Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: People We Know (the side project)

Perpetuating denial through the company we keep

 

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the side project presents
  
People We Know
  
by Robert Tenges
directed by
Adam Webster
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis  (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $18  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed

There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three people-we-know5 couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.

The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.

Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.

Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.

Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.

Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.

 

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The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.

In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.

Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Non-Equity Jeff Nominations – Ubique & Lifeline lead

JeffAwards

 

2009 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD NOMINEES

PRODUCTION – PLAY
Enchanted April Circle Theatre
In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mariette in EcstasyLifeline Theatre
The Mark of Zorro Lifeline Theatre
Our TownThe Hypocrites
Rose and the Rime The House Theatre

PRODUCTION – MUSICAL OR REVUE
The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre
Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
The Robber BridegroomGriffin Theatre
Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

DIRECTOR – PLAY
Nathan Allen – Rose and the RimeThe House Theatre of Chicago
David CromerOur Town The Hypocrites
Elise Kauzlaric – Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Joanie Schultz – In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Rick Snyder – Men of Tortuga Profiles Theatre

DIRECTOR – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Fred Anzevino – Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Fred Anzevino – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Mary Beidler Gearen – The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre
Paul S. Holmquist – The Robber Bridegroom Griffin Theatre
Nicolas Minas – Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

ENSEMBLE
Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Men of Tortuga Profiles Theatre
Our Bad Magnet Mary-Arrchie Theatre
Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Don Bender – Old Times City Lit Theater
Esteban Andres Cruz – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train Raven Theatre
James Elly – The Mark of ZorroLifeline Theatre
Ryan Jarosch – Torch Song Trilogy – Hubris Productions
Brian Parry – ShadowlandsRedtwist Theatre
Brian Plocharczyk – After Ashley Stage Left Theatre
Bradford Stevens – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train Raven Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Courtney Crouse – Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical Bohemian Theatre
Chris Damiano – EvitaTheo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Brenda Barrie – Mariette in Ecstasy Lifeline Theatre
Laura Coover – Blue SurgeEclipse Theatre
Cameron Feagin – Private Lives City Lit Theater
Nancy Freidrich – The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery The Strange Tree Group
Betsy Zajko – Beholder Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Laura McClain – The Christmas Schooner Bailiwick Repertory
Maggie Portman – Evita Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Rachel Quinn – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Circle Theatre
Bethany Thomas – Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James

SOLO PERFORMANCE
Janet Ulrich Brooks – Golda’s Balcony Pegasus Players
Alice Wedoff – The Shape of a Girl Pegasus Players

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
Paul S. Holmquist – The Picture of Dorian Gray Lifeline Theatre
Matthew Sherbach – The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler Dog & Pony Theatre
Kevin V. Smith – Our Bad Magnet Mary-Arrchie Theatre
Madrid St. Angelo – A Passage to India Premiere Theatre & Performance i/a/w Vitalist Theatre
Jon Steinhagen – Plaza SuiteEclipse Theatre
Nathaniel Swift – Blue Surge Eclipse Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL
Chris Damiano – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Chris Froseth – Woody Guthrie’s American Song – Blindfaith Theatre
Jim Sherman – The Christmas SchoonerBailiwick Repertory Theatre

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
Susan Veronika Adler – Torch Song Trilogy Hubris Productions
Jeannette Blackwell – The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler Dog & Pony Theatre
Nora Fiffer – The Autumn Garden Eclipse Theatre
Mary Hollis Inboden – Torch Song TrilogyHubris Productions
Elise Kauzlaric – On the Shore of the Wide World Griffin Theatre
Lily Mojekwu – Greensboro: A RequiemSteep Theatre
Rinska Prestinary – In Arabia We’d All Be Kings Steep Theatre
Mary Redmon – Enchanted April Circle Theatre

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Amanda Hartley – The Robber Bridegroom Griffin Theatre

NEW WORK
Tony Fiorentino – All My Love – Diamante Productions
Robert Koon – Odin’s HorseInfamous Commonwealth Theatre
Frank Maugeri & Seth Bockley – Boneyard PrayerRedmoon Theater
Andrew Park – The People’s History of the United States Quest Theatre Ensemble
Ken Prestininzi – Beholder Trap Door Theatre

NEW ADAPTATION
Fred Anzevino, Arnold Johnston & Joshua Stephen Kartes – Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night Theo Ubique Theatre i/a/w Michael James
Cristina Calvit – Mariette in EcstasyLifeline Theatre
Robert Kauzlaric – The Picture of Dorian Gray Lifeline Theatre
William Massolia – Be More Chill Griffin Theatre
Terry McCabe – Scoundrel Time – City Lit Theater Company
Katie McLean – The Mark of Zorro Lifeline Theatre

For Production and Artistic Team nominations, click on “Read More

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