REVIEW: Closer (AstonRep Theatre)

  
  

Endless scene changes stifle strong ensemble work

  
  

CloserPoster

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Closer
  
Written by Patrick Marber
Directed by Rob Cramer
at
Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Patrick Marber’s magnum opus Closer hits like a Classical tragedy with “Friends” era embellishment. Marber won a shelf-full of awards and recognition for the play, but has since gone on to craft such garbage as “The Tourist” screenplay. In 2004, he turned the play into a Julia Roberts/Jude Law vehicle and found raving mainstream audiences. Closer is now one of about five plays you’ll probably find on any given Borders’ drama section.

Despite the hype, the play packs a punch, drawing comparisons to Brits like Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. Unlike much of the schlock coming out of the late ‘90s/early aughts (Proof, anybody?), Marber writes harrowing thematic depth and dense, conflicted characters. The play does indeed feel like a period piece of the ‘90’s.

AstonRep Theatre Company’s mission is to bring theatre to non-theatre audiences, which perhaps explains choosing such a well-known piece for their second production. Snuggly fit in the BoHo space in Rogers Park, their production doesn’t seem to go anywhere conceptually. What saves the show from total destruction is Marber’s deft writing sensibilities and an incredibly talented cast.

Overall, the production feels like an acting class final. The talent on-stage contrasts starkly with the poor production values, creating a strange rift that never resolves.

The four-actor piece follows two men and two women over a few years. The characters meet, have sex, fall in love (or not), and inevitably break up and squash each others’ hearts, not always in that order. Dan (Ray Kasper), an obituary writer, meets Alice (newcomer Aja Wiltshire), an ex-stripper prone to falling in front of moving cars. As the months go on, Anna (Amy Kasper) and Larry (Robert Tobin) get thrown into the mix. Affairs spiral off in all sorts of directions, most end in emotional explosions. Then there is the making up, marriages, divorces, and long talks in strip clubs.

Ray Kasper, although too old for the part, works well against Wiltshire, easily the most charming member of the cast. Although he can’t nail Larry’s anger, Robert Tobin finds and plays up the humor. Amy Kasper makes bold choices from the beginning. The cast struggle with some of the weightier moments of the play, although they are always in sync with the dramatic arch of the piece.

Director Rob Cramer’s production is extremely hampered by amateurish stumbling blocks. The transitions are the most glaring issues, making a 90 minute script into well over 2 hours. There are twelve scenes in the play. Here, each transition is done in blackout, without any music, and without any creativity. The AstonRep gang forgets that this is all part of the show, too. Designer Lea Tobin’s set feels rushed and inadequate. We see all the wires, but we shouldn’t. I wish Cramer lessened everything and just focused on his cast. A simpler touch would make the show quicker, clearer, and more engaging.

I’ll be honest, considering the missteps, I thought this was going to be a groaner of a production. But the cast really pull the play together, forging the believably convoluted relationships that Marber requires. Even the scene where Dan and Larry interact in a sex chat room, for example, is hilariously crude yet Kasper and Tobin use it to reveal quite a lot about each character.

Marber’s writing dabbles a bit in romantic comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, but Closer defies any neat Hollywood genre placement. Unlike many writers of our time, he allows the story to drive itself in any direction it needs. The folks behind AstonRep understand this, but they aren’t able to articulate it.

  
   
Rating: ★★
  
  

Artists

 

CastAmy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Robert Tobin, and Aja Wiltshire.

Production: Rob Cramer (Director), Jeremiah Barr (Assistant Director), Samantha Barr (Lighting Design, Stage Manager) and Lea Tobin (Scenic Design, Graphic Designer).

  
  

REVIEW: Labour and Leisure (AstonRep Theatre)

  
   

Scant balm for the working man

  
  

Good-Faithful Servant 1

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Labour & Leisure
   
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Dec 11  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Swinging into Christmas pageant season, few shows currently playing are as relevant or timely as AstonRep Theatre Company’s remount of lesser-known Joe Orton works under the title Labour & Leisure. Orton is best known for savaging hypocritical middle class morality in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and What the Butler Saw. One finds his queer eye at work in both of AstonRep’s twin productions The Good and Faithful Servant, directed by Ray Kasper, and The Erpingham Camp, directed by Robert Tobin. But his blue-collar origins in Leicester and a six-month stint in jail, for hilariously defacing library books, schooled Orton well in the corrupt hypocrisies of capitalist civilization. What better Christmas present could jobless Chicagoans give themselves (besides a job) than a gander at these miniature productions, with a few well-placed caveats, of course?

Erpingham-Hysterical-Eileen-WebThe Heartland Studio is a merciless black box. Kasper’s direction and Jeremiah Barr’s scenic design don’t really resolve the difficulties of setting apart clean and recognizable scene spaces in The Good and Faithful Servant. The cast struggles to ensure smooth transitions from scene to scene, but to no avail. At least Mrs. Vealfoy (Amy Kasper), one of the upper echelons of “the firm,” has a fine perch from which to dominate any hapless individual who enters her lair.

Thankfully, not just Mrs. Vealfoy, but Amy Kasper dominates the show. Kasper knows how to give her ruthless corporate villainess just the right touch of flirtatious charm. So whether she is ordering about the meek and deferential (read: enslaved) Buchanan (Jeff McVann), drawing Debbie (Sara Greenfield) into her schemes, or roping Ray (John Collins) under her oppressive wings, one feels the emotional compulsion to go along with whatever she wants. Only the strong survive in this world. The weak get black lung and a flaming toaster for 45 years of life-sapping service.

McVann, as Buchanan, is terribly strong in his comic portrayal of the stiffed working stiff. His opening scene, where Buchanan prosaically reunites with his long lost love Edith (Barbara Button), is a model of comic understatement. Button makes an excellent and charming comic partner. However, slips in dialect from her and other cast members adversely impact their performances. Greenfield does a humorous turn in both plays as an excessively pregnant young woman, but her pairing with Collins doesn’t match the strong comic connections formed between McVann and Button. Collins himself needs to bring a little more punk to his role as Ray, even if his working class roué ultimately capitulates to the firm in the end.

Erpingham-Press-1-WebThe cast of The Erpingham Camp fairs much better, if for no other reason than they get to work in less cumbersome space. Ms. Vealfoy’s perch is preserved for Mr. Erpingham (Jeff McVann), the ruler . . . uh . . . owner of this eponymous recreational resort. Here, McVann gives us pompous, self-absorbed, dictatorial asshole with both barrels, while the ill-used Chief Redcoat Riley (Kipp Moorman) sucks up to his boss in order to win the job of entertainment director during the camp’s evening entertainments. At first, Mr. Erpingham refuses. He has a much better suck-up, both figuratively and literally, in the otherwise absurdly useless Padre (Ray Kasper), the camp’s resident man of the cloth.

Nevertheless, Riley finally wins his favorite position when the camp’s entertainment director dies and no one else can fill his place. Entertainment at Erpingham Camp relies on the exuberant, if pedestrian, talents of buxom Jessie Mason (Charlie Casino) and nervous W. E. Harrison (John Collins). As for the victims/campers, Ted (Ian Knox) and Lou (Kathleen Lawlor) make for perfect conservative professional twits matched against the ultra-pregnant Eileen (Sara Greenfield) and her muscular, doltish working class husband, Kenny (Johnny Garcia).

Of course, Riley fucks it up and, of course, his fuck-up leads to a camp revolt of epic proportions. I’m just grateful that he made “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as gay as possible before the revolution.

In the wake of revolt, Mr. Erphingham and his pal, the Padre, come across like Hitler and his entourage in their last days in the bunker. Their pronouncements on art, religion, order and the classes are distinctly funny. Heaven only knows why they think they still have control of things, but the revolutionaries are not much better. Ted and Lou seem to think they can run this revolt using the civil defense handbook, while Kenny only needs to apotheosize his pregnant wife to justify tearing the camp down.

However, the award for best insanity of the night goes to Moorman, for impeccably delivering, as Riley, the most beautifully ridiculous and untruthful eulogy for Mr. Erpingham. Even for the little guy, there comes a moment of vindication.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Erpingham-Love,-Divine-1Web

 

Production Personnel

Cast: Barbara Button, Charlie Cascino, John Collins, Johnny Garcia, Sara Greenfield, Amy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Ian Knox, Kathleen Lawlor, Jeff McVann, and Kipp Moorman.

Production Team: Direction by Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin, Stage Management by Samantha Barr. Set, lighting, and prop design by Jeremiah Barr. Fight choreography by Charlie Cascino. Graphic Design by Lea Tobin.

     
     

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REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost (Oak Park Festival)

A Labour of Love in Oak Park

 

Oak Park Festival Theatre's Photos - Love's Labours Lost 002

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Love’s Labour’s Lost
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by
Jack Hickey
at
Austin Gardens, 100 block North Forest, Oak Park (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Okay – sitting in the park on a buggy summer night is not exactly my idea of fun. There has to be something of worth to make this kind of sacrifice. I took a loaner lawn chair from the box office and was grateful to see that the park provided insect repellant for a voluntary donation. I gratefully slipped a buck in the jar and took my place on the lawn in Austin Gardens. There was a lovely pre-performance from the newly formed Oak Park Opera Company. A soprano and tenor performed selections from Verdi and Puccini to warm up the crowd. The music was quite beautiful and set the mood for a very cultured evening.

Oak Park Festival - Love's Labour's Lost 21011 The cast from the play mixed about on the perimeter of the stage, playing bocce in the characters of men at court. When the action began it flowed smoothly as if they really were bystanders in the park.

Love’s Labour Lost is not as popular as other works written by Shakespeare, despite the facts that it is one of his funnier plays. The language is less convoluted and ornate – but it is that simplicity that makes this a deceptive pleasure. The audience gets more of a voyeuristic look into life and the social games that may have occurred in the Elizabethan court.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, setting the bar for future farcical comedies full of ribaldry and mistaken identity. Comedy requires a cast to work hard without appearing to try. Kudos to the cast of the Oak Park Festival Theatre for pulling off this feat with grace and skill in spite of a sound system that battled the seemingly endless parade of air traffic overhead and blaring night insects below. Also, a little program coordination would be in order so that the actors don’t have to compete with amplified street performances a block over.

I was able to tune out the distractions for the most part as the play unfolded. Adam Breske as King Ferdinand shone as the pompous monarch setting an impossible social standard on his young attendants. Joseph Wycoff played the Lord Biron with sparkle and a wink to Walter Matthau. Mr. Wycoff has a great face for the frustration and trickery that ensues. It is Lord Biron who is the last of the king’s court to agree to a vow of celibacy and intense scholarship. It is Wycoff who shows the best and funniest reaction as the one who admits his own hypocrisy last when all are revealed as having broken their vows.

Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost

The performance of Stephen Spencer as Don Adriano de Amado – a fantastical Spaniard – is a wonderful mix of buffoonery with Kabuki subtlety. Mr. Spencer is also a wonderful speaker of Shakespeare’s rhythms with sharp and well-placed inflections. No pun is left unturned without perfect inflection hitting the target each time. Charlie Cascino makes brief but crazy energetic appearances as Country Wench Jaquenetta.   Ms. Cascino’s mischievous smile and frisky demeanor are perfect for scenes with the clown Costard, played with equally great skill by Bryan James Wakefield.

Richard Henzel plays the character of Holofernes, a character is pivotal to the wonderful confusion and double takes that ensue with letter exchanges and identities. Henzel is a Chicago theater veteran and takes firm command in this role. The scenes between Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are comic gems. Two of the audience’s favorite performers are the thoroughly enjoyable Skyler Schrempp as Oak Park Festival - Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost 2Don Armado’s attendant Moth and Robert Tobin as Dull the Constable. They both have a gift for physical comedy and verbal timing.

Love’s Labour Lost is not one of Shakespeare’s best works in regards to women roles. Katherine Keberlein is regal as the Princess of France, but she and the other ladies in waiting do not match the frenetic energy of the people in King Ferdinand’s court. This is partially due in part to Shakespeare’s interpretation or society women of the late 1500s, as well as the also the directing choice of reigning in the female cast a bit more than the male cast members, which is a wise choice by Artistic Director Jack Hickey.

All in all, Shakespeare Under The Stars is a great idea.  You will have to make some concessions for the environmental sounds that hinder full enjoyment, but a night out in a wonderful town with a big city feel more than makes up for this. 

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

Love’s Labour Lost plays through August 21st at Austin Gardens in Oak Park. The park is a block away from both the Metra and the Green Line. If you take the Metra please pay attention to the schedule as it has an intermittent nature (Metra schedule). It could happen that you end up in Wheaton like I did. Go early to catch the great sidewalk sales and community energy that is Oak Park. Be aware that Oak Park basically closes the sidewalks at 9:00, so either arrive in Oak Park early enough to dine at a restaurant before the performance, or bring a meal and a beverage (wine is allowed) because there is nada après theatre to be had. Check online at www.oakparkfestival.org for availability and ticket information. Bring your insect repellant or at least leave a tip in the donation jar if you use the park’s resources.

   
   

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