REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

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The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Aelita and Shiny Boxes (Dream Theatre)

More work-in-progress than job-well-done

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Dream Theatre presents:

Aelita and Shiny Boxes

 

by Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui
directed and designed by Anna Weiler
through February 21st (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Aelita and Shiny Boxes are two original one acts by young playwrights Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui, presently premiering at the Dream Theatre. This theater company, which produces only original work, has never before done a show written by anyone other than the artistic director, Jeremy Menekseoglu.

aelitaAelita, by Bil Gaines, is an allegorical story about a young woman who has to kill in order to free her soul. It’s a short play that dives right into big questions about god, violence, and love, while skipping details like relationships and characters, in a quasi postmodern style. The characters are very loose sketches of actual people, often speaking in bold, fragmented ideas rather than traditional dialogical thoughts. They seem to have a minimal point of view in order to bring home philosophical points of the play, and this break down in speech seems to have affected the opinions of the actors. The singular exception is Giau Truong as Amboy, the giant, who is older than death. This is the most clearly written character, and Truong is a charming and amenable actor that is fun to watch. This not totally lacking in humor, Aelita takes itself pretty seriously. The whole production leads up to a moral at the end which is always a tough sell, especially from a young playwright. 

Shiny Boxes, written by Mishelle Renee Apalategui is a tightly structured and nicely staged play about haunting childhood memories and the traumatic transition into adulthood. The set needed for this avant-garde piece is perfect for companies working with smaller budgets, as it uses inexpensive, everyday items to create the suggestion of a nineteen-year-old’s apartment and a child’s birthday party. A multi-colored metallic “happy birthday” banner hangs from the wall, and when the light hits it, it creates an amazing sparkling effect that is as full of nostalgia as the writer intended. The playwright does a nice job of weaving in and out of flashbacks, but this play, like Aelita (maybe even more so) takes itself a little too seriously, and the subject matter verges on melodrama.

As a whole, these plays both possess a didactic, college theater feel. The work and themes show promise.  No doubt both playwrights will grow and mature – creating amazing work in the future, but for now, however, the writing veers towards the immature.

SPECIAL NOTE: Because of a medical emergency that took place on stage during opening weekend, I saw this play twice. I have to make a mention on how professionally and seamlessly the actors improvised and performed the second half of the play without a key actor. The work was so committed that I could not tell that anything was wrong until I received a phone call from the executive director the next day. Another mention to the poor actress who fell ill, her performance while sick was so good, again I had no idea that anything was wrong. Bravo to the cast.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Performances occur Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 21 at Dream Theatre 556 W 18th Street.  Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Street Parking is available.

Tickets are $15-$18, 773-552-8616 / annainthedarkness@gmail.com

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AELITA & SHINY BOXES is a double feature of world premiere plays directed and designed by Dream Theatre Company member Anna Weiler (Somewhere In Texas). Dream Theatre Company invites two new playwrights, Bil Gaines and Mishelle Apalategui. Each writer has a unique style that complements the Dream Theatre Company tradition of high art. Featuring Dream Theatre Company members: Giau Truong, Megan Merrill and Judith Lesser and introducing: Chad Sheveland, Meredith Rae Lyons, Alicia Reese, Sean Murphy and Zach Livingston. Featuring soundtrack music written by Oh My God, Abraham Levitan and Coehlo. Photographs by Giau Truong. Graphic design by Lou Rocco Centrella.

REVIEW: The Exonerated (La Costa Theatre)

Grueling In storytelling, “The Exonerated” lacks dramatic structure

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La Costa Theatre presents:

The Exonerated

 

by Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson
directed by Sonia Alexandria
Thru February 7th (ticket info)

review by Paige Listerud

The vibe created by La Costa Theatre’s The Exonerated feels downright 60s-radical–whether it be in the relaying of 6 true cases of wrongly accused men and women from the late 60s and early 70s, or the soft, plaintive guitar performance in the darkened theater space before the show begins. The language used by the wrongly accused/proven innocent reflects the Boomer generation and their perspective on violent, endemic racism and homophobia. Their voices, as performed by cast, ring authentically but that same period element distances the storytelling from the audience.

It relinquishes this play to being a thing of the past, even though it was only just produced in the first years of this century; even though the gross gaps in our justice system still haven’t been rectified.

lacosta But more than an old hippy feeling compounds the challenge of revitalizing these stories and making their pain immediate. Unfortunately, The Exonerated, which stirred some of New York’s biggest stars to perform in it, which was made into a movie with Aidan Quinn and Susan Sarandon, and was presented to Gov. George Ryan as he pondered a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, sorely lacks critical dramatic structure to make it an enduring work of theater.

Sonia Alexandria strives to keep the direction clean and simple; the minimalism of the barest of sets and strategically crafted lighting creates the right ascetic tone for the production. The effort to craft each story with the actors’ voices and bodies alone is the right move. The trouble is stories exposing some of the grossest injustices inherent in our legal system—stories which should raise hackles on the audience’s heads–get lost in a spliced-up jumble that contains no dramatic arc and raises no stakes. Impact gets lost just where one needs and wants and longs for impact.

Such a deep structural failing cannot be redeemed by the unaffected and earnest performances of a capable cast. That’s too bad, because some manage to achieve deeper resonance than just outrage at what has been done to them. Cliff Ingram’s Delbert Tibs and Theresa Ohanian’s earthy young hippy Sunny remain in the mind long after the lights come up.

For anyone who thinks law enforcement plays out just like the cop shows on TV, The Exonerated will act as an all-too–necessary antidote. For those long familiar with the arbitrary nature of our justice system and the tenuousness of everyday freedom, at the very best The Exonerated will come across as just another day in racist, classist, homophobic America.

Rating: ★★

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