REVIEW: Mrs. Caliban (Lifeline Theatre)

Forbidden love and the rebirth of spirit

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Mrs. Caliban

Based on the novel by Rachel Ingalls
Adapted for the stage by Frances Limoncelli
directed by Ann Boyd
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Magical Realism, the melding of fable with cold hard reality, is a term not often heard in mainstream American culture. Fortunately. we find magical realism beautifully rendered in Lifeline Theatre new production of Mrs. Caliban.

MrsCaliban1_web As the play opens, the Calibans go through a stultifying ritual of getting on with the day. Fred communicates with wife Dorothy by checklist. There are no loving words or affectionate pecks on the cheek. Fred can barely look Dorothy in the eye as he stumbles over the worn excuse for those working late –  “I’ll call” – before walking out the door. Dorothy seems to inhale the indifference as she closes the door and forges ahead with her household tasks, habitually turning on the radio; losing herself in the world of music, news and the American “fables” called commercials.

A chirpy announcer is heard extolling the virtues of dishwashing liquid and reasoning that a hot TV dinner can corral a straying husband. Dorothy loses herself in the music and mocks the commercials with interpretive dance. (Brenda Barrie , playing the role of Dorothy, is an ethereal delight to watch – exuding a sprite-like joy and wonder in the character.) Dorothy has lost most of the joy in her waking life and her surroundings are stark and white. Matching the minimalistic set-design, she dresses in varying hues of beige – literally fading into the background. Mrs. Caliban’s only human contact involves forays to the supermarket and coffee with her friend Estelle.

Estelle is literally a siren in red, played by Jenifer Tyler. A divorcee who extols the joys of promiscuity and drinking too much coffee, Tyler gives an edgy performance as a woman who tries to make her fantasies come true through promiscuity and betrayal. What could easily have been a scenery-chewing role, the character of Estelle – as honed by Ms. Tyler – is instead shaded with beauty and vulnerability. Her actions are reprehensible but grounded in insecurity and wanting to be loved.

But this life of ritual and fantasy is starkly interrupted by the appearance of an escaped monster. With menacing tones, the media calls the monster Aquarius Man; warning that he dismembers his victims. The monster appears in Dorothy’s kitchen while she prepares a meal for Fred and his business client. He is a hulking creature played with a man-child flourish by Peter Greenburg. He takes in the scenery and the character of Dorothy with animal senses. Greenburg projects the feeling that all of his senses are heightened, absorbing and then becoming his surroundings as he takes everything in with astonished wonder. The monster’s chemistry with Dorothy is instant and believable.

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There is a lovely comic rapport established between Dorothy and Aquarius Man. She feeds him vegetables and discovers that his name is Larry. The monster speaks tentatively, literally a foreigner learning a new language. Greenberg uses this technique to such skill that it adds hilarity when he tells Dorothy his real name or when he recoils from alleged vegetarian cornflakes and prefers the taste of the box.

Aquarius Man Larry is the antithesis of husband Fred, played by Dan Granata. Fred has become accustomed to ignoring his wife as anything other than someone to go over the checklist as he exits the house. He has long exited her heart or had any intimacy with Dorothy. Mr. Granata imbues his performance with sadness and guilt. Fred is a philanderer and doesn’t have the capability to connect with anything or anyone. Dorothy knows that Fred is cheating but begins to not to care as her relationship with Larry becomes intimate and then erotic. She listens to him and asks about the world of which he longs to return. He listens to her about the loss of her children and then her marriage.

There is a surprising erotic intensity between Larry and Dorothy. The erotic history of the monster and the damsel in distress goes far back in theatre and literature. Dracula and Mina Harker, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, or the Wolf Man and the Gypsy Girl are but a few examples (not to mention pop culture’s “Beauty and the Beast” or “Shrek”). Larry and Dorothy never actually kiss but rather consume each other through their senses of touch and smell. She caresses his odd green skin and seems to become consumed by the tactile sensation.

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This is so much more than a story of interspecies mating. It is a fable of redemption, fate, acceptance, and forgiveness by becoming of love more than in love. Larry is brutally honest with Dorothy about his life and his origins. When he commits what is considered a horrific crime in self-defense, Dorothy is called upon to face her perception of wrong and right. Is it harder to defend Larry because she knows one of the alleged victims? Will she still stand by him and help him get to his native home?These wonderful actors make the questions more than simple romantic flights of fancy.

Special attention must be given to Monica Dionysiou who plays three supporting roles as Estelle’s out of control adolescent daughter Sandra, a pushy saleswoman, and is scary funny as the Supermarket Cheese Majorette. It is a surreal experience that will make you look askance at the sample lady at the market.

Mrs. Caliban” is adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the novel by Rachel Ingalls and directed by Ann Boyd. Ms. Boyd does an exemplary job of bringing archetype and fable into the realm of reality, creating a production void of flat moments or missed beats,.

Brandon Wardell’s lighting add beauty to the action, creating a chiaroscuro effect that enhance the actors without the use of physical props. The silhouette of Larry as he feeds from the energy of the sea was touching and more so when Dorothy becomes one with the sea as well.

“Mrs. Caliban” is an ensemble piece at its best. It is a great theatre experience that leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. I was left wondering about my own fears and presumptions about other beings. Also, it’s a sly and funny indictment of our advertisement-drenched sensibilities. It’s possible that we have all had moments when the box would have tasted better than the contents but let ourselves be deluded into what is supposed to be good or look good by 30 second blurbs.

Take 90 minutes and get a better look at the Lifeline Theatre’s highly-recommended production.

Rating: ★★★★

“Mrs. Caliban” is at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. It is accessible by CTA and there is ample parking at the NE corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free shuttle service before and after the show. The play runs Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00PM, and Sundays at 4:00PM, through March 28th. Contact Lifeline at 773-761-4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com

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Interview with Elizabeth Ledo (now starring in Goodman’s “Boleros”)

INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH LEDO 

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Elizabeth Ledo, currently playing the lead in The Goodman’s acclaimed Boleros for the Disenchanted. 

 

 

Barry Eitel:  Recently, I chatted with Chicago actress Elizabeth Ledo, one of the stars of the Goodman’s production of Boleros for the Disenchanted (our 4-star review here) where she plays both a young girl in 1953 Puerto Rico and a caretaker in 1992 Alabama. The two of us talked about her experience with the two roles, her Latina heritage, and why she chooses to work in Chicago.

You face an interesting acting challenge in “Boleros,” playing a character we see about 50 years later and played by another actress. Did you and Sandra Marquez collaborate at all on the characterization of Flora? How?

Not in an outwardly way. I think mostly through observation. There were things that I noticed her do in the second act and I said, ‘I like that, where can I find the genesis for that in my own portrayal.” We never sat down around a cup of coffee and talked about it specifically. There are things that are echoed in the script that we tried to serve up in both acts. Flora repeats certain lines in each act; we would try to serve those up. We worked with Henry a lot over Flora’s and her mother’s similar relation with the flowers, for example. Most of it, though, was just through observation or from the script

 Did the cast work closely with the playwright, Jose Rivera?

He was there for the second week of rehearsals and for previews. For the most part, because the play is very biographical, I would say Jose was a great resource. We were able to ask questions about his family and experiences, he was very open. He observed, was around rehearsals as a resource, but he didn’t really impose ever. He was very gracious and let us find our own way with the characters. So yes, he more there as resource than an imposing figure, rarely did he do anything unsolicited.

Now do you come from a Hispanic background?

My father was born in Havana, Cuba, and came over to the US in 1962 at the age of 14. Growing up, it was very important to keep that side of the culture alive and present. The Cuban way of life and the energy of that people was a big part of my family life.

Jose’s script is steeped in traditional Puerto Rican culture and beliefs about family, gender, work, America, etc. Did you pull inspiration from your own upbringing for the role of Flora?

Young Flora has a lot of similarities to my own grandmother. At the time of the first act, 1953, my grandmother was only two years older than Flora, on a different island, of course, but similar culture. My abuela came from very male-dominated society—respecting her parents, virgin on her wedding night, very pious. My grandmother just died in April, and this role was a very important part of my grieving process. I found it was a celebration of her. Flora and my grandmother, though, are very similar. I didn’t need to impose anything.

You switch in the second act to a different character—Eve, a caretaker. What was your experience like switching between two characters?

I’ve done that before in a few shows. Usually, though the multiple characters live in the same world and culture, but this show’s special in that the time periods are so different. It actually made it a lot easier; there was heavy stuff in the beginning, I could decompress over intermission, and come out in the second act in a time period that I’m very familiar with. I know the nineties, I grew up then. Henry and I talked quite a bit about Eve’s backstory, we came up that she was in the Peace Corps, for example. Eve alludes that she was born in Spain and she has a very European sense about her. Eve’s earthy, I’m earthy, I could throw in a lot of myself into the character. She has great compassion and great integrity, I think. I was able to fold in a relaxed air to her and a playfulness and a generosity.

Is there one that you personally connect to more?

I connected to both Eve and Flora very well. There was less social, vocal, and physical constraints with Eve because I can be my own resource. I know what it feels like to wear denim. Emotionally, though, both of these women were easy to tap into.

The show is remarkably funny, even though the play covers some heavy issues. How did you and the rest of the cast find the rhythm to balance both of those aspects of the script?

You have to. It’s survival in some ways. When you’re doing a show with heavy themes you need a release. We need it as much as the audience. When those funny moments come up it’s like an oasis in the desert, we need those moments to continue. The hardest scenes for us to nail down were the first two scenes. The play starts with a girl coming on crying, and you really have to serve up the comedy within the first 5-6 lines or else everything is dragged down. And then in scene 2, Flora gets validation that her fiancé is cheating. We really had to serve that up, you need those things, you got to let people laugh in the play. You got to get in the script and find the humor. We know it’s difficult, we know it’s sad and scary, so you must find the human side of the characters. Flora’s so innocent and earnest, and we were able to pull out humor in that. A lot of time we were desperate to find it for ourselves, because we really needed it with all of the heavier themes at work in the play.

This is your Goodman debut, but you are a well-established Chicago actress. What’s your favorite thing about acting in Chicago?

I love the audiences and I love the artists. The community is supportive and is always taking risks. It’s also nice being able to work where I live. The audiences are great. They’re smart, supportive, and a large amount of them are into something different and like it when artists go ahead and take risks. This says so much about them. Chicago artists are some of the most talented and human artists around. I can say that, and people from New York and LA comment on that as well. The artists have so much sensitivity and compassion for their work.

You also have a lot of experience in regional theatres across the country. Is acting in Chicago special for you?

I love working in regional theatre. But I always prefer to be home and be working. I’ve done a dozen productions with Milwaukee Rep, I love it, but if I have the opportunity to work at home I love to do that, I can be here at home with friends and artists I know really well.

What do you have up next?

Next I go up to do Christmas Carol at Milwaukee Rep. This will be my, oh gosh, eighth time. Its fun, I get reunited with the old gang. And then I’ll be working at the Court in the late winter.

 

View (2009-06-30) Boleros for the Disenchanted

View full Goodman production Album
(i.e., not just pics of Ms. Ledo)