Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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REVIEW: The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Project 891 Theatre)

    
     

What does it mean to be Jewish at Christmastime?

     
     

Jason Kellerman and Sarah Latin-Kasper

  
Project 891 Theatre Company presents
   
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
   
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
Through Dec. 19  |  
tickets: $15  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Should a Jewish Christmas tree be topped with a star? That argument launches The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry’s delectable examination of Southern Jewish culture in the mid-20th century, now playing in Project 891 Theatre Company’s nearly perfect site-specific production at Edgewater’s historic, 1914 Gunder Mansion (North Lakeside Cultural Center).

The year is 1939 and the place is Atlanta, where the film "Gone with the Wind" is having its premiere, while Hitler has begun his rampages in Europe.

Liz HoffmanHitler seems remote to most of the Freitag family, complacent, long-established, well-to-do Southern Jews of German heritage, as they trim their Christmas tree. They’re part of an ingrained culture so assimilated they barely know what being Jewish is, other than to chafe at the bigotry of the gentiles who keep them from mixing in the South’s highest society. So they create their own, "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians," in turn manifesting their own anti-Semitism against "the other kind" — Jews more recently arrived, more religious, more obviously ethnic.

Uhry mined the true history of the South and his own upbringing here. The play’s name, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refers to the big society event of the season for the well-heeled Southern Jewish younger set, a cotillion at the exclusive Standard Club.

At the outset, anxious, flighty Lala Levy, one of the daughters of the house, doesn’t yet have a date for this important night. Sensitive, prickly and awkward, Lala is a grave disappointment to her bossy, ambitious mother, Boo, who fears her daughter will never "take." Lala suffers in comparison to her prettier, brighter, collegiate cousin, Sunny Freitag, who shares the family home along with her fond, slightly vague mother, Reba. Boo’s bachelor brother, the long-suffering Adolph Freitag, nominally presides over the household, supporting them all in comfort with the family business, Dixie Bedding Co.

Into this mix comes handsome Joe Farkas, a new and highly valued employee at the firm, Brooklyn-born and unmistakably "one of the other kind." He sets the family at odds on a number of levels, ultimately challenging their perception of what it means to be Jews.

Commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was revised for its Broadway opening the following year. It deservedly received both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

   
Darrelyn Marx and Lori Grupp Liz Hoffman and Austin D Oie

Skillfully staged in the mansion’s wood-paneled front parlor, with seating for just 23, this intimate production features superb acting, notably from the senior members of the cast. Darrelyn Marx excels as the acerbic Boo, pushing and goading her daughter with tough love, portraying this unlikable character with power and empathy. Lori Grupp charms as Reba, and Larry Garner puts in a wonderfully wry performance as Adolph.

Liz Hoffman captures Lala’s painful gracelessness beautifully. Sarah Latin-Kasper makes a serene Sunny, and Jason Kellerman gives Joe a perfect balance between brashness and bewildered sensitivity. His smile when Sunny agrees to a date lights up the room. Austin Oie is hilarious as redheaded Peachy Weil, the well-born Louisiana wiseacre whom Boo hopes to capture for Lala.

For those who prefer their December entertainment without cloying overdoses of sentiment and good cheer, The Last Night of Ballyhoo offers everything a holiday show should have: Great performances, depth, humor and pathos.

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Allow time to find street parking

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Dracula – A Tragedy (Redtwist Theatre)

 

Odd adaptation upends clever atmospherics

 

DracMIna

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Dracula: A Tragedy
   
Written by Mark Mason
Directed by Stephen James Anderson
Inspired by the novel by Bram Stoker
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago (map)
Through October 31  |  
tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Along with Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s vampire, Dracula, is among the most iconic figures of horror ever created. Even those who’ve never read the original novel (which you really should) or seen one of the scores of films inspired by it (is there anyone who hasn’t?), know something of the tale, although it has been twisted and turned and altered in innumerable ways.

Mina and Renf in Redtwist Theatre DraculaFor Redtwist Theatre’s perverse and gruesome version, Dracula: A Tragedy, playwright Mark Mason takes more liberties than most. He has appropriated Stoker’s characters but almost none of his plot. Instead we get an incoherent mess of spooky weirdness.

The atmospherics are great. Stephen James Anderson, who doubles as director and designer, has done a great job with the set. Arriving theater goers walk down a long dark corridor past ragged gray-robed figures muttering prayers into a long, narrow black box theater. A woman sits near a fire, working at an old-fashioned manual typewriter. At rear stage, we see a huge crucifix. Shimmery hangings enhance the creepy effects.

The music, muttering and typing continue all the while the spectators file in and the play starts. The effect is spoiled somewhat, though, by the viewers, since without a clear signal of the start of the action, the audience doesn’t know when to stop yakking and turn off their cell phones. It’s a pity, but these times require some kind of announcement.

Playing Count Dracula, Bob Pries looks the part, I’ll give him that. Deep set eyes, sharp nose, widow’s peak, prominent ears — he looks like a handsome Nosferatu — with a hokey Bela Lugosi accent.

Drac has just arrived in England on an exploding ship, and purchased a lunatic asylum, complete with inmates, and the count seems bent on making more crazies.

The novel’s chief victims, Mina Harker (Ariana Dziedzic) and Lucy Westenra (Shannon Riley) have been turned into closet lesbians; the madman Renfield (Dustin Whitehead) is Jack the Ripper. Dracula intends to take over England, apparently by forcing Mina’s husband, Jonathan (Sean Ogren), to impregnate her, an act that occurs on stage in a sort of black sabbath.

 

Koffa JonMina Mina

Anderson does some clever things with the staging, such as characters who crawl onstage out of a fireplace, but he’s aimed his cast somewhere between melodrama and over-the-top camp. That follows the script, which segues between histrionics, violence and sudden, disconcerting efforts at humor — which, judging by audience reaction on opening night — rarely succeed.

Ninety minutes without intermission, this version leaves out Van Helsing, the novel’s chief vampire hunter, as well as two of Lucy’s three suitors, Transylvania and nearly all of power of the original.

Dracula: A Tragedy, might be best enjoyed if you forget about trying to follow the storyline and just take it as a sit-down version of a haunted house. (Some of the seats in the 29-seat theater are backless benches, by the way, so arrive early for a comfortable selection.)

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

JonMina

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