Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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Review: Do the Hustle (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

Creating despicable characters we could care less about

     
     

Patrick Andrews and Francis Guinan in Brett Neveu's  'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Do the Hustle
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by William Brown 
at
Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A father and son scuffle over a cup of hot chocolate. The boy walks out in a rage. The cashier bonds with the dad over tough parenting. In response, the father pulls a fast one and steals $10. Writers’ Theatre presents the world premiere of Do The Hustle. Eddie is teaching Sam the family business. The mark, the build-up, the take, father teaches his son the important elements of the perfect con. The duo executes a progression of swindles to get to the big pay off. The scamming hits close to home when the rip-offs get personal. Who is zooming who? Do The Hustle is a series of dark, biting stings that swell into a big ouch.

Patrick Andrews, Karen Janes Woditsch and Francis Guinan - Brett Neveu's 'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Playwright Brett Neveu penned a chain of seedy intrigues. Playing the audience, the con within the con within the con surprises and baffles. How did they do that? The repeated dialogue is authentically redundant and natural family-speak. The dysfunctional relationship between father and son is well-established. The missing nut in this shell game is the connection. Neveu has created truly flawed characters. They are distinct and despicable. But Neveu comes up short on the big score by cheating the audience of a person to care about. It is no “catch me if you can’ – “the dirty rotten scoundrels” run “the sting” under a “paper moon.” The con artist can be an endearing good bad guy! The double-dealing father, the scheming son, the bitchy grandma, the addict mom: whether they are the confidence men, shills or victims, no one bamboozles empathy.

Under the direction of William Brown, the long con is paced dynamically. Set-ups transition into the next with movable doors (scenic designer Kevin Depinet) that illustrate the location. Andrew Hansen (sound designer) aids in the placement with doors opening to street noises. With minimal furnishings and props, the door generated sounds set the scene. The focal point is the action. And Brown directs it to loathsome heights. Francis Guinan (Eddie) is perfect as a fast-talking louse. Patrick Andrews (Sam) acts out cons of cons with masterful earnest but malicious intent. Joe Minoso and Karen Janes Woditsch excel in multiple roles. Minoso goes from invalid to pawn to rifleman with extensive versatility. Woditsch plays shrew from every angle. The cast is wonderful! I just don’t like any of them. In the end, Do The Hustle had a great beat but I couldn’t dance to it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Patrick Andrews, Francis Guinan, Joe Miñoso and Karen Janes Woditsch - 'Do the Hustle' by Brett Neveu at Writers' Theatre.

Do the Hustle continues Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm, with performances occurring at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.  For more info, visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Running Time: One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

  
  

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Review: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (Northlight)

Inishmore-art-banner

Leave it to Martin McDonagh to find the humor in terrorism.

The Irish playwright is infamous for the intense violence and large quantity of blood in his plays. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore he satirizes the constantly splintering Irish terrorist groups that infested Ireland in the 20th Century. The current production at Northlight Theatre exploits the gruesome spectacle of the play, splashing the stage with blood, brains, and plenty of other body parts.

inishmore1 The play evokes both Quentin Tarantino and John M. Synge. McDonagh exposes the Ireland tourists aren’t familiar with, steeped in ancient traditions and convulsed by political conflict. The lieutenant of Inishmore is Padraic (Cliff Chamberlain), a crazed Irish terrorist considered too bloodthirsty for the IRA. The play begins when the men responsible for cat-sitting Padraic’s furry friend find Wee Thomas squashed on the side of the road. While those with a dead cat on their hands try to figure out how to break the news, other “patriots” enter Inishmore, and the body count slowly increases.

McDonagh had a hard time finding someone to produce the play originally; many theatres found it too controversial. It has become one of his most successful plays to date, and director BJ Jones (who has also directed McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and The Cripple of Innishmaan) nails the Chicago premier of the dark comedy. The success of this production would not be possible, however, without special effects designer Steve Tolin, brought in from Pittsburgh. He presents a myriad of different ways to make blood spray and spurt from the actor’s bodies; it’s not often that the gore of a slasher flick is recreated on-stage.

inishmore2 Cliff Chamberlain is excellent as the bloodthirsty Padraic, balancing the craziness of a killer with the tenderness of man who loves his cats. Kelly O’Sullivan plays well against Chamberlain as Mairead, a 16-year-old fan-girl of Padraic and accurate shot with an air rifle. The funniest two of the show, though, is the duo stuck with the dead cat, the long-haired Davey (Jamie Abelson) and Padraic’s father, Donny (Matt DeCaro). The pair takes awhile to connect, but once they find it they are hilarious. John Judd, Andy Luther, and Keith Gallagher are menacing as a trio of Irish hitmen looking for Padraic. By the second act, the whole ensemble clicks together and the outcome is bloody and wickedly funny.

Jones and his team do a very precise job in finding the inherent comedy in the violence. The amount of bloodshed in the play is ridiculous, and the characters’ reasoning behind it is bizarre. With the help of Tolin and fight choreographer Nick Sandys, Jones arranges scenes that show the folly of extremist violence. And by committing to the dangerous reality the script presents, the cast can be comical while making the audience believe that they have real guns with real bullets.

McDonagh wrote the play in response to some very non-comical real events. In February, 1993, an English gas company was bombed, killing and wounding soldiers, civilians, and several children. As Americans, we have plenty of experience with the horrors of terrorism. By pointing out the ridiculousness of extremist beliefs, the play is incredibly relevant to our 21st Century world. And even though “the Troubles” in Ireland have calmed down since the 1990’s, terrorism is still alive there. In March, IRA dissidents assassinated several English soldiers near Belfast as they went to get pizza. The events depicted in Lieutenant of Inishmore are not as outlandish as they might seem at first glance.

Rating: «««½

Cast and artistic team rosters, including bios, can be found after the fold.

To see videos of this production, click here.

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