footage and images emphasizing Leopold’s fascinations with falcons and Loeb. But it can also be distracting when unnecessarily telegraphing Leopold and Loeb’s relationship.

Ron Popp’s turn as Nathan Leopold, or Babe, is the hardest to warm to. His detached, ratiocinated worldview, his absolute belief in the Nietzschean Superman, provides as much distance between the character and audience as it does between him and the rest of his character’s world. But the play is dead-on in centering his worldview, with its deeper psychological underpinnings, Leopold, Loeb and Clarence Darrow as the prism through which to view Leopold and Loeb’s murder of Bobby Frank. This comes through with painful clarity when psychologists for the state interrogate Leopold and Loeb, expounding on their same-sex affair with the same detached, dissecting, and devaluing analysis that Leopold, in his turn, applies to ornithology, languages, little Bobby Frank’s life, everything.

Everything, that is, except his romance with Loeb, which he casts in fantasy, submission, and erotic wonder. Darrow orders Nathan to put aside all facts and figures, to go the heart of his being, to know truly why he has committed this terrible crime. When Babe answers, “What if my heart is wrong?” it is as if clouds have parted and the mystery becomes crystal clear. So far as the play is concerned, Leopold needs to believe in the Nietzschean Superman, and that he and Loeb are such creatures, so that his heart can have some small hope for survival in the anatomized, meaningless, Modernist world he must live in.

Loeb, Germaine and Leopold The role of Darrow could have been performed as a knight or, heaven forbid, high priest of humanistic truth. But, thankfully, Murphy’s performance gives Darrow’s idealistic moments earthiness, vitality, and accessibility. Where is such an eloquent champion now for the better part of our nature against the death penalty? We do not live in the better future that Darrow pictured himself a part of. We have been under the leadership of people who justified themselves as being above the law and above the rest of humanity. We are still suffering the blowback.

Rating: «««

 

View Never the Sinner - the Leopold and Loeb Story

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Presented by Project 891 Theatre
Where: Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Rd.
When: Through Aug 2, 2009
Tickets: $10-$15  (Box Office: 1-800-838-3006)

Pictures taken by Val Bromann.