Review: Jackie and Me (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

Jackie Robinson honored with fun and dynamic storytelling

 

  
     

Pictured (far left) Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, (seated, with baby) Tracey Bonner as Rachel Robinson, and (far right) Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

  
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
  
Jackie and Me
      
Written by Steven Dietz
Based on book by Dan Gutman
Directed by Derrick Sanders
at  Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Avenue (map)
through March 27  | 
tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago Children’s Theatre has a triumph on their hands. Their world premiere production of Jackie and Me has nothing less than heart—miles and miles of heart. Based on the children’s book by Dan Gutman, frankness and joyful simplicity dominate Steven Dietz’s script. Derrick Sanders’ fresh and focused direction energizes the story of Jackie Robinson, the black athlete who broke the color barrier in baseball. Jackie and Me doesn’t just relate Robinson’s story accessibly to young Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilowaudiences, but also makes it lively, passionate and dynamic. The play teaches young people the degrading and often dangerous racism Robinson had to overcome just to play in the white major leagues. But equally threaded throughout the story is an unquenchable enthusiasm for baseball, its history and power to connect generations.

Young Joey Stoshack (Tyler Ross) has an undying love for baseball. Joey also has a peculiar gift—by simply holding an old baseball card in his hand he can travel back in time to meet the baseball player pictured on the card. When his teacher gives his class the assignment of writing biographical reports of great African Americans, Joey is relieved to learn that Jackie Robinson is on the list. An old friend Flip (Sean Cooper) lends him a Bond Bread card with Jackie Robinson’s picture on it and he travels back to learn history as it happened.

The characters of Jackie and Me are drawn bold and big—and they don’t get much bigger or bolder than Branch Rickey (Charles Stransky) signing Jackie Robinson (Kamal Angelo Bolden) to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Sanders’ direction allows his cast to project their characters with directness and clarity while exuberantly moving the story forward–and the production goes beyond idealizing the larger-than-life characters of Rickey and Robinson, simply and potently enshrined by Stransky and Bolden. Just when one thinks the time travel bit won’t convince, it convinces. Just when one thinks the story’s unabashed optimism might come off too hokey or old-fashioned, it convinces. Sanders and his excellent cast bring across the nobility and hopefulness of Robinson’s achievement with masterful assurance.

     
Pictured (from left)  Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Sean Cooper as Jackie’s Dodger teammate Pee Wee Rees, and Patrick De Nicola as Phildelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Charles Stransky as Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers,  who signed the first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson, played by Kamal Angelo Bolden. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Ross’s open and straightforward emotion allows audiences, both young and old, to connect with Joey’s journey. Patrick de Nicola provides infinite comic relief in a number of other roles in which he plays Joey’s rival. As Joey’s Mom and Dad, Vanessa Greenway and Ron Rains make warm, human and realistic parents. Chicago Children’s Theatre goes to the very heart of storytelling and reveals the diamonds that are there. Jackie and Me has the stuff to uplift and rejuvenate audiences of all ages and remind them of the glory of baseball at the center of the American Dream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

Performances of Jackie and Me continue through March 27, 2011 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25 for children (ages 17 and under) and $35 for adults, available through CCT’s website, chicagochildrenstheatre.org, or the ticket hotline, (866) 811-4111.

Jackie and Me is recommended for children ages 8 and older as it deals with historical racism in an honest manner.

(from left) Sean Cooper as Flip, owner of the baseball card shop frequented by time traveler Joey Shostack, played by Tyler Ross. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson - Jackie and Me - Chicago Children's Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 

Artists

Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, with Tracey N. Bonner (Rachel), Patrick De Nicola (Ant), Ron Rains (Dad), Vanessa Greenway (Mom), Sean Cooper (Flip) and Charles Stransky (Branch Rickey).

Production: Steven Dietz (playwright), Derrick Sanders (director), Ian Zywica (set), Seth Reinick (lights), Christine Pascual (costumes), Michael Griggs (sound) and Kimberly Morris (props), Michael Brosilow (photography).

     
     

REVIEW: The Artist Needs A Wife (side project)

Cohesive set adds clarity to an otherwise jumbled script

Freud stabs painting

the side project presents: 

The Artist Needs a Wife 

by Jesse Weaver
directed by
Carolyn Klein
thru February 14th (ticket info)

review by Ian Epstein

The side project’s production of The Artist Needs a Wife, by Jesse Weaver, tells the claustrophobic tale of Freud and Mott (played by John Ferrick and Chris Hainsworth).  Freud and Mott are two older, similar looking, starving artist types.  The duo lives in a decrepit hovel that doubles as a garden level apartment with walls so leaky, rusty, and paint-smeared that the canvas of Freud’s many-year masterpiece looks like a natural extension of the wall itself.  His muse is a woman named Whore (Allison Cain).  If she hadn’t dried up at the same pace as Freud’s inspiration to paint, the pair might’ve produced something like a de Kooning together.  Instead, there’s a lot of struggling. 

In fits and starts, Freud and Mott come and go, looking for a touch of Michelangelo’s genius at the bottom of a box of corn flakes or hidden among the pages of a Polish mail-order bride catalog.  When they don’t find inspiration in these places, they make bold dramatic gestures: stabbing the empty box of cornflakes to the wall with a carving knife or tearing the apartment to pieces.  And in a moment rife with dramatic possibility, one even orders the redheaded bride that the other was eyeing in the catalog.  Suddenly the image in the catalog is flesh, and Whore has competition in the form of a sexy little redhead (Ann Sonneville) with a thick stutter.

Katja with knife at Mott's throat Mott punches Whore

All of this sounds great, but the script feels like a sprawling rough draft with too little knowledge of its many subjects to be either funny or serious.  It reaches towards the kind of tension that builds up in the back and forth of a Pinter exchange supplemented with a healthy dose of the absurd – but it doesn’t grab hold of anything.  There isn’t a particularly developed stage vocabulary for lack of inspiration so this prominent thematic thread is hard-pressed to hold an audience’s interest for what feels like an unending two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes.  Whenever passage of time comes up, the actors dismiss it with affected lists — a trait that might work if the actual chronology of the characters were made legible anywhere (the walls, the plot, their intimacy).   There are words misused without intending to be, confusion about Polish being written in Cyrillic (which it isn’t), and profanity that reads like a loud placeholder for what a truly ticked-off down-and-out artist might yell.  All of this leaves the audience excusing too much of the playwright’s shorthand to enjoy the show.

William Anderson‘s set, with its moldy colors, its cramped, cockeyed amenities, and its fragmented ceiling tiles may be the only piece of this production that strikes a tone appropriate to the subject matter.  It is especially admirable for its clarity, economy, and versatility. 

Rating:

FEATURING: Allison Cain, John Ferrick, Christopher Hainsworth, and Ann Sonneville 
CREATIVE TEAM: Carolyn Klein (director) William Anderson (sets), Emily Duffin (props), Miles Polaski (sound), Greg Poljacik (fights), Seth Reinick (lights), and Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes)

Tickets: $18 General, $12 Industry   (with H/R, business card or student ID)
Group discounts available

REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

Democracy03

Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: Piven Theatre’s “Two by Pinter: The Lover and The Collection”

Piven needs to push the envelope

 Grimm & Black

 

Piven Theatre Workshop presents:

Two by Pinter: “The Lover and “The Collection

by Harold Pinter
directed by Joyce Piven
thru November 15th (buy tickets) 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Grimm & Black - V Two early works by Harold Pinter, The Lover (1962) and The Collection (1961) onstage now at Piven Theatre Workshop, probably shocked their audiences when they first premiered. Replete with BDSM and homoerotic undertones, they explore the games people play while maintaining or establishing control within a marriage or among multiple sexual relationships. Quite appropriately, you won’t find leather, whips, or chains in founder Joyce Piven’s interpretation of these little capsules of Pinter. But that doesn’t mean the dramatic stakes should be any lower for lack of accoutrement. There’s plenty of emotional sadomasochism to go around and charge the evening with peril.

Dana Black (Sarah) and Lawrence Grimm (Richard) in The Lover are certainly well paired as a married couple spicing up their relationship with their own version of extra-marital dalliances. Both are excellent in expressing an aloofness that masks the need for control in the dynamics of their sexual cat-and-mouse play.

Strangely, though, lack of chemistry plagues their efforts to depict characters with a driving need to play these games, for whatever reason. Since cool surface adherence to social pleasantry is as much a part of this couple’s game as anything else, it’s difficult to suggest just when lust and risk, danger and fear should emerge to take the foreground. But take place it must or the audience will sense the actors are playing it safe or that there are no stakes here worth playing for—either in physical or emotional safety for these characters. Black’s performance compellingly pulls the action toward the risk of intimacy, but that risk has to stand in stark contrast to the politically incorrect possibility of violence and subjugation.

Reed & Francisco - VThe Collection fares a little better since actors Jay Reed (James) and John Francisco (Bill) take more risks, especially in venturing toward the violent. Francisco’s Bill is charming, erotic, and shifty enough to take on any role he feels required of him in the moment; Reed plays James with just the right suggestion of privilege and pomposity that gets him into trouble later on. It’s in this second one-act that Grimm, as Harry, gets to pour on Pinter’s icy, savage language with a relish he seems denied as Richard in the first one-act. It’s a play with more teeth in it–but even then, the actors could push it a little farther.

There you have it–at the risk of sounding gratuitous, let there be more sex, more violence. These are middle class people with dark, dark dreams. I respect the need not to be over the top, but pulling punches also does grave disservice to Pinter’s works. Piven and cast must demonstrate that they are not afraid to go into the night.

Rating: ««½

 Reed & Francisco - H

 

Productions Personnel

Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Joyce Piven
Prod. Manager: Jodi Gottberg
Lighting Design: Seth Reinick
Sound Design: Collin Warren
Props Design: Linda Laake
Dialect Coach: Jodi Gottberg
Set Design: Aaron Menninga
Stage Manager: John Kearns
Cast: Dana Black
John Francisco
Jay Reed
Lawrence Grimm