Chris Jones announces 10 best plays of 2009

The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009

For the complete description, explanations and reviews of these plays (and others), be sure to visit Chris Jones’ excellent blog: The Theater Loop


1. The Arabian Nights by Mary ZimmermanLookingglass Theatre  (our review)

 

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2. The History Boys by Nicholas HytnerTimeline Theatre 

 

3. The Overwhelming by J.T. RogersNext Theatre 

4. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer DiazVictory Gardens (our review)

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5. Blackbird by David HarrowerVictory Gardens (our review)

 

6. Cabaret by Kander and EbbDrury Lane Oakbrook (our review)

 

7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean GraneyCourt Theatre (our review)

 

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8. Graceland by Ellen FaireyProfiles Theatre (our review)

 

9. Oh Coward!devised by Roderick CookWriters’ Theatre (our review)

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10. Stud Terkel’s Not WorkingSecond City e.t.c.

 

Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”

Desire Under the ElmsGoodman Theatre

Little Foxes Shattered Globe Theatre 

Miss SaigonDrury Lane Oakbrook

Old Glory Writers’ Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass Teatro Vista Theatre

Rock ‘n’ RollGoodman Theatre

Top Dog/Underdog American Theater Company and Congo Square Theatre

 Twelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theatre 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Marriott Theatre

2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

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By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

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IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.

REVIEW: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (Next Theatre)

Limited Direction Hampers “…Scientology Pageant”

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Next Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow
Concept by Alex Timbers
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The boxy proscenium studio theater space at Next Theatre creates challenges for any of its productions. It produces visual perspectives that tend toward the two-dimensional and contained. One would think that wouldn’t necessarily detract from a satire qua children’s pageant. Yet the set design (Grant Sabin) for Next’s seasonal production, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is strikingly flat and unimaginative. Kathyrn Walsh’s direction stays contentedly—and without irony–within its confines, for the most part stationing the pageant’s child actors on three-tiered risers that further distance audience from performance.

It is the staging that dulls the tooth of this anti-religious-scam slam fest. Children re-enacting with absolute earnestness the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the modern prophet of Scientology, is a premise with Wildean potential. But, for all it’s self-touted edginess, in close collaboration with the show’s Obie award winning creator, Kyle Jarrow, Next has pulled its punches and stayed closer to conventional home.

Awkward scene changes and uneven pacing fragment the ensemble cast’s cohesiveness. Interestingly, it is cohesiveness they energetically demonstrate while cutting loose during some of the musical numbers, throwing in acrobatic abandon for good measure. Jennifer Baker, Sara Geist, and Nicole Rudakova project performances that stand out from the constrictions with which they must contend. Also, Jason Krause ably plays L. Ron Hubbard, pulling off smug self-satisfaction and the cravat-and-blazer look with natural ease.

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Several new songs have been introduced as products of collaboration between Jarrow and Next Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Southerland. While one song lends a softer, more humanizing tone to the process individuals within Scientology may go through, the rest don’t radically alter the message or style of the show, nor do they have to. The amount of satire that any religion can take should be directly proportional to the money it makes.

Rating: ★★½

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Review: “A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant”

Red Orchid Lets Religious Absurdity Loose

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A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow from a concept by Alex Timbers
Directed by Steve Wilson
Music Direction by Brandon Magid
thru January 3, 2010 (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Szalai-Raymond, V It’s only November, but if you are already tired of virgin births, wise men led by stars, angels singing to shepherds or animals talking in mangers, then A Red Orchid Theatre’s remount of A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant just might be the cure for what ails you. Based upon the self-promoted achievements of L. Ron Hubbard, the pageant explores one man’s search for the answers to life’s most important questions and his creation of the religion Scientology.

That children enact this story is the stroke of genius that A Red Orchid Theatre can pat itself on the back over for years to come. The pageant has quickly morphed into Chicago’s brand new holiday favorite–what with Next Theatre opening its production in two weeks. Will Chicago survive dueling Scientology pageants? Will these theaters survive an onslaught from Scientology’s lawyers? Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?

I hardly know which is scarier–Scientology, the story of the creation of Scientology, or the amount of talent these kids possess. Director Steve Wilson has one tight group of young actors at his disposal. They rock the house with angelic paeans to L. Ron Hubbard, slow-motion battle scenes, hilarious E-meter demonstrations, and fabulous portrayal of the sinister galactic overlord, Xenu. One actor even looks like a pre-teen Tom Cruise—now that’s scary.

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In a classic moment of paranoia, I considered whether this satire could actually be a vehicle promoting Scientology. For L. Ron, all paths for spiritual growth sooner or later lead to Hawaii. And why not? All the same, other than blasting away your engrams or your Thetans, Scientology still doesn’t have answers for who we are or what life’s purpose is all about. But in the midst of the joy of the Scientology pageant, we really don’t care.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant features A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble members Chaz Allen, Najwa Brown, Jaiden Fallo, Paola Lehman, Adam Rebora, Kara Ryan, Elenna Sindler and Aria Szalai-Raymond; as well as newcomers Elita Ernsteen, Katherine Jordan, and Alex Turner.

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

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Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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Review: Next Theatre’s “boom”

Next Theatre’s boom Is All Wit, Very Little Heart

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Next Theatre presents:

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by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Jason Southerland
thru October 11th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value is survival to the human race? Everything, wouldn’t you think? But what if survival doesn’t mean that much, especially if the quality of life is compromised or if other life will go on and develop without us? Next Theatre’s production of boom, by San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is meant to be the beginning of their season-long dramatic exploration of these themes. Works like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us are presented for sale to further facilitate the audience’s discussion.

BOOM 4 Nachtrieb’s breakout success is bright, sly, and pyrotechnically witty in its explorations of life’s beginnings and endings. It seems the perfect vehicle to set off Next’s 29th season, whipped up lightly enough to not overwhelm an audience, but intellectually proficient and adept enough to knowingly raise the stakes regarding human existence. What goes missing, strangely, is the human connection–one of those little ineffable things that make human life worth living.

I say “strangely” because connection is precisely what the lead male character, Jules (John Stokvis) wants and what he expects to attain with Jo (Kelly O’Sullivan)—but under extreme duress. What makes Jules, a marine biologist, less like a thoroughly evil villain and more “the nutty professor” is that he commits his crimes on the pretense of saving the human race from extinction. He has calculated that a comet of unknown origin will strike the earth, extinguishing all life, and he needs a female companion with which to reset human existence.

In order to establish credibility for his dry, purely scientific motivations, a joke is pounded home that Jules is “a homosexual.” The impregnation of Jo, the jaded, world-weary journalism major Jules lures to his lab via craigslist, could take place by “intensive coupling” or by more antiseptic means. That is if Jo would allow that to happen—which, understandably she doesn’t. Instead, she feels compelled to hurl herself tens of thousands of times against the force-field reinforced lab door, by which they are both imprisoned once the comet strikes.

While her sentiments are understandable, this component strains credulity the most, since there really is only so much electroshock that a straight girl can take.

The cast executes this farce with precision and verve. Its rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue encompasses everything from modern dating and sexuality to the random chance to the rationales of hope pitted against despair or disillusionment. Perhaps the most brilliant exposition of Nachtrieb’s powers is the full-on rant that bursts forth from Jules, exasperated with Jo’s unrelenting, snarky pessimism. Stokvis delivers it with an almost joyful fury.

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Finally, the audience is further distanced from the play when it is revealed to be a set piece within a futuristic museum. Directed by Barbara (Shannon Hoag), the museum piece’s curator, the play’s themes are further filtered and commented upon, while sprinkled generously with her complaints about the museum’s management.

Hoag delivers the strongest comic performance of the evening as Barbara and her line, “I wish I had more control,” is probably the play’s quintessential through-line. Layers upon layers of control issues run throughout the play, regarding the characters, humanity’s fight for survival–hell, even each character’s individual struggle for personal vindication is madly fraught with control issues.

BOOM 3 However, even if one manages to gain some control and by that control procure survival, there is still no guarantee of the quality of outcomes.

For instance, you can make people do things, but you cannot make them want to do them. It is that which makes the moment of connection between Jules and Jo so forced and without credibility, even in a farce like this one. Certainly, there’s such a thing as Stockholm syndrome, wherein a hostage ultimately becomes loyal and emotionally attached to the abductor. But attachment, loyalty, romance or connection that is not freely given lacks all savor, especially in a comedy.

Prior to the comet destroying everything, both Jules and Jo lament, in their own ways, the lack of human connection in their contemporary lives. This may be their only common bond. Yet if there is no real future for human connection, at least as represented by these characters, why should we care, not just if they will go on, but also if they have lived at all?

 Rating: ««½

 

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Review: Babes With Blades’ “Macbeth”

Babes With Blades Macbeth a sword-rattling good time

Review by Paige Listerud

Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) and Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) face the final conflict. They dare do all that may become a man in this Babes With Blades all-female production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–from vying for honor, to scheming unholy murder; from wavering in the face of evil, to charging recklessly into carnage; from chafing under oppressive surveillance, to engaging in out-and-out rebellion; from enduring unspeakable loss, to succumbing, as one’s life drains to nothing.

Directed by Kevin Heckman of Next Theatre for this production, Babes With Blades is an all women’s theater troupe. Their mission is to provide women with stage combat skills, to expand powerful fighting roles for women in drama, and to undermine “the preconception that strength and power are inappropriate for women.” Yet their work also helps to preserve and update the craft and discipline of stage combat for all actors, which often goes by the wayside when theaters downsize casts and drastically cut scenes. Unfortunately, removing traditional battle and fight scenes from plays like Macbeth, while understandable for the modern, minimalist, or cash-strapped production, can have the unwanted effect of diminishing the gravitas of the characters’ choices.

Throughout history, women have fought and participated in battle, often donning men’s clothing to get into military service. Theater history also has its famous women warriors, such as Esme Beringer and Ella Hattan, aka Jaguarina. Staging the traditional combat scenes places physical demands upon actors that few may be prepared for today. To speak one’s part is one thing, to speak it after a full scene of running around, swinging a sword, is quite another. “Most of these women have been with the troupe for years,” said Delia Ford (Duncan), when I asked about getting into shape for the play. “But I’ve just come out of retirement, so I really felt it.”

Murderer (Stephanie Repin) and Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) struggle to the death. The other challenge for companies like these is finding the theater space that will support battle. La Costa is a little hole-in-the-wall theater that one could walk by but for the sandwich-board sign demarking its location, but it has enough stage area plus plenty of routes for exits and entrances. The troupe rushed to find it in 48 hours after losing their previous theater space in Pilsen.

Very likely, what teamwork was needed to produce these battle scenes has strengthened the cohesiveness of this ensemble cast. In fact, their collective paranoia under Macbeth’s gory, volatile regime is performed so convincingly that, by the time we see Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) at Dunsinane, we feel the suffocation of tyranny as palpably as Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Here, the young girl players from The Viola Project are cast to greatest effect, as children dressed in uniforms and thrown into battle because Macbeth’s thanes have all fled to his enemies.

The most dramatic scene may be of Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) taking up arms to defend her home and child from Macbeth’s assassins.

Although, in the end, the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) was so anticipated and so well executed, it received its own applause.

LadyMacduffkillsm What is the theatrical impact of seeing women fight for themselves, their loved ones, their country, or their ambitions? Be prepared to see, by contrast, a still forceful yet vulnerable and human Lady Macbeth (Nika Ericson). Unlike productions that suffuse Lady Macbeth with sexual and demonic power, both Ericson and the direction show a woman as much under the influence of the Witches (Rachel Stubbs, Melanie Kibbler, and Gillian N. Humiston) as her husband. After the disastrous banquet wherein Banquo’s ghost appears, during which Macbeth freaks out enough to brandish his knife in the guests’ faces, Macbeth slices his hand and pours his blood into a cup. At that moment, Lady Macbeth realizes she has no control over the evil she has unleashed. It is a moment of pure horror.

Furthermore, the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth potently render, in agonizing increments, their relationship’s progressive disintegration. This production does not overplay this couple’s sexuality, yet illuminates their essential, integral partnership, before, during, and after their downfall.

Kathrynne Wolf’s Macbeth is also vulnerable. While this vulnerability brings Macbeth’s character closer to Hamlet’s, especially when vacillating over murder, it differs by exposing his lack of a moral center. It is this lack of center, more than fear or astonishment, which prevents him from accosting the Witches just like Banquo does. Stephanie Repin, as Banquo, conveys the honor and judicious caution of a morally stable foil.

MacbMacdClinchsm The rub for this production remains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most famous speeches. These are always troublesome challenges for every actor because they are, for lack of a better word, accursed by comparisons to past performances. They are operatic in nature. Like arias, the soprano and tenor are expected to step downstage and blow the audience away. That being said, the limited mastery of such critical moments makes this Macbeth an uneven, if exciting production. Particularly Lady Macbeth’s opening “invocation” speech–I question the effectiveness of the director’s choice to have the Witches take over whole lines of Lady Macbeth’s. Far more effective was having the Witches chant specific words within Macbeth’s lines, to emphasize their encroachment on his mental state.

The action and pacing never flags, however. One can be assured of a thrilling demonstration of women’s strength and ensemble unity in the delivery of this classic tale about the battles within and without the human soul.

The Viola Project introduces young girls to Shakespeare and trains them in both male and female roles. The young actors playing in this production trained in a stage combat workshop in 2006 sponsored by both Babes With Blades and The Viola Project.

Rating: ««½

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