REVIEW: Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale (Lookingglass)

A stunning display of physical artistry

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Lookingglass Theatre and Silverguy Entertainment presents
 
Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale
 
Adapted from the Greek myth by Tony Hernandez
Directed by
Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman
at the
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through May 23rd  tickets: $25-$70  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Move over Billy Elliot. There’s a new kid in town, and he’s flying – without wires or harnesses – just a few blocks west of where the famed coal miner’s son is hoofing the light fantastic. ‘Tis the season, apparently, for jaw-droppingly talented pre-pubescent boys. In Hephaestus, a Greek Mythology Circus Tale, ninth-generation 39-iris7 circus performer Fabio Anastasini plays a show-stopping role as the Lookingglass/Silver Guy telling of the Greek myth biography of the God of the Forge unfurls. Flipping and flying so fast he’s a centrifugal blur while his partner (and older brother) flings him skyward on the soles of his feet, Fabio is a dazzling highlight in a series of dazzlers that comprise Hephaestus’ 90 breathtaking minutes.

Imagine the very best acts of Cirque du Soleil, played out in a space so small you could reach out and grab the acrobats as they fly by. (Don’t even think about it.) Oh – and there’s no net. Also – nobody is wearing a harness or any sort of other safety rigging. When a seven-person human pyramid makes its way across the high wire during the show’s climactic finale, it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the Goodman’s tiny Owen Theatre. You can feel the audience collectively holding its breath. Cell phone rings aren’t just an aggravation during this show – they pose a very real danger. Knock wood – were any of the aerialists to lose their concentration during Hephaestus, the results could be deadly.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Tony Hernandez’ version of myth is enacted by the world’s elite circus performers, Flying Wallendas among them. These aren’t part-time buskers on summer break. They’re the best wire-walkers, acrobats, contortionists and stunt men and women on the planet. They’d be thrilling to watch 001731 under any circumstances. But in the intimate space of the Owen, they’re simply staggering. Get a seat in the third level of the courtyard space, and you’ll find yourself going eyeball-to-eyeball with that mind-blowing pyramid that ends the show. And prior to that, with Ares (Almas Miermanov) the God of War, as played by an impossibly chiseled gymnast doing his routine several stories up on the ends of furls of silk.

Since Hernandez (who also plays the title role with great emotional impact) debuted Hephaestus in 2005, he has tweaked it slightly. Aphrodite has lost her gleaming hula hoops and turned into a toe-dancing contortionist. A two-man hand-balancing act is now a single, silvery, spooky machine-man pulled by Hephaestus from the fires of his desert island forge. Then there’s the addition of the Anastasini brothers, who also start life as liquid metal beings formed by Hephaestus from molten metal. They’re a thrilling improvement.

The show’s primary flaw remains its narrative. The adaptation of Hephaestus’ myth is a flimsy coathanger draped in circus garments so richly spectacular you tend to first forgive and then forget that the myth even matters. Still, the individual acts could be put into the service of any story, and don’t feel especially integral to the story of Hephaestus.

Even so, there are moments when the story resonates powerfully. When his mother hurls Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, the fall is a gasp-inducing triumph of stagecraft and stuntwork. It’s a signature Lookingglass moment – the sort of indelible physical storytelling that nobody does better. The towering (Literally towering. There are drummers all the way up to the theater’s scaffolding) , immersive percussion makes you feel as if you are in a grand canyon echoing with drums, surrounded by an urgent, primal beat that drowns everything else out but the pure, raw, power of rhythm.

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As Hephaestus’ mother Hera, Lijana Wallenda Hernandez is an ethereal stunner, spinning high above the audience in a silver hoop. When Hephaestus falls to the bottom of an enchanted sea, the theater turns into a murky green eden of nymphs and bubbles hovering with liquid grace everywhere you turn. It’s an underwater paradise almost enough to make you weep at its watery, calming beauty.

And lest you discount that 7-person pyramid as just another circus stunt: Wallenda and Hernandez were among the artists who pioneered the act, and got it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. In other words, it’s a form of dangerous beauty that they actually invented. It was largely considered impossible before they did it. Watching Hephaestus, much of it seems impossible. The artistry is just that stunning.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

NOTE: Many of these pictures were taken from previous years’ performances.

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Review: Goodman’s “Stoop Stories”

Story-telling as an art form

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Goodman Theatre present:

Stoop Stories
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Jo Bonney
thru October 11th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

stoop1 Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories is poetically written and powerfully performed. The smooth sounding sentences of Orlandersmith’s speech also tell us direct stories. Stoop Stories is not a poetry reading, it is a collection of memories shared to us by over ten different characters played by the author herself, Dael Orlandersmith.

Orlandersmith goes back to her home in Harlem, on a stoop where so many lives have passed. Through different characters of various races, ages and sexes she uses stories told around the stoop to talk about the place in New York where she grew up. There is not much individual character development, but Stoop Stories is not about the specific individuals or the individual narratives that are being told. It is about her and the neighborhood she grew up in as a whole. Orlandersmith brings the audience back to the old days of Harlem with characters such as a heart-broken 81-year old Holocaust survivor who tells a story about when he shared a moment with Billie Holiday (the 2nd best scene), and up through stoop2 the years to the time when she was a girl fighting to escape the stoops in Spanish Harlem. In telling her own story, Orlandersmith also tells stories of other peers she grew up with who had similar aspirations but their lives don’t all share in the same happy ending she acquired.

The best part about this play is the writing; the sensual arrangement of words. The performance by Orlandersmith lives up to the script’s high standards, although the storyteller was dwarfed by the overwhelming size of the set. Orlandersmith is alone on a large stage and the backdrop is a huge oversized stoop with the authentically plain concrete exterior of a home in Harlem. The backdrop is wonderfully done and striking to look at, but it takes away from the storyteller where the attention should be focused. Orlandersmith can hold her own on stage without such a bold set. She is the type of performer that thrives when all eyes are only on her and grabs our attention through her words and the places they take us.

The stoop is where the stories are being told between characters in the memories of Orlandersmith’s mind, but Orlandersmith steps away from the set to tell her stories to us so that she can take the audience to the places within her words. The stage has a dream-like setting created by lighting designer Keith Parham that gives one the feeling that someone larger than life is coming out at dusk to share tales directly to us. The atmosphere singles out the speaker in the beginning of the play as a storyteller, and along with the purposefully chosen music, helps create smooth transitions as Orlandersmith changes into different characters for a new point of view on Harlem. The direction of Jo Bonney moves this performance along rhythmically blending the compilation of narratives together to tell a larger story.

 

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Dael Orlandersmith’s speech is musical; a powerful dramatic spoken song. It had me rocking ‘n’ rolling to her sensual stories of the mixed-bag of lives that passed by the streets of Harlem. Stoop Stories is a deeply personal story, and Orlandersmith lets us see the emotional side of her past and how she made choices to escape the trappings of the stoops in Harlem. This is a performance most people can identify with in their own way. Everyone has “Stoop Stories,” whether they are shared around a stoop in the west side of Chicago, the backyard in the suburbs or on stage at the Goodman Theatre.

Rating: «««½

 

Stoop Stories is playing at the Goodman Theatre (Owen stage,) 160 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through October 11th

Review: Goodman’s “The Crowd You’re In With”

Gorgeous Set and poignant generational depictions
make this crowd memorable

 

The Crowd You’re In With
By Rebecca Gilman
Goodman Theatre, Owen Stage (buy tickets here)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Linda Gehringer (Karen), Coburn Goss (Jasper), Rob Riley (Tom), Kiff Vanden Heuvel (Dan), Stephanie Childers (Windsong) and Janelle Snow (Melinda). Photo by Eric Y. Exit With the entrance of June, summer moves into full swing and very soon schools will be out until the fall. In a little while, beaches, parks, and shopping malls will be teeming with families. The constant presence of kids will confront those younger couples who have yet to conceive. The choice to have a family is one of the most consequential decisions we make in our lives. That major life stepping stone is penetrated by Rebecca Gilman’s new play, The Crowd You’re In With.

The Chicago premier matches the setting of the play, which takes place in a Chicago backyard on the 4th of July. Three couples gather for a pre-fireworks barbecue. The conversation moves to the subject of kids, and the festivities fall apart. The hosts then clean up while making crucial life decisions.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Janelle Snow (Melinda), Stephanie Childers (Windsong) and Linda Gehringer (Karen). Photo by Eric Y. Exit     Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Rob Riley (Tom) and Sean Cooper (Dwight). Photo by Eric Y. Exit

When it comes to children, the three couples differ in opinion immensely. Jasper and Melinda (Coburn Goss and Janelle Snow) comprise the hosting couple. They’re still on the fence, having not succeeded at conception quite yet. Dan and Windsong (Kiff Vanden Heuvel and Stephanie Childers) are the hip, pregnant couple excited to get their family started. The party is rounded out by Tom and Karen (Rob Riley and Linda Gehringer), childless 60-somethings and Jasper and Melinda’s landlords. All three are forward-thinking, left-leaning, culture aficionados, discussing Bob Dylan and unionization over sangria and classy beer. Yet they all have different ideas when it comes to families, different enough to ruin everyone’s holiday.

Director Wendy Goldberg Director Wendy C. Goldberg handles the debate well, presenting each couple’s rhetoric with care. However, the point where the 4th of July fun turns into an open melee is unclear. Friendly jokes morph into personal attacks without much explanation. The embittered bickering comes out of nowhere, which seems to be an issue with the script. The play picks up after the barbecue dissolves, and the discussion is significantly more grounded and reasoned.

The best part of the production is the gorgeous set, designed by Kevin Depinet. The back of the two-story flat is created with meticulous attention to detail, complete with a hummingbird feeder. Brought to life by Josh Epstein lighting, it is the perfect location for a barbecue. If only our actual Chicago summer so far matched the summer on the Owen Stage.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of The Crowd You're In With by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg are (l to r) Linda Gehringer (Karen) and Rob Riley (Tom). Photo by Eric Y. Exit The most interesting couple on stage is the older generation. Gehringer is delightfully corrosive as Karen, and Riley is her perfect match, balancing her tactlessness with goofy-old-man charm. Both of them do a great job stirring up discontent among the younger couples. Jasper comes out as the pensive protagonist of the play, and Goss plays him with depth and inquisitiveness. As his wife Melinda, Snow plays against him well; you can feel her biological clock tick away. Heuvel and Childers impart their couple with a youthful vibe, childlike in energy but also in temper. Sean Cooper makes a short appearance as Jasper’s and Dan’s single friend and bandmate, Dwight. With a delayed reaction time and slacker voice, Cooper seems to have based his performance on Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused.” Although the role doesn’t seem to actually have much of a point to it, he does get a hilarious monologue describing families at restaurants. With the exception of a few lulls in energy, the cast feed off each other and the couples all have a bonding underlying chemistry.

The production suffers from its brevity. Clocking in at just 85 minutes, the issues aren’t really given enough time to do them justice. Gilman fits in enough touching moments to make the play memorable, and the topics at work are relevant to everyone. The choice to start a family is a life-changing decision; “The Crowd You’re In With” explores the many repercussions of those choices.

Rating: «««

Running May 23 – June 21, 2009 (Buy tickets here).  All actors bios here.  Watch video here.

Goodman Theatre’s 6th Annual New Stages Series

Via Kenneth Jones at Playbill Online

Goodman’s New Stages Series – September 12th to 21st

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The free series of script-in-hand staged readings of six emerging American playwrights takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800.

Now in its sixth year, the Goodman’s New Stages Series has provided the first look at nearly 30 new plays, many of which have gone on to receive world-premiere productions at the Goodman.

 

 

2008 New Stages Series

Pa’s Hat: A Liberian Legacy by Cori Thomas, directed by Chuck Smith, Sept. 12 at 7 PM “Civil unrest, national heritage and family responsibility converge in this one-act drama that follows an elderly former ambassador and his daughter as they are abducted by a child soldier in war-torn Liberia.”

Safe House by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by Hallie Gordon, Sept. 13 at 7 PM. “A family of color, free since their great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, cannot resist the temptation to help a young woman escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad. In the great American tradition of historical romance, two brothers compete for their birthright of freedom.”

Household Spirits by Mia McCullough, directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy, Sept. 14 at 7 PM. “It’s Christmas Eve in Westchester County and Philip, an entertainment lawyer, and Evelyn, his new wife and agent to the stars, are preparing for a party. Unfortunately, Philip has recently revealed that he’s an alcoholic, and the couple’s teenage children are conspiring to complicate Evelyn’s perfect soirée. In this bitingly funny and unexpectedly thoughtful new play, Chicago playwright Mia McCullough grapples with the complicated nature of family and inheritance.”

Without by Sean Graney, Sept. 19 at 7 PM. “In the back room of a space-themed bar, Rocketman and White White meet for the first time in 15 years. White White has something she needs Rocketman to do – but does he have what it takes to do it? Chicago writer/director Sean Graney (The Hypocrites) pens a devastating look at responsibility and regret.”

Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi, directed by Jackson Gay, Sept. 20 at 7 PM. “How’s a queen to keep her head in the middle of a revolution? A satirical, irreverent portrait of the famous queen and her downfall, this vividly rendered study of celebrity, power and privilege is painted in sad, funny and surrealistic strokes.”

The Long Red Road by Brett C. Leonard, Sept. 21 at 7 PM.

“A devastating new play about the impact of addiction, The Long Red Road introduces Sammy, who has fled his past and landed in South Dakota where he is slowly drinking himself to death. When his young daughter arrives desperate to reunite with her father, Sammy must decide between the self-hatred that consumes him and the responsibilities he has tried to leave behind.”

The free series of script-in-hand staged readings takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800. For more information visit the Goodman Theatre website.  

For the entire article, visit (and subscribe to) Playbill Online, at www.playbill.com