Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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REVIEW: Lakeboat (Steep Theatre)

     
     

Steep adeptly navigates Mamet’s austere boatmen’s tale

     
     

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
Steep Theatre presents
  
Lakeboat
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by G.J. Cederquist
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
thru Feb 26  |  tickets: $22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘I knew a guy who ate a chair because no one stopped him.’ Life on the lake is tedious. To drift through the monotony, a crew focuses on booze, sex and sandwiches. Steep Theatre presents Lakeboat, Playwright David Mamet’s semi-biographical account of life on a freight ship. Dale is the new night cook. A Lakeboat summer job is a romantic notion for a literature major. Dale learns quickly this isn’t a “Huck Finn” adventure. From anchors up, the jocular familiarity of the guys breeds testosterone-infused competition. Boozing escapades, sexual conquests and egg sandwiches – every raunchy story is an industrial strength, usurped, big sail of wind. Lakeboat navigates through the humorous inner-workings of a bunch of bull ship!

In Mamet style, the unsophisticated dialogue is viscerally organic. Under the direction of C.J. Cederquist, the eight-man crew delivers strong and distinctive portrayals. Perfect as the fish-out-of-water, Nick Horst (Dale) bumbles with an endearing puppy dog likeability. Eric Roach (Fred) is hilarious describing his zingo approach to getting laid. Roach climaxes with vulgar orgasmic satisfaction. Peter Moore (Stan) and Sean Bolger (Joe) capture perfectly that familiar unexplainable friendship synergy. They don’t appear to even like or listen to each other in a twosome banter. Add a third man and the claws come out in ferocious loyalty. Oddly charming! Carrying himself with dignity, Alex Gillmor (Collins) floats between ambitious second-in-charge and acknowledged sandwich gopher. Barking nonsensical orders, Norm Woodel (Skippy) is a hoot as a captain that is a few oars short. Jim Poole (fireman) is marvelously passionate explaining the importance of his mundane existence. Although hard to hear over the lakefront audio, Jason Michael Linder (pierman) checks in as an arrogant gatekeeper.

David Mamet penned a series of personality snippets to depict working life on the river. It’s a glimpse of the crude and bleak life of boatmen from the perspective of a college student’s seasonal stint. Set designer Dan Stratton stretches the boat across the middle of the theatre with seating on the port and starboard sides. The stage works nicely for the crew’s entrances on the gangplank. Then with steel poles and chains, it transforms to the boat. The visual is interesting but challenges the pacing. The galley is in the bow. The captain drives from the stern. The engine room is in the stem. The action from one end to the other end provides waves of lulling instead of rocking intensity for the perfect storm. The Steep production actualizes Mamet’s characters with tanker-like distinction. With a little more speed from the tugboat, this Lakeboat will cruise full-steam ahead.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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REVIEW: Harper Regan (Steep Theatre)

Kendra Thulin shines in U.S. premiere

Harper 3 

Steep Theatre Company presents:

Harper Regan

 

By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Through Feb. 27 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

My long-suffering husband, whose theatrical taste runs to comedies and musicals, tends to react to the odder dramas I drag him to with a question, "Why did they produce this play?"

I can’t answer on behalf of Steep Theatre Company, whose U.S. premiere of the quirky, dysfunctional-family drama Harper Regan is one of a raft of British plays in Chicago this season, but I can make some guesses. One is that Simon Stephens is one of England’s hottest playwrights, and the chance to introduce one of his newer works — "Harper Regan" premiered in 2008 at London’s National Theatre — had to be very Harper 1tempting. Another is that it has three very juicy roles for women and a lot of other parts that could be doled out to ensemble members. (Having grown accustomed to the shrunken casts of these straitened times, it’s refreshing to see a different actor for every part in a play, though several male roles might easily have been doubled.)

Exquisitely acted and painstakingly directed as it is, however, Harper Regan may be more satisfying for its cast than for audiences. The plot follows the breaking up or breaking out, depending on how you look at it, of Harper Regan, 40-ish, middle-class and troubled. Her father is dying, her boss is a creep, she hates her job, her husband’s out of work, she’s not getting along with her 17-year-old daughter, they had to move from her northern England hometown to unfamiliar suburban London, she’s not speaking to her mother, and she is deeply insecure.

In an exceptional performance in the title role, Kendra Thulin shows us Harper’s discomfort and self-doubt in every line of her body, cringing and hesitating as, having asked her supercilious employer (Alex Gillmor) for time off to visit her ailing father, she listens to his hectoring refusal. Later, apologizing to her daughter for some sharp words, she says, "I’m so weird, aren’t I?"

Harper 2Caroline Neff is intense and believable as Harper’s nerdy, conflicted daughter, more comfortable with her iPod than her mother. Chelsea Warren’s costumes, notably for Harper and her daughter and mother, show a fine attention to detail.

Act I lags somewhat as the initial facts of Harper’s life slowly emerge, mostly in talky monologues and peculiar conversations she has with unsettling strangers. At last, she leaves home, not telling anyone she’s going. In Act II, we get more disturbing revelations: Why her husband can’t find work. Why they had to move. Why Harper and her mum are at odds. And, most importantly, we see that Harper is even weirder and more unstable than she seems.

Melissa Reimer puts in a strong performance as Harper’s estranged mother. Peter Moore performs sensitively as her down-and-out husband. Curtis M. Jackson is realistic as a teenager she meets near home, while Dan Flannery seems stiff as an older man she encounters during her time away. Julia Siple, Jonathan Edwards, Brendan Melanson and Adam El-Sharkawi fill out the cast.

Marcus Stephens’ stark, leaf-strewn concrete set echoes the harshness of Harper’s world, yet seems inappropriate for many of the indoor scenes, among many off-kilter aspects of this unlikely psychodrama.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Notes: Adult language and themes.  All photos by Lee Miller

WITH ENSEMBLE MEMBERS Jonathan Edwards, Alex Gillmor, Brendan Melanson, Peter Moore, Caroline Neff, Melissa Riemer and Julia Siple
AND Adam El-Sharkawi, Dan Flannery, Curtis Jackson and Kendra Thulin
PRODUCTION MANAGER Julia Siple* STAGE MANAGER Jon Ravenscroft SCENIC DESIGN Marcus Stephens LIGHTING DESIGN Brandon Wardell COSTUME DESIGN Chelsea Warren COSTUME ASST Gwen Smuda SOUND DESIGN Matthew Chapman PROPS DESIGN Jesse Gaffney DIALECT COACH Eva Brenneman DRAMATURG Gemma Hobbs            *denotes company member

Review: Steep Theatre’s “Kill the Old, Torture Their Young”

Out of Place, Out of Time

kill-old

Victory Gardens presents:

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young

by David Harrower
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The success of Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre this summer has exposed Chicago to the work of Edinburgh born playwright David Harrower. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young, onstage at Steep Theatre, is Harrower’s second play, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998, fresh from his breakout success with Knives in Hens (1995).

“Kill the Old, Torture Their Young” is also the name of a song by Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative grunge band, which also had its beginnings in the mid-90s under the name Screwfish. Interestingly enough, Harrower bookends his play with monologues from a nameless Rock Singer (Derek Garner), commenting on modern alienation from an airplane in flight. But any connection between the two may have more to do with the 90’s explosion of Scottish culture than anything else. It’s not that the playwright might be familiar with Biffy Clyro; it’s that the band’s lyrics, too, are chockfull of the alienation and dislocation that inform Harrower’s central themes.

Steep Theatre’s production dislocates Kill the Old, Torture Their Young even further, from its cultural and historical roots. Placing the action in America, the actors do not engage in Scottish dialect; nor is there much of a strong nod to the 1990s postmodern use of multiple narratives–experimentation that ultimately influenced major commercial films like Magnolia. Director Katherine Walsh’s choices would be more than excusable with a stronger cast, with better timing to pull off all the nuanced humor of Harrower’s writing. However, given the unevenness of performances and lack of a cohesive ensemble, this production loses its bearings in more ways than one.

What also goes missing is daring punk/grunge energy that would better inform the rage of a character like Darren (Niall McGinty), a man whose thwarted ambition to become an actor results in otherwise inexplicable violence. Much like the Scottish novel Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, made into a major motion picture, Kill the Old, Torture Their Young contains an underlying current of rebellion against alienating daily capitalist existence. That rage, unfortunately, goes largely unexploited and un-acted on in this production. Sadly, characters in this production seem to share only common resignation to the dreary, meaninglessness rhythm of their commodified lives.

That being said, a few performances create interest. Jim Poole’s quiet and stirring portrayal of Steven stands out, as the manager who could film the city he loves better than Robert (Peter Moore), the famous documentarian hired to do the job. Nice moments are created between Robert and Heather (Julia Siple) in a hotel room together. Paul (Leonard Kraft) and Angela (Bronwen Prosser) make a realistic pair of lost souls, who will likely stay together even if one doesn’t know what to do about the other. James Allen’s chagrined Birdwatcher and Patricia Donegan’s random Woman in Robes add badly needed humor and spice to the proceedings.

Rating: ««

 

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Kathryn Walsh
Asst. Director: Alex Hugh Brown
Prod. Manager: Julia Siple
Scenic Design: Dan Stratton
Lighting Design Samantha Szigeti
Costume Design: Melissa Torchia
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Choreographer: Joey de Bettencourt
Stage Manager: Jen Poulin
Cast: James Allen
Patricia Donegan
Dereck Garner
Leonard Kraft
Niall McGinty
Peter Moore
Jim Poole
Bronwen Prosser
Julia Siple

Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

hollowlands logo

Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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