REVIEW: Trickster (Halcyon Theatre)

  
  

Epic tale propelled by audacious scope; uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Riso Straley and Scott Allen Luke--Photo byTom McGrath

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Trickster
  
Written and Directed by Tony Adams
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 30  | 
tickets: $18 – $20 |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

With Trickster, Halcyon Theatre takes on a wildly ambitious epic of ancient Native American lore woven into a contemporary story of survival in apocalyptic world. Written and directed by Halcyon Theatre’s Artistic Director Tony Adams, the piece’s challenging, provocative sprawl of interlocking tales doesn’t always form the most coherent narrative. But what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in sheer audacious scope and an uncompromising artistic vision.

Arch Harmon as Fox--Photo byTom McGrathWithin the animal world, the earth’s four-legged creatures battle a dark fate overseen by a cruel Wolf Master. At the same time, a rag-tag group of humans try to stay alive in a burned out landscape where water and food are scarce and marauding soldiers are everywhere. Think ‘The Road’ merged with a highly sexualized take on Aesop’s Fables merged with the intricate Native American belief system of Spirit Animals and you’ve got a good idea as to the ruling aesthetic that governs Trickster.

Adams’ wild ride begins with a slam poet cry to a muse, and a violently worded harbinger of what’s to come. From there, the audience lurches to a fever-dream of a sex scene where in two dimly lit bestial creatures are making the beast with two backs. The illicit union of Swan (Christine Lin) and Coyote (Scott Allen Luke) leads to Coyote being chased to river, where he jumps in and assumes the shape of a stone. Flash-forward 500 years: Coyote has emerged from the river and been restored to his regular shape, only to find a world in ruins.

Competing storylines ensue as the animals attempt to redeem a world that’s a burnt-out husk and the humans try to keep from starving or death or being gang-raped by soldiers. The primary trouble with Trickster lies in the editing process: plots and sub-plots branch out from each other like an endless root system continually stretching out, increasingly tiny branches moving ever farther from the primary trunk. The result is that Trickster becomes compartmentalized – defined by many different storylines that don’t always add up to an emotionally resonant, authentically connected whole. The piece would benefit from some judicious pruning. At almost three hours, Trickster sometimes rambles despite the truly streamlined pacing.

As for Adams’ epic-sized cast of 19, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. This is the rare ensemble that truly reflects Chicago. Despite the best of intentions, the vast majority of theater companies simply don’t look like the city they spring from: Color blind casting doesn’t happen with any degree of regularity in Chicago. Halcyon is fiercely committed to it and with ensembles such as the one in Trickster, offers proof that diversity and excellence are hardly mutually-exclusive concepts. Halcyon is leading towards the time when multi-ethnic casting is the norm and doesn’t even warrant a mention.

There are several beguiling performances within Trickster’s ranks – Yadira Correa is delicious as a predatory owl intent on eating children. Riso Straley absolutely gets the combination of vulnerability borne of irrecoverable heartbreak and untouchable toughness borne of surviving in a battle-hardened world.

Scott Allen Luke, Arch Harmon and Rafael Franco--Photo byTom McGrath (R to L) Riso Straley, Derrick York and Rudy Galvan in Trickster--Photo byTom McGrath

Others don’t fare quite so consistently well: It’s difficult to understand much of the dialogue that springs from Fox (Arch Harmon) – his words are muffled, his diction muddy. And despite the cast’s size, there’s some distracting double/triple casting going on: As the final scenes wore on, it felt like the same three or so characters kept getting killed. When an actor gets his throat cut, shows up a few scenes later to have his neck broken, and shows up still later to suffer a fatal gunshot wound, well, the impact of the violence is diminished.

The production benefits greatly from costume designer Izumi Inaba’s work, which is a playful, furry example of creativity triumphing the constraints of a small budget. Her canine creations are the strongest, wild and wooly headpieces that emulate the spirit of the animals the actors are depicting, if not their literal appearance. Adam’ spare, burnt orange scenic design evokes the blistering heat of the great southwest, as well as the ancient art of the cultures who lived there millennia before the white folks showed up.

Halcyon Theatre demands a lot of its audiences. This isn’t the theater of effortless escapism. Instead, Adams takes you down a dark and difficult path, demands that you pay attention and leaves you with a brain overloaded with questions of morality, philosophy and the intricate nature of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Helen Young and Jennifer Adams in Trickster-- Photo byTom McGrath

Featuring: Jenn Adams, Yadira Correa, Delicia Dunham, Rafael Franco, Rudy Galvan, Johnny Garcia, Kamal Hans, Arch Harmon, Arvin Jalandoon, Christine Lin, Scott Allen Luke, Goli Rahimi, Johanna Middleton, Julie Mitre, Ruth Schilling, Riso Straley, Helen Young and Derrick York. (Cast & Production Team bios after the jump)

 

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REVIEW: Seven Snakes (The Mammals)

 

No Country for Young Women—or Anyone Else

 

Seven Snakes - The Mammals - Roy Gonzales as the Man

   
The Mammals present
  
Seven Snakes
   
Written and Directed by Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru Nov 6  |  suggested donation: $20 – BYOB  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

This past spring, under Bob Fisher’s deliciously skewed playwriting and direction, The Mammals really brought the excessive testosterone with their retro boxing melodrama, The Meatlocker (our review ★★★). They do no less with their current ode to spaghetti Westerns, Seven Snakes, staged in the dungeon-like confines of the Zoo Studio. While every line and gesture expresses sensual longing for the heyday of Eastwood films, Fisher sagely places Seven Snakes a full 30 dystopian years into the future. This is a desperate futuristic Western, playing off of nostalgia for rugged Seven Snakes - The Mammals - dont-want-to-be-coldblooded individualism and the joys of Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, it cites those American cultural qualities as the source of our current military misadventures in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Our story begins “in the remains of what was once the Arizona desert.” Heaven only knows where the rest of the USA has gone, but only two women and six Octogenarian Veterans of Foreign Desert Wars survive to live out dry days and lonely, love-starved nights in Skillet County. When The Mother, played in drag by Don Hall, gives up the ghost and leaves The Daughter (Erin Elizabeth Orr) to fend for herself as the solitary nurse at the VA, the elderly vets turn increasingly, dangerously frisky. Their sexual tension turns to outrage and suspicion when a wounded stranger arrives—a drifter who could be either a sexy, lone gunslinger or a terrorist out to destroy what’s left of America. Mother’s ghost returns both to spur on her Daughter and to comment on the action. But for the most part, girl is on her own with these crazy mens.

The real comic heroes of this play are the vets, led by the leadenly appropriate but no less sex-starved or suspicious Colonel (Matt Kahler). The action and humor grow decidedly freakier with the old boys’ growing frustrations. The further their young nurse progresses in her intimate relations with the Man (Roy Gonzalez), the more the vets believe he is one of a mythical terrorist team, the Seven Snakes.

Like most new works, Fisher’s comedy could use a strategic editing, but the lead-up to the second act is well worth the wait. The play achieves the surreal state of 60s Westerns, parodying and doing homage to them at the same time. The priceless comic timing of the Colonel, Radar (Ian Brown), Sgt. Ringo (Adam Dodds), Corporal Cheese Grits (Vincent Lacey), Private Toadsuck (Shane Michael Murphy) and Mr. Hey (Sean Ewert) make lines like, “So, what about that drifter’s penis?” and “That is the art of camouflage, girly” ring hysterically and resonantly funny.

 

Seven Snakes - Mammals - kahler-gods-mouth Seven Snakes - The Mammals - erin-orr-3 Seven Snakes poster

Completing the show’s testosterone is the rest of the Seven Snakes and the American Psychic Surveillance Team. As for the Snakes’ Segundo (Riso Straley), Chupa Fuerte (Bert Matias), Cuchillo (Miguel Nunez) and Angel (Fernando S. Albiar), these are men who have been fighting so long, their culture and history are as mythically-based as their reputation. Their roles don’t carry the comic impact of the Desert Wars Vets–happily, Matias plays his role as a “dirty-old-snake” to the goofy hilt. The rest of the Snakes are mournfully hip and fiercely outlaw–not to mention desperately needy for human touch. But one wonders if a little political correctness has crept into their character development. As for Agent V (Jim Hicks) and Agent Fido (Warwick Johnson), much as I appreciate how they represent the USA, their torture scene goes a little too long for either comedy or political commentary.

Since Erin Orr is the only player with XX chromosomes, one can only salute her no-holds-barred approach to keeping octogenarian lechers at bay, while struggling to get the young guys to open up emotionally. The former keeps the action going at a hilarious tilt, even as things turn dicey. Be prepared for fun stage violence and bloody bandages. Sadly, her romance with the Man drags. Their last crucial scene together doesn’t ring true. There still isn’t enough chemistry between them to sell lines like, “I don’t want to be cold-blooded anymore.” Seven Snakes is a man’s comedy and has to be appreciated as such. Still, even the Marx Brothers knew the importance of producing romance between their romantic leads, film after film. Besides, the world of the Seven Snakes could use a little tenderness. It helps to make the laughs complete.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Seven Snakes- The Mammals - erin-orr-4

 

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