Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Legion (Wildclaw Theatre)

 

Spooky special-effects; original music accent this horror-fest

 
 
Wildclaw Theatre presents:
 
Legion
 
adapted by Charley Sherman
directed by
Anne Adams
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 18th
(more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The story of Legion, the sequel to “The Exorcist”, has taken many forms: first as a 1983 novel by William Peter Blatty, then as a film (The Exorcist III) and now it is a play, adapted by Wildclaw’s Artistic Director Charley Sherman, and presented by WildClaw Theatre.

WildClaw’s favored subject matter is the frightening and supernatural. When horror is done right it’s one of the most fun and satisfying types of show to see – the audience feels like a unified place when everyone is afraid of the same boogeyman.  The boogeyman here is two-fold. The string of murders that start Legion off match the M.O. of the Gemini Killer, who was supposed to have been killed twelve years before the start of the play. And of course being the Exorcist sequel, it must feature the worst villain in the history of literature: Satan. So what exactly is going on? Who is committing the murders? I’ll never tell…

Legion takes it’s name from a biblical quote that Blatty uses at the beginning of the novel The Exorcist: “Now when [Jesus] stepped ashore, there met him a certain man who for a long time was possessed by a devil … And Jesus asked him, saying, ‘What is thy name?’ and he said, Legion … “ Given the references to Mafia murders, the Vietnam war and the Holocaust that Blatty references after, it makes one wonder what exactly this Legion is. Is it’s the darkness and rage of humanity that makes this Satanic literary duo so terrifying? It’s not simply the devil. In contemporary society of different beliefs, cultures and mindsets, a biblical tale of demonic possession is not enough to strike fear into a universal audience. But you don’t have to believe in the Christian bible to think Legion is scary.

The main character, Lt. Kinderman is Jewish. His consistent references to kibitzes and Matzo are enough to make one a Meshugina, but the incorporating of a religion other than Christianity reminds the audience that this is a story about man, not God. Len Bajenski’s very endearing yet, (there is no other way to say this) Colombo-esque performance as the detective is more familiar than derivative and is a nice counter-balance to the heavy, daunting subject matter.

LEGION_strip

Despite it’s serious side, Legion never forgets to be entertaining, especially with the over the top special effects skillfully done by Fraser Coffeen. The audience gets to witness the horrific crime scenes with Lt. Kinderman, bodies and all. Of course, the gore does not look real but there is a fun, campy theatricality to the poor victims in Mr. Blatty’s dark tale.

The adaptation takes great care to loyally mirror the book on stage, which can lead to information overload. Trying to cram the density of a novel into a two-act play is too much: too many characters, too many ideas, and too many subplots. Didactic speeches about the existence of God and the nature of man can be cut down substantially. The large cast still relies on double and triple casting of almost all of the actors, and the effect is confusing and overwhelming. Legion soars when it distances itself from the novel and finds its strength as an independent play. The best example of this is a comedia del arte inspired flashback to the childhood of the Gemini killer that is startling and extremely engaging.

The glue that holds this entire production together is the fantastic original music by Scott Tallarida. The screeching strings are reminiscent of the score from the movie Psycho. The music is both terrorizing and humorous, to a very entertaining end.

Director Anne Adams has made a creepy play. Her instincts about when to be campy and when to be down to earth are dead on. The staging of some of the larger group scenes are usually clean and precise, although some staging drifts into clutterdom. Not to give anything away, but Cheryl Roy is fantastically creepy in the ensemble and Scott T. Barsotti gives a performance that will make one jump in one’s seat – perhaps to one’s embarrassment.

Legion is a play that lives in the dark and the light: it’s political and scary and light and cinematic all at the same time. It’s unafraid to push the limits of on-stage horror to the maximum. While not a perfect production, this play hits all the right marks for a fun night out.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

   

Continue reading