REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

Strawdog and Brecht a wicked good combo

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

 
Strawdog Theatre presents
 
The Good Soul of Szechuan
 
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
David Harrower
Directed by
Shade Murray
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 29th  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Bertolt Brecht believed epic theatre would reveal society’s immorality and incite virtuous action in its viewer. The genre is formulaic by nature, and in the wrong hands, epic theatre is just tedious. The techniques intended to alienate the audience – actors playing multiple characters, unrealistic settings, costumes and props in plain sight, the occasional musical interlude – do just that, but have the potential to disinterest more than disaffect. It takes a skilled ensemble to find emotional resonance when a script intentionally creates a hurdle in the actor’s connection with the audience, but Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.comStrawdog Theatre’s cast and creative team use the conventions of epic theatre to enhance David Harrower’s gritty translation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The updated language pulls Szechuan into the present, turning the city into a modern industrial metropolis filled with selfish people that hate their lives as much as they each other. The dialogue should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been on the CTA, with the characters indulging in profanity-driven whining as prostitute protagonist Shen Te (Michaela Petro) tries her hardest to appease their demands. Modernizing the language has the potential to push the style into realism, but there is enough stage business and audience participation to keep the theatrical artifice at the forefront. As patrons are seated, a house band plays rousing folk-rock while actors warm up on stage and interact with unsuspecting members of the audience. Make no mistake, these are actors putting on a show, not actually the characters they portray. So it’s still epic.

From the orgasmic chants of “Shen-te, Shen-te, Shen-te!” that signal the main character’s entrances to the ethereal strings that soundtrack the Gods’ (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, Anita Chandwaney) scenes, music is used to quickly establish tone and give the actors added support. Intended as one of those pesky alienation techniques, the musical numbers have such energy and passion that it is difficult to not feel moved, especially when the entire ensemble raises their voices together. The actors double as the band, and their vocal quality is matched by clear and confident accompaniment that showcases the various instrumental talents of the cast. The only song that never really clicks is “The Song of Smoke,” a headbanger sung by Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts) that lingers a little too long and stretches the character’s fury past its breaking point.

Director Shade Murray is adept at tragicomedy, and he finds the humor in Harrower’s downtrodden Szechuan. When Shen Te can no longer handle the greed of those she aids, she creates Shui Ta, a brash male alter ego. Shui Ta’s tracksuit and gangster swagger are laughable, but when Petro puts on her ass-kicking boots she does not play around, especially when she pulls out a brick of heroin. The exaggeration of her costuming and behavior strike a comedic chord as her actions take her deeper into darkness, creating laughs that are tinged with uneasiness. Most of the humor comes from the characters acting despicably – the aggressive disrespect of Shen Te’s houseguests, the flippant bitchiness of her landlord Mrs. Shin (Shannon Hoag) – and each laugh is another reminder that this is a performance, forcing the audience to question what exactly is so funny.

In the end, it’s another Brecht show with another Brecht message: Capitalism makes people do bad things. The biggest problem with epic theatre is that after a while it’s just not fun to watch people struggling, but when a company is having as much fun as Strawdog does in The Good Soul of Szechuan, the dark corners of human depravity don’t seem that bad a place to be.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

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REVIEW: Abigail’s Party (A Red Orchid Theatre)

“Let’s get pissed!”

abigail

A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Abigail’s Party

by Mike Liegh
directed by Shade Murray
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Suburban popularity hinges on repressed emotions. Irritating neighbors are tolerated and marital woes are hidden all in the name of keeping up appearances, but what happens when the inhibitions that keep these feelings in check are removed? Hilarity ensues.

abigail_home The year is 1977 and Beverly (Kirsten Fitzgerald) is waiting for her husband Laurence (Larry Graham) to arrive with lagers before guests arrive for a cocktail party. Cheesy pineapple bites have been set, the fiber light has been switched on, and the hostess is grooving to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” while sipping a gin and tonic. A few houses down, punk rock teenager Abigail is throwing a party of her own, but the real action is about to begin in the Moss’s living room, the setting of Mike Leigh’s hilarious Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid Theatre, exquisitely directed by Shade Murray.

Angela (Mierka Girten ) and Tony (Danny McCarthy), newcomers to the neighborhood, arrive first, followed by Susan (Natalie West), the title character’s divorced mother. Drinks are poured as small talk begins, the men discuss cars, the women furniture, and all is pleasant and respectable. This picturesque gathering quickly develops cracks in its facade as drinks are topped up and people become looser with their tongues, revealing the problems that lie under the surface.

Leigh’s script was largely developed through actor improvisations, and the evidence is apparent in the dialogue. Characters check in with their listeners to make sure they are paying attention, and at one point two completely different conversations are happening at the same time, a rare occurrence on stage but something that can be heard at any party. The rhythm of the dialogue moves at a clipped pace that intensifies as drinks are poured, but the actors never become caricatures of inebriation.

Alcohol is the medium through which awkwardness flows in the play, and Fitzgerald’s Beverly is the main instigator. She jumps at the chance to criticize Angela’s makeup once the men are away, openly mocks her husband, and in the play’s most uncomfortable moment gets a little too intimate with Tony. “A little row adds sparkle to a relationship,” isn’t just something she says, but something she lives by, and her abhorrent behavior is a way to garner an emotional response from the lifeless Laurence. Beverly mirrors Abigail’s party, becoming more invasive in the lives of those around her as her neighbor’s punk rock grows louder, disrupting her perfect evening.

Fitzgerald may be the life of the party, but her supporting cast doesn’t play second fiddle. Graham’s Laurence may be a square, but he matches his wife’s aggression when threatened, and his intellectual nature serves as a great foil to Beverly’s vivacity. Girten is hilarious as wide-eyed doormat Angela and McCarthy is appropriately brutish in his mostly silent role. West essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent, and while primarily serving to drive the plot forward, Susan becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.

Rating: ★★★½

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Review: Next Theatre’s “End Days”

 Elvis and Jesus on stage at last

 

elvis-end-days

Next Theatre presents:

End Days

by Deborah Zoe Laufer
directed by Shade Murray
thru November 29th (ticket info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein

End Days, playing through December at the Next Theater in Evanston, is a light-hearted family comedy with dark, dramatic roots.  Penned by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days borrows a few oblique bits and pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame and pushes them into orbit around a lighter, domestic version with similar, less philosophical and philosophically bleak, core themes. 

Laufer’s End Days focuses on a dysfunctional family trio: the Steins.  At the play’s outset, the family has descended into a kind of isolated, feuding madness.  Spear-heading this romp is Sylvia Stein (Laura T. Fisher), who hunts through the house for impurity and sin with Jesus literally at her side.  Whether hallucination, incarnation or just some by-product of Sylvia’s recent mental deviation, Jesus helps Mrs. Stein out around the house.  This gives her frequent exhortations of “Thank you, Jesus” an added jolt of credibility that might otherwise be lacking.  But Sylvia has only recently discovered how much she identifies with evangelical Christianity.  And she’s taken to all this — to stacking bibles, preaching the good book, and admiring her evangelical handiwork– perhaps in part because her husband has withdrawn into pajamas and her daughter has gone over to the dark lord.  

Once upon a time at Sylvia’s side there was Arthur Stein, whose hollow husk is played impeccably by William Dick.  Arthur is a defunct businessman who has traded his Senior VP suit-and-tie for the depressed terrycloth comforts of a bathrobe and constant attempts at eternal slumber.  He can’t even make it to the grocery store, though.  From the few snippets of his past that carry through to the audience in dialogue, it becomes clear that Arthur used to work at the Word Trade Center…until 9/11.  

The last member of the family — wedged between this raving, recently religious mother and droopy father — is high-school student Rachel Stein.  With a few colored streaks in her dark hair and eyes painted with all the spite of Satanic teenage rage, Rachel is the kind of daughter one might expect find in this fractured home.  She’s goth and she’s too damn smart for her own good.  Carolyn Faye Kramer plays the part with a delightful, earnest, heartfelt angst. 

And in case the combination of those three with Jesus helping out in the kitchen doesn’t sound like enough, enter the king: their new 16-year-old, Elvis-impersonating neighbor with a crush on Rachel as ample as his bell-bottoms are wide.  The new teenage neighbor,  Nelson Steinberg, might just have the otherworldly determination to see it through. His determination is so otherworldly, in fact, that by passing along a book to Rachel, Nelson manages to introduce Stephen Hawking into the fray.  Hawking plays a very adept hallucinated foil to Jesus (both are played by Joseph Wycoff).

Nelson’s arrival sets off all the action and by the end we arrive with characters that have undoubtedly changed. That is, something happens.  The predictability of that something might disappoint a few, but Laufer’s characters are paced  quick enough to shove any concerns about her character’s psychological accuracy to the wayside.  The audience barely has time to realize that the play has its hands wrapped deeply around the effects of 9/11 trauma before Stephen Hawking scoots in on a motorized wheelchair to give good advice to a stoned teenage smarty-pants.

Andre LaSalle‘s set complements the  fractured situation in the Stein home with awkwardly tilted living spaces and Melissa Torchia‘s costumes, with Rachel dressed all in black and Nelson in a bedazzled white Elvis gettup, while heavy-handed, are not unearned.  The show is fun.  That’s for sure.  But can you really crack open 9/11 trauma and play it just for laughs and not something fuller?

Rating: ★★½

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Strawdog Theatre announces 2008/09 Season

Strawdog Theatre Company of Chicago announces their 21st anniversary season of presenting “the whole wide world in a little black box,” with the three mainstage plays. These productions, plus on-going late night offerings, will be held at Strawdog’s space in the heart of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood at 3829 N. Broadway Street (for more info, go to www.strawdog.org)

 

Strawdog Theatre 2008-09 Season

“Coping With Disaster”

 

Strawdog Artistic Director Nic Dimond elaborates:

“These Season 21 selections all center on a catastrophic event.  There is the robot rebellion and inevitable obsolescence of humanity in ‘R.U.R.;’ a wartime suicide which heralds the total destruction of an important family in ‘All My Sons;’ and the horrors of the Black Plague in ‘Red Noses.’  Other than providing instant dramatic appeal, this concentration reflects the growing idea that the numbers of natural and man-made disasters we are exposed to every day are becoming numbing, and these explorations are meant to rip the scab off our coping skills.  With our signature blend of brains and brawn, Strawdog continues to emphasize a true ensemble-based acting attack, as well as a design approach that immerses our audiences into the worlds where each of these stories live.”

 

R.U.R – Rossum’s Universal Robots
by Karel Capek
directed by Shade Murray
Originally debuted in 1921, Czech playwright Capek dramatizes the rise of robots over the human race. Strawdog welcomes back company member Shade Murray, director of Strawdog’s “Detective Story” (Jeff Award-winning Best Production, Director and Ensemble in 2003) and “Marathon ’33” (Best Ensemble 2006). Murray was recently assistant director for Steppenwolf’s smash production “August: Osage County.” He also won a 2006 Jeff Award for “The Chosen” at Writer’s Theatre.
September 18 – October 25, 2008

 

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
directed by Kimberly Senior
The second production of Strawdog’s 2008-2009 season is Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” directed by Strawdog company member Kimberly Senior. One of the most celebrated classics of American drama, this play tells the story of the Keller family, reunited after the war only to uncover the secrets that will tear them apart. Senior returns to Strawdog after directing their critically acclaimed “Three Sistersin 2005 (remounted at Theatre on the Lake in 2006), who has also directed “The Busy World is Hushed” for Next , and TimeLine’s “Dolly West’s Kitchen.”
February 19 – March 28, 2009

 

Red Noses
by Peter Barnes
directed by Matthew Hawkins
The season will close with British playwright Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses,” directed by House Theatre’s Matthew Hawkins in his Strawdog directing debut. It’s the 1300s, and a quarter of Europe is dead from the plague, pestilence is everywhere, and humanity is convinced this is Armageddon.  A priest receives a command from God to gather a group of believers, teach them and send them off into the world to be clowns among men. A frequent Strawdog collaborator, Hawkins’ directing credits include House’s “Hatfield and McCoy,” and “On My Parent’s One Hundredth Wedding Anniversary” for The Side Project.
April 16 – May 23, 2009

 

Strawdog Late Night
Stawdog Late Night features a variety of programming (“The Game Show Show and Stuff,” live music, comedy, improv, roasts) in the newly-renovated Hugen Hall Cabaret space within the theatre, following each Friday and Saturday night mainstage performance at 11 p.m. Admission for Late Night is free with paid mainstage ticket (or $5 for just the Late Night), and there is a cash bar available. Visit the Web site at www.strawdog.org for performance schedule.