REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 020

        
La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 016 Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 021 Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 010

The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 026

 

        
        

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Ghostbox (InFusion Theatre Company)

 

Where Bergman dared to tread

 

 

Ghostbox (1) - Photo by Kevin Viol

    
InFusion Theatre presents
    
Ghostbox
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Mitch Golob
Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have to give credit to InFusion Theatre Company for stepping out of the usual experimental game with Ghostbox. Randall Colburn has taken more than a page from one of my favorite directors and made it work by means of multimedia. The one-act play opens with Wife, played by Victoria Gilbert, demonstrating how a simple transistor radio can pick up supernatural signals. The film is shot in a grainy 1970’s patina of de-saturated color. It has an eerie feel and sets the mood for what comes next. The actual stage is painted in washed out gray tones with the screen set center stage. The actors are dressed in gray scale colors as well, with the exception of the Shadow that looms ominously.

Ghostbox is reminiscent of two of Bergman’s masterpieces: “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Seventh Seal”. Victoria Gilbert’s dialogue would seem repetitive in the hands of a less emotive actor. As Wife, she portrays the agony of loss and the psychology that lies beneath. Colburn’s dialogue reaches into the exotic territory of Reykjavik as the beginning of the love story of Husband and Wife. Husband spoke of Reykjavik as if it were the Promised Land where their love would be perfect. Wife reveals that he kept his deep melancholy and sexual dysfunction a secret.

Ghostbox (7) - Photo by Nastassia JimenezThe characters are kept from connecting and roam a wasteland of radio signals and flashbacks on film. This is indeed a thriller, but thankfully not in the obvious slasher mode. There are no winks at the audience in Ghostbox. This play grabs, releases, and toys with the subconscious. The images of water suggest drowning versus cleansing and purity. Even the scenes of Gilbert standing in a field of solid green are ominous and somehow stark.

Kevin Crispin plays the role of Husband. He bears a stricken hollowed visage that harkens back to German Expressionism films as well as the man playing chess with Death in “The Seventh Seal”. It’s a mystery – is Husband trying to avoid Wife in this murky place that they roam or is he keeping clear because of Shadow.

Ghostbox makes excellent use of sound (sound design by Claudette Perez) with jagged piercing radio signals that cause a few gasps in the audience, adding another layer for the characters to navigate in this nebulous place. I had visions of the old ‘Radio Free Europe’ commercials that called for open radio signals behind what was called the Iron Curtain. I was back in my seven year old psyche and recalling the terror I felt for the people who couldn’t just turn on the radio for pleasure as well as the pain and the smell of what I imagined was a real iron curtain. With Ghostbox, Colburn has created an onomatopoeia of vision and sound that projects a stark and frozen hell. When Gilbert and Crispin are together on the stage the action is taut, feeling as if glass is breaking everywhere without hearing the sounds. Gilbert goes from stricken and grieving to anger – anger at being denied love and sexuality. Crispin treads a tightrope of emotion as it is slowly revealed where they are and how they got there.

If Ghostbox were a film it would be in black and white. Director Mitch Golob keeps the scenes tight and efficient as if he were a film auteur. The suffering of humankind is said to be universal, but how it is expressed varies. It’s a refreshing experience to see a theatre production that does not go for the obvious but definitely hits the jugular. (A strange contrast to see the folks in line for Million Dollar Quartet in the main theatre.) It is a shot of surreal Technicolor and then an Icelandic blast downstairs in the Apollo Studio. Ghostbox is marketed for Halloween entertainment and it will hit the spot. Sleep well children…

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Ghostbox (5) - Photo by Nastassia Jimenez

InFusion Theatre Company presents Ghostbox at the Apollo Studio on Thursdays through Saturdays with a special Halloween Performance on October 31st at 8:30 pm. The Apollo Studio Theater is located at 2540 N. Lincoln. Call 773-935-6100 or www.ticketmaster.com

 

   
   

Continue reading

Review: Theo Ubique’s “The Taming of the Shrew”

Making the most of a risky venture

Taming_of_the_Shrew1 

Theo Ubique presents:

The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare
directed by Nick Minas
thru October 4th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Plopping Shakespeare into a cabaret setting seems like a very risky venture. However, so does paring down Andrew Lloyd Weber to fit into a tiny café. Theo Ubique had wild success with that, though, recently reeling in a massive amount of non-equity Jeff Awards for their spring production of Evita. To open this season, the spunky company tackles The Taming of the Shrew, a work a few centuries older than their usual musical flavored fare. The earnest performances tear down the fourth wall and make the intimate space work for the famous comedy, but a flimsy handling of the language keeps this innovative production from reaching its full potential.

Taming_of_the_Shrew2 In the director’s note, Nick Minas describes what Elizabethan theatre-goers would witness at one of William Shakespeare’s original productions: food, musicians, and jugglers— not unlike the cabarets of later centuries. And the cabaret style that Theo Ubique has nailed down works well for Shakespeare’s comedic styling. For a few hours in the cozy No Exit Café tucked away in Rogers Park, clowns, lovers, and ludicrous lords traipse around the tables and drink at the bar.

Minas and his cast do a brilliant job with the using the entire space and engaging the audience. The show begins with the backstage curtain being removed, revealing Lucentio and Tranio staring through the windows facing Glenwood Avenue. The use of this window is the highlight of the show. The audience watches characters peer into the café, run from entrance to entrance, and Kate (Jenny Lamb) even graffitis the building. It also adds a street performance vibe to the production: we watch how people walking by react. Whenever possible, the actors reference this unsuspecting audience, seeking support or sympathy. Opening up the window was a truly inspired choice; it adds another facet to the production and totally redefines the performances.

Taming_of_the_Shrew8 However, many of the actors are unable to wrangle down Shakespeare’s language. While the concepts are fleshed out and the cabaret style is vibrantly portrayed, the actual text is muddled and unclear. This serves as a painful reminder that the scrappy little company has its limits. Ben Mason’s Hortensio has a great physicality, but much of his lines are sped through and the story suffers. Ryan Jarosch as Grumio also rushes through some lines, but no one in the cast has a great grasp on Shakespeare’s words. More attention should have been paid to studying the verse. Considering the text is already full of puns and references that don’t make instant sense to a modern audience, failing to give it the proper respect can be disastrous. Fortunately, the cast is talented and charismatic enough that some of the hurried or imprecise lines can be forgiven, but these missteps add up and blur the story.

Taming_of_the_Shrew4 Taming_of_the_Shrew6 Taming_of_the_Shrew9b

Theo Ubique has played up the original compositions by Ethan Deppe that appear throughout the production. Much of the music is acapella and has a fun, carnival-like atmosphere. A few monologues are turned into song lyrics, these feel more unnecessary than enlightening. The production is also filled with sound effects—cymbals, slide whistlers, shakers of various kinds—that are used throughout. This adds a “Loony Toons” quality to this “Shrew,” but they are used too often. Some restraint would make this stylistic choice a lot funnier.

Taming_of_the_Shrew7 Besides stumbling with the language, the performances are pretty solid. Jeremy Van Meter makes a powerful, sexual Petruchio. Lamb’s Kate is terrifying, yet can reach into the vulnerability the character needs. The two match each other’s energy beautifully, and Minas fills their interactions with intensely physical combat and seduction. Matthew Sherbach is cross-cast as Bianca and does a great job capturing her brattiness. This adds another degree of comedy when she is courted by Steve Gensler’s wide-eyed Lucentio. His Tranio (Mike Oleon), though, can’t connect to the audience as well as the rest of the cast, and Oleon’s performance falters.

The final flaw with the production comes with Kate’s monologue at the end. If played too seriously, the monologue, describing how women should obey their husbands, comes off as backwards for modern audiences. Lamb and Minas couldn’t find the right way to make the finale work, we’re not sure if Kate has been beaten into submission or is tricking Petruchio. In the end, we’re just left feeling uncomfortable.

Rating: «««

View Taming of the Shrew - Theo Ubique

Continue reading