REVIEW: Kennedy’s Children (Promethean Ensemble)

  
  

Kennedy’s Children, all grown up

 

 scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath

       
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
   
Kennedy’s Children
   
Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Dec. 5   |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In a theatre world where children of the ‘60s are being edged out by Millennials, Robert Patrick’s 1974 eulogy for the Kennedy era, Kennedy’s Children, seems a tad dusty. It touches on over-exploited “what did the flower children really achieve” themes, but can keep its freshness more often than not. Although the play—more of a series of monologues, really—could easily fall into becoming another diatribe bemoaning the 1960’s, Patrick’s skilled use of language and narrative saves us from that fate. Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, directed by Terry McCabe, sees a link between the disillusionment of the 70’s and the disillusionment of post-“Yes We Can” America. The connection is there, although the relevance is clouded by the history lessons. Promethean’s production never escapes being a period piece, but it’s one that still resonates.

Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2 McCabe and his team don’t mess with Patrick’s script at all, refusing to deconstruct, overanalyze, update – or whatever the kids are doing this season. Instead, they opt for a straightforward production that presents the play much like it might have been seen in the tiny off-off-Broadway venues Patrick loved so much. On a dreary night in 1974, Valentine’s Day (an absurdly specific choice that is not utilized enough as it should be by the text), five world-weary souls take over a dive bar in a dingy section of New York (pretty much any part during the ‘70s).

Taking turns, the quintet orate their tales, thoughts, and philosophies straight to the audience, never acknowledging the others on-stage (apart from hailing down the silent bartender, of course). There’s the Marilyn Monroe-fixated Carla (Devon Candura), a starlet who never made it and never will, even though she’s slept with enough producers. Then there’s Mark (Nick Lake), a drug-addled, slightly insane Vietnam veteran who reads letters to his mother and entries in his diary. Of course, Patrick includes a hippie past her prime, Rona (Anne Korajczyk). The most autobiographical character is Sparger (Tom Weber), a gay performer who’s worked in just about every back room, church basement, and community center. The play is rounded out by Wanda (Shawna Tucker), an aging schoolteacher with a Kennedy obsession.

As you probably guessed, this isn’t a very uplifting experience.   Kennedy’s Children is sort of about Kennedy, but it’s really about a collective consciousness, one that’s been battered and bruised into depression. It’s not surprising that the play dabbles in over-the-top disenchantment and cynicism. Maybe when Kennedy, King, and Hendrix were recently buried Patrick’s tribute tapped into unspoken ideas, but by now a lot of the ground has been covered multiple times. That’s not to say this play should be tossed in the garbage. The first half is clunky and exposition-heavy, but the stories heat up in the second act, causing the whole production to suck in the audience.

 

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 5 Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 4

This play needs outstanding performances to survive, and McCabe’s cast is up to the challenging, direct-address style piece. Tucker is the highlight of the production, lending her portrayal of Wanda some skittish neurosis and just a dab of blind hope. If any character is constructive, it’s Wanda, who went out to teach children, inspired by the memory of the fallen president. Weber and Candura are also engrossing; they’re prone to tragedy and histrionics, but so are their characters. Korajczyk and Lake are weaker performers. Korajczyk revels in Rona’s cynicism too much, and Lake pushes the crazy too hard.

In the end, McCabe’s search for relevance is successful. I’m not a child of Kennedy, but Patrick’s sad stories still struck a nerve. The bar patrons’ mopeyness teeters on self-indulgent, but the disappointment rings true.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

scene from Kennedy's Children at Promethean - photo by Tom McGrath 2

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REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

springawake1

 
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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