Review: Elephant Man (Red Ink Productions)

     
     

Messy production needs to find the reality

     
     

Red Ink logo

  
Red Ink Productions presents
   
   
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Wenda Shereos
at First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The story of Joseph “John” Merrich (Scott Cupper), otherwise know as the Elephant Man, is one of hope in the face of tragedy, and the goodness that can live under the most hideous of exteriors. Deformed at a young age, Merrick toured Europe as a sideshow attraction until he met Frederick Treves (Tyler Cove), a compassionate doctor who invited Merrick to be examined at the London Hospital, the place Merrick would call home until his death at the age of 27. Bernard Pomerance’s play focuses on the later years of Merrick’s life, as he begins to reenter a world that had shunned him, now visited by royalty rather that the taunting masses.

Directed by Wenda Shereos, Red Ink’s productions suffers from a lack of honesty in the performances, and there’s an artificial quality to the acting that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage. In the title role, Cupper gives the strongest performance, capturing Merrick’s tortured sadness with only a few of the character’s physical deformities. There’s no makeup or prosthetics used on Cupper’s face, and it would have been nice to see some more done to emphasize Merrick’s mutated features. The costumes are some of the more polished elements of the productions, so it’s odd to see the Elephant Man depicted with such little augmentation.

Merrick’s relationship with Mrs. Kendall (Natalia Leonard), the actress hired by Treves to show John affection, reveals glimpses of a better show, and there’s genuine tenderness in Kendall’s treatment of her client. Kendall becomes the first woman to feel John’s touch, and Cupper resonates with need and satisfaction at the small bit of intimacy, the most truthful moment of the show. There are still the occasional instances the Cupper and Leonard are guilty of high school style “face out to the audience” acting, but that’s a directorial problem that plagues other areas of the play more intensely.

Wenda Shereos’ direction is the main problem of The Elephant Man, and the actors haven’t reached the emotional heights needed to land the script’s full impact. The performances are too safe and subdued, and the second act moves at a crawl as a result. Bizarre choices like having the ensemble exit after a group sequence at the start of act two, only to reenter immediately for an almost identical sequence breaks the momentum of the act before if even starts. The production is underscored by cello soloist William Jason Raynovich, who does much to set the tone of the piece through music, but occasionally plays for a bit too long, further slowing down the production. Much of the emotional power of the script is diminished because of the lagging pace of the place, not helped by sloppy technical aspects like blackouts before actors have finished the scene. At one point, two actors actually pantomimed a prop, completely destroying any illusion of reality. That’s not even excusable for a high school production.

The Elephant Man is an ideal play for Red Ink’s mission statement, exploring a life of suffering and the sanctuary that can be found in other people. Although the echo causes problems when combined with some of the actors’ dialects, the church space brings a certain ambiance that emphasizes Merrick’s faith, and the cross that hangs behind the set is a constant remind of the hope and forgiveness Jesus Christ represents. Like Christ, John Merrick is both every man and more than man, and this production just needs more work so the power of Merrick’s story reaches the audience.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Red Ink logo

Red Ink Productions’ production of Elephant Man continues through June 4th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8pm in the First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map).  Tickets are $12, and can be purchased online.

  
  

Review: The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Group)

     
     

It’s bawdy! It’s wacky! It’s macabre! It’s true!

   
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Full Cast Shot featuring Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, & Scott

  
Strange Tree Group presents
   
The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen
  
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I confess! I secretly watch some of the cable ‘reality’ shows about men and women who snap and take out a bumbling hit on their hapless wealthy spouses. Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal that involves sex, drugs, and charming pre-Vaudeville songs? The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a fun romp through the Daguerreotyped and yellowed pages of a Gilded Age tabloid scandal.

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Matt Holzfeind, Stuart Ritter, & Scott Cupper as Doctor CrippenThe Strange Tree Group has presented a new take on the true case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, the milquetoast Dr. Crippen allegedly knocked his trampy spouse off and buried her torso in the basement and then took to the high seas with his girlfriend.

This is a sardonic tale that is made funnier of course by the classic ingredients of comedy: tragedy plus time = comedy. Three actors as the Public, Private, and Fantasy personas divide the character created around H.H. Crippen. Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind play them respectively. It is a great device because each persona is a goldmine of material and might be overwhelming if played by one actor. The three actors bounce off of each other with breakneck dialogue and double takes. They regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. “What about the corpse?” That is a line repeated to great effect for laughs. After all, there is a dismembered body in a claw foot tub while the three personas argue over what to do.

Speaking of great affect, I loved Kate Nawrocki as the deliciously trampy, spoiled, and doomed Cora Crippen. She has the wonderful look of a Gibson girl gone bad.

Playing the opposite and supposedly good girl is Delia Baseman as Ethel LeNeve. Ms. Baseman plays the part of innocent waif mixed with Olive Oyl. It’s fun to see her go from office drone to obviously a little freaky for milquetoast and a dead tramp’s mink coat.

The entire cast is pitch perfect rolling in and out of scenes and talking to the audience in character. The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a Thomas Nast caricature come to life. The songs are sung in the old Vaudeville style touching on the pre-burlesque edginess. Ms. Nawrocki does the harlot sings like Victorian waif to perfection. She is first seen in the claw foot tub surrounded by shiny balloon bubbles. The balloons are popped in burlesque manner when Cora blasts into her true colors and corset. Cora Crippen meets her death in that same tub in true tragicomic fashion. The lurid red satin ‘entrails’ and beating heart precede le piece de resistance- a lock of Cora’s hair. It’s funny on two fronts: it’s what put the noose around the real H.H. Crippen’s neck and it’s a hair weave. See my previous confession about trashy reality television. Cat fights and hair weaves abound when past meets present in this quirky and fun production.

     
Matt Holzfeind and Kate Nawrocki as Cora and Hawley Crippen Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Delia Baseman as Ethel Le Neve and Stuart Ritter as Doctor Crippen.  Photo credit: Tyler Core
Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - - Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, Scott Cupper, & Delia Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group 012

I got the feeling of a sepia toned “Laugh In” set with one liners delivered with perfect timing. Cory Aiello pops in and out as Crippen’s son Otto. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but is spot on through facial expression and body language. The tittering ladies of the social set are quite fun and nicely cast. Carol Enoch, Jenifer Henry, and Jennifer Marschand are dressed in lurid red as they query the audience about telegrams. They enter and exit in staccato steps that give the effect of an early film reel.

All of the actors are made up in white face and bright red cheeks in a nod to the macabre theme of death and romance. Ms. Baseman also designed the costumes for The Three Faces.  She makes excellent choices to recall an era gone by. The pre-show is fun and intriguing as well, with Baseman and Nawrocki singing songs from the Gilded Age. The character of Ethel clacks away at her typewriter relentlessly in rhythm as Cora lounges in the bath exuding luxuriance and a louche attitude. I wish, however, that they had projected a bit better. Some of the lyrics to “A Bicycle Built for Two” got lost or dropped. I’m a music geek from back in the day but it would have served the plotline to hear the innocence of the words in contrast to the deviant behavior.

Strange Tree Productions states that they are committed to producing pieces that celebrate the strange and the magical…and the surprisingly usual nature of unusual behavior. They have succeeded with The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen. From this day forth, I will always question a handlebar moustache and check the labels on my homeopathic medicines!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Bob Kruse, Kate Nawrocki, & Cory Aiello

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays through April 24th as part of Steppenwolf’s 2nd Annual Garage Repertory. These are plays from edgy and talented playwrights and theatre companies on the cutting edge of the craft. They are housed at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. More info at www.strangetree.org

All photos by Tyler Core.

     
     

REVIEW: The War Plays (Strangetree Group)

  
   

Time travel can be fun!

 

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 010

   
The Strangetree Group presents
   
The War Plays
   
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by Kate Nawrocki
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
Through Nov. 20  |  
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Go back in time to World War II with Emily Schwartz’s quirky The War Plays, three connected one-acts about love during wartime given an especially charming bridge in The Strangetree Group’s world premiere production.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 002Do get to the theater early — about 20 minutes before the announced curtain time, the cast commences a musical pre-show designed to start your travels back to the 1940s, and it’s well worth your time. Musical Director Jennifer Marschand plays the lead singer in the five-piece Allied Orchestra, performing period numbers such as "G.I. Jive" and "In the Mood" with Scott Cupper, Noah Ginex, Karen Shimmin and Thomas Zeitner. They play throughout the show, providing the segues between each piece. Like many groups that played during the war, they make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in musical talents.

Announcements, costumes and more really convey the flavor of the time. In a wonderful touch as we walked in, I saw one actress drawing a fake stocking seam up the leg of another one.

Once into the theater proper, we get more music (a nice rendition of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," among others, and then the first act, my favorite of the three. In this charmer, Delia Baseman and Marty Scanlon play a pair of teenagers who meet in the London Underground during an air raid. She’s an American, looking after her young brother (Michael Mercier), and hates everything about England and every minute of the war; he’s a cheeky young local who finds the Blitz exciting and romantic. You can practically see the sparks fly as they connect.

Next, Patrick Cannon plays a dull-witted and gawky soldier out at a dance hall with a young woman whose company he’s paid for. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on between them — she’s apparently neither a dime-a-dance girl nor a prostitute, but something in between. Cannon is all ungainly awkwardness while Jenifer Henry ranges from petulant disdain to slow tenderness in a sequence that provides a fine contrast to the first act.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 005

In the longest and least successful of the three plays, Bob Kruse plays a stiffly unhappy soldier invalided home and unable to get rid of an intrusive visiting relative (a debonair Weston Davis) who, to his embarrassment, brings him face-to-face with the lover he’s abandoned (a grim Elizabeth Bagby). While it features the most overt comedy of the trio, this act has the least heart.

Including the pre-show, the whole thing runs about an hour and 15 minutes. The War Plays is a short trip back in time, but a fun one.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 001

Photographer: Tyler Core

   
   

Production Cast

Elizabeth Bagby, Delia Baseman, Patrick Cannon, Scott Cupper, Weston Davis, Noah Ginex, Jenifer Henry, Bob Kruse, Jennifer Marschand, Michael Mercier, Marty Scanlon, Karen Shimmin, Thomas Zeitner

   
   

Review: Shakespeare’s King Phycus (Strangetree Group)

A hilarious romp through Shakespeare’s tragedies

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The Strange Tree Group presents
  
Shakespeare’s King Phycus
  
Written by Tom Willmorth
Directed by
Ira Amyx
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Written in 1988, Shakespeare’s tale of King Phycus and his children Juliet and Hamlet is the bard’s first tragedy, a clunky amalgamation of characters and situations that could best be described as a rough draft of the legendary Tragedies that followed. Thought lost for centuries, the play reappeared in the 19th century, but phycus-plotting productions were halted for their connections to the Astor Place Riot and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Yes, the history of Tom Willmorth’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus is completely fictional, but it is the sort of detail that shows Strange Tree’s commitment to their concept. This isn’t a Monty Python-esque farce (it totally is) – this is Shakespeare’s lost tragedy, and the actors perform it with all the grandeur and importance a forgotten Elizabethan masterpiece deserves. In contrast with the ridiculous content of the play, the actors’ stern execution of their craft enhances the comedy of the piece, whether it is the street battle waged with weaponized fruit or the Nurse’s stream of dead baby retorts.

Shakespeare’s King Phycus is at its best when the humor comes from exaggerating the absurdities of Shakespeare’s plots and language. The language of the play, like any rough draft, needs a lot of work. The alliteration is overly aggressive, the rhymes are awkward and many times nonsensical, and wordplay is used so frequently that oftentimes characters lose track of what they’re even talking about. But that’s the point, especially when it comes to the heaps of classic lines that Willmorth butchers with his horrendous poetry, e.g., “By the picking of my nose, something wicked this way goes.” Yuck.

phycus-stareoutWithout the work of the talented ensemble, the script would collapse under its own weight, but the actors’ handle on Shakespeare’s language adds integrity to the play. An Elizabethan rendition of “Who’s on first?” is funnier because the actors are on point with the rapid fire banter of broken up iambic pentameter. Conversely, Friar Don’s (Scott Cupper) final monologue is completely unintelligible, showing that this cast doesn’t need consonants and vowels to be funny.

With each actor playing multiple roles, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a demanding show performed admirably as the versatile ensemble transitions between roles  seamlessly. Michael T. Downey is noteworthy in the title role, particularly post-eye-gouging, playing the fantastic physical gag so well that the joke never gets old. phycus-chorus-pointingBob Kruse’s wonderfully creepy necrophile Gloucester and Carolyn Klein’s vulgar Nurse are also standouts, with both actors taking the exaggerations of the language and matching it with appropriately outrageous physicalizations.

As funny as Shakespeare’s King Phycus is, when Willmorth relies too heavily on pop culture references (“Isn’t it Ionic, don’t you think?) and unnecessary fan service (Friar Don is a ninja!), the results are groan-worthy and take away from the timelessness of the concept. Some of the jokes go on a little too long, like a dance sequence between Brutus, Romeo, and Sardonicus that could use a good minute of cutting, but the production still stands up well despite these flaws. Like the play’s fictional history, the little details are what make Shakespeare’s King Phycus great, the chamber arrangement of “La Cucaracha” playing in the background of the ball, the improv warm-ups of Hamlet’s friends Goldenberg and Rosenstein. For anyone that loves Shakespeare and wants to see some of his best plays reconstructed then put together in the most haphazardly hilarious way possible, Strangetree’s productions will not disappoint.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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Review: Collaboraction’s “G.I.F.T.”

You Can Have Your G.I.F.T. Back

 G.I.F.T._1


Collaboraction presents:

G.I.F.T.

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

G.I.F.T. by Collaboraction is a different form of theatrical performance compared to the traditional plays around the city. It is an unconventional multimedia event that makes an effort to appeal to all of your senses. Unfortunately, this innovative an artistically funky production fell short of entertaining me.

G.I.F.T._2 G.I.F.T. is more of an event than a traditional play. Walking into the large warehouse in a single file line, swerving around a gravel path into a “fantasy” room filling up with a hazy, glowing fog; strangely dressed people in an over-stimulated euphoric state greet me beaming with smiles and warmly welcomed me as if we have been best friends for years. I paused, turned to my guest and jokingly said “I think I have been to this party before.” I smell the incense, looked around at all the crazy characters moving about as if in their own pleasant world and said, “…and I might have been on the same drugs before too.”

Needless to say, G.I.F.T. opens with a trippy, unorthodox experience of mingling-with-the-cast-and-audience in the fictional world that Collaboraction has created. The shock-effect wears off quickly; soon you might find yourself standing there holding weird objects I never knew the meaning of as well as talking to friends about other plays they have seen throughout the week. The audience is left standing around too long to maintain the initial feeling of entering into another dimension and soon one loses interest in what is going on around them.

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Eventually we are led out of the foggy realm and through another door for the main show. I felt a little like “Alice” who has just climbed through one rabbit hole into a crazy utopian circus and being led into another with no idea what to expect. Through the door you get a sense of intimate space, created by the white glowing floor that curves up into the walls, leaving no corners on the stage. The set design and lighting creates a mystic atmosphere that allows one’s imagination to determine the exact location (I imagined the north pole.)

The main performance consists of a series of reenactments signifying what a gift means, none of which are very enlightening. The acting feels rehearsed and the interactions in each skit feels more like an actor’s exercise. Collaboraction may have been trying to reach out to a more artsy audience – one that is looking for something new and innovative – but G.I.F.T. is just weird and boring.

Rating:

 

G.I.F.T. is playing at Firehouse Square, 459 N. Wolcott through Nov. 29th



Featuring: Saverio Truglia, Aurelia Clunie, Carla Kessler, Hannah Phelps, Catherine Glynn, Antonio Brunetti, Gregory Hardigan, Scott Cupper, Jeremy Harris, Andy Junk, Emma Stanton, and Amber Robinson.