Review: Life Is a Dream (Vitalist Theatre)

     
     

A different dream work

     
     

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

     
Vitalist Theatre presents
   
  
Life Is a Dream
   
   
Written by Calderon de la Barca
Directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru June 11  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The greatest gift from Spain’s Golden Age of theater, Calderon de la Barca’s masterpiece from 1635 can hold its own with Shakespeare’s later romances. Nonetheless, Life Is a Dream puts a very Spanish emphasis on the struggle between honor and duty and the animalistic versus the humane. Helen Edmundson’s new version is the perfect platform for Elizabeth Carlin-Metz’ passionate, persuasive revival, a show to justify Vitalist Theatre’s well-earned name.

Life Is A Dream - Vitalist Theatre 3The story is a combination fairy tale and parable: A future king is tested to see if his natural nobility can help him to rise above the worst adversity. Haunted by a prophecy that his son might destroy him, Basilio, king of Poland, has his heir Prince Segismundo imprisoned in a hidden tower, wearing chains instead of a crown. Basilio resolves to give the prince a test to prove whether he really is the monster that was predicted by creating a waking dream: Segismundo is seemingly restored to power and the king watches to see if this caged beast can rise to royalty. If Segismundo can put the common good above his fury over decades of mistreatment, he’s one of nature’s noblemen and Poland’s future.

The play’s power kicks in as Segismundo must wrestle with his dark demons, defy fate in order to assert free will, and overcome the desire for revenge and turn it into a quest for justice. He does it on behalf of Rosaura, a noble lady wronged by Segismundo’s cousin Astolfo, wrongly engaged to Segismundo’s true intended, the Princess Estrella. If Segismundo’s dream has come true, this heir now realizes how fragile life is and how death ends all dreams.

Baroque and often beautiful, Calderon’s ornate language abounds in glorious declamation, intense soliloquies and almost operatic flights of rhetoric, a treacherously grand style that modern audiences could find offputting. Happily, the Vitalist actors are completely in control of this material. They know their characters from the inside out: These speeches carry an ardor and conviction that makes whatever seems literary to live and sing. (But for some this still just might be a bit too lyrical not to be set to music.)

     
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

You see the fervor best in Paul Dunckel’s unstoppable Segismundo, as intense and consistent a declaration of independence as any role requires. Without pushing any passion over the cliff, Dunckel stays on fire throughout. In contrast, Madrid St. Angelo finely calibrates Basilio’s divided consciousness between father and monarch. Vanessa Greenway is her own action figure as intrepid-because-scorned Rosaura, while, as aspirants to the Polish throne, Gregory Isaac and Lyndsay Rose Kane stamp the play’s rises and reversals with their own authentic reactions. BF Helman gives Segismundo’s keeper all the conflicts the situation warrants. Finally, Ivan Vega provides comic relief as a Sancho Panza-like servant with a common touch amid extraordinary events.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

Vitalist Theatre’s Life Is a Dream runs through June 11th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online at www.stage773.com. For more information, visit vitalisttheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Feet of Clay (LASTmatch Theatre Company)

     
     

Southern retelling of ‘Three Sisters’ needs the family spirit

     
     

Craig Cunningham, Paul Dunckel, Brandon Ford, Larry Garner, Chris Hart, Leah Karpel and Kimberly Logan in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company in Chicago.

  
LASTmatch Theatre Company presents
  
Feet of Clay
  
Written by Stephen Louis Grush 
Directed by
David Perez
at Royal George Gallery Theater, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through March 19  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters set 200 miles outside New Orleans, Louisiana, Feet Of Clay finds sisters Orah (Kimberly Logan), Matty (Jennifer Alexander), and Iris (Leah Karpel) Ledet struggling to adjust to life a year after their father has passed away. Orah despises the students at the school where she teaches, Matty is in a loveless marriage to an unseen husband, and Iris clings to the ideal of New Orleans, a place she never truly called home, but dreams will one day be. As Matty and Iris become involved with soldiers from the nearby military base, their Craig Cunningham as Sonny in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company in Chicago.deadbeat brother Andy (Chris Hart) and his trailer trash wife Nambi (Annie Kehoe) assume control of the house, desecrating their father’s memory. While Grush’s plot hits the same major points of Chekhov’s, the script suffers from severe pacing issues, moving so quickly that it never fully establishes the relationships between the characters.

Running only 90 minutes with no intermission, Feet Of Clay tries to cram as much story as possible in a limited time, forcing events to move at a speed that doesn’t feel natural. The first act sets up the story points in quick succession, with the second exploring their conclusion one year later, but there’s very little time spent showing the characters building relationships with one another. Matty and Vincent’s (Paul Dunckel) romance suffers because we never get to see them when they are a couple. They’re in love with each other because they have wildly different opinions on crawfish? In the second act both of their spouses become complications, but there’s not any initial tension established between the characters to make the threats feel dire.

The love triangle between Nick (Brandon Ford), Iris, and Sonny (Craig Cunningham) suffers from the same issue, although Iris’s relationship with Nick seemingly appears out of nowhere after Sonny dotes on her (stares at her creepily) in the first act. Grush builds Sonny’s mental instability through two solo scenes, the first at the start of the play when Sonny wakes up from a night terror, the second when he stands drunk and half naked in the rain. Sonny is probably the character that gets the most development in terms of showing multiple facets of a personality, but the character’s big act two moment feels gratuitous and improperly handled by the script. Sonny’s relationship with Iris may be intended to symbolize New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina (which occurs between the two acts), but the consequences of Sonny’s actions are never seen, making the events feel tacked on to build emotional conflict without following through.

     
Chris Hart and Annie Kehoe in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago. Jennifer Alexander and Paul Dunkel in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago

Rather than building the characters through dialogue and interactions with each other, most development occurs during speeches where the characters are finally able to express their innermost desires and conflicts. Iris has a freak out about being bossed around on her birthday, so she feels inferior. Orah complains about the “maggot” kids she teaches, so she’s unsatisfied with her life. Matty talks about tarot and how life is all about symbols, so she’s a free-spirited thinker. And while monologues can be effective, it becomes repetitive when characters go to a corner and say their opinion in one big oration. Monologues don’t help much when it comes to building interpersonal relationships because they’re singular by nature, yet much of the characters’ emotional lives come through in these moments. It would be nice if the insight shown in the monologues were distributed throughout the dialogue.

A major problem with Feet of Clay is that the three sisters and brother never really feel like a family. Orah, the oldest of the four, is played with such one-note brashness that it’s difficult to ever care about her. There is rarely a moment when she is not complaining about her work, or demanding something from another person, and when she finally does show a moment of vulnerability, she gives a pretty pathetic reason for her bitchiness. By the time Nambi and Andy get their big monologue Larry Garner as Ivy in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago.moments (every character gets one), they’re such repulsive characters that there’s not much reason to care. Kehoe falls into a stereotypical trailer trash type that feels put on, and her relationship with Hart feels as forced as the rest of the romances in the play. Karpel seems to be the only one trying to create some sort of family dynamic, her delusions about New Orleans pushing to keep them together, but ultimately her character becomes as scattered as the rest.

Replacing Moscow with New Orleans creates a lot of opportunities to incorporate southern American history and imagery, but beyond a few references to kudzu and the southern dialect, these go largely unexplored. Nick mentions how the South is so different from what he sees on TV, and Feet Of Clay’s Leesville is different by not having all that much character at all. The Ledet father’s friend Ivy (Larry Garner) brings in some context when he tells a story about how he improved at math by working at his father’s store, and it’s a quiet moment that has as much value as the intense, dramatic explosions. With a few more of these calm moments, LASTmatch Theatre’s Feet Of Clay could explore the depths of the relationships and develop the characters more completely. The show is all tension, but there needs to be moments of relief that serve as reminders for the characters – and the audience – of why they choose to stay.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Performances run 2/11- 3/19, Thu, Fri, and Sat at 8pm at the Gallery space at Royal George Theatre. Tickets are $25 and are available through the Royal George Box Office and www.ticketmaster.com. For more information call the Box Office at: 312-988-9000 or visit www.lastmatch.org.

     
Leah Karpel as Iris and Jennifer Alexander as Matty in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago. Kimberly Logan as Orah in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago.

Brandon Ford and Leah Karpel in 'Feet of Clay' by Stephen Louis Grush, presented by LASTmatch Theatre Company, Chicago.

Performers include Craig Cunningham, Paul Dunckel, Brandon Ford, Larry Garner, Chris Hart, Leah Karpel, Kimberly Logan, and LASTmatch founders Jennifer Alexander and Annie Kehoe.

     
     

REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

 FarnsworthInvention_130

 
TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

FarnsworthInvention_178 FarnsworthInvention_248

Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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Review: “The Night Season

A richly-developed Irish love story

Vitalist - NIGHT - 2 

Vitalist Theatre and Premiere Theatre & Performance presents:

The Night Season
by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
Theatre Building Chicago 
thru October 17th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Vitalist - NIGHT - 4 The Night Season, written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is an Irish love story about the lonely Kennedy family. Each member of the family has their own insecurities caused by their mother’s abandonment 5 years earlier, and each of them is on their own path to find love. The outstanding performance by the cast and, exceptional use of the stage with creative touches to enhance the Celtic atmosphere, makes this show heartwarming – even in the midst of the dark struggles each family member endures.

Set in Sligo, Ireland, a town near the shore and once home to the famous poet W.B. Yeats, the stage is brightened by the starry night and hazy lighting that romanticizes the atmosphere. Set designer Craig Choma ’s extremely creative set, and the lighting (by lighting designer Richard Norwood) used to separate scenes, allows multiple plot lines to take place right in front of our eyes without any confusion as to which characters we should be paying attention. The direction of Elizabeth Carlin-Metz makes the transition between scenes fluid and actually heighten the emotional moments by assisting the understanding of the time lapses, or the fact that the two situations take place at the same time.

The play opens up with the audience able to watch the three sisters chatting on the rooftop, while grandmother is slouched down sleeping in her arm chair in the living room. As the closet door opens we get a unique viewpoint (as if we are looking down on him from the sky) of father as he restlessly fights his nightmares while sleeping drunk in his bedroom.

Each member of the family is weighted down with loneliness; longing to be loved by another. They are filled with an insecurity of being unloved, yet there is a bond and a closeness between each, and an unconditional love that exists within their own family (this includes the aging mother of the women that caused this family all of their sorrow.)

Vitalist - NIGHT - 3 The three sisters are single and unlucky in love. Rose (Kelly Lynn Hogan), who the grandmother refers to as a spinster, hastily jumps in bed with the visiting American actor John (Jared Fernley) who is staying with the Kennedys while playing the role of Yeats in a movie. In that moment John is looking for comfort after his mother’s recent death, but Rose wakes up in the morning to find an unwelcomed difference in the intimacy John offers her. The youngest daughter Maud (Eden Newmark) is stuck in a relationship with an unaffectionate communist sympathizer, and the eldest daughter Judith (Vanessa Greenway) is too afraid to open up and – since she has stepped in as the family’s mother – she’s too busy to recognize her feelings for the cerebral neighborhood man, Gary Malone (Paul Dunckel.)  Judith is mature beyond her age and has taken on a cold emotionless state that comes with the necessity of constantly having to take care of responsibilities outside of your own. Visiting her absent mother, and then letting loose with her Father on her first drinking binge, Judith goes on a journey to discover her capacity to love, and finds it in places that have always been there.

Every character is richly developed by author Rebecca Lenkiewicz, but the Grandmother Lily O’Hanlon and the girls’ Father Patrick Kennedy stand out with enduring performances by Marry O’Dowd and Don Bender. The Grandmother’s (Patrick’s Mother-in-law)  quirky and at times raunchy personality is light and fun and she also draws empathy from us as we watch her age with dementia and sadness. In her eccentric and loony state she continues to search for her last love and in a way she finds it in the gentleman arms of John.

The Night Season is a truly great Irish love story, filled with the complications of life and the strength of a loving family who supports each other in spite of their flaws. Lenkiewicz brings up themes of guilt, love and the passing of time and how life will bring us to face these states over-and-over again in our lives. The common occurrence and unavoidable ending to these moments should not devalue their importance nor limit you from experiencing another separate love story. Through all the pain and hardships, life goes on for the Kennedy family. The Night Season is an enchanting story playing and I highly recommend it.

Rating: ««««

Vitalist - NIGHT - 1

 

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