REVIEW: Medea with Child (Sideshow Theatre)

When the Goddess devours her own

 

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Sideshow Theatre Company presents
 
Medea with Child
 
by Janet Burroway
directed by Jonathan L. Green
at La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston  (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Medea With Child by Janet Burroway confronts the shallowness of modern-day existence still under the burdens of sexism, racism, age-ism, and nationalism; only these age-old fault lines are compounded further by contemporary image obsession, especially as political manipulation. It’s also a play about a (supernaturally) powerful woman reeling over lost love, lost youth, lost dignity, and, therefore, needing no more pretenses regarding motherly devotion. Sideshow Theatre Company clearly has too much fun with this material, yet they are simply co-conspiring with the playwright’s fast-paced, satirical wit and inspired juxtapositions.

MedeaWithChild4 Based on Euripides’ classic play The Medea, Media (Sojourner Zenobia Wright) acts out as the ultimate, ethno-folkloric Mommie Dearest—slaughtering her children in revenge against her husband’s infidelity and his total sociopolitical displacement of her. Burroway keeps the theme of Media’s barbarism completely intact from the Ancient Greek original but stretches its metaphor of the total stranger to its outer limits. Perhaps even more than Euripides’ heroine, Media is the eternal sister outsider.

Rising mythically out of Africa’s primordial depths, Media’s expansive, magical perception of reality extends far beyond normal human experience. As a result, she lives in the perpetual state of no one ever really getting her. She can talk on and on to slippery politico Crayon (Richard Warner) or to wayward husband Chasten (John Bonner)—but no one truly understands what she is saying and thinking.

Indeed, given their own total self-absorption with image and all its ramifications, no one around Media may even be trying. This establishes to some of most sublime contradictions in the course of the play. Glossy (Nicole Richwalsky), Crayon’s daughter and Chasten’s new secretary/squeeze, proclaims herself a feminist and claims Media as her feminist icon. But she is wrong on both counts. Media is not a feminist; her powers do not come from feminism–they come from a more primal place and go well beyond anything so dry as feminist political theory. She is what every feminist wishes she could be—especially the old school, Second Wave warriors who claimed witches for their feminist role models. Likewise, Glossy’s upstaging of Media in her affair with Chasten could hardly be recognized as a feminist act. Indeed, Glossy seems more fascinated with Media’s celebrity feminist status than any actual empowerment for herself or other women. When all is said and done, she basks in Media’s reflected glory by bedding her husband.

It’s a fine example of Burroway’s wry, twisted wit winking through the dialogue. Sisterhood is powerful; but not when young feminist sister stabs sister in the back because she has a mistaken idea of what feminism is. It may be completely mute in the company of men who have no interest in contradicting Glossy and every interest in moving Media aside for a brand, new (post-feminist?) order. It’s not just that the prospect for women’s empowerment goes down the tubes. Puerility replaces substance; swapping out Glossy for Media is like substituting The Runaways with The Spice Girls.

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By no means is that the limit of this play’s comic scope. Indeed, several viewings might be needed to savor every flavorful drop of its juicy, wicked goodness. Director Jonathan L. Green has assembled a superlative cast, all evenly sure and subtle in their delivery. As Media’s children, both in their play and their prognostications about mother, Fairies (Andrew Sa) and Murmurous (Lea Pascal) have the sacrificial victim thing disturbingly down pat.

So much meticulous attention has been given to every detail in performance and design each moment brings new discoveries and revelations. Joshua Lansing’s set design not only provides versatility, it places surprises in every corner. David Hyman’s construction of Media’s costume alone deserves an award and Wright certainly wears it well. She may be a killer, but girl knows how to bring the Hoodoo Mama chic!

One thing remains peculiarly striking, however. For all the humorous and inventive ways Burroway plays with the myth of Medea and Jason of the Argonauts, Media remains comparatively serious and unable to use humor as her weapon or shield. Wright’s portrayal of Media is nothing but fiercely and sensually witty, but Media herself seems unable to step back and realize the laughable ridiculousness of Chasten’s mid-life-crisis affair with shallow Glossy. In having Media feel too much and without ironic perspective, Burroway preserves the tragicomic nature of the play—exploring, as she wishes, the dark psychodynamics of enmeshed anti-motherhood and love’s betrayal. But is she, consciously or unconsciously, re-inscribing a humorless proto-feminism in the character of Media?

At the start of the play, Crayon holds up a list of possible options for the outcome of the story, in the hope that this time no one would have to die. I didn’t see a palimony option on that list. But palimonied freedom for Media and custody of the kids for Chasten and Glossy would be a completely different play, shifting the myth from tragedy to tragicomedy to comedy. The kind of 5th century BCE political comedy that made Aristophanes famous–wherein the hero, through his trickster nature, overcame his opponents and got everything he wanted. Is Media, for all her dark power and mystical nature, still not a trickster? Does that kind of comic ending still only look good on men and not on women?

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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REVIEW: “Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne”

A poetic play in a perfect setting

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North Lakeside Players present:

Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Written and directed by Frank Farrell
at
North Lakeside Cultural Center in Edgewater.
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Among the best things about Chicago’s theater scene are wonderful chances to see productions close-up in intimate and sometimes non-traditional settings. Such venues really bridge the gap between audiences and performers. As I overheard a woman say at North Lakeside Players’ charming world premiere, Bright Star: "I felt like I was part of the play."

The Players perform in the historic Gunder Mansion in Edgewater. Built in 1914, reportedly as the lakefront home of an early silent-movie mogul, the house was renovated and opened in 1989 as the North Lakeside Cultural Center.

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The building can accommodate more, but North Lakeside Players Artistic Director Frank Farrell prefers to limit audiences to 20, in part because he likes to stage scenes throughout the house, moving watchers from room to room. Farrell’s Bright Star shifts from the wood-paneled front parlor to the leaded-glass-flanked dining room to a second-floor bedroom, so viewers get something of a house tour along with the play. (Farrell is known for getting his audiences on the move. He’s also the man behind Theater-Hikes, performed during 2-mile walks, and a new project involving bicycle treks.)

North Lakeside Cultural Center forms an ideal setting for historical plays, like "Bright Star," which covers 1818 to 1821, the final years of the short life of British Romantic poet John Keats. Written in 2001, Farrell’s "Bright Star" is based on the 1968 historical novel of the same name by Joan Rees, which was in turn named for Keats’ sonnet, said to have written to his beloved, Fanny Brawne:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

You need not be a student of literature to appreciate this sad, true love story, also the subject of a recent film by Jane Campion. Keats, 23, and Brawne, 18, met in Hampstead in 1818, and gradually fell in love. Then, as now, life was not easy for self-employed writers — particularly unsuccessful, critically reviled poets — and the couple could not afford to marry. Both her people and his discouraged the relationship. Then, Keats’ health began to fail.

Playwright Farrell weaves wonderful lines, both his own and quotations from Keats, into a compact script. He pares the poetry to a minimum, keeping things moving — aJohn_Keats_by_William_Hiltonlthough I would gladly have heard more of Joe Ciresi’s beautifully expressive recitations.

Ciresi makes a handsome, very boyish Keats (though topped with a Struwwelpeter wig whose historical accuracy appears a little dubious). When it comes to dialogue, however, his performance sometimes seems too restrained.

Actor and script keep the love scenes decorous, as perhaps they really were. Yet surely the intense and stormy Keats who poured his heart into famous love letters with lines like, "Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you" and "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," should display more passion? We need some sizzle, especially between Keats and his darling.

Pretty Nicole Richwalsky brings the right coquettishness and emotion to the young and not very deep Fanny, while Christina Thodos plays her widowed mother with matter-of-fact briskness, delightful in scenes such as one quizzing the young poet on his prospects. Christina Irwin is nicely motherly as the busybody neighbor, Mrs. Dilke, and Michael Mercier doubles proficiently as Keats’ dying brother, Tom, and his friend Charles Brown. Frank R. Sjodin and Nada Latoya Steier capably play a variety of supporting roles.

The playwright knows his subject thoroughly, creating a few puzzles for audience members not so deeply grounded in Keats’ biography. For instance, there’s a rather mystifying scene with Mrs. Isabella Jones (Steier), who needs a better introduction (Keats may or may not have had an affair with her); and glancing references to bad reviews don’t adequately prepare us for an unneeded, anticlimactic monologue damning Keats’ literary critics for the poet’s death.

Quibbles aside, "Bright Star" is a lovely play in a lovely setting, well worth the modest ticket price.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Note: The production is not wheelchair accessible. Paid parking is available across the street; parking passes must be reserved with tickets. Possible future performances may be in February. 

fanny & john bed Photos by Frank Farrell