Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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REVIEW: No Exit (The Hypocrites)

Looks like hell to me

 

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

   
The Hypocrites present
   
No Exit
   
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by
Sean Graney
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through July 11th  |   tickets: $20-$25   |   more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

In order to receive a degree in theatre at my university, every student has to take an Intro to Design class. In this class, every student had to come up with a design concept for Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spiel No Exit. And then we spent long hours drawing costume sketches and pinning together a model box. I’ve seen Sartre’s vision of hell set in a pirate-themed hotel, an emptied-out swimming pool,  and an Arkansas basement (in case Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exityou’re wondering, my own stayed pretty close to the stage direction’s Second Empire-style, with a few liberties, of course). So I was pretty excited to see how a full production of the play would pan out, especially in the hands of director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites.

Featuring a massive nude statue and bright pink walls, the ridiculous design did not disappoint.

For those that weren’t in my Intro to Design class, No Exit paints a grim picture of the afterlife, where you’re locked in a garish room with people you soon learn to hate. Trapped in the tiny dwelling are the journalist Garcin (Robert McLean), the Sapphic postal-clerk Inez (Samantha Gleisten), and the coquettish Estelle (Erin Barlow). They attempt to deal with the situation, forging and shattering alliances like Dante combined with “Survivor.” They famously learn that “hell is other people.” There’s a reason existentialists aren’t known for their cheerfulness.

I got the impression that there was some environmental theatre going on here—the hot, stuffy Athenaeum studio theatre provided the audience with their own Hell. Or maybe it’s all coincidence. Even if there really was no deliberate plan to find the most uncomfortable seats possible, the Hypocrites would be smart to take responsibility. The experience definitely helps you connect to the characters.

Graney and scenic designer Tom Burch demand intense physical acting from the cast. The room is tiny and crowded with furniture and bodies. On top of all this, the whole set is on a steep rake. The design requires accuracy and focus; any sloppiness could end in making the chaos too chaotic.

McLean, Barlow, and Gleisten clamor and climb wonderfully, conquering the walls, sloped floor, and sofas. The three claw at each other in lust, anger, and desperation. More importantly, they can balance their characters’ evil qualities with vulnerability and rational thinking. Sometimes they can’t get a firm grasp on Sartre’s lyrical language. McLean is particularly guilty here, sounding wooden and dull at bits. He clearly gets the pettiness and jealousy of Garcin, though. All three add enough personal quirks and charms to make these borderline psychopaths engaging. John Taflan, clad in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, is endlessly fascinating as the valet. He’s tall, weird, and intimidating, which is what I think the Craigslist ad for a doorman in Hell would ask for.

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

As with most Graney productions, there are exciting conceptual impositions on the text. Many work beautifully. All of the characters carry loads of cash on their person, but, alas, money doesn’t do much for you postmortem (it seems you can either flip coins or operate the vibrating chair). There’s one wonderful moment where Estelle throws fistfuls of change out of her purse, creating visual and aural bedlam.

Other choices don’t stick as well. For example, there’s a globe-stereo-thing the valet brings in. I appreciated the soundtrack it provided (Gaga, Beach Boys, the Police), but it just sort of ended up there. Then there is the cheetah-inspired costuming that begins to appear about three-quarters through. Graney also doesn’t quite find the ending—the story resolves a bit too much for a tale of eternal woe.

Basically, the concepts behind this No Exit were way better than the ones formulated by any freshman in my class. It could’ve been the weather, but I’d like to believe it was the fiery energy and dedication of the cast and team that made that theatre so sweltering. Graney’s version of Hell is no place I’d want to be.

   
   
Rating: ★★★