Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

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The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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