REVIEW: Aiming for Sainthood (Victory Gardens)

 

The Good Girl

 

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Victory Gardens Fresh-Squeezed presents
  
Aiming for Sainthood
   
Written and performed by Arlene Malinowski
Directed by Will Rogers
Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arlene Malinowski’s comic one-act monologue, Aiming for Sainthood, is about being an adult child of deaf parents, right in the middle of her mother’s struggle against cancer. Or, is she more a childlike adult—for Arlene’s vacation trip to her parents’ home in New Jersey alters radically after the out-of-the-blue discovery that Mom has cancer. From that point on everything Arlene attempts as damage control throws her back into the childhood state she knew before leaving home. Onstage at Victory Gardens’s Richard Christiansen Theater for only six performances, Malinowski’s warm and witty tale about managing the unmanageable in the face of mortality is sure to delight audiences familiar with the separate cultures and experiences created by deafness or other lifelong disabilities.

Aiming for Sainthood's Arlene Malinowski - with horns!Malinowski’s storytelling performance is funny and outgoing. Will Rogers direction keeps the pace moving around Nick Seiben’s sensible and subtly intriguing set. “I’m all about getting it done,” says Arlene, taking responsibility for Mom’s care, little suspecting her family’s battle with cancer will be a long and draining one that demands immense personal sacrifice from her. Malinowski lightens that struggle with accounts of running into various characters at the hospital, recollections of her thoroughly Catholic childhood, and the recognizable facets of Jersey culture. There’s Butch, the uber-practical gay male nurse in salmon-colored scrubs and Ruby, one of the hospital’s “regulars” who keeps passing out free coupons to the cafeteria. Finally, there’s Arlene’s Dad, who has a very poetic deaf way of telling people they’re stupid, and her sister, Diana, who gets off easy by being the perpetual baby of the family.

Malinowski’s abilities to humorously relate her tale need no critical coaching from the sidelines—a fact pounded home to me by the audience’s delighted response to her script and well-timed performance. From my own chair, I found her handling of these themes a little on the lite side. Think Erma Bombeck meets The Savages meets Late Night Catechism—nice is the sentiment that overwhelms Aiming for Sainthood. If nice and lite is how you like humor about facing down mortality, shouldering the burdens of caretaking, crises of faith and dealing with less-than-responsible siblings, this is your show. All those looking for darker, weightier humor will need to go elsewhere.

I, for one, was almost palpably relieved once Malinowski started acknowledging her propensity for self-neglect in her self-martyrdom. “My head throbs and I smell like a food court,” she says, once Mom’s stay in the hospital has been extended and extended. Taking on all the responsibility has reduced her to junk food, sweatpants and day time television. “I’ll take Perfect Daughters for a thousand, Alex,” she cracks, still thinking her return home to her husband in Los Angeles is imminent.

Malinowski’s humor exists to keep the darkness at bay. Since Arlene is capable of having her own miraculous revelations and since Mom ultimately survives cancer, why not? I left the theater feeling this play’s lightness, but not much depth. However, looking into the contented and moved faces of audience members as they were leaving, I realized that there are disparate ways to deal with resentment and pain. Whatever works.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The production runs September 20-26, 2010, in the in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: The Last Cargo Cult (Victory Gardens)

Witty, expressive storyteller goes tribal

 

 
Victory Gardens Freshly Squeezed Series presents
 
The Last Cargo Cult
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean Michele Gregory
at the
Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru May 9th  | tickets: $25  |  more info

By Katy Walsh

Sleeping with a pig, shopping at Ikea, fermented yam paste, $40 public beaches, its primitive tales from the South Pacific spliced up with pure Americana. Victory Gardens Freshly Squeezed Series presents

The Last Cargo Cult runs for a limited engagement at the Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Master storyteller Mike Daisey uses his personal memoirs to illustrate America’s money paradox. According to Wikipedia, the goddess of all information, “a cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional  tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures.” During World War II, the U.S. military set up strategic bases on several South cargocult3Pacific islands. At the conclusion of the war, the G.I. Joes go but the awakening to technology and commerce remains. (Think of Bali Ha’i islanders singing, "I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.”) Daisey relates his recent journey to an exotic South Pacific Island that worships America. He intertwines everyday experiences of a first world inhabitant. The Last Cargo Cult is a one-man comedic deconstruction of the U.S. economic foundation that crumbled.

Daisey is a witty and expressive storyteller. As the writer, his word choices create vivid illustrations. He describes the islanders as “if the French and English had sex and the baby was raised by sailors in the 1940’s.” Now, that’s a descriptor. He cloaks poignant points within hilarious absurdity. Upon arrival each audience member receives a bill of currency, ranging from $1 to $100. Daisey uses the random distribution to relate self-validation connected to money. With arms flailing, eyes bulging and red faced, Daisey is outstanding in nailing the ludicrous lives of Americans and their plethora of ‘awesome shit.’ He transitions to the unexpected response in the story with a well-placed uttering of the word ‘awkward.’ Daisey’s disenchantment with the American cargocult financial industry and the unfortunate infiltration of American culture on what use to be an exotic island is pure schadenfreude. He finds the comedy in the farce and delivers it with dark, delicious satisfaction.

The running time is two hours and ten minutes. Awkward… It’s too long! It’s like if Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had a love child and that love child was paid by the word commentating on the travel channel. Even the strongest storyteller benefits from editing. If the length is part of the money paradox theme, I got my money’s worth easily at the half-way point. Seat F 109 didn’t even make it that far before she started dozing off and she received $50 to my $1 in the commerce audience activity. Every time Daisey turned over a legal sheet of notes, I silently prayed, “be the bottom of the pile.” Although I have a healthy attention span, I have American impatience limitations. I refused to go on a second date with a monologuer. And after the hour and a half, he at least bought my dinner. Mike, tack on another forty minutes of my undivided attention and I’m going to expect more than dinner out of our encounter.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes

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