Review: The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (Geopolis Theater)


Centuries of Japanese theatrical tradition in show bogs down clear storytelling



Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

Geopolis Theater Company presents
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick
by Kobo Abe
Translated by
Donald Keene
Directed by
Eric Turner
Japanese Cultural Center, 1016 Belmont (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $10-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Geopolis is a newer company in Chicago that has taken on a noble mission by choosing one culture to focus on each year. For their inaugural season they’ve chosen the theater of post-war Japan. These worldly minded artists have housed themselves in Chicago’s beautiful Japanese Cultural Center. Here they have staged acclaimed Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s compilation of three plays written from 1957 – 1969, collectively titled The Man Who Turned Into a Stick. Eric Turner’s direction utilizes space well, creating several visually stunning pictures. But ultimately, this Stick misses the magic and resonance of Abe’s world.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.Upon entering the space (after leaving your shoes at the door), you can almost justify the admission price alone while admiring Mike Mroch’s cherry blossom influenced design, at first sight calming and alive. Four actors are motionless standing guard entombed in their quarters of the set, whereupon you take in Jerica Hucke’s varied and thought-provoking costumes.

The first play on the bill, and the strongest of the night, is “The Suitcase.” A married woman (Miona Harris) shows an unmarried visitor (Marissa Cowsill) a curious suitcase (played with distinctive physical work by Chris Sanderson). This peculiar suitcase emits sounds such as radio clicks and stock market quotes vocalized by Sanderson. The married woman’s husband has forbidden her from opening the suitcase, yet the visitor manipulates the woman’s curiosity. Abe takes a jab at patriarchal society here alluding to denying women access to worldly knowledge (a man’s affairs). Debate upon whether the suitcase contains dead ancestors or a horde of insects ensues. Cowsill’s playfulness keeps this game fun. However, there is a good amount of time when Sanderson’s disembodied reports and the women’s dialogue overlap at such a volume that it becomes difficult to discern what is happening. Eventually, the women accuse each other of the terrible sin of changing, which surely resonates with an isolationist post-war Japan. Finally, the married woman decides upon ignorance and keeps the contents of the suitcase a mystery.

The next piece is titled “The Cliff of Time.” This play puts Sanderson on display. He is a boxer past his prime who needs to win a pivotal fight to avoid dropping in the rankings, and ultimately into oblivion. Along the way Abe makes an elegant allegory to climbing the ladder in life and in the workplace. Turner makes clever use of the ensemble as puppeteer gods controlling the boxer with streams of red cloth. Josh Hoover proves to be a strong presence in this piece, helping to raise the intensity of the stakes while remaining calm and omnipresent. Nevertheless, Sanderson’ performance as the boxer is far from a knockout. The abrasive interpretation and lack of physical specificity during this piece takes away from the possibility of nuance and pathos in Abe’s text. The demanding monologue overcomes Sanderson, forcing the humor and clarity of the story to suffer.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The conclusion is the title piece, “The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.” Two hippies (Jon Beal and Miona Harris) come across a stick (played by Sanderson). The stick is without meaning to them until two individuals (Hoover and Cowsill) appear with great interest in the stick and offer to purchase it from them. These individuals turn out to be agents from hell given the task of surveying what objects the dead turn into. Apparently, “98 percent become sticks.” Once again, there is some humor and irony that is lost in this piece. While Hucke’s costumes were impressive initially, one desires a transformation in this act to clarify the roles. Harris’ hippie is still dressed in a traditional kimono while attempting to represent the youth counter culture of the 1960’s. One high point is watching Cowsill develop an intriguing fascination with the stick. However, when Sanderson, as a dead man trapped inside the stick, is left alone for eternity we should sense the frustration of his/our mortality. Unfortunately, as too much of the actors’ focus is centered on muddled stylistic movement, empathy is sacrificed.

Overall, Turner’s concept takes too much precedence over telling Abe’s tales with clarity. Action and character are hindered by attempts to incorporate ritualistic movement, in the likes of Suzuki and Noh theatre, to a point that it detracts from the subtlety and poignancy of Abe’s writing. What we get is a somewhat watered down hodgepodge of Japanese theatrical physicality that could take an ensemble years or decades to master.

To communicate the story of a play is the foremost job of any production. As this company continues to tackle other great theatrical cultures it might do well to remember that if it clearly conveys the story, it already has succeeded greatly in its global endeavor.

Rating: ★★½
Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company. Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The Man Who Turned Into a Stick continues at The Japanese Cultural Center through April 3rd, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00pm.  Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15 online, $18 at the door, and $10 student tickets. For more info visit:


Continue reading

REVIEW: The Living Canvas – Demons (National Pastime)

Across space and time in the Autistic Mind



National Pastime Theater presents
The Living Canvas – Demons
Developed by Peter Guither
Directed by Lisa Adams
Written by Lisa Adams and Don Alsafi
National Pastime Theater, address (map)
through July 31st  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

livingcanvas5The Living Canvas is a perennial performance art piece that has been commandeered by photographer Peter Guither since 2001. Each year Guither works with a cast of actors and dancers to develop a story or theme using music, dance and movement under a collection of images and designs that are projected onto their  naked bodies. Far from being art for the prurient, The Living Canvas provokes a dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state for the theatergoer. Naked bodies of all shapes and sizes take on the moods and meanings invoked by the images that are projected upon them—even to the point of questioning whether these are human forms at all.

So, naturally, this year’s theme, produced by National Pastime Theater as part of its Naked July Series, fits like a glove. The Living Canvas – Demons is a pretty telling impression of the creatures that captivate and propel this year’s storyline, which involves taking a journey into the mind of a mentally handicapped young woman. Young Lilly sees figures that only become apparent to her sister once some sort of mind-meld takes place between them, drawing her from the so-called real world into the world that Lilly sees. Lilly’s world may indeed be filled with capricious, mischievous, and dangerous demons. However, it might be better to call them daemons, the ancient Greek term from which “demons” is derived. For the ancient Greeks, daemons were simply spirits–and those spirits can be either bad or good; their motives are not always certain or obvious.

livingcanvas6 livingcanvas7

That concept for the beings in Lilly’s inner world fits far better than our Judeo-Christian construct of evil, otherworldly creatures. Lilly’s sister must try to determine whether Lilly’s daemons mean her harm or good; whether they draw her into maddening misery or whether they open her up to fresh perspectives; destroy her connection to reality or give her alternatives to reality that truly liberate. It’s a journey filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is also conceptually broadening and emotionally inspiring. It’s a dreamscape that Lilly may be unwilling to leave and, frankly, the audience may not want to leave it either.

livingcanvas9What is truly fascinating for me is that The Living Canvas – Demons seems to take the audience on a journey, not just through Lilly’s mind, but also through time and art in Western Civilization. The naked vulnerability of Lilly’s body, coupled with the appearance of the daemons when they seem truly demonic, brings to mind medieval imagery—in particular, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Likewise, the psychedelic floral images projected onto the cast bring a strong flavor of 1960s Flower Power, but they can also evoke Bosch’s happier imagery in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

It’s clear now that The Living Canvas is not just a performance piece but also a Chicago performance tradition. The community formed by the performers and  audience around each new story or theme evokes a “happening” in the style of the 60s. At the end of the show, performers talk about their personal evolution in body consciousness after performing under Guither’s projections in the nude and then audience members are invited onstage to partake of the experience. It’s nice to see so many in the audience take up the invitation and allow their human bodies to have a greater range of expression than most art usually permits.

Rating: ★★★½

livingcanvas3 All photos by Peter Guither

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (National Pastime)

Naked, Not Ready


National Pastime Theater presents
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Written by Keely Haddad-Null
Directed by Carolyne Anderson
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through July 31st  | 
tickets: $20   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

National Pastime Theater opened its “Naked July Festival” with a clever re-imagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by Keely Haddad-Null. In its dystopian future, Los Angeles has annexed surrounding states during the breakup of America. However, the City of Angels is about to go broke, with absolutely zip, zilch,  nada to pay its striking, angry city workers. Its Mayor, referred to more commonly as the Emperor (Don Claudin), orders his emperors new clothes 2public relations team to distract the public from his gross mismanagement. Said team breaks into the mansion of famous, reclusive film director Korminsky (Meg Elliot) to be advised of their next course of action to create the perfect media-based distraction. Korminsky tells them their only recourse is to rely upon The Tailor, who can construct designer clothing that only the enlightened can see.

Haddad-Null’s play lampoons, in a fun and sassy way, our truly American, Hollywood-fueled image obsession, as well as our culture’s corporate strategies for manufacturing consent. Unfortunately, upon opening, National Pastime’s production showed all the telltale signs of under-rehearsal. Sound design miscues permeated the evening. While such things can be cleaned up in the course of the run, the cast performances betrayed a distinct want of pace and comic timing, especially in the opening scene.

Director Carolyne Anderson simply must face the acoustic difficulties of the space. During the whole first scene, blocked on the raised back stage, the actors’ voices were dampened and flattened by the poor acoustics of the room. Korminsky’s quasi Howard-Hughes-on-Jesus look is quite inspired but the oversized beard also muffles Elliots’ delivery of this whacked-out character’s essential lines. Finally, the Emperor’s public relations team, made up of Maggie (Mary Roberts), Marco (David Bettino), and Maylan (Taylor Entwistle), needs to establish their comic cohesion, since they are meant to be the Three Musketeers of LA media manipulation. Poor choices in direction, which create only static interaction between them and Korminsky, deadened this scene’s comic potential.


emperors new clothes 1 emperors new clothes 3

Action in the thrust part of the stage faired far better, where the actors delivered with greater clarity and formed a more intimate connection with the audience. Haddad-Null’s script may need a little editing, but for the most part this production needs a better way of actualizing the script. Maggie, Marco, and Maylan seem to do better when they are on the move, entering scenes from different directions, yakking constantly on their cell phones than they do actually talking directly to themselves or other characters. Don Claudin’s performance as the Emperor/Mayor shines above the rest since he does self-important asshole right and his projection from the back of the stage, while other actors’ lines get lost, is a model of proper technique.

Elliot also pours on a magical presence as The Tailor once downstage. Unfortunately, even her powers aren’t enough to transcend that damn back stage. Her scenes with the Empress (Miona Harris) were, fortunately, downstage so that the audience could catch the tenderness and amusement of their growing connection.

Time to head back to the drawing board to rethink direction and sharpen up this show’s comic timing as well. No comedy or satire should be lost upon the stage.

Rating: ★½

emperors new clothes 4