REVIEW: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)

     
     

REVIEW: Dracula – A Tragedy (Redtwist Theatre)

 

Odd adaptation upends clever atmospherics

 

DracMIna

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Dracula: A Tragedy
   
Written by Mark Mason
Directed by Stephen James Anderson
Inspired by the novel by Bram Stoker
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago (map)
Through October 31  |  
tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Along with Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s vampire, Dracula, is among the most iconic figures of horror ever created. Even those who’ve never read the original novel (which you really should) or seen one of the scores of films inspired by it (is there anyone who hasn’t?), know something of the tale, although it has been twisted and turned and altered in innumerable ways.

Mina and Renf in Redtwist Theatre DraculaFor Redtwist Theatre’s perverse and gruesome version, Dracula: A Tragedy, playwright Mark Mason takes more liberties than most. He has appropriated Stoker’s characters but almost none of his plot. Instead we get an incoherent mess of spooky weirdness.

The atmospherics are great. Stephen James Anderson, who doubles as director and designer, has done a great job with the set. Arriving theater goers walk down a long dark corridor past ragged gray-robed figures muttering prayers into a long, narrow black box theater. A woman sits near a fire, working at an old-fashioned manual typewriter. At rear stage, we see a huge crucifix. Shimmery hangings enhance the creepy effects.

The music, muttering and typing continue all the while the spectators file in and the play starts. The effect is spoiled somewhat, though, by the viewers, since without a clear signal of the start of the action, the audience doesn’t know when to stop yakking and turn off their cell phones. It’s a pity, but these times require some kind of announcement.

Playing Count Dracula, Bob Pries looks the part, I’ll give him that. Deep set eyes, sharp nose, widow’s peak, prominent ears — he looks like a handsome Nosferatu — with a hokey Bela Lugosi accent.

Drac has just arrived in England on an exploding ship, and purchased a lunatic asylum, complete with inmates, and the count seems bent on making more crazies.

The novel’s chief victims, Mina Harker (Ariana Dziedzic) and Lucy Westenra (Shannon Riley) have been turned into closet lesbians; the madman Renfield (Dustin Whitehead) is Jack the Ripper. Dracula intends to take over England, apparently by forcing Mina’s husband, Jonathan (Sean Ogren), to impregnate her, an act that occurs on stage in a sort of black sabbath.

 

Koffa JonMina Mina

Anderson does some clever things with the staging, such as characters who crawl onstage out of a fireplace, but he’s aimed his cast somewhere between melodrama and over-the-top camp. That follows the script, which segues between histrionics, violence and sudden, disconcerting efforts at humor — which, judging by audience reaction on opening night — rarely succeed.

Ninety minutes without intermission, this version leaves out Van Helsing, the novel’s chief vampire hunter, as well as two of Lucy’s three suitors, Transylvania and nearly all of power of the original.

Dracula: A Tragedy, might be best enjoyed if you forget about trying to follow the storyline and just take it as a sit-down version of a haunted house. (Some of the seats in the 29-seat theater are backless benches, by the way, so arrive early for a comfortable selection.)

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

JonMina

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REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

EQUUS2

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

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Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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