REVIEW: Abigail’s Party (A Red Orchid Theatre)

“Let’s get pissed!”

abigail

A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Abigail’s Party

by Mike Liegh
directed by Shade Murray
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Suburban popularity hinges on repressed emotions. Irritating neighbors are tolerated and marital woes are hidden all in the name of keeping up appearances, but what happens when the inhibitions that keep these feelings in check are removed? Hilarity ensues.

abigail_home The year is 1977 and Beverly (Kirsten Fitzgerald) is waiting for her husband Laurence (Larry Graham) to arrive with lagers before guests arrive for a cocktail party. Cheesy pineapple bites have been set, the fiber light has been switched on, and the hostess is grooving to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” while sipping a gin and tonic. A few houses down, punk rock teenager Abigail is throwing a party of her own, but the real action is about to begin in the Moss’s living room, the setting of Mike Leigh’s hilarious Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid Theatre, exquisitely directed by Shade Murray.

Angela (Mierka Girten ) and Tony (Danny McCarthy), newcomers to the neighborhood, arrive first, followed by Susan (Natalie West), the title character’s divorced mother. Drinks are poured as small talk begins, the men discuss cars, the women furniture, and all is pleasant and respectable. This picturesque gathering quickly develops cracks in its facade as drinks are topped up and people become looser with their tongues, revealing the problems that lie under the surface.

Leigh’s script was largely developed through actor improvisations, and the evidence is apparent in the dialogue. Characters check in with their listeners to make sure they are paying attention, and at one point two completely different conversations are happening at the same time, a rare occurrence on stage but something that can be heard at any party. The rhythm of the dialogue moves at a clipped pace that intensifies as drinks are poured, but the actors never become caricatures of inebriation.

Alcohol is the medium through which awkwardness flows in the play, and Fitzgerald’s Beverly is the main instigator. She jumps at the chance to criticize Angela’s makeup once the men are away, openly mocks her husband, and in the play’s most uncomfortable moment gets a little too intimate with Tony. “A little row adds sparkle to a relationship,” isn’t just something she says, but something she lives by, and her abhorrent behavior is a way to garner an emotional response from the lifeless Laurence. Beverly mirrors Abigail’s party, becoming more invasive in the lives of those around her as her neighbor’s punk rock grows louder, disrupting her perfect evening.

Fitzgerald may be the life of the party, but her supporting cast doesn’t play second fiddle. Graham’s Laurence may be a square, but he matches his wife’s aggression when threatened, and his intellectual nature serves as a great foil to Beverly’s vivacity. Girten is hilarious as wide-eyed doormat Angela and McCarthy is appropriately brutish in his mostly silent role. West essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent, and while primarily serving to drive the plot forward, Susan becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.

Rating: ★★★½

Continue reading

Review: Steep Theatre’s “Kill the Old, Torture Their Young”

Out of Place, Out of Time

kill-old

Victory Gardens presents:

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young

by David Harrower
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The success of Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre this summer has exposed Chicago to the work of Edinburgh born playwright David Harrower. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young, onstage at Steep Theatre, is Harrower’s second play, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998, fresh from his breakout success with Knives in Hens (1995).

“Kill the Old, Torture Their Young” is also the name of a song by Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative grunge band, which also had its beginnings in the mid-90s under the name Screwfish. Interestingly enough, Harrower bookends his play with monologues from a nameless Rock Singer (Derek Garner), commenting on modern alienation from an airplane in flight. But any connection between the two may have more to do with the 90’s explosion of Scottish culture than anything else. It’s not that the playwright might be familiar with Biffy Clyro; it’s that the band’s lyrics, too, are chockfull of the alienation and dislocation that inform Harrower’s central themes.

Steep Theatre’s production dislocates Kill the Old, Torture Their Young even further, from its cultural and historical roots. Placing the action in America, the actors do not engage in Scottish dialect; nor is there much of a strong nod to the 1990s postmodern use of multiple narratives–experimentation that ultimately influenced major commercial films like Magnolia. Director Katherine Walsh’s choices would be more than excusable with a stronger cast, with better timing to pull off all the nuanced humor of Harrower’s writing. However, given the unevenness of performances and lack of a cohesive ensemble, this production loses its bearings in more ways than one.

What also goes missing is daring punk/grunge energy that would better inform the rage of a character like Darren (Niall McGinty), a man whose thwarted ambition to become an actor results in otherwise inexplicable violence. Much like the Scottish novel Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, made into a major motion picture, Kill the Old, Torture Their Young contains an underlying current of rebellion against alienating daily capitalist existence. That rage, unfortunately, goes largely unexploited and un-acted on in this production. Sadly, characters in this production seem to share only common resignation to the dreary, meaninglessness rhythm of their commodified lives.

That being said, a few performances create interest. Jim Poole’s quiet and stirring portrayal of Steven stands out, as the manager who could film the city he loves better than Robert (Peter Moore), the famous documentarian hired to do the job. Nice moments are created between Robert and Heather (Julia Siple) in a hotel room together. Paul (Leonard Kraft) and Angela (Bronwen Prosser) make a realistic pair of lost souls, who will likely stay together even if one doesn’t know what to do about the other. James Allen’s chagrined Birdwatcher and Patricia Donegan’s random Woman in Robes add badly needed humor and spice to the proceedings.

Rating: ««

 

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Kathryn Walsh
Asst. Director: Alex Hugh Brown
Prod. Manager: Julia Siple
Scenic Design: Dan Stratton
Lighting Design Samantha Szigeti
Costume Design: Melissa Torchia
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Choreographer: Joey de Bettencourt
Stage Manager: Jen Poulin
Cast: James Allen
Patricia Donegan
Dereck Garner
Leonard Kraft
Niall McGinty
Peter Moore
Jim Poole
Bronwen Prosser
Julia Siple