Review: An Enemy of the People (Stage Left Theatre)

  
  

Stage Left’s ‘Enemy’ requires suspension of cynicism

  
  

William Watt as Doctor Stockmann, An Enemy of the People. Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
Stage Left Theatre presents
   
An Enemy of the People
   
Original play by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by
Arthur Miller
Directed by
Jason Fleece
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Before many can know it, one must know it.’ Corporate, government, media, medical: which “expert” is most credible to announce an environmental threat? Stage Left Theatre presents An Enemy of the People. The play was originally written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen and adapted in the 1950’s by Arthur Miller. It’s1959 in Norway. The Institution has capitalized on a vacation hot springs spot. The entire town benefits from tourists seeking a healthy retreat. The doctor at The Institution finds killer bacteria in the water. Delighted over the important scientific discovery, the doctor tells the mayor the deadly risk to the community. The mayor doesn’t have an emergency response. In fact, the mayor believes the real harmful substance isn’t in the water…. it’s his brother. The mayor and the doctor also happen to have a toxic brother relationship. The doctor wants to alert the public to the health risk. The mayor wants to Scene from 'An Enemy of the People'. Stage Left Theatre. photo by Johnny Knightisolate the problem… his brother. It takes a village to avoid a scandal. The town takes sides against a brother. An Enemy of the People is a nostalgic look back at days gone be. It’s the simpler times when elected officials, local newspapers, and spring waters were unquestionably pure.

The premise of the play requires suspension of cynicism. In 2011, Americans drink water out of bottles, scan the Internet for credible media sources, and scrutinize every politician comment for bullshit. The very plot of the play requires a childlike wonder that is difficult to muster. Without it, connecting with the characters is difficult. This particular production never quite successfully bridges the generational gap. Some directorial choices by Jason Fleece makes the flow clunky and artificial. The large cast has some individual standout moments but overall seems disjointed in attempts to come together. In the lead, William J. Watt (Doctor) plays it over-the-top and in-the-face, whining his opinion. Watt seems less like a man of science and more like a spoiled child. In a complete departure from the play’s intention, a sympathy arises for his persecutors.The other brother, Cory Krebsbach (Mayor) plays it much more subtle. Krebsbach is all-politician smooth-talking the town into rallying against medical expertise and their own health. Bringing comic relief, James Eldrenkamp (Aslaksen) is funny ‘in moderation’, Kurt Conroyd (drunk) makes a hysterical spectacle and Sandy Elias (Morton) is a curmudgeon cartoon.

The set, designed by Alan Donahue, has an Ikea-does-cabin-look. It’s all wooden with a strong modern ambiance. Apparently, the middle of the set provides a shadowboxing effect for a mob scene. The audience semi-circles the stage. I was sitting stage right and didn’t observe the dramatic effect.

Back in the day, An Enemy of the People must have raged a war on authority. Today, Americans are continually in conflict with leaders. The evolution of thought to modern times makes the content less profound. This production is somewhere between an enemy and a friend of the people.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

An Enemy of the People continues at Theater Wit through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:30pm.  Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission. Tickets are $22-$28, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-975-8150.

  
  

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REVIEW: Proof (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

 

Must proof be a prerequisite for belief?

 

Proof-Hal (Nick Freed & Claire (Nilsa Reyna) photo by Scott L. Schoonover

    
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
Proof
  

Written by
David Auburn
Directed by Alex C. Moore
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Proof, a play by David Auburn, a fascinating piece of work that plays with the double entendre of the word “proof” that occurs throughout the show: literal math proofs being solved as well as the need for proof to discover the truth. How can a person prove a fact that seems impossible? Can someone who’s certifiably lost their mind prove to still be a genius in their work? Chicago Fusion Theatre touches on these and so much more with their production.

Robert (Sandy Elias and Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover) The set design, by Scott Schoonover, is subtle yet bold, particularly in the color choices of stark white against bright blue. Suspended above the stage are multiple torn-apart notebooks full of mathematical equations. The rest of the set mimics the notebooks in both color and information, with the stages outer walls also covered in equations.  A mirrored backdrop provides the actors space to add additional equations. The set itself if bare save for one chair.

Proof opens on Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano), on her 25th birthday, talking with her father, Robert (Sandy Elias). Desipite DiCristofano and Elias having a real connection that radiates out into the space, DiCristofano starts off a little shaky as she tries to find her ground. As the show continues, however, she definitely improves and finds the depths of Catherine. Elias is instantly personable as he fills the space. When he speaks he owns the stage with an amiable presence.

The plot twists and suddenly it’s clear that Catherine is, in fact, speaking with her dead father – whom she’d taken care of in life – in her own thoughts. It’s a quick turn that pulls the audience further into the action, then caries it forward. Hal (Nick Freed), a former student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s old notebooks, looking for uncovered mathematical discoveries. Freed is funny and charming in his role; he understands his character’s intentions and brings Hal to life.

Catherine’s sister Claire (Nilsa Reyna), returns home for their father’s funeral and to help Catherine out until she figures out what to do. Reyna starts out flat, especially as her character demands that emotions are let loose loose and exposed. DiCristofano, on the other hand, flourishes with her understated, dry humor as she delves into the depths of her character.

Hal (Nick Freed) photo by Scott L. Schoonover Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover
Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano & Robert Sandy Elias) photo Scott L. Schoonover Robert (Sandy Elias) Photo by Scott L. Schoonover

DiCristofano, like Elias, has great stage chemistry with Freed. They play well off of each other. Whenever there’s a scene between DiCristofano and Elias or DiCristofano and Freed, it’s captivating.

Through Proof, the action moves quickly and efficiently. There’s no point in which a scene drags on or is dragged out, allowing the scenes to flow and keep the audience’s attention. In between scenes the characters all add more and more mathematical equations to the walls of the set, adding to the chaos occurring around them. It’s an interesting punctuation between the performances and character interactions.

When Elias takes the stage later in the show in flashbacks of Catherine’s memory, he’s quite a stage presence. He’s full of life and commands the audience’s attention so it’s impossible to tear yourself away.

As the characters become more emotional, the scenes become more raw and heart wrenching. Since it’s such a small space, you can see all of the emotions play out in the actor’s eyes, pulling us into the action and holding us hostage.

Chicago Fusion has given us proof that they are a talented company, ably conveying their seismic artistic voice in intimate spaces.  

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott Schoonover) Proof plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through November 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (312) 988-9000 or at the Royal George Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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Review: Piccolo Theatre’s “Black Comedy”

Precision, passion still needed in “Black Comedy”

Black Comedy

Piccolo Theatre presents:

Black Comedy
by Peter Shaffer
directed by P. Marston Sullivan
thru October 31st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

If timing is everything in comedy, then that is true in spades for Peter Shaffer’s comic staple Black Comedy, onstage now at Piccolo Theatre, directed by Peter Sullivan. Written in the 1960s, this outrageous British sex farce requires broad physical comedy blended with exquisite timing to work. Pity the cast that has not had substantial experience or training in that area. Their efforts truly are a lot of flailing around in the dark.

Black Comedy That’s too bad, because this cast definitely displays the energy for it. Brindsley (Adam Kander) is a young, struggling artist about to privately show his work at his apartment to a mysterious millionaire, Mr. Bamberger (David W. M. Kelch), who could make his fortune. The sale of his work is also meant to placate his potential father-in-law, Colonel Melkert (Andrew J. Pond), into letting him marry his poncy fiancé Carol (Liz Larsen-Silva). With Carol and Brindsley redecorating his bare flat with the posh antique furniture “borrowed” from next-door neighbor Harold (Brian Kilborn), their plans for a successful showing are ruined by a blown fuse and Harold’s early return from his weekend away in the country.

In the role of Brindsley, Kander does the yeoman’s job, in that his character must move all the furniture back to Harold’s apartment in the dark out from under everyone’s nose . . . or arse . . . or something. This is where the majority of the physical comedy takes place. Not a role for the faint of heart–or an actor without the skills of someone like Jim Carrey. What is more, Kander’s interpretation lacks the mischievousness that would make his character think that he could pull this whole thing off in the first place. Brindsley must be something more than just a desperate loser; he’s a desperate loser who thinks he can win.

Sullivan’s staging delivers some good bits, but without the requisite skills to execute them, it’s like watching the cast paint by the numbers. Spontaneity and surprise vanish into thin air.

Under-training plagues the whole production; even the dialect needs more consistency throughout the entire cast. Comic timing also goes missing in the preliminary sketches taken from British comedy favorites. It’s tough to tell a production to go back to the drawing board, but there it is.

Little moments of characterization are enjoyable: Liz Larsen-Silva is delightfully annoying as the spoiled Colonel’s daughter. Kelli Walker’s Ms. Furnival would probably writhe her way out of her clothing eventually, alcohol or not. Sandy Elias’ role as Schuppanzigh adds some badly needed, earthy humanism. The cast is certainly proficient in developing their roles. Would that their skill set had expanded sufficiently to pull off this monstrously demanding comedy.

Rating: «½

 

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