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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REVIEW: Hamletmachine (Trap Door Theatre)

     
     

good design ≠ good machine

     
     

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

   
Trap Door Theatre presents
  
Hamletmachine
   
Written by Heiner Müller
Translated by Carl Weber 
Directed by
Max Traux
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through Feb 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As one of the leading figures in postmodern literature, Heiner Müller is nearly as widely influential as fellow German Bertolt Brecht. However, Müller, with ingenious methods of chopping up and pureeing language and story, never gets the same exposure on this side of the ocean as that master of alienation, Brecht. Some of this might come with time, considering that Brecht wrote about 30-50 years before Müller. American audiences may also have a hard time stomaching Müller’s intentionally entangled, muddy hairballs of non-linear narrative, which make Brecht’s plots look relatively straightforward.

Director Max Traux and Trap Door Theatre have a hard time dealing with Müller’s deliberate mess with their production of Hamletmachine, the playwright’s 1977 opus. The piece riffs on both Shakespeare and machines, slamming together Hamlet with 20th Century existentialist questions. Traux conceptualizes the 9-page play (!) as a rock opera of sorts, turning several of Müller’s phrases into musical catchphrases. Although the page length seems miniscule, it’s a very dense nine pages. Müller once staged a 7-hour production of Hamlet, featuring Hamletmachine as the play-within-a-play. At Trap Door, Traux spreads the text among three Hamlets, two Ophelias, and a Gertrude for good measure, further splintering the piece. The droning music, fierce acting, and heavy choreography impart weightiness, but it’s hard to discern much substance from Trap Door’s bloated production. We see lots of horrified expressions and hear plenty of pained soliloquies, but I was never sure exactly why anything was happening.

Müller and Traux are assuming that the audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare’s original, arguably the most important work of literature in human history (we may have to reconsider after Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is published….). Here, Hamlet (either Antonio Brunetti, Rich Logan, or David Steiger) mulls over his usual philosophical inquiries while also posing questions about modern-day revolution and art. Müller really shows off his genius when placing Hamlet’s fundamentally human dilemmas in a contemporary context—“Tomorrow has been cancelled” is an oft-repeated line through the piece.

The cast does a noteworthy job breathing life into Traux’s bizarre, fluorescent-lit world. Rich Logan’s limber, ponytailed version of Hamlet is the most interesting to watch, even when hunkered down in the aisles and gleefully eyeing the action occurring on-stage. Tiffany Joy Ross and Sadie Rogers present two very different characterizations of Ophelia, adding further complexity to the piece. It was obvious the actors were all very committed, but the performances lacked clarity. One can’t expect defined motivations and objectives from such an expressionist extravaganza, but choices should make sense in some way. In Trap Door’s manic production, a lot of the meaning soars over the audience’s heads.

Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi provide an eerie soundscape for Traux’s hellish vision, with a focus on repetition a la Philip Glass. Costume designer Nevena Todorovic creates fascinating concoctions that combine Elizabethan styles with strong doses of steampunk. In general, the design does a fantastic job of evoking a specific mood (a bleak, unhappy mood), a specificity the rest of the production yearns for.

The best moment of the play occurs when Hamlet #3, David Steiger, gives a monologue describing a populist uprising. There is no singing or choreography, just an actor addressing the audience. Steiger gives the audience something to cling onto amid the storm. Even though that moment doesn’t gel with the rest of the play stylistically, it is the most powerful.

Trap Door’s failing, noble as it may be, is that the production is overburdened conceptually. Müller’s script is already a puzzle. In production, the confusion should be unraveled somewhat, not wound tighter. Traux’s vision of the play may be brilliant, but it doesn’t read.

     
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Composer & Sound Designer: Jonathan Guillen / Production Designer: Richard Norwood / Stage Manager: Barry Branfrod / Costume Designer: Nevena Todorovic / Graphic and Video Designer: Michal Janicki / Production Manager: Caitlin Boylan / Makeup Design: Zsófia ÖtvösMusic Collaborator: Nicholas Tonozzi

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

             
        

REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

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REVIEW: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

 Minna 2 

Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

Minna 3 Minna 4

The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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Review: “The Night Season

A richly-developed Irish love story

Vitalist - NIGHT - 2 

Vitalist Theatre and Premiere Theatre & Performance presents:

The Night Season
by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
Theatre Building Chicago 
thru October 17th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Vitalist - NIGHT - 4 The Night Season, written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is an Irish love story about the lonely Kennedy family. Each member of the family has their own insecurities caused by their mother’s abandonment 5 years earlier, and each of them is on their own path to find love. The outstanding performance by the cast and, exceptional use of the stage with creative touches to enhance the Celtic atmosphere, makes this show heartwarming – even in the midst of the dark struggles each family member endures.

Set in Sligo, Ireland, a town near the shore and once home to the famous poet W.B. Yeats, the stage is brightened by the starry night and hazy lighting that romanticizes the atmosphere. Set designer Craig Choma ’s extremely creative set, and the lighting (by lighting designer Richard Norwood) used to separate scenes, allows multiple plot lines to take place right in front of our eyes without any confusion as to which characters we should be paying attention. The direction of Elizabeth Carlin-Metz makes the transition between scenes fluid and actually heighten the emotional moments by assisting the understanding of the time lapses, or the fact that the two situations take place at the same time.

The play opens up with the audience able to watch the three sisters chatting on the rooftop, while grandmother is slouched down sleeping in her arm chair in the living room. As the closet door opens we get a unique viewpoint (as if we are looking down on him from the sky) of father as he restlessly fights his nightmares while sleeping drunk in his bedroom.

Each member of the family is weighted down with loneliness; longing to be loved by another. They are filled with an insecurity of being unloved, yet there is a bond and a closeness between each, and an unconditional love that exists within their own family (this includes the aging mother of the women that caused this family all of their sorrow.)

Vitalist - NIGHT - 3 The three sisters are single and unlucky in love. Rose (Kelly Lynn Hogan), who the grandmother refers to as a spinster, hastily jumps in bed with the visiting American actor John (Jared Fernley) who is staying with the Kennedys while playing the role of Yeats in a movie. In that moment John is looking for comfort after his mother’s recent death, but Rose wakes up in the morning to find an unwelcomed difference in the intimacy John offers her. The youngest daughter Maud (Eden Newmark) is stuck in a relationship with an unaffectionate communist sympathizer, and the eldest daughter Judith (Vanessa Greenway) is too afraid to open up and – since she has stepped in as the family’s mother – she’s too busy to recognize her feelings for the cerebral neighborhood man, Gary Malone (Paul Dunckel.)  Judith is mature beyond her age and has taken on a cold emotionless state that comes with the necessity of constantly having to take care of responsibilities outside of your own. Visiting her absent mother, and then letting loose with her Father on her first drinking binge, Judith goes on a journey to discover her capacity to love, and finds it in places that have always been there.

Every character is richly developed by author Rebecca Lenkiewicz, but the Grandmother Lily O’Hanlon and the girls’ Father Patrick Kennedy stand out with enduring performances by Marry O’Dowd and Don Bender. The Grandmother’s (Patrick’s Mother-in-law)  quirky and at times raunchy personality is light and fun and she also draws empathy from us as we watch her age with dementia and sadness. In her eccentric and loony state she continues to search for her last love and in a way she finds it in the gentleman arms of John.

The Night Season is a truly great Irish love story, filled with the complications of life and the strength of a loving family who supports each other in spite of their flaws. Lenkiewicz brings up themes of guilt, love and the passing of time and how life will bring us to face these states over-and-over again in our lives. The common occurrence and unavoidable ending to these moments should not devalue their importance nor limit you from experiencing another separate love story. Through all the pain and hardships, life goes on for the Kennedy family. The Night Season is an enchanting story playing and I highly recommend it.

Rating: ««««

Vitalist - NIGHT - 1

 

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Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

PianoLesson-openarms

Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

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