Review: One Flea Spare (Eclipse Theatre)

  
  

Eclipse tightly weaves sexual and cerebral dark comedy

  
  

Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) and Bunce (JP Pierson) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani.  Photo by Scott Cooper

  
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
One Flea Spare
   
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Charles’ Law: confine elements together, turn up the heat, watch them expand. Prevent them from expanding, and you watch them burst.

It’s a basic principle of chemistry, and a loose outline for any drama in which characters are trapped together during a crisis. The heat, per se, in Naomi Wallace’s 1995 play is in part the Great Plague that ravaged London during the 17th Century, L-R: Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.and in part the class and sexual inadequacies of her characters: a wealthy couple quarantined inside their home, and the two poor, desperate scavengers who sneak in for shelter.

Twenty five days into a preventative lockdown with boards and a guard (Zach Bloomfield) sealing the couple’s walls and windows, a young servant disguised as a wealthy man’s daughter (Elizabeth Stenholt) and a sailor (JP Pierson) inadvertently extend the couple’s incubation stay from three more days to a full twenty eight. Tensions quickly escalate.

The plague is only the backdrop in Wallace’s story—to some of these characters, it’s more or less a nuisance than a crisis. The real threats within the estate are offenses to each others’ presumptions and social sensibilities: sexual bargaining, class warfare, homoeroticism…One Flea Spare explores these tasty ideas with a steady mix of poetry and prose, absurd comedy and claustrophobic tension.

Even with violence always looming, and several onstage nods to penetration, the experience is more intellectual than visceral. It’s always satisfying to think about, if Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.only mostly fun to watch. Underneath the play’s linear-plot exterior lies a mosaic play’s heart, mashing together styles and tones, sometimes with enlightening results; other times, the product is more convoluted.

Director Anish Jethmalani is able to help keep the show grounded in places where Wallace doesn’t, knowing not to overwhelm the tightly packed text. Her straightforward and precise staging provides clarity to themes that could easily otherwise be murky. The cast does likewise. This small ensemble is exceptional, especially Brian Parry as the proud, aging, and sometimes oafish house master. Susan Monts-Bologna achieves sympathy without victimhood as his oppressed wife, and JP Pierson conveys a sense of maturity that’s found somewhere in between a young man’s idealism and an adult’s surrender to reality.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt, center) introduces herself to William and Darcy Snelgrave (Brian Parry and Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper

 

All photos by Scott Cooper

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REVIEW: Sketchbook X (Collaboraction)

Collaboraction celebrates the creative spirit with Sketchbook X

 Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre. http://www.collaboraction.org

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook X:   People’s Choice
   
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $20-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

What is a play exactly? Is it a dramatic staging of a story? Is it people moving around in a physical space in front of an audience? And furthermore, what separates a play from a sketch or a scene or even a performance art installation?

Pictured (left to right): Jeffrey Gitelle, Ian McLaren and Emily Shain in “Eighty Four” written by Cory Tamler, directed by Dan Stermer. “Eighty Four” is one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27 at The Chopin Theatre These are the questions I was left pondering after seeing Collaboraction’s tenth annual Sketchbook festival, a showcase of original mixed media performances. This  year’s theme was “exponential.” Yes, it is fairly nebulous, and this is perhaps one reason why the output lacks a certain concreteness and cohesion. Characters and plot become secondary to evoking visceral emotions. Sketchbook X in many ways is more circus than drama.

This isn’t to say that the finished product is all spectacle and no substance. There are some standout pieces.

The one that clearly stands out the most is Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Unlike other pieces that become crushed under their own weight, Five Lesbians is a witty, stylized comedy. Devised by Evan Linder, the play features five women (Sarah Gitenstein, Mary Hollis Inboden, Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa and Megan Johns) who head a local social club centered around a shared love of quiche. The women click and cluck like 1950s southern church ladies and harass the audience. When communist Russia bombs the outside world, all quiche is destroyed. The women go into a tizzy, which leads to their outings.

Five Lesbians works because it is the most refined piece of the festival. The script feels fully fleshed out, the actors are well aware of their characters and the comedic timing is impeccable. There is a lot of commitment, and there is little ambiguity. It has an aesthetic all its own that is so engaging I’d pay to see a full-length production.

Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre

Other standouts include Sacrebleu (devised and performed by Dean Evans, Molly Plunk and Anthony Courser), a pantomimed, slapstick comedy about two eccentric French fur trappers. The short monologue The Blueberry (written by Sean Graney and featuring Celeste Januszewski) is a thoughtful meditation on existence that explains string theory with blueberry imagery.

Other pieces, however, just don’t pan out. What I’m Looking For (written by Brett C. Leonard and featuring Joel Gross and Heather Bodie) is little more than a heavy-handed music video for a Rufus Wainwright song. Meanwhile, The Untimely Death of  Adolf Hitler (written by Andy Grigg and featuring Eddie Karch, Anthony Moseley, Erin Myers, Greg Hardigan and Dan Krall) lacks enough wit to drive the piece beyond its premise. But you can’t expect all the pieces to be gems. Besides, if you don’t like something, just wait 7 to 10 minutes for another play.

Sketchbook-Four-Women As usual, Collaboraction has succeeded in making the festival feel like a big event. The interior of the Chopin Theatre is awash in glowing light and fog. Two large screens flank the sides of the stage and streamers stretch from the floor to the ceiling. It all makes for a breath-taking first impression.

If you want to see all 19 pieces in a row, you’ll have to see the show on a Saturday. Be warned, though. It’s a 4.5-hour long journey, though you are encouraged to come and go as you please.

Overall, Sketchbook X is a mixed bag of intriguing works. The majority of the pieces lack refinement, but there are a few plays that are polished treasures. The theme gets lost among the many productions, but I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, Sketchbook is more of a party that aims to celebrate the creative spirit, and in that sense, it succeeds.

   
   
Rating:  ★★★
   
   

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Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “A Song for Coretta”

The Way We Live Now: Promise and Disillusionment in Pearl Cleage’s “A Song for Coretta”

The cast of Pearl Cleage's 'A Song for Coretta', now being presented by Chicago's Eclipse Theatre Company

Eclipse Theatre Company returns to Pearl Cleage’s work with A Song for Coretta, after successfully featuring her as a playwright, novelist, and poet throughout their 2007 season. Eclipse’s 2007 production of her first play, Blues for an Alabama Sky, won several Jeff Awards, plus a Ruby Dee Award from the Black Theatre Alliance for the actress TayLar.. (who is presently playing the character of Helen in this production).

All the women in A Song for Coretta come to honor and memorialize Coretta Scott King on the rainy evening of her funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church. But what can they do with Coretta’s memory, or memory of the Black Civil Rights era, in the face of the dire challenges that eviscerate their community today? Cleage strives to regenerate the meaningfulness of that memory in the presence of generational divisions, between those for whom the Civil Rights struggle is still within living memory and those for whom it either lives only as a stirring image of African American unity, or does not live at all, since its limited benefits are no match against today’s corrosive injustices.

A Song for Coretta TayLar is pitch-perfect as the stalwart, churchgoing Helen, the only mourner present who has actually met Coretta Scott King; Niccole Thurman’s Zora conveys an earnest college student, covering the funeral for NPR, who is completely unconscious of her own naïveté; Kelly Owens’ Mona Lisa, a resourceful, bohemian Katrina survivor, embodies the kind of soulfulness that truly suggests magic; Kristy Johnson’s Keisha is by turns fiery, obstinate, arrogant, and vulnerably lost; Ebony Wimb’s Gwen comes across as stiff, even for an Iraq War veteran, yet she maintains the power to convey Gwen’s trauma simply with her eyes.

No one can deny the gifts or intentionality of the cast. Still, there is only so much that talent and stagecraft can bring to an incomplete work. The trouble is that they are trying to do so much with so little—an interesting situation, since it stands in direct relation to the dilemmas faced by the characters.

As badly as we need a play like this, Cleage may be trying to pack too much into one act. The result is a severely abridged overview of the African American generation gap, plus gangsta culture, plus Katrina, plus the Iraq war. Sadly, this gives the play a “movie of the week” quality. Characters are introduced as emblems of issues, not in-depth characters in their own right, so the conflicts between them are superficially addressed, as are the issues they are supposed to represent. There are humorous as well as riveting moments, but nothing that comes close to the knowing wit and complex insight with which Cleage has regaled readers and audiences in the past.

Songs-for-Coretta-3 Part of the problem lies in how the Black Civil Rights era is remembered in the play. Much as we may love Helen–with her church lady demeanor, her tailored dress, her tightly coiffed helmet of gray hair, and her outrage over the current generation’s insolent sloppiness, ignorance, and apathy–her representation of that era belies all the dangers of perceiving it through rose-colored glasses. If Helen was a child during the Montgomery bus boycott, then surely she grew into adulthood during the 60s and 70s, during the rise of the Black Power movement, the assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X, JFK, and Robert Kennedy; during the equally devastating crisis of the Vietnam War. There is nothing halcyon about Helen’s past and therefore no real reason to have her only portray that past beatifically to Zora.

Likewise, Keisha’s role in the play is also troublesome. She is supposed to be emblematic of the unrealized promise of the struggle for civil rights. While war metaphors are linked, and rather stiltedly, through an exchange between Mona Lisa and Gwen over Katrina and Iraq, there is hardly any acknowledgement in the play of the gang war conditions that have ravished Keisha’s life of education, opportunity, or a sense of history. A few of her lines just barely suggest it: “Old people are always talking about somebody died for us. Well people die all the time nowadays, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it don’t even matter what for—they still just as dead.” This is why her decision to forego abortion is no more comforting than the song–“This Little Light of Mine”–the women sing together at the end. Both seem like band-aids on interminable problems.

One can only hope that A Song for Coretta is an embryo for future work. We sorely need playwrights like Pearl Cleage, who will question the value of freedom, especially if it only means being free to carry out the state’s imperialistic adventures. Indeed, as there are outlier studies which show that schools are more racially segregated now than during Jim Crow, then in the year 2009, in every way that truly matters, we may be back to square one.

Rating: ««

A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage
Buy Tickets
A Midwest Premiere
Directed by ensemble member Sarah Moeller
June 11 – July 26, 2009
at The Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm

Video footage of A Song for Coretta:   Video 1 and Video 2

Songforcoretta-old

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