Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

Extra Credit:

     
     

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REVIEW: Hunting and Gathering (Theatre Seven)

Who knew the drudgery of moving could be so much fun?

 hunting & gathering

  
Theatre Seven presents
 
Hunting and Gathering
  
by Brooke Berman
directed by
Brian Golden
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 27th  tickets: $18-$24   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Here in Chicago, the Memorial Day holiday also coincides with massive inter-city migration. Moving season is very much upon us. How appropriate, then, that the wonder-kids at Theatre Seven are putting on a show focused entirely on that frustrating activity. Hunting and Gathering is about moving, but also not about moving; hunting & gathering it’s really about relationships and finding yourself, among other things. Brooke Berman’s play dwells on listlessness, both geographically and emotionally. Theatre Seven’s production makes for a thoroughly entertaining 85 minutes, even if Berman’s script is too fluffy to make a fresh statement.

The meandering story (set in that other theatre city, New York) is driven by director Brian Golden and features an eager cast of four. Mostly, we journey alongside Ruth (Tracey Kaplan), who finds herself over 30 with most of her stuff stashed in a storage unit. Her struggle to find the perfect apartment is entangled with her history with brothers Astor (Todd Garcia) and Jesse (Michael Salinas). Astor is her best friend and a self-professed “couch-surfer”; however, like many opposite-sex best friends, he desires something more. Jesse, a college professor, had an adulterous affair with Ruth, which seems to have really screwed with her head. But by this moving season, he is divorced and dating a student, Bess (Paige Collins), a girl who has confidence way beyond her years.

Berman’s tale of urban nomads is fun and relatable, especially for anyone who can appreciate the value of a friend with a van. The play has a breezy feel to it, though. It seems like we are skipping along vast swaths of character information, and we don’t have enough to glue together for a complete picture. Relationships are under-nourished, especially the romance between Jesse and Ruth. By the end we’re led to believe that the affair did quite a number on Ruth’s psyche, but we aren’t sure why.

Kaplan digs into the heart of the Ruth, shaping her as both pugilist and irrational idealist. She can be adorable without being sticky sweet, such as in one scene where she stakes out a prospective apartment with techniques ripped from “Mission Impossible” and the “I Ching”. Salinas also connects deeply to his character, nailing down Jesse’s gawky charm. Garcia seems a tad uncomfortable on-stage, but he brings in most of the humor. Collins is fine, but her Bess exudes too much self-assurance. Just a bit more vulnerability, tucked away somewhere, would make her character a lot more likable.

hunting & gathering hunting & gathering
hunting & gathering hunting & gathering

Although not jaw-dropping, the design of Hunting and Gathering is clever and very fitting. Sarah Burnham’s set consists almost entirely of brown boxes and packing tape. With a few well-placed lights and props, these boxes become everything from refrigerators to café tables. As with past Theatre Seven shows, C.J. Arellano provides refreshing video wizardry, jolting multi-media pizzazz into the production, as well providing narrative guideposts (although they could be cued better).

With all of Theatre Seven’s energetic talent, it’s a letdown that a better play couldn’t be found. Berman’s stories read like memoirs or, more specifically, memoirs written by someone with a sense of humor. Although given a comedic finishing-coat, Ruth is plainly a doppelganger for Berman. Comedies can, and should, have significance, but Hunting and Gathering walks along beaten trails. It seems Berman wants to find dramatic riches in the smoldering coals of Ruth and Jesse’s failed relationship, but she doesn’t earn it. We aren’t given enough to hold onto—the audience is presented with a generalized wave of relationships. Literary importance aside, the play still functions delightfully as a zippy comedy geared towards the younger set. Considering the gallons of sweat, blood, and tears that go into moving season, it’s about time someone tapped into that dramatic well.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
 

hunting & gathering

       
       

REVIEW: The Twins Would Like to Say (Dog & Pony Theatre)

The curious case of Jennifer and June

 

pop-up-book

 
Dog & Pony Theatre presents:
 
The Twins Would Like to Say
 
Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Note: This review was originally published on March 1 on Chicago Examiner.com

Just like the titular twins, you can’t escape mirror images in The Twins Would Like to Say. With Dog & Pony’s innovative examination of the curious case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, ever-shifting halls of mirrors offer both literal reflections of the twins’ lives and a metaphor for them.

twins-and-dadWritten and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley, the staging for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series was inspired by the Gibbons twins, born in 1963. As children, the pair made a pact to do everything in absolute unison, and to speak with no one but each other. Extraordinarily, they succeeded for 20 years, all but entirely silent outside the confines of their bedroom, despite the frustrated efforts of their parents and a cadre of psychiatrists who remained utterly stumped. When separated, the twins became catatonic.

Their lives are whitewashed a bit here – June and Jennifer’s lengthy criminal records, tragic incarceration and Jennifer’s early death are glossed over in a dreamscape of stylized movement. Yet from the lookalike parrot puppets that open the show to the two simultaneously played sorrowful scenes that end it, The Twins Would Like to Say is cryptic, playful and innovative.  

Bockley’s deft at intermingling sadness, beauty and sound (if you saw Boneyard Prayer, you don’t need us to tell you that). de Mayo’s ability to configure a story into non-linear, non-traditional formats received a well-deserved and high-powered spotlight  with Dog and Pony’s The Vivian Girls, which she devised and directed. Together, the pair constitutes a dream team of unexpected storytelling.

The Twins Would LIke to Say is theater as a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an ever-shifting funhouse maze where reality is warped and the line separating fantasy from reality is fluid. By using a promenade staging, Bockley and de Mayo ensure the audience is an active part of the story –  Rather than sit back and watch as they might with traditional stagings, ticket holders have to participate, moving from room to room as the scenes progress.

The audience’s entrée through the lookingglass is Mr. Nobody (Nick Leininger, a winning mix of the sinister and the sympathetic ), who ushers the audience behind a curtain with the flourish of a side-show huckster keen to have the audience to learn about some strange unknown world rather than just gawk at it.

twins1 doc-office-vertical-1
publisher-letters twins2

The first visual we get of June (Paige Collins) and Jennifer (Ashleigh LaThrop) is both spooky and enthralling. Standing stock still at the dead end of a long hall, the girls stare out with dead eyes, an adolescent vision of those twins from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” 

The promenade structure isn’t without drawbacks. Among them: You’d have to see the piece at least twice to take in it all in. See it only once, and you’re forced to choose between scenes. Eavesdrop on the twins’ psychologist (Kasey Foster) trying to make sense of their behavior, and you become keenly aware that you’re missing what’s going on elsewhere, as dialogue floats in from some unseen periphery. No matter how deft the performances or compelling the action, you’re often left wondering if you’ve made the right choice – and if something more interesting is going on just around the corner.

That shortcoming is especially evident in the final scene, when the audience is split in half and divided by an opaque black curtain. Too say that missing half of the piece’s conclusion is immensely frustrating is an understatement.

That aside, the performances in The Twins Would Like to Say are marvelous, cryptic, playful depictions of people living in a world that’s half stylized fantasy and half brutal reality.

Collins and Ashleigh are wonderful, giggling and whispering in their room like teenage girls the world over up; silent, sullen and above all fearful whenever they’re forced to contend with the outside world. As their taunting, eerie classmates Kathryn Hribar and Teeny Lamothe are cruel and typical teens, shrill voices and nasal giggles evoking a thousand mean girls nightmares. (In real life, Jennifer and June were bullied so badly, their school allowed them to leave 5 minutes early, so as to get a head start on the kids who wanted to beat them up.)

As the twins mother Gloria, Millie Langford is the kind, patient, enabling opposite of the twins father Aubrey (Brandon Boler), whose tough love cruelty results in a cacophony of torment when the twins are forcibly separated.

separation

To depict the intricate fantasies that June and Jennifer spun by filling journals full of elaborate fictions, de Mayo and Bockley stage plays-within-the-play, bringing the pulp fiction storylines and outrageous sexuality of  such dubious works as  “The Pepsi Cola Addict” and “Discomania” (Dan Stermer’s disco choreographer is absolutely delicious). Andrea Everman’s shadow puppets also make the twins’ stories pop with vibrance. All seen in silhouette, a snarling dog, a dying boy and a bereaved father takes on emotional resonance rich in childlike poignance.

The Gibbons lives are by no means completely rendered here, but that hardly matters. What we do get in the 60-minute production is a chance to enter an alternate universe of intricate storytelling.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Twins Would Like to Say  runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted.  Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore (our review ★★½) and Pavement Group’s punkplay (our review ★★★) is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

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