Review: Solo Works (Theatre Zarko)


Fragments of a puppeteer’s life


Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Theatre Zarko presents
Solo Works
Created and performed by Michael Montenegro
at Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
through May 21  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Michael Montenegro has long held a singular place as Chicago’s master puppeteer. With Solo Works at Theatre Zarko in Evanston, he returns to his roots —a set of simple performances that recall his early days performing for children at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Most of Chicago’s theater community remembers him through his haunting, ethereal contributions to Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautica in 2006 or Writers’ Theatre production The Puppetmaster of Lodz in 2007. Plus, critical accolades have heightened attention to his brainchild Theatre Zarko, with Klown Kantos/The Sublime Beauty of Hands in 2009 and Haff the Man/Falling Girl (our review ★★★★), which we named as one of the top 25 shows of 2010. Montenegro eschews the limelight, but, more often than not, his ever-changing artistry draws a small but extremely devoted following.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011Solo Works displays the craftsman alone with his puppets—a modest presentation pared down to the most basic elements of light and darkness, spare proscenium, and one musician, long-time collaborator Jude Mathews, at a low lit keyboard, providing most of the production’s carnival atmosphere. As such, each short theatrical piece forms a fragment or a mediation on the puppeteer’s life. “Myself at Ten” starkly sets a black and white photo of Montenegro at 10 years old atop his darkly dressed adult body, with a simple four-legged puppet that he manipulates to run, walk, stretch and leap. It wordlessly explores a boy’s budding discovery of the ability to animate inanimate objects–filled with enigmatic wonder and not a little hint of control. But the question of who controls whom pops up again and again.

“Sing” cunningly portrays a man coming home to disrobe and unveil his latest purchase, a bird in a birdcage that he exhorts to sing. But nothing can be exacted from bird without a little performance from the man first. Likewise, both “A Man with A Bag” and “A Short Lecture” reveal the ever-present danger of puppets taking control, once they assume a life of their own. Even “Gustavo” depicts a puppet violinist being dictated to by his own violin, which opens its toothy mouth and makes demands like, “I want to go to Hawaii,” or “I want to be a cello.” Time and again, Montenegro’s creations make Id-like pronouncements that inform, critique or disrupt the puppeteer’s course of action. It’s a testament to Montenegro’s skill that he can transform his bare hand into a puppet with a menacing presence. But more to the point, the puppeteer must respond to what he has vivified.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011By far, the evening’s boldest, most enigmatic and existential work may be “Giacco,” wherein a grotesque, almost ghostly head is manipulated to speak, urging another puppet, formed only by Montenegro’s back, to run toward the crowd. But Solo Works mixes intricate, esoteric puppetry with elements of crowd-pleasing, Punch-and-Judy street puppetry. Childlike rudeness and joy blends with the graceful, the magical and the profound. What is more, Theatre Zarko always produces work in constant evolution through the course of the run–the show an audience sees one night may not be the same the next.

At times, the fragmentary nature of Solo Works frustrates because it lacks a strong cohesive arc. But that will not prevent anyone from becoming absorbed, moment-by-moment, by the master’s dreamlike figures sculpted from wood, wire and cloth. The figures may reflect a life made up of pieces and bits–found, repurposed, and re-awakened.

Rating: ★★★

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Solo Works continues through May 21st at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15 at the door, and reservations can be made by calling 847-350-9275.  For more information, visit


REVIEW: Unveiled (Next Theatre)

When Clothing Makes, or Unmakes, the Woman


Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Next Theatre presents
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through September 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Rohina Malik’s one-act play, Unveiled, could not have come at a more crucial moment. Hate crimes against Muslims are up, Muslims are denied opportunities to build places of worship all over the US (including Chicago), established mosques face vandalism and arson, and a self-righteous nut case in Florida threatened to burn the Koran to get national attention. Meanwhile, it’s an election year and job recovery crawls at a snail’s pace. Too many people are out of work and too many people still think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Directed by Kevin Heckman at Next Theatre, five Muslim women, each from a different culture, share two things in common: they all wear the veil, or hijab, and they all live in the West. What must it be like to be so visibly different from other women and be rendered a moving target by American uncertainty, fear and rage over 9/11? Malik unveils a Muslim womanhood that meets this challenge with strength, outspokenness, clarity, poetry, humor and faith.

These hardly seem like women cloistered behind a wall of restrictive and repressive tradition. They are very aware of the world they live in and its ongoing melding of East and West. They fiercely and graciously adhere to their principles of hospitality. They speak up for themselves, drawing from a deep well of cultural riches.

The first woman designs wedding dresses from her small shop on Devon Avenue. Yet she is no mere seamstress. In every way she is an artist. “You’re not the first American girl who wants the Bollywood look,” she chats up her current client. “All the girls have wanted it since ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” Wedding dresses are her art and that art is just as dependent on the personality of the client as her own imagination. “You are not choosing me. I am choosing you,” she tells the prospective bride.

Weddings and family are what she knows, but a hate crime almost destroys her drive as an artist. Attending the wedding of a woman getting married in one of her creations, she and her children become the targets of the inchoate rage of an American couple attending another wedding nearby. What brings her back to her art again are her friends and a poem by Rumi: “Dance, when you’re broken. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. . . Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”

Malik’s one-act starts strong. Her characters are not just Muslim, not just from the Middle East or South East Asia; their multicultural backgrounds position them uniquely in the world. One is a Texan mother of the American South, not converting, but “reverting” to Islam. The other is a hip hop teen raised in West London who can’t stand her mother’s assimilationist choices. This girl’s own reaction to her mother’s generation has to do with the way her mom applied lemons to her daughter’s skin, when she was younger, to make it whiter.

Malik clearly wants to show a wide range of Muslim women and their individual reasons for claiming the veil. As such, most of her characters’ psychology is well-developed and their life stories powerfully integrate tradition, poetry and passages from the Koran. Of all the characters, only the Southern Muslim belle seems the weak and underdeveloped one. Upon opening night, Malik’s performance of this character also waned in accuracy. Her troubles with American Southern dialect were too apparent.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston
Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Of greater concern is the play’s repetitious monologue structure—the introduction of tea, the particular tea made the emblem of each Muslim woman’s culture; the introduction of a story which reveals a violent hate crime; and finally the character resorts to faith and culture to stand against it–by the time the fourth and fifth characters are introduced, the pattern becomes worn. Also, physical violence and verbal harassment are the only kinds of hate crime and speech directly addressed by these characters. Beyond the introduction of strong, self-determining Muslim women, Malik digs no further into the ways feminist critiques of the veil have been based on cultural and religious ignorance, and thus used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly, American feminists had to learn the hard way just how their work could be used by a right wing administration to further its imperialist ambitions.

Next’s production itself runs almost seamlessly and poetically. Unfortunately, sound problems, at opening, rendered the rap from the young hip hop Londoner almost indiscernible. The fuzz from the speaker system, cranked up to play over the drums, got in the way of the script.

However, no one can dispute the essential timeliness of this play, or its vitality and humanism. In the middle of anti-Muslim hysteria, how hopeful it is to discover a promising young playwright just beginning to explore terribly relevant themes. Next should be applauded for opening their season with such immediate work from a practically unknown playwright. Unveiled’s series of monologues has strong bones and beautiful language. The incorporation of Alex Wing’s music and Cynthia Sopata’s movement beautifully correspond to and amplify the storytelling. Rohina Malik is one to watch. Get to know her.

Rating: ★★½

Rohina Malik, in the poster for her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Productions Personnel

Written and performed by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
Scenic & Lighting Design by Jim Davis

Music by Alex Wing

Movement by Cynthia Sopata

Review: Next Theatre’s “boom”

Next Theatre’s boom Is All Wit, Very Little Heart


Next Theatre presents:


by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Jason Southerland
thru October 11th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value is survival to the human race? Everything, wouldn’t you think? But what if survival doesn’t mean that much, especially if the quality of life is compromised or if other life will go on and develop without us? Next Theatre’s production of boom, by San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is meant to be the beginning of their season-long dramatic exploration of these themes. Works like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us are presented for sale to further facilitate the audience’s discussion.

BOOM 4 Nachtrieb’s breakout success is bright, sly, and pyrotechnically witty in its explorations of life’s beginnings and endings. It seems the perfect vehicle to set off Next’s 29th season, whipped up lightly enough to not overwhelm an audience, but intellectually proficient and adept enough to knowingly raise the stakes regarding human existence. What goes missing, strangely, is the human connection–one of those little ineffable things that make human life worth living.

I say “strangely” because connection is precisely what the lead male character, Jules (John Stokvis) wants and what he expects to attain with Jo (Kelly O’Sullivan)—but under extreme duress. What makes Jules, a marine biologist, less like a thoroughly evil villain and more “the nutty professor” is that he commits his crimes on the pretense of saving the human race from extinction. He has calculated that a comet of unknown origin will strike the earth, extinguishing all life, and he needs a female companion with which to reset human existence.

In order to establish credibility for his dry, purely scientific motivations, a joke is pounded home that Jules is “a homosexual.” The impregnation of Jo, the jaded, world-weary journalism major Jules lures to his lab via craigslist, could take place by “intensive coupling” or by more antiseptic means. That is if Jo would allow that to happen—which, understandably she doesn’t. Instead, she feels compelled to hurl herself tens of thousands of times against the force-field reinforced lab door, by which they are both imprisoned once the comet strikes.

While her sentiments are understandable, this component strains credulity the most, since there really is only so much electroshock that a straight girl can take.

The cast executes this farce with precision and verve. Its rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue encompasses everything from modern dating and sexuality to the random chance to the rationales of hope pitted against despair or disillusionment. Perhaps the most brilliant exposition of Nachtrieb’s powers is the full-on rant that bursts forth from Jules, exasperated with Jo’s unrelenting, snarky pessimism. Stokvis delivers it with an almost joyful fury.


Finally, the audience is further distanced from the play when it is revealed to be a set piece within a futuristic museum. Directed by Barbara (Shannon Hoag), the museum piece’s curator, the play’s themes are further filtered and commented upon, while sprinkled generously with her complaints about the museum’s management.

Hoag delivers the strongest comic performance of the evening as Barbara and her line, “I wish I had more control,” is probably the play’s quintessential through-line. Layers upon layers of control issues run throughout the play, regarding the characters, humanity’s fight for survival–hell, even each character’s individual struggle for personal vindication is madly fraught with control issues.

BOOM 3 However, even if one manages to gain some control and by that control procure survival, there is still no guarantee of the quality of outcomes.

For instance, you can make people do things, but you cannot make them want to do them. It is that which makes the moment of connection between Jules and Jo so forced and without credibility, even in a farce like this one. Certainly, there’s such a thing as Stockholm syndrome, wherein a hostage ultimately becomes loyal and emotionally attached to the abductor. But attachment, loyalty, romance or connection that is not freely given lacks all savor, especially in a comedy.

Prior to the comet destroying everything, both Jules and Jo lament, in their own ways, the lack of human connection in their contemporary lives. This may be their only common bond. Yet if there is no real future for human connection, at least as represented by these characters, why should we care, not just if they will go on, but also if they have lived at all?

 Rating: ««½


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