REVIEW: Redeemers (New Leaf Theatre)

  
  

Struggling to save the corporate soul

  
  

Pat King, Joel Ewing and Marsha Harman -  Photo by Tom McGrath

   
New Leaf Theatre presents
   
Redeemers
  
Written by Bilal Dardai
Directed by
Jessica Hutchinson
at
Rocco Ranalli’s Pizzeria, 1925 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A distinctly Eighties vibe pervades New Leaf Theatre’s production, Redeemers — and it’s not just that Pat King, who plays Nick, resembles a young James Spader both in looks and acting style. Directed by Jessica Hutchinson and set in the warm, casual and seasonally festooned environs of Rocco Ranallli’s back dining room, Redeemers revisits class warfare in the same way Eighties Brat Pack films explored them—as if Redeemers_NL_6photo by Tom McGrathsome black and white lesson in morality could be drawn from the conflict.

Nick, Mercy (Marsha Harman) and Abel (Joel Ewing) all work for Charles Edwin of Edwin Financial, then meet at their favorite watering hole each evening to rehash their existence under Mr. Edwin’s rule. Playwright Bilal Dardai gives these characters a sharp, witty and convincingly incestuous rapport while King, Harman and Ewing mark their territory at Ranalli’s with their tight, responsive and slightly sinister threesome. One never questions that they have known each other for years and can map each other’s moods by the stalling tactics they engage in or from the drinks they order. Over time, one silently asks what draws these three together besides shared history or a mutual workplace.

But never mind about that now. Charles Edwin dominates all their thoughts. His role in their lives infects even happy hour, when they might truly desire a break from the boss. Fine enough that they should grouse about Mr. Edwin when he was a tyrant, but a sudden change of heart—literally a double-bypass surgery—transforms him into the noble, fair and generous employer of Charles Dicken’s dreams. All of which strikes the threesome with incredulity and is simply too much for Nick, for one, to take. He masterminds with Mercy and Abel a series of relentless pranks meant to test Mr. Edwin just to see how far his personal reformation endures.

Sadly, the play suffers from the very thing it is founded upon—storytelling style theater. The most significant events have already occurred and must be related to the audience through the obviously suspect threesome. The cast is smart, charming and play their roles to second-skin perfection but the storytelling style inevitably dampens emotional immediacy. Redeemers_NL_5photo by Tom McGrathEven Nick’s obsession with Mr. Edwin loses tension because he must always be spoken of in the past tense. Even the jokes scripted to make fun of the style cannot relieve its subtly annoying impact. The only segment that doesn’t suffer is Abel’s tragic childhood account regarding his father.

New Leaf has engaged Dardai’s script with thoroughly professional talent to make it present; its crackling dialogue alone indicates the emergence of a promising new playwright that should be watched. However Redeemer’s wrap-up is as paper thin, implausible and morally simplistic as the Eighties films mentioned above. Tyrant or reformed saint, one has the boss one has and acquiesces to that arrangement as part of the cost of accepting the hierarchy of corporate life. Or one joins a commune or a co-operatively owned business—a choice that these cynical three, no doubt, would mercilessly ridicule over a scotch and soda.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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FEATURING

Pat King
Joel Ewing
Marsha Harman

PRODUCTION

Assistant Director: Josh Sobel
Production Manager: Marni Keenan
Stage Manager: Tara Malpass
Dramaturg: Emily Dendinger
Environment Design: Michelle Lilly
Sound & Projections Design: Nick Keenan
Costume Design: Rachel Sypniewski

  
  

REVIEW: The Iliad (A Red Orchid)

   
  

Young women and the warrior code

 

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad

   
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
The Iliad
   
Adapted by Craig Wright
Directed by
Steve Wilson
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than a little sly feminism goes into A Red Orchid’s production The Iliad, a one-act play adapted for young female actors by award-winning playwright Craig Wright. The girls take on the masculine roles of this Bronze Age classic and staunchly play out its warrior codes of honor, duty, and submission to fate and/or the gods. The idea is to provide young female actors with roles that they wouldn’t usually get to play and introduce them to the classics. However, employing an all-girl cast pulls double, triple, even quadruple duty by implicitly interrogating the ancient gender roles of Mycenaean Greek culture, wherein dissent between the hero, Achilles (Jaiden Fallo-Sauter), and his king, Agamemnon (Najwa Joy Brown), begins with a dispute over who has claim to a woman they’ve won as spoils of war.

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad posterAs for the women’s roles, they are all played by dolls–dolls to be fought over, to possess, to be prized, to surrender, to be thrown around or to be ordered into submission. It’s this light bit of child’s play between the girls over dolls that brings home the more serious recognition that women were chattel back in the day, no matter how highly born. In the shadow of men at war, women and children could, at best, only hope that their side won–or that whomever won, the victors would be reasonably merciful. Even Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set design reminds one of children caught at play in the middle of violent upheavals in Bosnia or the Gaza Strip.

That’s quite harsh stuff for a very young cast to convey. But Steve Wilson’s direction unflaggingly keeps up the energy and humor in the show’s vivid confrontations between enemies who should be allies, between brothers Paris (Nicole Rudakova) and Hector (Aria Szalai-Raymond), and, oh yes, between the warring Greeks and Trojans. Sarah Fornace’s fight choreography packs a lot of good visual excitement. The final showdown between Achilles and Hector is all the more thrilling for the economy with which it’s executed. Finally, the strutting stuff in Wright’s script regarding male disputes over honor gets its comeuppance from the girls’ deadpan delivery–to even greater comic effect.

Wright cuts out much of the original Iliad for his adaptation and that, for the purposes of this production, is more than fine. If anyone had told me before now that this epic could be performed on stage in an hour, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I mourn the radical alteration of one scene—the final meeting between Priam (Melanie Neilan) and Achilles, when the aged king comes to beg from him the body of his slain son. It’s passing strange that, having come so far, Wright does not simply pull whole and darkly beautiful lines from the original text:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my son.

It is not as if Neilan couldn’t handle that kind of poetry. She, not to mention most of the cast, seems up to it and should be given the chance. If exposure to the classics is part of the actor’s journey in this production then not just gender roles, but also an exploration of the Ancient Greek concept of Ananke, or Harsh Necessity, is just as much part of the process of discovering this culture and these characters. A Red Orchid’s production succeeds with a certain cuteness factor—little girls playing big men’s roles. That works to great effect, especially when 5th grader Eden Strong delivers the lines of the mighty Ajax. But behind the play lies war’s devastation. I say, let the girls bring it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Production Personnel

Featuring Najwa Brown*, Jaiden Fallo-Sauter*, Katie Jordan*, Paola Lehman*, Marissa Meo, Isabella Mugliari, Melanie Neilan*, Madison Pullman, Nicole Rudakova, Kara Ryan*, Elenna Sindler*, Eden Strong and Aria Szalai-Raymond

The creative team includes Steve Wilson (Director), Erin Barlow (Assistant Director), Sarah Fornace (Fight and Movement Director), Michelle Lilly O’Brien (Scenic Design), Joanna Melville (Costume Design), Sean Mallary (Lighting Design), Nick Keenan (Sound Design), Kelli Moreno (Dramaturg) and Mary Ellen Rieck is the Stage Manager, Mackenzie Yeager the Company Manager and the Production Manager is Katherine Welham

*A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble Member

     
       

REVIEW: People We Know (the side project)

Perpetuating denial through the company we keep

 

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the side project presents
  
People We Know
  
by Robert Tenges
directed by
Adam Webster
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis  (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $18  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed

There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three people-we-know5 couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.

The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.

Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.

Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.

Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.

Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.

 

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The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.

In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.

Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Curse of the Starving Class (New Leaf Theatre)

New Leaf’s “curse” satisfies

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New Leaf Theatre presents
 
Curse of the Starving Class
 
By Sam Shepard
Directed by
Kyra Lewandowski
Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park W. (map)
thru May 22nd  |  tickets: $10-$18  | more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Sam Shepard’s best work always revolves around families. Some say that the American drama is family drama, and Shepherd definitely makes a strong case for this argument. His scathing True West, Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, and gritty A Lie of the Mind all focus on entangled, screwed-up families. Curse of the Starving Class, one of his other heralded “family tragedies,” is as blazing and cut-throat as the rural svclass2 California homestead it’s set in. It focuses on a family with standard structure—father, mother, son, and daughter—but with destructive tendencies. Transforming the Lincoln Park Cultural Center into the dilapidated familial residence, New Leaf does an excellent job capturing Shepherd’s gangster flick yet Aeschylean essence, although some moments are over-broiled and muddy.

The titular “curse” and the titular “starving class” are mentioned several times throughout the play, but neither is really explained at all. The drunken patriarch Weston (John Gray) describes a curse passed down for generations, from father to son, but doesn’t mention any details as to why their family is possessed or the consequences of this venom. The term is also thrown around in regards to the daughter’s first period, her entrance to adulthood. Shepherd is toying around with Classical ideas of fate, but with a horrifically modern twist: no one remembers what the curse is. The characters also have different opinions on the starving class, which is less of an economic distinction and more of a mental illness. The result is a titillating mixture of Aristotelian theory and post-modern sensibility, like if O’Neill wrote a B-movie.

The family, never given a last name, eke out an existence in a broken-down farmhouse; their front door smashed apart by Weston. We are privy to the kitchen area (they are the starving class, after all), and watch as each member contrastingly defile or rebuild the disgusting room. We see the idealistic son Wesley (Layne Manzer) urinate in the food prep area, yet later he attempts to replace the broken door. Ella (Victoria Gilbert), the matriarch, half-heartedly keeps order, and the much-maligned daughter Emma (Alyse Kittner) can’t stand the place. Weston, for all the destruction he causes, takes a shot at revitalizing the house in the final act. The world is ground-up and fallible; the characters attempt change, but can they escape their curse?

Kyra Lewandowski takes on this powerful script with gusto. Her staging is visceral, but sometimes misguided. A couple of very crucial moments take place in the eviscerated doorway, which is concealed from a good chunk of the audience. The production also adds some spooky shadow-work to push the play into a more abstract realm, but Shepherd’s grinding text doesn’t need it. Lewandowski’s expressionist choice distracts rather than adds, but it is fortunately rarely used. Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set and Jared Moore’s lights fill the otherwise welcoming Lincoln Park Cultural Center with gloom and decay, providing the cast with one unappetizing kitchen.

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The cast finds connections with Shepherd’s sometimes cryptic characters, and the entire show breathes and broods. Manzer’s Wesley can be a bit too manic, but Manzer clearly knows Wesley’s vulnerabilities. Gilbert sits in the world the best, making Ella’s most bizarre moments feel natural and understandable. Against both of these powerful actors, Kittner scratches and scrambles, which works for Emma. Gray shines in the last act, but earlier he overplays the drunken stupor and comes off as ungrounded. As the land-grabbing lawyer, Kevin Gladish can’t really penetrate Shepherd’s realm, seeming wooden and unsure. This is difficult territory to conquer, however, and the cast steps up to the challenge and they are not afraid to tear right into it.

There is a lot of important information that is left unsaid in Curse, leaving the audience unsettled and probing in the dark. Lewandowski and her team understand this critical aspect—they know to close doors as they open windows. Minus a few failings, New Leaf Theatre has a self-destructive, nauseating success.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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