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: Lakeboat (Steep Theatre)

     
     

Steep adeptly navigates Mamet’s austere boatmen’s tale

     
     

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
Steep Theatre presents
  
Lakeboat
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by G.J. Cederquist
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
thru Feb 26  |  tickets: $22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘I knew a guy who ate a chair because no one stopped him.’ Life on the lake is tedious. To drift through the monotony, a crew focuses on booze, sex and sandwiches. Steep Theatre presents Lakeboat, Playwright David Mamet’s semi-biographical account of life on a freight ship. Dale is the new night cook. A Lakeboat summer job is a romantic notion for a literature major. Dale learns quickly this isn’t a “Huck Finn” adventure. From anchors up, the jocular familiarity of the guys breeds testosterone-infused competition. Boozing escapades, sexual conquests and egg sandwiches – every raunchy story is an industrial strength, usurped, big sail of wind. Lakeboat navigates through the humorous inner-workings of a bunch of bull ship!

In Mamet style, the unsophisticated dialogue is viscerally organic. Under the direction of C.J. Cederquist, the eight-man crew delivers strong and distinctive portrayals. Perfect as the fish-out-of-water, Nick Horst (Dale) bumbles with an endearing puppy dog likeability. Eric Roach (Fred) is hilarious describing his zingo approach to getting laid. Roach climaxes with vulgar orgasmic satisfaction. Peter Moore (Stan) and Sean Bolger (Joe) capture perfectly that familiar unexplainable friendship synergy. They don’t appear to even like or listen to each other in a twosome banter. Add a third man and the claws come out in ferocious loyalty. Oddly charming! Carrying himself with dignity, Alex Gillmor (Collins) floats between ambitious second-in-charge and acknowledged sandwich gopher. Barking nonsensical orders, Norm Woodel (Skippy) is a hoot as a captain that is a few oars short. Jim Poole (fireman) is marvelously passionate explaining the importance of his mundane existence. Although hard to hear over the lakefront audio, Jason Michael Linder (pierman) checks in as an arrogant gatekeeper.

David Mamet penned a series of personality snippets to depict working life on the river. It’s a glimpse of the crude and bleak life of boatmen from the perspective of a college student’s seasonal stint. Set designer Dan Stratton stretches the boat across the middle of the theatre with seating on the port and starboard sides. The stage works nicely for the crew’s entrances on the gangplank. Then with steel poles and chains, it transforms to the boat. The visual is interesting but challenges the pacing. The galley is in the bow. The captain drives from the stern. The engine room is in the stem. The action from one end to the other end provides waves of lulling instead of rocking intensity for the perfect storm. The Steep production actualizes Mamet’s characters with tanker-like distinction. With a little more speed from the tugboat, this Lakeboat will cruise full-steam ahead.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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REVIEW: Hunting and Gathering (Theatre Seven)

Who knew the drudgery of moving could be so much fun?

 hunting & gathering

  
Theatre Seven presents
 
Hunting and Gathering
  
by Brooke Berman
directed by
Brian Golden
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 27th  tickets: $18-$24   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Here in Chicago, the Memorial Day holiday also coincides with massive inter-city migration. Moving season is very much upon us. How appropriate, then, that the wonder-kids at Theatre Seven are putting on a show focused entirely on that frustrating activity. Hunting and Gathering is about moving, but also not about moving; hunting & gathering it’s really about relationships and finding yourself, among other things. Brooke Berman’s play dwells on listlessness, both geographically and emotionally. Theatre Seven’s production makes for a thoroughly entertaining 85 minutes, even if Berman’s script is too fluffy to make a fresh statement.

The meandering story (set in that other theatre city, New York) is driven by director Brian Golden and features an eager cast of four. Mostly, we journey alongside Ruth (Tracey Kaplan), who finds herself over 30 with most of her stuff stashed in a storage unit. Her struggle to find the perfect apartment is entangled with her history with brothers Astor (Todd Garcia) and Jesse (Michael Salinas). Astor is her best friend and a self-professed “couch-surfer”; however, like many opposite-sex best friends, he desires something more. Jesse, a college professor, had an adulterous affair with Ruth, which seems to have really screwed with her head. But by this moving season, he is divorced and dating a student, Bess (Paige Collins), a girl who has confidence way beyond her years.

Berman’s tale of urban nomads is fun and relatable, especially for anyone who can appreciate the value of a friend with a van. The play has a breezy feel to it, though. It seems like we are skipping along vast swaths of character information, and we don’t have enough to glue together for a complete picture. Relationships are under-nourished, especially the romance between Jesse and Ruth. By the end we’re led to believe that the affair did quite a number on Ruth’s psyche, but we aren’t sure why.

Kaplan digs into the heart of the Ruth, shaping her as both pugilist and irrational idealist. She can be adorable without being sticky sweet, such as in one scene where she stakes out a prospective apartment with techniques ripped from “Mission Impossible” and the “I Ching”. Salinas also connects deeply to his character, nailing down Jesse’s gawky charm. Garcia seems a tad uncomfortable on-stage, but he brings in most of the humor. Collins is fine, but her Bess exudes too much self-assurance. Just a bit more vulnerability, tucked away somewhere, would make her character a lot more likable.

hunting & gathering hunting & gathering
hunting & gathering hunting & gathering

Although not jaw-dropping, the design of Hunting and Gathering is clever and very fitting. Sarah Burnham’s set consists almost entirely of brown boxes and packing tape. With a few well-placed lights and props, these boxes become everything from refrigerators to café tables. As with past Theatre Seven shows, C.J. Arellano provides refreshing video wizardry, jolting multi-media pizzazz into the production, as well providing narrative guideposts (although they could be cued better).

With all of Theatre Seven’s energetic talent, it’s a letdown that a better play couldn’t be found. Berman’s stories read like memoirs or, more specifically, memoirs written by someone with a sense of humor. Although given a comedic finishing-coat, Ruth is plainly a doppelganger for Berman. Comedies can, and should, have significance, but Hunting and Gathering walks along beaten trails. It seems Berman wants to find dramatic riches in the smoldering coals of Ruth and Jesse’s failed relationship, but she doesn’t earn it. We aren’t given enough to hold onto—the audience is presented with a generalized wave of relationships. Literary importance aside, the play still functions delightfully as a zippy comedy geared towards the younger set. Considering the gallons of sweat, blood, and tears that go into moving season, it’s about time someone tapped into that dramatic well.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
 

hunting & gathering

       
       

REVIEW: Mimesophobia (Theatre Seven)

One of the most refreshing plays to land this season

 T7_Mimesophobia_11

Theatre Seven presents:

 

Mimesophobia

Written by Carlos Murillo
Directed by Margot Bordelon
At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue,
through April 4th (more info)

By Oliver Sava

I knew Mimesophobia was going to be Brechtian when I saw the costume rack on stage. Underneath the hanging clothes? A shelf of props. Double Brecht. No actors, no dialogue, and it is obvious who is running the show: everyone’s favorite pioneer of epic theatre, Bertolt Brecht. My suspicions are confirmed when the two narrators take the stage, Man-Who-Speaks-Omniscient-Between-the-2nd-and-3rd-Person-a.k.a. Brian (Brian Golden) and Woman-Who-Speaks-in-the-2nd-Person-Omniscient-a.k.a. Jessica (Jessica Thigpen). With the articulation of newscasters, the duo introduces us to the world of the play, continuously reminding us that what we are seeing is, without a doubt, a staged retelling.

T7_Mimesophobia_07 Suddenly the empty stage is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where two young screenwriters are premiering their new film about the murder-suicide of a New England couple. Henry (Michael Salinas) and Aaron (Brian Stojak) break down the final scene of Before and After frame by frame – don’t forget, this is a retelling – and questions begin forming. Who died? How? And who is this woman going on The Charlie Rose Show and why is this elderly Hyde Park couple terrified of her? These questions will be answered by the end, but more will be left unanswered.

Mimesophobia juggles three storylines, each informing the others but also doubting them. Truth is relative. Cassy (Cassy Sanders), the sister of the murdered woman, tries to understand the events that lead to the killing by reconstructing her sister’s journals, burned on the night she was killed. At an artist’s colony, Henry and Aaron are working on a first draft of Before and After, but struggling with a bad case of writer’s block. Shawn (Cyd Blakewell) is the rambling genius writing One Night Only: Actual Death and the Future of American Entertainment, a nonfiction novel about cultural fascination with the recreation of deadly situations. Stuck on the middle chapter – “the cat burglar’s pick that once turned will drop the tumblers in place opening a door” – she is also living on a cot at the artist’s colony, eating peanut butter tortillas and murmuring like a maniac.

After the Chinese Theater prologue, the history of Shawn and how she crosses paths with Henry and Aaron. The script is clever, the narrators are beginning to have a little more fun – Jessica is playing Beth, Shawn’s mother – and Blakewell delivers each line in a detached monotone that is creepy as hell. Brecht rears his adorable little head with costume changes on stage and actors as set crew, but it works with the play’s theme that entertainment survives by fictionalizing fact. Theater is inherently a lie, but it is the collective experience of the audience seeing a story together that creates truth by asking the viewer to question what they think they know. The play has us asking questions and thinking about the bigger ideas, but is there a human connection? Is this a seriocomic experiment in dialectical metatheatre or will this story resonate on a deeper emotional level?

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Enter Cassy, the character most impacted by the central tragedy of the plot and our anchor to the truth. Sanders bring vulnerability to the production, her quivering voice and small frame a sharp contrast to the crisp confidence of the other performers, and her scenes are the most visceral of the production. As she uncovers hidden facts about her sister and her troubled marriage, Cassy begins to question her own relationship with the deceased.

The pieces are all in place, now the puzzle building begins, with Murillo’s script layering events to build suspense. Revelations that Cassy finds in her sisters journals provide major breakthroughs in the plot, which are then explored through the creative lens of Henry and Aaron. How Shawn fits into the narrative is the biggest mystery, and Blakewell offers few clues to her enigmatic character’s intentions, a captivating cipher.

Seeing these pieces come together is the fun of Mimesophobia, so the less you know, the better. Margot Bordelon’s direction moves the production at a quick pace that doesn’t sacrifice emotion, and the actors have a firm handle on Carlos Murillo’s stylized dialogue and the relationships, especially Cassy’s with her dead sister. Funny, provocative, and poignant, Theatre Seven’s Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company, and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.

 

Rating: ★★★★

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Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

hollowlands logo

Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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