Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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REVIEW: Mud (Village Players)

An update on Tobacco Road

 mud2

 
Village Players presents
 
Mud
 
by Maria Irene Fornes
directed by Lawrence Keller
at
Village Players Theatre, 1101 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
thru April 25th |  tickets: $15-$20 |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The opening action of  Mud features the character of Mae (Stephanie Ganacoplos), a woman burdened by the weight of the laundry that she carries and by the harsh conditions in which she lives. When Lloyd (Nick Bonges) enters, his role is uncertain – is he her husband, another relative, a boarder?  Bonges plays the role of Lloyd with an atavistic ferocity as bounds into the scene and stares at Mae while she irons. The scene – spare on dialogue, save for a terse exchange of expletives – crackles with a dangerous sexuality.

It is eventually discovered that Mae’s father brought Lloyd to the home as a child. He was supposed to be company for Mae and in some fashion a future spouse. However, the father died and the children were left to raise themselves in poverty and illiteracy. Mae is the first to step out and try to learn arithmetic, leaving Lloyd to animal husbandry with the pigs. What follows is an excellent exploration of servitude, poverty, and the struggle for power in domesticity.

mud Having matured without adult guidance, Mae and Lloyd are accustomed to running on instinct. Mae’s sexuality is ripening and unrequited, as Lloyd has found sexual release in bestiality. The excellent timing and nuance of the actors temper the shocking revelation that Lloyd is having relations with a pig, and we’re not meaning a female slob. When it comes to human relations, Lloyd is impotent and an unfortunate venereal prostate disease has given him a constant fever.

Mae recruits a classmate from her arithmetic class, Henry (Dennis Schnell), to read the pamphlet on venereal disease to Lloyd, which hopefully will convince Lloyd to get some medicine. Schnell’s first scene is quite funny as he portrays Henry as a pompous stiff who can read big words. Henry believes that pronouncing the words will make people believe he knows what they mean. This sequence sets up the dynamic between the three of them, making Lloyd continuously suspicious and on guard. He is more worried that his portion of food will be compromised. Mae is enthralled by Henry’s knowledge of words and they begin a sexual relationship.

Lloyd is told that he can make a pallet on the floor from newspaper. It is similar to what he does for his swine. Mae has already compared him to pigs and wished that he would die and rot in the mud. Her frustration and desire lead her to believe that Henry will free her from the dirt. Lloyd shows himself to be more astute that believed when Henry has a stroke. He has the upper hand and Henry’s care is delegated to him but both men are shown to be dependent and ignorant. They tether Mae to the house, the marital bed, and the mud.

Mud is written by Maria Irene Fornes and is featured as part of the Village Players Theatre “Women on the Cutting Edge” series. The dialogue is beautifully written and lends itself to varying degrees of interpretation. My theatre companion for the evening was disappointed the actors did not have country accents, though it could be said that the scenes prove to be much more visceral without accent – this dire situation could surely take place in urban America just as much as the boondocks. Affecting ‘country’ accents would have put too much Erskine Caldwell in the mix.  Though the action seems to take place in the 1930’s, it could be in present time as well. How often are we supposedly shocked at tales of lurid sex and unusual relationships on the evening news? Or worse, inured to tabloid adventures of the local citizenry (especially if they’re famous!).

Kudos to Annalee Johnson for her set design and props – both superb. The props look authentic down to the washing bowl made of distressed zinc. I cringed every time the character of Lloyd would soak a rag in the water and suck on it to cool his fever. Though counterintuitive, it takes talent to create a palpable feeling of dust, sweltering heat, and despair in the set design.

Applause is due to director Lawrence Keller for excellent staging and pacing of what could have been melodramatic or overwrought. This series is dedicated to showcasing women writers or women characters with an edgy sensibility. Mae is a woman on the edge and punching her way out of an untenable situation. The ending left me shaken even though I knew what was coming. The actors created a fever pitch unsullied by self-awareness. All three actors were amazing and completely consumed by the characters. The surprise was that they could shake off the characters to smile when they took their bows.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

“Mud” plays through April 25th at Village Players Theater 1010 Madison Street in Oak Park. Call the box office at 866-764-1010 or go to www.village-players.org for ticket information. The theater is easy to reach by public transportation or Metra. It is worth the field trip to the suburbs.

"Mud" stars Nick Bonges, Stephanie Ganacoplos, and Dennis Schnell. Designers include Annalee Johnson (set/props) and Emma Weber (costumes). Kelly Herz is stage managing.