Reivew: Faith Healer (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
 

The bleaker side of Ballybeg

  
  

Mary Michell as Grace in a scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

  
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Faith Healer
      
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Belinda Bremner
At Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In one of the four monologues that compose Brian Friel’s harrowing story about a religious performer’s doomed tour, an aging act-manager describes the one constant you experience in northern Europe: dampness. Not wetness per se, he explains, but an unyielding saturation in your clothes and hair and skin. As I sat and listened to the three desolate characters in the moody, reflective Faith Healer, that feeling of heavy saturation is something I identified with.

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman The unfulfilled desires and emotional stagnations of Frank, the titular artist (Kevin Theis), his deprived wife Grace (Mary Michell), and his manager Teddy (Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey) almost sink into your being. The present, as they portray it at least, is more or less a venue for romanticizing, decoding and brooding over the past. We never get to meet the true characters that live out the events leading up to an alluded-to tragedy–only the half-husks remembering the details years later and in some cases, from beyond the grave. It’s all very Irish.

Friel is more recognizable by his perennial hit Dancing at Lughnasa, a play that takes place in the same fictional village but counteracts its grim wallowing with nostalgia and a little whimsy. But this is different universe, one where God is less tangible, and balance or order look like fatalistic notions. Even self-centered, alcoholic Frank is clueless to whether or not he even harbors legitimate abilities. In practice, presenting Faith Healer creates a challenge: how do you stage this play and not have it read as maudlin?

Director Belinda Bremner accomplishes a semi-even tone by highlighting the speeches’ dank and sometimes searing humor. As Teddy, bottle after bottle in-hand, Hickey is so genial he’s heart-breakingly pitiful. Fantastical stories about his deceased dog give way to an account of death and a tear-soaked plea to keep business and personal relationships separate. Likewise, Michell (Grace) plays to the subtext of her relationship with her husband, conscious that every bitter detail is as equally self-destructive to dwell on as it is righteous to point out.

Faith Healer sways off-track in the one place it can’t afford to: the title-character. Theis gets carried away with the weathered Irish persona. His jagged, gravel-heavy dialect work pushes beyond brogue into a realm more comparable to a pirate or Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice.” The effort for realism shows admirable dedication, but a character as layered as Frank aught to be born from instincts, not donned like a St. Patrick’s Day costume. Theis appears to have those instincts—veiled, they do no good.

 
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

Faith Healer continues through April 16th at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, with performances Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (708) 445-4440.  For more info, go to www.oakparkfestival.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Betrayal (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
  

Who’s zoomin’ who? The tangled webs of betrayal

 

 

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 1 - photo by  Michael Rothman

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
   
Betrayal
   
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by
Kevin Christopher Fox
at The Performance Center, Oak Park (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nobody gets a break in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now produced by the Oak Park Festival Theatre at the Performance Center of Oak Park. Everyone is suspect, everyone’s version of events is dubious, and unspoken motives lurk beneath the most mundane conversations. One fumbles to guess at what a character really means, whether he is repeating invitations to play squash or inquiring into the latest authors worth reading. Pinter’s highly educated and exceedingly well-mannered characters seem weighed down and contained by civilized behavior. A long-running adulterous affair, once discovered, instead of being the source of passionate rage or outcry is dealt with only in the most repressed and passive-aggressive ways.

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 5Director Kevin Christopher Fox well sustains the closed, inbred relationship between this terrible triangle. Jerry (Ian Novak) has had a seven-year affair with Emma (Kathy Logelin), who is the wife of his best friend, Robert (Mark Richard). Part of the intrigue of Betrayal is that Pinter starts the audience at the very end of Jerry and Emma’s affair and then winds backward, through all its stages, toward its origin. One sees what the affair has become before one sees how it began; one sees the relationship after the love has been exhausted, which gives a completely new twist on how one interprets the beginning, when Jerry woos Emma with an explosive profession of love.

Indeed, it interrogates Jerry’s motives for starting the affair with Emma or Emma’s motives for capitulating to Jerry’s effusive language. It interrogates Robert’s motives for letting the affair go on for so long, as well as his motives for ending his marriage to Emma. Who’s zoomin’ who—and what do they hope to get out of each power play or emotional twist?

The play is adultery viewed in hindsight, based upon Pinter’s own extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, a BBC Television presenter, which lasted seven years. With the beginning placed at the end, one notices those inklings of repressed jealousy and competitiveness between Jerry and Robert taint the affair from the start and make its origins suspect. One hopes that, at least at the start, Jerry and Emma’s affair soared with the kind of romance that movies and advertising sell – but that is never certain. Nothing is ever allowed room for certainty in this play. Betrayal makes us doubt love itself, as well as the possibility for love’s survival.

Since we learn from the beginning that the affair is over, the rest remains with the characters’ interactions. Oak Park Festival’s production feels like it is operating with a slightly defective third wheel. Kathy Logelin’s performance pulls the greatest emotional impact—the burden of secrecy, lies and deceptive silence show up clearly in Emma’s face. Logelin’s emotional accuracy Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 2wins sympathy for her character, in spite of the fact she is cheating on her husband and not totally truthful to Jerry. Mark Richard may have the least sympathetic role, cruel, dry and manipulative in his relationship with Emma. But one commiserates with his desperate defensiveness in the veiled conversations Robert holds with Jerry once he’s found out about the affair.

Ian Novak delivered an excellently timed and crisp performance as George Tesman in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler—but, as Jerry, he’s still trying to find his way and his occasional slippage in English dialect certainly doesn’t help matters. Pinter writes Jerry so suspect that he comes across, at certain moments, as a real cad. However, Jerry’s cannot be a role totally devoid of sympathy or the delicate balance that leaves the audience in uncertainty becomes undone. Here is a character that at least began as a fool for love. His desire for a love larger than life is very like Madame Bovary’s–a deep, inchoate longing for something more than the finite emotional space that civilized society allows us.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Oak Partk Festival Theatre - Betrayal 3

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REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost (Oak Park Festival)

A Labour of Love in Oak Park

 

Oak Park Festival Theatre's Photos - Love's Labours Lost 002

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Love’s Labour’s Lost
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by
Jack Hickey
at
Austin Gardens, 100 block North Forest, Oak Park (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Okay – sitting in the park on a buggy summer night is not exactly my idea of fun. There has to be something of worth to make this kind of sacrifice. I took a loaner lawn chair from the box office and was grateful to see that the park provided insect repellant for a voluntary donation. I gratefully slipped a buck in the jar and took my place on the lawn in Austin Gardens. There was a lovely pre-performance from the newly formed Oak Park Opera Company. A soprano and tenor performed selections from Verdi and Puccini to warm up the crowd. The music was quite beautiful and set the mood for a very cultured evening.

Oak Park Festival - Love's Labour's Lost 21011 The cast from the play mixed about on the perimeter of the stage, playing bocce in the characters of men at court. When the action began it flowed smoothly as if they really were bystanders in the park.

Love’s Labour Lost is not as popular as other works written by Shakespeare, despite the facts that it is one of his funnier plays. The language is less convoluted and ornate – but it is that simplicity that makes this a deceptive pleasure. The audience gets more of a voyeuristic look into life and the social games that may have occurred in the Elizabethan court.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, setting the bar for future farcical comedies full of ribaldry and mistaken identity. Comedy requires a cast to work hard without appearing to try. Kudos to the cast of the Oak Park Festival Theatre for pulling off this feat with grace and skill in spite of a sound system that battled the seemingly endless parade of air traffic overhead and blaring night insects below. Also, a little program coordination would be in order so that the actors don’t have to compete with amplified street performances a block over.

I was able to tune out the distractions for the most part as the play unfolded. Adam Breske as King Ferdinand shone as the pompous monarch setting an impossible social standard on his young attendants. Joseph Wycoff played the Lord Biron with sparkle and a wink to Walter Matthau. Mr. Wycoff has a great face for the frustration and trickery that ensues. It is Lord Biron who is the last of the king’s court to agree to a vow of celibacy and intense scholarship. It is Wycoff who shows the best and funniest reaction as the one who admits his own hypocrisy last when all are revealed as having broken their vows.

Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost

The performance of Stephen Spencer as Don Adriano de Amado – a fantastical Spaniard – is a wonderful mix of buffoonery with Kabuki subtlety. Mr. Spencer is also a wonderful speaker of Shakespeare’s rhythms with sharp and well-placed inflections. No pun is left unturned without perfect inflection hitting the target each time. Charlie Cascino makes brief but crazy energetic appearances as Country Wench Jaquenetta.   Ms. Cascino’s mischievous smile and frisky demeanor are perfect for scenes with the clown Costard, played with equally great skill by Bryan James Wakefield.

Richard Henzel plays the character of Holofernes, a character is pivotal to the wonderful confusion and double takes that ensue with letter exchanges and identities. Henzel is a Chicago theater veteran and takes firm command in this role. The scenes between Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are comic gems. Two of the audience’s favorite performers are the thoroughly enjoyable Skyler Schrempp as Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost 2Don Armado’s attendant Moth and Robert Tobin as Dull the Constable. They both have a gift for physical comedy and verbal timing.

Love’s Labour Lost is not one of Shakespeare’s best works in regards to women roles. Katherine Keberlein is regal as the Princess of France, but she and the other ladies in waiting do not match the frenetic energy of the people in King Ferdinand’s court. This is partially due in part to Shakespeare’s interpretation or society women of the late 1500s, as well as the also the directing choice of reigning in the female cast a bit more than the male cast members, which is a wise choice by Artistic Director Jack Hickey.

All in all, Shakespeare Under The Stars is a great idea.  You will have to make some concessions for the environmental sounds that hinder full enjoyment, but a night out in a wonderful town with a big city feel more than makes up for this. 

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

Love’s Labour Lost plays through August 21st at Austin Gardens in Oak Park. The park is a block away from both the Metra and the Green Line. If you take the Metra please pay attention to the schedule as it has an intermittent nature (Metra schedule). It could happen that you end up in Wheaton like I did. Go early to catch the great sidewalk sales and community energy that is Oak Park. Be aware that Oak Park basically closes the sidewalks at 9:00, so either arrive in Oak Park early enough to dine at a restaurant before the performance, or bring a meal and a beverage (wine is allowed) because there is nada après theatre to be had. Check online at www.oakparkfestival.org for availability and ticket information. Bring your insect repellant or at least leave a tip in the donation jar if you use the park’s resources.

   
   

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REVIEW: Of Mice and Men (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Familiar story has power under the stars

 Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men"

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Of Mice and Men
 
By John Steinbeck
Directed by
Belinda Bremner
Austin Gardens Park, 157 N. Forest Ave., Oak Park (map)
Through July 10  | 
Tickets: $10-$25; chair rental: $2 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One trouble with shows based on works almost everybody had to read in high school is they tend to lack suspense. That said, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck evokes all of the power of the original tragic novelette. Even though you know what’s coming at every step, Belinda Bremner’s production provides plenty of impact.

The timeless themes of loneliness and the solace of forged connections and shared dreams come to life under the stars in Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor venue. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a "play-novelette," designed theatrically, so it makes a seamless transition to the stage. (A minor quibble: I disagree with Bremner’s decision to combine the three acts into two, but I suppose that with the show at nearly 2½ hours, she didn’t want to add the extra intermission.)

Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men" You can bring or rent lawn chairs if you like, or sit in the bleachers, though one lady in front of me really knew how to do outdoor theater right — she came equipped with a blanket to spread on the lawn, a pillow to lounge on, votive candles, mosquito sticks, bug spray and a basket of snacks and drinks. (If you bring nothing else, I highly recommend bug spray.) Some scenes take place on the stage and others on the ground at stage left, so whatever you sit on, situate yourself toward "house" right for the best views.

Just in case you went to school in some other country, Of Mice and Men follows George Milton and Lenny Small, two itinerant, California farm workers during the Great Depression. They have been traveling together for years, though George is smart and ambitious and Lenny is mentally impaired — a small child in a strong man’s body. The two aspire one day to have their own place, where they can live off the fat of the land. Lenny never tires of hearing George recount what will happen when they achieve this goal.

George often vents his frustration with Lenny, who gets the pair into odd scrapes and some serious trouble through his love of touching soft things and his lack of understanding, but he never considers abandoning his companion. Lenny is completely confident in George — though he offers to go off and live in a cave, he trusts George won’t take him up on it. Kevin Theis gives George just the right edginess and protectiveness, while David Skvarla does a stupendous job as Lenny, endlessly befuddled and attractively childlike, as the show builds to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

When the two arrive on a new ranch, they meet Candy, a broken-down old hand whose own companion, a beloved, elderly dog, becomes a matter of contention in the bunkhouse. Candy offers George and Lenny a means of bringing their far-off hopes to reality. Veteran Chicago actor William J. Norris’ compelling performance gives the production real depth.

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Meanwhile, Curley (a vigorous Adam Meredith), the pugnacious son of the ranch boss, picks on Lenny just to make up for his own inadequacies; and another lonely ranch hand, Crooks (a sensitive portrayal by Emanueal Buckley), kept at arm’s length because he’s black, is also inclined to take out his resentment on Lenny but ultimately relents.

Curley’s new wife, a nameless and ill-omened young woman who regrets the recent marriage that has done nothing to cure her loneliness, tries to chat up the men just to have something to do, but they misinterpret her friendly overtures. Ricky Lurie’s period clothes for the men look just fine, but Curley’s wife ought to be dressed more provocatively. Her plain-jane overalls and braids, combined with Skyler Schrempp’s rather earnest portrayal, make it difficult to imagine how the men can see her as a tramp.

Ron Butts, Stanton Davis, Ben Carr and Walter Briggs ably fill out the cast.

Unseen live musicians provide a little incidental music, but they seem under-utilized. A recording of Woody Guthrie classics played before the show and at intermission seemed fitting at first, but became tiresome by its third iteration. More live music could make this very good production into a great one.

       
      
Rating:★★★½
   
   

Note: Free parking available in the 19th Century Club lot on North Forest Avenue.

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REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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Jonathan Heuring – Porchlight Music Theatre’s new managing director

JONATHAN HEURING appointed as new managing director

jonathan-heuring Porchlight Music Theatre has announced the appointment of Jonathan Heuring as full time managing director for the fifteen year old company. As managing director, he will oversee a variety of operations including marketing, development, vendors, subscription and single ticket sales—all the behind-the-scenes activities that support the artistic program.

Jonathan Heuring has worked the past 15 years in a wide variety of theatrical management roles, most notably nine years on the senior staff at Victory Gardens Theater as the Production Manager. He helped produce more than 50 world and regional premiere productions, including the 2001 season when Victory Gardens was the recipient of the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. He also played a major role in the growth that saw the company double in size and he was an integral member of the team that oversaw an $11.6 million campaign to renovate the landmark Biograph Theater into the company’s new home in 2006. Other theater companies he’s worked for include Indiana Repertory, Emerald City, TimeLine Theatre, Oak Park Festival, Lifeline, Famous Door and Center Theatre Ensemble.

Heuring has also worked locally in non-profit management software development and sales for Easy-Ware Corporation, and in commercial theatrical production for Jam Theatricals. He is a charter member of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Arts & Technical Committee, an advisory board member of Premiere Theatre and Performance, and is a proud graduate of Indiana University. He loves to volunteer his spare time to many local non-profits including Inspiration Corporation, Preservation Chicago, and Organizing for America.

From Porchlight’s board president Jeannie Lukow:

It is Porchlight’s privilege to welcome Jonathan Heuring as managing director. His knowledge of the Chicago theatre community, his skills as a theatre administrator, and most of all, his passion for theatre will serve the company well. As Porchlight celebrates the milestone of its 15th anniversary, bringing a full time managing director on board is critical to our growth in the next 15 years."

 

We here at Chicago Theater Blog wish Jonathan the best of luck.

Chicago theater openings/closings this week

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show openings

Anna, in the Darkness: The Basement

Dream Theatre

Bastards of Young Tympanic Theatre

Calls to Blood The New Colony

Cats Cadillac Palace Theatre

Dooby Dooby Moo Lifeline Theatre

Everyone’s Favorite Lobster Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Flaming Dames in Vamp II New Millenium Theatre

Heroes Remy Bumppo Theatre

The House on Mango Street Steppenwolf Theatre

The Last Unicorn Promethean Theatre

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Filament Theatre Ensemble

The Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre

Mrs. Gruber’s Ding Song School Gorilla Tango Theatre

Plans 1 Through 8 from Outer Space New Millenium Theatre

Rachel Corn and the Secret Society Corn Productions

You Can’t Take It with You Village Players Performing Arts Center

 

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show closings

Ah, Wilderness! Loyola University Chicago Theatre

Bad Touch and the Deep End Annoyance Theatre 

Dirty Talking Amish Gorilla Tango Theatre

Dracula Oak Park Festival Theatre

The History Boys – Timeline Theatre 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Court Theatre

The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre

Rent Big Noise Theatre

Sleeping Beauty Big Noise Theatre

Stripped: An Unplugged Evening with Marilyn’s Dress Gorilla Tango Theatre