REVIEW: Proof (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

 

Must proof be a prerequisite for belief?

 

Proof-Hal (Nick Freed & Claire (Nilsa Reyna) photo by Scott L. Schoonover

    
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
Proof
  

Written by
David Auburn
Directed by Alex C. Moore
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Proof, a play by David Auburn, a fascinating piece of work that plays with the double entendre of the word “proof” that occurs throughout the show: literal math proofs being solved as well as the need for proof to discover the truth. How can a person prove a fact that seems impossible? Can someone who’s certifiably lost their mind prove to still be a genius in their work? Chicago Fusion Theatre touches on these and so much more with their production.

Robert (Sandy Elias and Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover) The set design, by Scott Schoonover, is subtle yet bold, particularly in the color choices of stark white against bright blue. Suspended above the stage are multiple torn-apart notebooks full of mathematical equations. The rest of the set mimics the notebooks in both color and information, with the stages outer walls also covered in equations.  A mirrored backdrop provides the actors space to add additional equations. The set itself if bare save for one chair.

Proof opens on Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano), on her 25th birthday, talking with her father, Robert (Sandy Elias). Desipite DiCristofano and Elias having a real connection that radiates out into the space, DiCristofano starts off a little shaky as she tries to find her ground. As the show continues, however, she definitely improves and finds the depths of Catherine. Elias is instantly personable as he fills the space. When he speaks he owns the stage with an amiable presence.

The plot twists and suddenly it’s clear that Catherine is, in fact, speaking with her dead father – whom she’d taken care of in life – in her own thoughts. It’s a quick turn that pulls the audience further into the action, then caries it forward. Hal (Nick Freed), a former student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s old notebooks, looking for uncovered mathematical discoveries. Freed is funny and charming in his role; he understands his character’s intentions and brings Hal to life.

Catherine’s sister Claire (Nilsa Reyna), returns home for their father’s funeral and to help Catherine out until she figures out what to do. Reyna starts out flat, especially as her character demands that emotions are let loose loose and exposed. DiCristofano, on the other hand, flourishes with her understated, dry humor as she delves into the depths of her character.

Hal (Nick Freed) photo by Scott L. Schoonover Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover
Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano & Robert Sandy Elias) photo Scott L. Schoonover Robert (Sandy Elias) Photo by Scott L. Schoonover

DiCristofano, like Elias, has great stage chemistry with Freed. They play well off of each other. Whenever there’s a scene between DiCristofano and Elias or DiCristofano and Freed, it’s captivating.

Through Proof, the action moves quickly and efficiently. There’s no point in which a scene drags on or is dragged out, allowing the scenes to flow and keep the audience’s attention. In between scenes the characters all add more and more mathematical equations to the walls of the set, adding to the chaos occurring around them. It’s an interesting punctuation between the performances and character interactions.

When Elias takes the stage later in the show in flashbacks of Catherine’s memory, he’s quite a stage presence. He’s full of life and commands the audience’s attention so it’s impossible to tear yourself away.

As the characters become more emotional, the scenes become more raw and heart wrenching. Since it’s such a small space, you can see all of the emotions play out in the actor’s eyes, pulling us into the action and holding us hostage.

Chicago Fusion has given us proof that they are a talented company, ably conveying their seismic artistic voice in intimate spaces.  

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott Schoonover) Proof plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through November 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (312) 988-9000 or at the Royal George Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

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REVIEW: Hesperia (Right Brain Project)

An Exploration of Love and Trust

 

     IanDaisy03

   
The Right Brain Project presents
  
Hesperia
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through August 14th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The Right Brain Project is staging an intriguing production called Hesperia. This show exposes how love, friendship, and trust transcend class and social mores. The playwright, Randall Colburn, takes these themes and puts them smack dab in post-modern America, offering up some interesting musings on what happens to those who buy into the American Dream and the underbelly of that dream.

Right Brain Project's "Hesperia" by Randall Colburn In the opening scene we are introduced to Claudia and Ian played by Natalie DiCristofano and Billy Fenderson respectively. Ian has shown up at Claudia’s door in the small town of Hesperia not far from where they grew up. Ms. DiCristofano is a sylph-like beauty that exudes vulnerability and a hard edge at the same time. The character of Claudia is has come to this town to shake off her past as a porn actress. She is now a born again Christian and engaged to marry the youth minister at the local church. Billy Fenderson also has a wonderful edge as a man who is trying to escape the past but perhaps got in deeper than he should have.

Claudia and Ian are childhood best friends and were partners in porn apparently working only with each other. The porn career for both of them seems to have been done on a lark or a childish dare that got out of hand. Claudia has escaped, but there are thugs on Ian’s trail. Being saved or born again is an escape for both characters – but who really takes it to heart is the lingering question for both of them.

Claudia is engaged to Trick whose real name is Trevor. The nickname is a result of youthful horsing around with language. It is an interesting choice for the character considering his fiancée’s former profession. (I wonder if the playwright was going for homage to Tennessee Williams with the double entendre.) Nick Freed plays the role of Trick with an endearing innocence and country boy energy. He keeps the energy level high, especially when drilling young Aaron for the state Bible Bee. It is a finely balanced portrait of fundamentalist America without the judgmental sneer that is evident in other works, and Nick Freed embodies the innocence and the frustration of having been anointed in the ministry. Trick tells Claudia that his gift is discernment that comes into play when Ian shows up and tries to reclaim his small town past. Trick accepts without judgment and with a trusting open heart. Claudia knows better in spite of her innocent past with Ian.

 

ClaudiaTrick01 Hesperia06

Trick fixes Ian up on a date with a nice girl from church named Daisy, played by Katy Albert with a refreshing country girl sexiness, looking clean scrubbed and apple cheeked like a 50’s Ladies Home Journal girl. Daisy is instantly smitten with the new boy in town, no doubt unaware of his extensive experience. Albert and Fenderson have good chemistry; the post date with the two of them is timed perfectly and staged with a voyeuristic flair. The sex scene is done well, with an edge of discomfort and shame. Surprisingly it’s Trick that feels the shame while Daisy wants him to stay.

The one chink in the play is the character of Aaron. It’s played well by Danny Mulae, but feels like a throwaway device for shock effect. Aaron finds a DVD of Claudia and Ian’s early work. The interaction between Ian and Aaron feels somehow false. Trick’s character alludes to Aaron starting to show interest in sex and then the boy comes off like the “bad seed,” interrogating Ian about the film. Also, some of Mr. Fenderson’s lines get lost due to either odd staging or poor enunciation.

This drawback really should be remedied because Ian’s character is open for judgment and it could be made clearer regarding why he should not be judged harshly. By the time the wedding of Trick and Claudia takes place Ian has been picked up by the thugs calling for him from California. Everything falls into place for Claudia, but did she turn on her former best friend or did he willingly return to his former life:  The matter is not easily resolved in a neat package, which is more realistic than Ian settling down with Daisy and popping out the kids. It is also Hesperia Photosatisfying that Trick and Claudia don’t have an instant sexual connection on their wedding night. Claudia has more experience but doesn’t want the same feelings from before. It is honest, painful, funny, and wonderful to observe.

Throughout the production the actors are confined to a small stage with seating around the perimeter, remaining on stage during other scenes. The actors remain in character with the emotional impact from the previous scene remaining fresh. This is a contemplative work that requires that the audience focus on the actors’ subtleties. The sparseness of the stage is a good choice as is the audience seating. I don’t know if it was deliberate but the backless seats caused me to be more in tune with the play. It took effort and concentration to sit comfortably as well as watch the stage. It is an integrative approach at best, and I felt for the actors having to be still and not drown in sweat without a stage exit. Here’s my heartfelt wish for a better air conditioner-you all deserve one!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Hesperia plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm through August 14th at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood. The theatre is easily accessible by CTA or Metra. Call 773-750-2033 or go to www.therbp.org for tickets or more information.

IanDaisy02

 

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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