Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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Review: The Warriors (The New Colony)

     
     

Survivor story speaks from the heart, but the message Is muddled

  
  

Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne Peterson - New Colony

  
The New Colony presents
  
The Warriors
  
Conceived by Mary Hollis Inboden
Written by Evan Linder
Directed by Benno Nelson
at Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I cannot possibly begin to fathom the experience that Mary Hollis Inboden has lived through. The New Colony company member and the conceiver of its new production, The Warriors, was a student at Westside Middle School in 1998 when two students opened fire on their peers. When the carnage had ended, five people, including Mary’s best friend, were killed.

An incident as horrific as the Jonesboro Massacre—as the press dubbed it—sticks with you, sending shockwaves throughout the rest of your life. Although most of us are not survivors of school shootings, we do eventually suffer a life-changing tragedy that stamps itself on our psyches. And with each individual, it affects him or her differently.

Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne PetersonThat is what The Warriors attempts to explore, the notion that a shared horrific experience affects the lives of those involved in different ways. We do not witness the actions of that day, but we do watch the fallout.

The play begins in the present day with Mary, as herself, on a date with Jeff (Wes Needham). Jeff mentions that he heard Mary’s NPR interview, the one where she is speaking as a school shooting survivor. In the interview, she advises the students at Virginia Tech to band together and collectively cope with their pain. Mary tells Jeff that because she abandoned her Westside peers, she feels her advice was disingenuous.

Mary decides to send an e-mail to her old student body, informing them she wants to discuss the shooting. And so she returns to Jonesboro where she interacts with several old friends, each of whom has dealt with the weight of remembering in a unique way.

Mary Hollis Inboden’s performance is a testament to how much passion she has for the material and compassion she has for the other survivors. Playing yourself as others may see you takes courage, vulnerability and humility. I also commend Mary on her drive to get The Warriors on stage. So many would rather suppress the darkness Sarah Gitenstein, Michael Peters and Mary Hollis Inbodenin their lives. But Mary understands that the past is not your choice, and it is an inseparable part of you, a part that as an artist must be explored and shared.

However, this piece would have been significantly more powerful had it been scaled down to either a one-woman show or a series of monologues. Instead, the characters busily interact with each other, which diminishes the audience’s ability to connect with them and vice versa.

In addition, this kind of personal piece doesn’t seem conducive to The New Colony’s process. Instead of relying on a single playwright, the theatre company collaboratively creates its productions. I’m not clear on how a group of individuals who did not live through the experience and cannot speak for Mary’s point of view can adequately contribute to the piece. Furthermore, by having them contribute, the lines between reality and dramatization begin to blur. And that undercuts some of the play’s intensity.

If we’re going to plunge into personal tragedy, I want as much vulnerability on stage as possible. And although Mary lays her heart on the line, the other characters lack a certain genuineness. It’s not about the acting. It’s about the way the story is told. And I think Mary can tell this tale better herself.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(L to R)  Whit Nelson, Nicole Pellegrino, Michael Peters, Sarah Gitenstein, Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden

The Warriors runs March 17 – April 17 at the Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield Ave. Opening/Press night is Sunday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are now on sale. The production runs Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at 773.413.0TNC (0862) or thenewcolony.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: Shining City (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

God is elusive in Redtwist’s captivating ‘Shining City’

 
 

Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City' - photo Andrew Jessop

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Shining City
  

Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Joanie Schultz 
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There is a moment in Redtwist’s Shining City where, lurking behind a door, a split-second spark of divinity is revealed. It is bloodied, silent, and is at once horrifying and reassuring.

To call Conor McPherson’s play a “ghost story” would imply it provides some answer to the nature and existence of another world or its inhabitants. But in the streets and isolated dwellings of McPherson’s Dublin, there is no such certainty. Even when an apparition is in plain sight, its significance, meaning and reality is just painfully out of Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopreach.

This play is rather, for all its melancholy and despair, a love story.

Set in an upstairs therapist’s office, Shining City chronicles the sessions of middle-aged widower John (the superb Brian Parry), and his ex-priest doctor, Ian (John Arthur Lewis). After the sudden death of his wife, John has begun to see visions of his spouse, moving him out of his home and into a local inn. Ian, wrestling with his own losses, has just left the woman he abandoned the Church for. The mother of Ian’s child, Neasa (Cheryl Lynn Golemo) struggles to exist separated in the unwelcoming company of Ian’s family. Two months flash between each scene, and as time goes on, the three slip further away from any assurance of who they are or the morality of the decisions they’ve made.

Each of these characters are, in one way or another, in limbo. They are all lost between homes, identities, loves, or sexualities, and seek escape in all the wrong ways. Director Joanie Schultz comments in her program note that she calls upon her own experience living out of a suitcase to relate an ambience of no refuge, which she accomplishes brilliantly in this production. Redtwist’s nearly claustrophobic performance space serves to amplify the overtones of each character’s underlying fear and wanting. Much of the action is relayed through long, patient storytelling, and just as John cannot escape his guilt and anxiety, we as the audience are seated almost in the hyper-realistic office right there with him, his deep-gravel, hypnotic voice only feet away. These characters are richly drawn, and this ensemble does great Cheryl Lynn Golemo and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessopjustice to them, supplying flaws and sympathies to their humanity.

In the intimate setting, no detail goes unnoticed, and play’s production team has created a scrupulously complete environment, from the window’s view of a cathedral to the ideal selection of transitional music.

McPherson doesn’t appear to relish the hell he puts his characters through, making their struggle all the more real and painful to watch. It also makes their redemption that much more believable and satisfying.

Shining City’s finale may prove to be divisive for some audiences. I encourage them to take note of John’s declared realization when considering the play’s last image: it isn’t the fact of what happens that’s important, but instead the effect. Regardless of their conclusion, the effect–like this production–will be moving.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Kaelan Strouse and John Arthur Lewis in Redtwist Theatre's 'Shining City'. Photo by Andrew Jessop

Production continues through February 27th – Thu, Fri, Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 3pm. No performance on Sun, Feb 6, but an add’l perf on Sat, Feb 26, 3pm.  The show’s running time is approximately 1:40 with no intermission. Tickets: Thursdays, $25; Fridays & Sundays, $27; Saturdays, $30 (seniors & students $5 off).  More info: www.redtwist.org/Tickets.html.

     
     

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REVIEW: Pancake Breakfast (The New Colony)

      
     

Family dysfunction stacked high and covered with syrup

     
     

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre

   
The New Colony presents
   
Pancake Breakfast
   
Written by Tara Sissom
Directed by
Sean Kelly
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Independence Day is an annual celebration of liberation. For Beatrice, this year is D-Day for the release of a captive, her brother. The New Colony presents the world premiere of Pancake Breakfast. Beatrice resurrects the 4th of July family tradition. Her plan is to get the estranged family together to intervene in her mother’s unhealthy relationship with her brother. But before the clan can instigate the interference, they need to re-enact the holiday family rituals from pancake breakfast to fireworks. ‘Going home again’ is a craving never quite satisfied. Do pancakes ever taste as good as the childhood memory of them? Pancake Breakfast is family dysfunction stacked high and served with fruits and nuts.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 4Playwright Tara Sissom devised the Pancake Breakfast script in collaboration with the actors. Sissom laid out the premise and the ensemble developed individual characters. The result is an IHOP menu of tasty options that don’t quite go together for one well-balanced meal. Some of the characters are a bounty of flavor. Arlene Malinowski (Lillian) is a delicious loud-mouthed, mean-spirited, mother flapjack. Evan Linder (Randy) is a delectably hilarious, Asperger’s son-of-a-bitch. Jack McCabe (Arlie) stirs the pot for laughs as an eccentric nut. Megan Johns (Darcy)smokes the pot as the amusing, carefree 2nd wife. It’s these tangy portrayals that overshadow the other milder ingredients. What are the other tastes? Gary Tiedemann is definitely sweet, but how does he blend with his bitter partner, Andrew Hobgood (Bobby)? And Steve Ratcliff (Bud) seems a little bland for marrying zesty… both times.

The script can be confusing. In the first scenes, it’s unclear who Eleanor (Susan Veronika Adler) is. Adler brings some spice but is more seasoned for the grandmother’s role than the grown-up version of a youthful single parent. Thea Lux (Beatrice) goes to a lot of trouble to serve pancakes but seems more like a waffle eater. Lux is a quandary. What does she want? And where is she going? Her last line at the show’s end adds to the mystery.

Director Sean Kelly stages the show on a long linear stage. It’s an interesting floor plan representing a variety of rooms (scenic design by Nick Sieben). But in the cavernous Viaduct Theatre, this layout muffles some pertinent dialogue because of the obstructive angles. Sometimes the audio barrier is actually another actor standing directly in front of the speaker. From the southeast corner, a tub conversation is muffled between the submerged and the percher.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 3

Simultaneous staged activity occurs for a horizontal visual feast, tasty or otherwise. In an initial scene, the march to the breakfast table is a light-hearted patriotic salute. Often when family gets together for a holiday, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Relative cooking can get confusing. No need to start from scratch, Playwright Sissom just needs to clarify the recipe’s direction and whisk the lumps until smooth. Pancake Breakfast is a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity combo platter in the making. Order up!

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 2

Pancake Breakfast continues thru December 19th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

   
  

 

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