Review: Woyzeck (Oracle Theatre)

     
     

‘Woyzeck’ shows uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

  
Oracle Theatre presents
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Translated by David Steiger
Directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: free (public access)  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Woyzeck, now onstage at Oracle Theatre, is not just a searing, bold display of German expressionism, it’s also a unique theatrical experience of uncompromising vision, daring and macabre power. Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1837 tragedy about a working class soldier faced with insurmountable oppression, madness and betrayal has seen several revisions, including Werner Herzog’s film of the same name. David Steiger’s translation utilizes direct, clear poetry in expressing Woyzeck’s (Sean Patrick Ward) terrifying schizophrenic state. But is it the multiple elements pulled together by Max Truax’s direction that carry the day—or, rather, the unrelenting night–from which Woyzeck cannot escape.

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max TruaxEric Van Tassell’s lighting design, with its bleary reds and blues, melds perfectly with the projected images of wild fields inexorably buffeted by the wind (cinematography by Michael Fernandez and Jeremy Applebaum, video design by Max Truax and Bill Ryan, projectionist Ben Fuchsen). James Ogden’s set design elevates the stage to give us subterranean levels that reflect not only the hellish depths of Woyzeck’s mind but also the darker undercurrent of the human soul. One feels that when the actors are playing on top of the stage, they are always a step away from its precipice, emotionally as well as physically. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design crowns the production with its eerie nails-on-the-blackboard effects. Woyzeck is mad, but madness surrounds him, it is his environment, it is the world in which he lives.

The Captain (Sarah Shook) and the Doctor (Sarah Pretz) stand out as Woyzeck’s primary tormentors—the former believing that his underling must be immoral by dint of his poverty, the latter conceiving of Woyzeck as little more than a specimen for his experiments. Both actors possess disturbing otherworldliness, enhanced, no doubt, by the gender-bending aspects of their performance. But it’s Pretz’s deliciously icy delivery that brings home the benighted place that Woyzeck holds in 19th century society. Furthermore, it presciently foretells the development of Nazi eugenics a century before the Third Reich.

Reduced to being a pawn in his lowly position, Woyzeck can hardly hope to hang on to Marie (Stephanie Polt), the mother of his child once the Drum Major (James Errico) sets his sights on her. Ward’s performance as the troubled soldier almost seamlessly portrays a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails, the loss of Marie being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Polt’s sensuality is undeniable; her costume (Joan Pritchard) stands out as one more inspired detail in a production built on ripe symbolism. As for Errico, his flare for vain, bullish masculinity definitely contrasts with Woyzeck’s vulnerability and insecurity, as well as doubly underscoring the terror and despair Woyzeck feels against chthonic and unstoppable desire.

If there’s one flaw in Oracle’s efforts, it’s in its commendable, yet overlong dance sequence (choreography Lyndsay Rose Kane) to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love.” It depicts Woyzeck’s obsessive horror with Marie’s betrayal, as well as subversive desire in general. A bit of editing here would only punch up the piece. Dragged on too long, the power of the moment becomes lost. But this is just one flaw in an otherwise dead-on production. Oracle knows how to reap the most dread out of oppression, cruelty, heartlessness and insanity. Theirs is the must-see show of this season.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

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Review: Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” by Mae West

Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” Only Puts Out a Little

 Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 2 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Prologue Theatre presents:

Sex

by Mae West
directed by Margo Gray
thru November 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 5 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) I’ve long wanted to see Sex, the play that put Mae West in jail. Mae West was one of America’s great crossover artists, bringing more risqué influences from vaudeville and jazz to the so-called “legitimate” stage on Broadway. She appropriated elements from African-American artists and the drag balls of the Pansy Craze, lifting comic styling wholesale from female impersonators Burt Savoy and Julian Eltinge. For her part, West daringly imported queer culture into the mainstream with her plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man. But then Mae West was about all sex, not just the straight variety.

Prologue Theatre Company is obviously conscious of the historical value of these American theatrical and cultural developments, staging Sex at the turn-of-the-century Gunder Mansion, now serving as the North Lakeside Cultural Center. The play occurs en promenade, an element that both does and doesn’t work for the production. Transitioning the audience from room to room certainly emphasizes shifts in place from Montreal to Trinidad to Connecticut. However, the time it takes for the audience to make it into their seats from one room to the next also produces clumsy delays between scenes and the travel up and down stairs definitely limits accessibility.

What created scandal in West’s time seems tame in ours. Yet Jes Bedwinek, as the savvy working girl Margy Lamont, infuses her leading role with the right amount of suggestiveness. She borrows just enough of West’s timing and inflections without devolving into an utter Mae West caricature–successfully acknowledging her illustrious forebear while at the same time making the role her own. Anne Sheridan Smith molds her role as the philandering society matron Clara Stanton, to be the perfectly balanced foil to Bedwinek’s Margy—just as lusty, yet hemmed in by cultural refinement and conventional restraints. As the doomed prostitute Agnes, Rebecca L. Maudlin brings realism and sympathy to a role that could have been rendered as simply pathetic. It’s a woman’s play, after all; the things of greatest consequence happen to the women characters.

 

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex1 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 3 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)
Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 6 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 4 (Photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Director Margo Gray has honed the cast to adhere to naturalism, as opposed to the heavily stylized acting of West’s era. It’s a choice that definitely scales the production to the more intimate setting of Gunder Mansion, as well as clarifying and updating the play for a modern audience. It’s also a choice that exposes the weaknesses of uneven casting. Gray has brought from her successful run of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret Sean Patrick Ward (Jimmy Stanton) and Christopher Chamblee (Lt. Gregg), yet many cast performances are too scattershot to convey a cohesive ensemble. Nathan Pease’s turn as Margy’s pimp, Rocky, is sleazy enough yet still doesn’t contain the menace needed to threaten convincingly.

For my money, the audience gets stinted the most during the more vaudevillian portions of the play. The opening of the first scene in Trinidad should shine with musical numbers that warm the audience to Margy’s culminating performance of “Shake That Thing”—a classic Ethel Waters tune that Mae West appropriated. A little more jazz and enthusiasm, as well as a little more shakin’ that thing, might easily make up for musical deficiencies. Or perhaps Tinuade Oyelowo should be given more numbers to rock the audience with that voice of hers. Whatever the case, this is supposed to be the Roaring Twenties, not the Ironic 90’s or the Tight-ass 50’s. It’s not a good sign when there’s more fun to be had listening to the singing of drunken sailors on shore leave.

All in all, the shortcoming’s of Prologue’s production resigns it to community theater status for all their efforts. As Mae would know, it takes performers with a lot more on the ball than this to produce good old-fashioned entertainment.

Rating: ★★

 

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Review: Point of Contention’s “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret”

Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s

“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”

Point_of_Contention_The-Wonder

Point of Contention Theatre presents:

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret

by Susanna Centlivre
Directed by Margo Gray
Running thru August 26th (buy tickets)
Location: BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio (map)

Review by Paige Listerud

This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.

Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.

Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.

Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.

As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?

One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.

Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.

Rating: «««½