Review: Watership Down (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A hopping fantasy adventure

 
  

Hazel-rah (Paul S. Holmquist) and his warren - Watership Down

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
  
  
Watership Down   
   
  
Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by
Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $20-$35   |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Having not read Richard Adamscritically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea As told in legend, El-ahrairah (Paul S. Holmquist, right), Prince of Rabbits, and Rabscuttle (Scott T. Barsotti, left) enter the burrow of the Black Rabbit of Inlé on a quest to save their people; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Watership Down,” adapted by John Hildreth, directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth, based on the bestselling novel by Richard Adams. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.

Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.

Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).

The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).

Scott T. Barsotti as Fiver (left) and Paul S. Holmquist as Hazel (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down".  (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.

In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.

Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jesse Manson as Kehaar (left) and Christopher M. Walsh as Bigwig (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down". (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

  
  

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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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Non-Equity Jeff Awards nominees announced

chicagoatnight

2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award Nominees

 

 

Production – Play
  Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Killer Joe Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ )
The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)

 

Production – Musical
  Chess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James (review ★★½)
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Glorious Ones   Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre 

 

Director – Play
  Aaron Todd Douglas: Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Michael Menendian: Death of a SalesmanRaven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Michael Rohd: Wilson Wants It All House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
Kimberly Senior: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Rick Snyder: – Killer Joe Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)

  

Director – Musical
  Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier: Chess – Theo Ubique Theatre (review ★★½)
Jeffrey CassThe Who’s TommyCircle Theatre
Stephen M. Genovese: The Glorious Ones Boho Rep (review ★★★)
Andrew Park: Evolution/CreationQuest Theatre Ensemble  (review ★★★)

 

Ensemble
  The Glorious Ones Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Red Noses Strawdog Theatre Company
Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Under Milk Wood  Caffeine Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
  Tony Bozzuto: On an Average DayBackStage Theatre Company 
Darrell W. Cox: Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Andrew Jessop: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Peter Robel: I Am My Own Wife Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★★)
Chuck Spencer: Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre  (review ★★★½)

 

Actor in a Principle Role – Musical
  Courtney Crouse: ChessTheo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)
Tom McGunn: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Eric Damon SmithThe Glorious Ones
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Jeremy Trager: Chess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre   (review ★★½)

   

Actress in a Principle Role – Play
  Brenda BarrieMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre  (review ★★★★)
LaNisa FrederickThe Gimmick Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Millicent HurleyLettice & Lovage Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★★)
Kendra Thulin: Harper Regan Steep Theatre  (review ★★½ )
Rebekah Ward-Hays: Aunt Dan and Lemon BackStage Theatre 

 

Actress in a Principle Role – Musical
  Danielle Brothers: Man of La Mancha Theo Ubique Theatre  (review ★★★)
Sarah Hayes: Man of La ManchaTheo Ubique Theatre   (review ★★★)
Maggie PortmanChess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
  Chance Bone: Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago  (review ★★)
Jason HuysmanDeath of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Edward KuffertThe CrucibleInfamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Peter Oyloe: The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre   (review ★★★)
Phil TimberlakeBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Eric Lindahl: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Steve Kimbrough:
Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag
John B. LeenChess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
  Nancy Friedrich: The Crucible Infamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Vanessa Greenway: The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kelly Lynn HoganThe Night Season Vitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★)
Mary RedmonThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Kate GarassinoBombs Away!  – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre  
Danni Smith
The Glorious Ones  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Trista Smith: Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical  -  Hell in a Handbag
Dana Tretta
The Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

New Work
  Aaron CarterFirst Words  MPAACT (review ★★★)
Ellen FaireyGraceland Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★)
Tommy Lee JohnstonAura  Redtwist Theatre
Andrew Park and Scott Lamps
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Michael Rohd & Phillip C. KlapperichWilson Wants It All  -  The House Theatre of Chicago  (review ★★★)

 

New Adaptation
  Bilal Dardai: The Man Who Was ThursdayNew Leaf Theatre  
Sean Graney:  –
Oedipus  The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Frances LimoncelliBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Frances Limoncelli:  – Mrs. Caliban  – Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
William Massolia: Little Brother  Griffin Theatre

 

Choreography
  Kevin BellieThe Who’s Tommy  Circle Theatre
Brenda Didier
Chess   Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
James Brigitte DitmarsPoseidon! An Upside Down Musical  Hell in a Handbag Productions

 

Original Incidental Music
  Andrew Hansen: Treasure Island  -  Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Kevin O’Donnell:   -  Wilson Wants It All  -   House Theatre   (review ★★★)
Trevor WatkinThe Black Duckling  -  Dream Theatre

 

Music Direction
  Ryan BrewsterChess  – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
Gary PowellEvolution/Creation  Quest Theatre   (review ★★★)
Nick SulaThe Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

Scenic Design
  Tom BurchUncle Vanya Strawdog Theatre  (review ★★★)
Alan DonahueTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Heath HaysOn an Average Day  -   BackStage Theatre Company
Bob Knuth
The Analytical Engine  Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
Bob KnuthLittle Women  -   Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
John Zuiker:   I Am My Own Wife  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Lighting Design
  Diane FairchildThe Gimmick  -  Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Kevin D. Gawley: Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Sean MallarySt. Crispin’s Day  – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Jared B. MooreThe Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre
Katy PetersonI Am My Own Wife
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Costume Design
  Theresa HamThe Glorious Ones  -  Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★)
Branimira IvanovaTreasure Island  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Joanna MelvilleSt. Crispin’s Day  -  Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Jill Van BrusselThe Taming of the Shrew  Theo Ubique  (review  ★★★)
Elizabeth WislarThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Sound Design
  Mikhail FikselOedipus The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Michael GriggsWilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre (review ★★★)
Andrew HansenTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)  
Joshua HorvathMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre (review ★★★★)
Miles PolaskiMouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Artistic Specialization
  Kevin Bellie: Projection Design, The Who’s Tommy  -   Circle Theatre
Elise Kauzlaric: Dialect Coach, 
Busman’s Honeymoon  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Lucas Merino: Video Design, Wilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
James T. Scott:  Puppets, Evolution/Creation Quest Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Fight Choreography
  Geoff Coates: On An Average Day  -  BackStage Theatre Company
Geoff Coates
Treasure Island  Lifeline Theatre   (review ★★★½)
Matt HawkinsSt. Crispin’s DayStrawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
R & D ChoreographyKiller Joe  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½  )

 

More info at the Jeff Awards website.

   
   

REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

street-scene-collage

 
National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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