Review: Wonders Never Cease (Provision Theater)

  
  

Broad brush strokes make paradoxical play

  
  

Wonders Never Cease - Provision Theater - poster

  
Provision Theater presents
   
Wonders Never Cease
  
Adapted and Directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the book by Tim Downs
at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Provision TheaterCompany‘s world premier production of Wonders Never Cease has all the trappings of a wacky children’s comedy. Think “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “3 Ninjas”. Its overly simplistic portrayal of religion, faith, people, relationships, right and wrong makes it easy to follow but hard to stomach. Jokes arise out of tired premises, while characters are pulled from the archetype bargain bin. And the ending is so saccharine sweet, it will make your stomach turn.

Caroline Heffernan as Leah - Provision TheaterProvision is known for its religious-themed plays. Its mission is to produce works of "hope, reconciliation and redemption." Wonders Never Cease is no exception. It attempts to dramatically answer the question, "Do angels really exist?" Unfortunately, the sophomoric manner in which it illustrates this theme is so simplistic it’s insulting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not. The surface-level treatment this weighty topic is given is sadly laughable. By painting with such broad brush strokes, playwright Tim Gregory (who adapted and directed the play and serves as the company’s artistic director) inadvertently creates a number of paradoxes that muddle the meaning and erode the play’s potential.

Wonders Never Cease centers on Leah (the very talented and young Caroline Heffernan), a little girl who claims to have seen an angel on the side of the road. Those close to her are skeptical of her visions, including her mother (Katherine Banks), her mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Kitley) and her teacher (Matt Klingler). Leah’s bizarre visions raise eyebrows, and soon the school is recommending a complete evaluation.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend, Kemp, works as a nurse who isn’t afraid to overstep his authority. When he is assigned to care for a comatose female celebrity (Holly Bittinger), he devises a moneymaking opportunity. This is good news for him, considering he owes big bucks to an East Coast loan shark (Sean Bolger). Kemp, the loan shark, the celebrity’s agent (JoBe Cerny) and a book publisher (Michael Wollner) conspire to fool the celebrity by implanting her with a false religious vision. The plan is that when she eventually comes to, she’ll confuse the ruse for reality and write a best-selling novel. I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice to say, things go awry.

Despite its weaknesses, the play has several strong points. First, the acting is top tier. Little Heffernan is a darling young actress. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her. The performers are eloquent and dynamic. Unfortunately the characters they’ve been assigned to are paper-thin. In fact, half are offensive cultural stereotypes. You have an overweight mammy, a wise old black man, an Italian mobster and a Jewish talent agent who occasionally drops some Yiddish and, at one point, refers to himself as a parasite.

A scene from "Wonders Never Cease" at Provision Theater in Chicago.

The play delivers one comedic triumph—the spot on Oprah impression. The opening parody commercial is a funny bit, too. It’s for a book titled Lattes with God and seeks to lampoon all those feel-good, spirituality books on the market. But unfortunately, the play lacks the awareness to understand the slippery slope it establishes. If Lattes with God is absurd, what about the premise of this play? For that matter, what about the books of the Bible, which were notated by men who were also hearing the word of God? Does the presence of a latte make all the difference?

In addition, the play has a very myopic view of spirituality. The cartoonishly villainous bad guys try to create a false dogma, one that centers on the self. Their catchphrase is, "It’s all about you." I get it. This is the "me" generation, and blatant selfishness is wrong. But they confuse the notions of self-love and self-compassion with pride and greed. In the words of Ru Paul, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?"

On a technical level, Wonders Never Cease is a good play. The production level is high, and the acting is strong. But underneath the high-gloss finish is little more than marshmallow fluff. This is junk food for the brain. It’s accessible and immediately gratifying. But you’ll be hungry for some substance soon after.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Wonders Never Cease runs runs Saturday, April 30 through Sunday, June 5 at Provision Theater located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25). Student and group discounts are available. For tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org.

  
  

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Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Theatre Mir)

  
  

Brecht’s musical play restored is vital and thrilling

  
  

Kristen Secrist and Mira Vasiljevic in Theatre Mir's 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle'. Photo credit: Adam Orton.

  
Theatre Mir presents
  
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Alistair Beaton
Music by Chance Bone
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at
The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After a buildup of Western airpower in the Mediterranean this week, the French foreign minister was asked if the military operation was meant to remove Muammar el-Qaddafi from power: “No. The plan is to help Libyans choose their future.” It is in this strikingly resonant world backdrop that Theatre Mir has staged their fourth production, Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 musical play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The production is the opening to the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State Theatre.

Theatre Mir does not do easy plays. Chalk Circle is intellectual, philosophical and incredibly relevant in terms of current events in places such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is the type of play a UN Ambassador might want to take in during his free time. All the while, director Jonathan Berry and Theatre Mir have created a production that is equally entertaining and human. Alistair Beaton’s recent contemporary translation also deserves much of the credit.

Kristen Secrist and Jeremy Kahn in Theatre Mir's 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht. Photo by Adam Orton.One notable attribute of this translation is Beaton’s inclusion of the “play-within-a-play” prologue, wherein a diplomatic official (crafted with great care and humor by Stephen Loch) must convince a war-torn town and their farmers that a collectivist economic and social outlook is necessary for survival. However, the official must first watch a play. To this he pleads, after being informed that it will last two and a half hours, “Couldn’t you make it any shorter?” Simply put, it probably could be, but in the end you do not regret the time you’ve spent.

The play revolves around the idea that when you take down a totalitarian government, and the people are left to decide their future, there is often a circular occurrence where the oppressed become the oppressor. It also challenges what it means to be “good” in such conflicts. We are taken through the tale by the singing narrator, played by the talented guitarist and actor, Zeke Sulkes. Sulkes played a similar function in The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance (our review ★★★½) earlier this year, which has some conceptual parallels to this production with the cast picking up and playing various instruments throughout the play. This element also achieves Brecht’s famed “alienation” effect by always reminding the audience that these are actors in a play. Chance Bone’s folk rock scoring adds a driving cultural liveliness to the evening.

After the prologue, we begin the play in a Caucasian town called Grusinia amidst an emerging civil war. The governor (played by Yosh Hayashi, and ironically mocked by Hayashi later when he takes on his more pivotal role). The governor is beheaded and his widow (Mira Vasiljevic) flees into exile leaving behind her infant child, Michael. A servant girl, Grusha (Kristen Secrist), discovers the child and takes him away from the town to safety. She first has pledged her love and allegiance to a departing soldier, Simon (Jeremy Kahn). Throughout her travels she battles, begs and borrows to protect the child and quickly develops a maternal attachment. She eventually weds a dying man (a crass Sean Bolger) to provide for the child, which makes things complicated upon Simon’s return. Secrist plays Grusha with utmost passion, ambition and love. She leaves nothing on the table with this role and carries the first half of the play.

We learn with Simon’s return that war has ended. Order has seemingly returned, and so has the governor’s wife looking for her child. However, the second half of this play is dominated by one of Brecht’s most fascinating characters, Azdak. He is the drunken scholar turned judge who redefines the definition of what it means to be “good.” Yosh Hayashi is thrilling as Azdak. He is constantly versatile and unpredictable. His performance truly showcases his talents, proving to be one of the most captivating actors working in this city. The play boils down to the chalk circle in which the young Michael (now a toddler created effectively in puppet form by designer Megan Hovany) must stand in the middle of the circle while Grusha and the biological mother compete in a tug of war with the child. The outcome is perfect and creates wonderful philosophical debate during after-show drinks.

This particular space at The Viaduct poses many challenges for any set designer or director. However, scenic designer Chelsea Warren creates a found material stylistic set. It is functional and avoids realism, playing well with Brecht’s intent. Melanie Berner’s costumes are an excellent guide to help the audience keep track of which social class the ensemble is playing at any given time. Meanwhile, Bone’s underscoring is as effective as his melodies. A certain use of a slide whistle here, or a saxophone bellow there, add humor and energy to lines.

Overall, Berry makes excellent use of his cast through employing them in various roles as musicians, dancers, actors and stagehands. His staging provides for fascinating movement, including one moment when Grusha must cross a treacherous bridge with the child to flee her pursuers. The ingenious and simple technical method of achieving this moment culminates in one of the most immediate and suspenseful moments of the evening.

While Chalk Circle incorporates all of the entertainment and heart of a Broadway musical, it also leaves you with bleak unanswered questions. One of Brecht’s lines that echoed with me this morning as I read an article on rebuilding Egypt was, “War is over. Fear the peace.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Poster for 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht, presented by Chicago's Theatre Mir.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $25 (regular price), $20 (seniors), $15 (students) and $10 (industry). For more info and reservations call (773) 296-6024 or visit: www.theatremir.com.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre will close the festival with The Voodoo Chalk Circle, a retelling of Brecht’s story adapted by Chelsea Marcantel, April 8-May 1. This adaptation will be set amidst a hurricane strike in New Orleans. Festival tickets to both performances are $30.

All photos by Adam Orton

     
     

Review: SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s “Ivanov”

For love or money

 Ivanov_3

SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov
directed and adapted by Sheldon Patinkin
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s production of Ivanov rises above most in that it is performed in the style in which Anton Chekhov wrote the play: not as an adaptation set in modern times or filled in with action to keep the attention of the modern audience, but set instead in the 1800’s, a time dull in activity but vibrant with conflict underneath the passive text and assumed action taking place off-stage. The complex characters portrayed by the lead roles makes this Anton Chekhov play a play worth seeing at Viaduct Theatre, as the ensemble rises to the difficult challenge of maintaining Chekov’s dark tragic feelings with the wittiness of Ivanov’s comedic comments on life.

Ivanov_4 Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov tells the story of self-loathing land owner Nikolai Ivanov (Jeremy Fisher), whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and who is drowning in personal debt. Once a desirable young man – fun, kind and respected – Nikolai married Anna (Cyd Blakewell). After marriage, Anna converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodox and therefore was denied her large family inheritance that many neighbors claim is the only reason Nikolai married Anna in the first place. Stuck in a depression that he cannot shake Nikolai sulks and is unmoved by Barkin’s (Ryan Martin) constant ideas to acquire financial prosperity and The Count’s (Sean Bolger) pleas for companionship or at least entertainment. The honest doctor (honest to the point of being self-righteous) informs Nikolai of his wife’s terminal diagnosis. No additional sadness sweeps Nikolai, for he has already reached an emotional bottom, and – respecting the doctors bluntness – he opens up to him about his own depression and lack of empathy for his wife.

These Chekhovian Characters are played well in the opening scene, especially by Jeremy Fisher as Ivanov and Johnny Russel as the doctor. They have a dark, even-keeled yet sullen personality with a tint of humor in their lines, reflecting the absurdity of life.

Nikolai’s depression doesn’t keep him from gallivanting off at night to a party at the Lyebedev’s estate where his new wealthy attraction Sasha is celebrating her birthday. As the repartee repeatedly drones on about how bored they are (via comical comments on their unfulfilled lives), Nikolai and Sasha are intimately conversing. Once they believe that they are finally alone Sasha and Nikolai are caught in an adulterous kiss by Anna who disobediently followed her husband to the party.

True to Chekhov’s style, the drama (or fight) between the three love interests takes place off stage. Still together with Anna, and trying to be a better man, Nikolai avoids Sasha until two weeks later when she comes to his estate to see him. Sasha, played by Sue Redman, gives an intriguing speech about why women are attracted to whiny desperate men and plays the martyr by telling him to stay with his wife, but with Anna’s illness and Ivanov’s sinful tendencies there is still a lot to play out.

Ivanov_2

The set, designed by Jacqueline Penrod, is able to switch from the outside porch of Nikolai’s property to the inside of the Lyebedev’s upper-class home. In the opening scene Nikolai sits void of emotions at his simply crafted chair and table on the wooden front porch of his wooden home with the eerie death cries of an owl. The outside porch is designed too similar to that of a ranch and there is not much in the set that shows the countryside in which the play takes place. When the wooden walls are removed the depth of the Lyebedev’s living room is shown with a large dining table in the back for the guest to play cards and open space to converse while entering and exiting through the back door. The family room is up front with two couches facing each other (so the eligible bachelors can gaze at the eager young ladies) and a chair at top where Pavel Lyebedev (Howie Johnson) sits in his complacent bliss.

The wardrobe designed by Frances Maggio brings more to the plays atmosphere than the stage design, with dated clothes that have the sense of the 1800’s when this play was written, and all dressed in black as if it were a funeral when outside of Ivanov’s estate.

The main characters of SiNNERMAN’s production are talented – keeping the plainness in Chekhov’s characters while also bringing to life the complexity behind their lives. Chekhov has written no complete villain or saint. We cannot empathize with Nikolai because we do not trust his character, but yet we also do not know if he actually has malicious intent; he may be the victim of gossip and bad luck.

Cyd Blakewell delivers a fantastic performance as Anna; tired, desperate for attention and naive to the true feelings of her husband. She speaks with great drama allowing the humor in her ignorance to hit the audience subtly as Anna herself has no idea that what she is saying sounds ridiculous. Her defense for her husband makes one feel pity for the mistreatment and neglect that she has endured.

For a Chekhov fan, this play is a chance to see one of his lesser known plays, and SiNNERMAN’s performance is worth seeing. It is performed by the book, and the brilliance of Anton Chekhov is supported well by the talented lead actors. Some of the supporting actors/actresses come off a little cartoonish and out of character, but overall this is a quality performance from a very cool theatre company. This is not a play for someone looking for a lot of physical action or even a lot of verbal action, but the conflicts are there and you will be surprised in the way Chekhov’s plays can entertain.

Rating: ««½

Ivanov is playing at Viaduct Theatre, 3111 Western, Chicago, through November 7th.

Ivanov_1

Theater Thursday: “The Hollow Lands” at Steep Theatre

hollowlands logo

Thursday, June 25

The Hollow Lands
by Howard Korder
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Come to Steep Theatre before the show to enjoy a wine and cheese reception and stay afterwards to meet the cast, director, and designers and partake in the Opening Night celebration. Steep’s special blend of grit, edge, and ensemble work comes to life in this story about America’s early pioneers. Jim, a young Irish immigrant, arrives in New York in 1815 with dreams of boundless freedom, legendary profits, and unseen kingdoms. It is the cost of his 40 year pursuit that becomes more than he imagined. The Hollow Lands, directed by Jonathan Berry, traces a nation’s journey towards its Manifest Destiny and the trail it leaves behind.

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25
For reservations call 312.458.0722 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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