REVIEW: Lakeboat (Steep Theatre)

     
     

Steep adeptly navigates Mamet’s austere boatmen’s tale

     
     

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
Steep Theatre presents
  
Lakeboat
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by G.J. Cederquist
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
thru Feb 26  |  tickets: $22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘I knew a guy who ate a chair because no one stopped him.’ Life on the lake is tedious. To drift through the monotony, a crew focuses on booze, sex and sandwiches. Steep Theatre presents Lakeboat, Playwright David Mamet’s semi-biographical account of life on a freight ship. Dale is the new night cook. A Lakeboat summer job is a romantic notion for a literature major. Dale learns quickly this isn’t a “Huck Finn” adventure. From anchors up, the jocular familiarity of the guys breeds testosterone-infused competition. Boozing escapades, sexual conquests and egg sandwiches – every raunchy story is an industrial strength, usurped, big sail of wind. Lakeboat navigates through the humorous inner-workings of a bunch of bull ship!

In Mamet style, the unsophisticated dialogue is viscerally organic. Under the direction of C.J. Cederquist, the eight-man crew delivers strong and distinctive portrayals. Perfect as the fish-out-of-water, Nick Horst (Dale) bumbles with an endearing puppy dog likeability. Eric Roach (Fred) is hilarious describing his zingo approach to getting laid. Roach climaxes with vulgar orgasmic satisfaction. Peter Moore (Stan) and Sean Bolger (Joe) capture perfectly that familiar unexplainable friendship synergy. They don’t appear to even like or listen to each other in a twosome banter. Add a third man and the claws come out in ferocious loyalty. Oddly charming! Carrying himself with dignity, Alex Gillmor (Collins) floats between ambitious second-in-charge and acknowledged sandwich gopher. Barking nonsensical orders, Norm Woodel (Skippy) is a hoot as a captain that is a few oars short. Jim Poole (fireman) is marvelously passionate explaining the importance of his mundane existence. Although hard to hear over the lakefront audio, Jason Michael Linder (pierman) checks in as an arrogant gatekeeper.

David Mamet penned a series of personality snippets to depict working life on the river. It’s a glimpse of the crude and bleak life of boatmen from the perspective of a college student’s seasonal stint. Set designer Dan Stratton stretches the boat across the middle of the theatre with seating on the port and starboard sides. The stage works nicely for the crew’s entrances on the gangplank. Then with steel poles and chains, it transforms to the boat. The visual is interesting but challenges the pacing. The galley is in the bow. The captain drives from the stern. The engine room is in the stem. The action from one end to the other end provides waves of lulling instead of rocking intensity for the perfect storm. The Steep production actualizes Mamet’s characters with tanker-like distinction. With a little more speed from the tugboat, this Lakeboat will cruise full-steam ahead.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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REVIEW: The Tallest Man (The Artistic Home)

 

Great News: Due to high ticket sales, The Artistic Home

has extended this fine production through August 22nd!!

Of travelers and tall ghosts

 

The Tallest Man

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
The Tallest Man
   
Written by Jim Lynch
Directed by John Mossman
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark  (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, and have heard a good deal of what is called Irish tradition and superstition. Ghosts, feuds, remedies for bad luck, and  pride in one’s culture abound in the Artistic Home production of The Tallest Man. This fine production brings to life a land and culture in a humorous and touching way.

Tourmakeady, County Mayo Ireland around the turn of the 20th-century is the setting for this tale based on the stories told to playwright Jim Lynch. The people have survived the Great Potato Famine and live under British rule on Irish land. Here they The Tallest Manscramble for survival; land ownership is brutal and unrelenting with the collector looming around every corner.

The characters are introduced around the centerpiece of Breda Kennedy’s pub. Breda and her daughter Katie run the pub and Breda demands respect as the only Catholic woman who owns anything in County Mayo. Miranda Zola plays Breda with lusty ferocity, looking like a woman who has been ten rounds and won bare-knuckled. It is a brilliant performance from Ms. Zola, who I last saw playing a more deluded matriarch in The Artistic Home production of The House of Yes (our review ★★★).

The action begins in the pub with local sots Tommy Joe Lally (Frank Nall) and Johnny Mulligan (Bill Boehler). The two men sit at a barrel table drinking steins of whiskey and telling tales of the Tall Man, whose presence has altered life in Tourmakeady. Katie Kennedy tends the pub and dismisses the two men as yokels who are full of blarney. Katie (played with deep longing and courage by Marta Evans) yearns to go to a mythical New York where she can be a fine lady with furs and jewelry. She refuses to be tied down to the only other landowner – Tommy Joe. Early on it is apparent that Lally and Mulligan are always getting into absurd situations. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of County Mayo, showing their comedic genius in a scene where they pose as Cain and Abel after losing a card game to the parish priest.

The town of Tourmakeady is a character as well in this production. Set designer Mike Mroch has represented this environment through a darkly-painted stage replete with foreboding hues of green and fully-embellished with leaves.  It is not quite the rolling and verdant hills of Irish legend, but instead a survivor of famine and blood spilled over land rights. The cemetery and church have the same aura. Along with Mroch, playwright Jim Lynch and director John Mossman have crafted a complete fusion of time, character and place without compromise.

The Tallest Man The Tallest Man

The history of the Irish Travelers is a motif of the story. The main characters of Finbar McDonough and his cousin Frankie Walsh are from the Traveler tradition. They are called Tinkers in The Tallest Man, and represent a shameful and unwelcome part of Tourmakeady to Breda Kennedy. They are scoundrel, thieves, and worse. Finbar McDonough is in love with the beautiful lass Katie. Shane Kenyon plays Finbar with a devilish and sexy glint that is most appealing. He and Katie make out in the dark outside the bar and make plans for the future. Katie wants out and Finbar want to settle old scores. They have a wonderful chemistry without the airbrushing or any false notes.

The Tallest Man also exposes the Catholic Church as a seedy partner in the people’s struggle of Ireland. Malcolm Callan plays the local priest, Father McLaughlin, of Tourmakeady with unctuous vigor. He is seen extorting kickbacks from the landlord’s The Tallest Man representative. Father McLaughlin couches his demands from Newcomb (delightfully played by Eamonn McDonogh) under the guise of helping ‘his people’. The dialogue of how ‘their dirty faces look to me every Sunday’ made my skin crawl considering the current events with some of the priesthood. Devout lad Frankie Walsh discovers Father McLaughlin’s underhanded activities. Frankie remembers his daddy fondly, and feels responsible for his death by speaking at the wrong time. He cannot forgive McLaughlin’s duplicity of blessing his father’s funeral while being responsible for his death. Walsh projects wrath, grief, and guilt so beautifully in a part that could be really over the top. Darrelyn Marx as Finbar’s mother Mary is also wonderful, possessing a gorgeous voice when she sings of her son. It’s a moment to bring tears to the eyes.

Jim Lynch also brings tears of laughter through his capturing of Irish wit and tradition without false embellishment. The Tallest Man is a rowdy good time. The language is coarse and the action is naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit, and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly; every scene and character flows as well as fits in what could easily be a complicated puzzle. More than just a tale of Tinker ingenuity, the work is the story not told in the history books but instead around the table, or at the corner bar, or at your grandfather’s knee no matter your genealogy. See it, and you’ll also see your family somewhere within.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

The Tallest Man plays on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through August 22nd, 2010. The Artistic Home Theatre is located at 3914 N. Clark near Irving Park. For tickets call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.theartisthome.org

   
   

Featuring Ensemble members Marta Evans, Nick Horst, Frank Nall, and Miranda Zola; and Guest Artists Shane Kenyon, Eamonn McDonagh, Darrelyn Marx, Malcolm Callan, Brandon Thompson and Bill Boehler.

Directed by John Mossman
Produced by Jimmy Ronan and Samantha Church
Assistant Directed by Kristin Collins
Stage Manager: Rose Kruger
Lighting design by Josh Weckesser
Scenic Design by Mike Mroch
Costume design by Ellen Seidel
Sound/Original Music design by Aaron Krister Johnson

     
     

REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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