Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

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Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters

 

by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.

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Review: Village Players’ “You Can’t Take It With You”

You Can't Take It With You

 Village Players Theater presents

You Can’t Take It With You

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
directed by Jack Hickey
runs through Nov. 22 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

take-it-with-you During hard times, people seek the warmth of the well-known, the solace of childhood memory and happier days. In dining, that means comfort food. The stage equivalent — comfort theater, if you will — arises in low-risk revivals.

So, this season has seen Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre, a revival of a 1928 Marx Brothers comedy.  Porchlight Theatre did The Fantasticks, that long-running off-Broadway favorite. Marriott Theatre revived Hairspray, a 2002 Broadway hit based on a 1988 cult film set in 1962. And so on.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s quirky You Can’t Take It With You needs no economic crisis to be worth a remount. Although this 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly shows its origins in the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is one of the funniest and most endearing plays of the 20th century. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson called the original production "tickling fun," and so it remains.

Everyone should know this play. If you’ve never seen it, take advantage of Village Players‘ fine production in Oak Park.

A little acquaintance with 1930s popular history will enrich your experience, but it’s by no means required. Some understanding of the times in which the play was written may be needed to surmount 21st-century sensibilities, though for its period, You Can’t Take It With You seems quite progressive.

The farce follows the eccentric Sycamore family. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Paul Tinsley), the retired patriarch, has spent 35 years going to college commencements, collecting snakes and avoiding income tax.

His daughter, Penelope (Judith Laughlin), has spent the past eight years engaged in writing never-finished plays. Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Errol McLendon), manufactures fireworks in the basement with help from the family’s lodger, Mr. DePinna (Eric Cowgill). Housekeeper Rheba (Elana Elyce), serves up dinners of corn flakes, watermelon and mystery meat and entertains her unemployed boyfriend, Donald (Ronaldo Coxon), overnight.

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Granddaughter Essie (Zoe Palko) makes candies for sale but spends every spare moment practicing, unsuccessfully, to be a ballerina. As her boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Jeff McVann), puts it, "She stinks." Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael (Josh Wintersteen), prints up unlikely circulars on a hobby letterpress and plays the xylophone.

The most conventional member of the clan, granddaughter Alice (Jhenai Mootz), a secretary, is in love with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Bryan Wakefield), though she fears her beloved but trying family won’t pass muster with his stuffy, Wall Street father (James Turano) and snobbish socialite mother (Katherine Keberlein). Also drifting through the scenes are an irritated IRS investigator (Michael M. Jones), a couple of G-men (Jones and Anthony Collaro), a drunken actress and the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Courtney Boxwell).

They don’t write plays like this one anymore.

Village Players’ whole cast and crew merit kudos for this nicely presented ensemble piece. Director Jack Hickey paces his actors well, keeping things moving and the comedy coming. As Grandpa, Tinsley is perhaps overly laconic, but Laughlin does an especially sweet job as Penny, and Palko is wonderfully zany as Essie. Coxon offers some rare comic turns as Donald, as well.

Ricky Lurie‘s effective period costumes deserve mention, too, particularly Essie’s absurd ballet bloomers.

It’s tickling fun!

Rating: «««

 

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