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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REVIEW: Of Mice and Men (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Familiar story has power under the stars

 Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men"

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Of Mice and Men
 
By John Steinbeck
Directed by
Belinda Bremner
Austin Gardens Park, 157 N. Forest Ave., Oak Park (map)
Through July 10  | 
Tickets: $10-$25; chair rental: $2 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One trouble with shows based on works almost everybody had to read in high school is they tend to lack suspense. That said, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck evokes all of the power of the original tragic novelette. Even though you know what’s coming at every step, Belinda Bremner’s production provides plenty of impact.

The timeless themes of loneliness and the solace of forged connections and shared dreams come to life under the stars in Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor venue. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a "play-novelette," designed theatrically, so it makes a seamless transition to the stage. (A minor quibble: I disagree with Bremner’s decision to combine the three acts into two, but I suppose that with the show at nearly 2½ hours, she didn’t want to add the extra intermission.)

Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men" You can bring or rent lawn chairs if you like, or sit in the bleachers, though one lady in front of me really knew how to do outdoor theater right — she came equipped with a blanket to spread on the lawn, a pillow to lounge on, votive candles, mosquito sticks, bug spray and a basket of snacks and drinks. (If you bring nothing else, I highly recommend bug spray.) Some scenes take place on the stage and others on the ground at stage left, so whatever you sit on, situate yourself toward "house" right for the best views.

Just in case you went to school in some other country, Of Mice and Men follows George Milton and Lenny Small, two itinerant, California farm workers during the Great Depression. They have been traveling together for years, though George is smart and ambitious and Lenny is mentally impaired — a small child in a strong man’s body. The two aspire one day to have their own place, where they can live off the fat of the land. Lenny never tires of hearing George recount what will happen when they achieve this goal.

George often vents his frustration with Lenny, who gets the pair into odd scrapes and some serious trouble through his love of touching soft things and his lack of understanding, but he never considers abandoning his companion. Lenny is completely confident in George — though he offers to go off and live in a cave, he trusts George won’t take him up on it. Kevin Theis gives George just the right edginess and protectiveness, while David Skvarla does a stupendous job as Lenny, endlessly befuddled and attractively childlike, as the show builds to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

When the two arrive on a new ranch, they meet Candy, a broken-down old hand whose own companion, a beloved, elderly dog, becomes a matter of contention in the bunkhouse. Candy offers George and Lenny a means of bringing their far-off hopes to reality. Veteran Chicago actor William J. Norris’ compelling performance gives the production real depth.

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Meanwhile, Curley (a vigorous Adam Meredith), the pugnacious son of the ranch boss, picks on Lenny just to make up for his own inadequacies; and another lonely ranch hand, Crooks (a sensitive portrayal by Emanueal Buckley), kept at arm’s length because he’s black, is also inclined to take out his resentment on Lenny but ultimately relents.

Curley’s new wife, a nameless and ill-omened young woman who regrets the recent marriage that has done nothing to cure her loneliness, tries to chat up the men just to have something to do, but they misinterpret her friendly overtures. Ricky Lurie’s period clothes for the men look just fine, but Curley’s wife ought to be dressed more provocatively. Her plain-jane overalls and braids, combined with Skyler Schrempp’s rather earnest portrayal, make it difficult to imagine how the men can see her as a tramp.

Ron Butts, Stanton Davis, Ben Carr and Walter Briggs ably fill out the cast.

Unseen live musicians provide a little incidental music, but they seem under-utilized. A recording of Woody Guthrie classics played before the show and at intermission seemed fitting at first, but became tiresome by its third iteration. More live music could make this very good production into a great one.

       
      
Rating:★★★½
   
   

Note: Free parking available in the 19th Century Club lot on North Forest Avenue.

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Review: Oak Park Theatre Festival’s “Fifth of July”

The sequel to Wilson's acclaimed Talley's Folly, which was produced by Festival Theatre in 2007. Set in rural Missouri in 1977, it revolves around the Talley family and their friends, and focuses on the disillusionment with America in the wake of an unpopular war. At once poignent and marvelously funny, Fifth of July is a compassionate portrait of a generation trying to decide whether to abandon their past or find the courage to cope with it and to begin anew. In 1978 Fifth of July was nominated for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play and the Tony Award for Best Play. For 35 years, the Oak Park Theatre Festival has used its outdoor location to give their productions an authentic vibe and to allow their audiences to enjoy the summer weather while enjoying theatre. This works particularly well for staging Shakespearean works, which, after all, were originally produced in an open-air setting. In more recent years they have staged more modern plays in their slice of Austin Gardens’ park, carefully selecting plays that already have an outdoor setting, like William Inge’s “Picnic.” Set in the front rooms and yard of an old Missouri home, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July is a perfect fit for the festival’s aesthetic. Considering the production runs through June and July, it also helps that the play takes place on Independence Day and the morning following. The play is perfectly suited for a staging in a park, but the story and themes are muddled in their current production by some indecisive approaches to the play.

Fifth of July is part of a trilogy documenting the American experience of the Talley family living in Lebanon, Missouri, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, Talley’s Follies. The play takes place in 1977 and showcases the disillusionment of that era. The protagonist, Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Stef Tovar), is a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war. His sister, June Talley (Lydia Berger), was a former hippie and now is struggling as a single mom. Both of them find little to celebrate on Independence Day. They have a big gathering of family and friends, including their Aunt Sally (Kate Kisner) and married friends John and Gwen (Brandon Dahlquist and Rebekah Ward-Hays). The holiday festivities quickly sour when friends and family start bickering about jobs, custody, and the price of the Talley household.

5th of July - poster Pamela Maurer and Alexis Vejar’s set, basically a house with select cuts made in a few of the walls, makes great use of the surroundings. The setting allows for some great stage pictures; conversations could be happening in one area of the house while other characters can be chilling out on the porch or lawn, lighting up the entire space instead of just one corner.

While director Michael Weber succeeds at balancing the stage, he fails at telling a truly cohesive story. It was difficult for me to follow any particular narrative. Important plot points weren’t really served up in any way, voiding the production of an accessible story. Instead of juggling the multiple subplots while supporting Ken’s main story (a decision of whether or not to return to teaching at his old high school), all of the stories were muddled together and none of them came out fully formed. Most of the performances were decent, although some were too over-the-top. A problem that a couple of actors had, which also contributed to the garbled narrative, was synthesizing high emotional distress almost without warning. Instead of building the tension, characters would be chatting to one another and then one would be shouting or crying all of a sudden, which doesn’t work with Lanford’s script. A technical issue that might have added to this was that the set was littered with floor mics, which I suppose helped the actors’ voices compete with passing planes and cicadas, but they also amplified every step and door slam to a distracting level. It might be a necessary evil in order for the dialogue to be heard, but it also took a toll on the overall storytelling.

Still, the Oak Park Theatre Festival is a good time, and is especially suited to summer in Chicago. One thing I learned from the locals, though, is that you should bring plenty of wine, food, and bug spray. Enjoying theatre al fresco, even if it’s not of the highest caliber, is still its own fun experience.

Rating: ««½

 
Cast and Crew
Lydia Berger (June)
Danny Bernardo (Jed)
Brandon Dahlquist* (John)
Charles Gardner (Wes)
Glynis Gilio (Shirley)
Rebekah Ward-Hays (Gwen)
Kate Kisner (Sally)
Stef Tovar* (Ken)
Kieran Welsh-Phillips (u/s Gwen & June)
Director: Michael Weber*
Stage Manager: Robert W Behr*
Costume: Ricky Lurie
Lights: Jeremy Getz
Sound: Kyle Irwin
Set: El Fish
House Manager: Jeff Weisman
Box Office: Mary Liming
* denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association