REVIEW: Memory (Backstage Theatre Company)

  
  

Captivating ensemble fills space with raw energy

 

 

Memory - Backstage Theatre 4 - photo by Heath Hays

   
Backstage Theatre presents
   
Memory
   
Written by Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through December 18  |  tickets: $22-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

War is hell. Especially when you’re talking about the Holocaust, an event so horrific in nature that it still rocks people to this day. Or, more recently, this hostility and violence has manifested itself in the Israeli and Palestinian War. Views on these two wars are brought together in the Backstage Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Memory by Jonathan Lichtenstein.

Memory - Backstage Theatre 5 - photo by Heath HaysThe set, designed by Heath Hays, starts out as an essentially bare stage: an open space, with some propped-up backward-facing set wall pieces, a piano and a couch. This arrangement leaves plenty of room for the actor’s to move around the space, both physically and emotionally. As the show progresses, the wall pieces are turned around one-by-one to reveal large-scale black-and-white photos that create background scenery that adds to the story.

Memory – featuring Brenda Barrie, Tony Bozzuto, Samuel Buti, Bilal Dardai, Josh Hambrock, Shane Michael Murphy and Patrick De Nicola is a show about actors rehearsing a play that turns into an actual performance of the play. The show opens on a rehearsal, with the actors all playing themselves, entering and preparing themselves for work. There is no official start to the show in the traditional sense where lights dim and actors take their places. Instead the action just begins, which is slightly confusing, causing one to question what exactly we are watching. Once it becomes clear that the show has in fact started, the action is (intentionally) a bit stressed and scattered. The actors begin to rehearse a scene with their director (Josh Hambrock), moving the scene forward and then stopping it, causing a disconnect between the actors and their characters.

Eventually the rehearsal format falls away and a steady performance begins. Each actor morphs from performing a role and reciting lines to becoming the character and fully bringing them to life.

The show is split between two stories: the story of Eva and the story of Bashar.

Eva’s (Brenda Barrie) story revolves around her long-lost grandson (Shane Michael Murphy) questioning the validity of a long-standing family legend about the Holocaust. It’s told through flashbacks of Eva’s life with her friends Felix (Patrick De Nicola) and Aron (Tony Bozzuto), who later becomes her husband. Bashar’s (Bilal Dardai) story tells of his experience as a Palastinian fighting against an Israeli soldier (Samuel Buti).

Memory proves to be a true ensemble piece, with each actor working in sync with one another. It’s apparent that this cast has come together and bonded, with each member as strong as the next, growing as the show progresses and developing honest portrayals of the characters. The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space.

 

Brenda Barrie in Backstage Theatre Memory - photo by Heath Hays Josh Hambrock & Samuel Buti - Backstage Theatre - Heath Hays photographer
Memory - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays Brenda Barrie & Tony Bozzuto - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays

Barrie plays the role of Eva as both as an older and younger version. Her portrayal of an older Eva is a fascinating one as she embodies the character through her actions, her voice and the emotions that play over her face. Barrie creates a quietly strong persona that seems as though it could snap in an instant, knowing that she’s been carrying around secrets and guilt for years. When it does snap the emotion that’s let loose is so raw and unfiltered that it fills up the entire space.

Murphy’s performance as Peter is lively and full of energy. He’s hungry with a curiosity to know about his family’s past and it drives him to push Eva to open up and reveal the truth.

Eva flashes back to her earlier years where Barrie, Bozzuto and De Nicola are believable as a trio of old friends, discovering who they are and what they’re meant to be. What starts as fun and frivolity quickly turns to fear and anger, causing them to choose sides (or have sides chosen for them) during the Holocaust. All three offer up captivating performances of friendships torn about by lines drawn between the Nazis and the Jews.

The transitions between Eva’s story and Bashar’s story are smooth.  Dardai plays Bashar also with a quiet strength as he stands up for not only his home but his family, his beliefs and his life. An unusual relationship is formed between him and Isaac (played by Samuel Buti). Isaac is torn between trying to help and simply carrying out orders. Buti’s performance shows this struggle through the formation of a relationship that could only happen under these specific circumstances. He’s clear in his devotion to the Israeli army but he’s humanized in his attempts at trying to ease some amount of suffering for Bashar.

At certain times throughout the performance, whether it is from the intensity or excitement of the action, the accents slip out of German/Israeli/Palestinian into something less distinguishable. That being said, the performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating them so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Memory plays at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave., through December 18 Thursday through Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25 and $22 for seniors.

Patrick De Nicola & Tony Bozzuto in Memory at Backstage Theatre

 

 

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REVIEW: Seven Snakes (The Mammals)

 

No Country for Young Women—or Anyone Else

 

Seven Snakes - The Mammals - Roy Gonzales as the Man

   
The Mammals present
  
Seven Snakes
   
Written and Directed by Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru Nov 6  |  suggested donation: $20 – BYOB  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

This past spring, under Bob Fisher’s deliciously skewed playwriting and direction, The Mammals really brought the excessive testosterone with their retro boxing melodrama, The Meatlocker (our review ★★★). They do no less with their current ode to spaghetti Westerns, Seven Snakes, staged in the dungeon-like confines of the Zoo Studio. While every line and gesture expresses sensual longing for the heyday of Eastwood films, Fisher sagely places Seven Snakes a full 30 dystopian years into the future. This is a desperate futuristic Western, playing off of nostalgia for rugged Seven Snakes - The Mammals - dont-want-to-be-coldblooded individualism and the joys of Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, it cites those American cultural qualities as the source of our current military misadventures in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Our story begins “in the remains of what was once the Arizona desert.” Heaven only knows where the rest of the USA has gone, but only two women and six Octogenarian Veterans of Foreign Desert Wars survive to live out dry days and lonely, love-starved nights in Skillet County. When The Mother, played in drag by Don Hall, gives up the ghost and leaves The Daughter (Erin Elizabeth Orr) to fend for herself as the solitary nurse at the VA, the elderly vets turn increasingly, dangerously frisky. Their sexual tension turns to outrage and suspicion when a wounded stranger arrives—a drifter who could be either a sexy, lone gunslinger or a terrorist out to destroy what’s left of America. Mother’s ghost returns both to spur on her Daughter and to comment on the action. But for the most part, girl is on her own with these crazy mens.

The real comic heroes of this play are the vets, led by the leadenly appropriate but no less sex-starved or suspicious Colonel (Matt Kahler). The action and humor grow decidedly freakier with the old boys’ growing frustrations. The further their young nurse progresses in her intimate relations with the Man (Roy Gonzalez), the more the vets believe he is one of a mythical terrorist team, the Seven Snakes.

Like most new works, Fisher’s comedy could use a strategic editing, but the lead-up to the second act is well worth the wait. The play achieves the surreal state of 60s Westerns, parodying and doing homage to them at the same time. The priceless comic timing of the Colonel, Radar (Ian Brown), Sgt. Ringo (Adam Dodds), Corporal Cheese Grits (Vincent Lacey), Private Toadsuck (Shane Michael Murphy) and Mr. Hey (Sean Ewert) make lines like, “So, what about that drifter’s penis?” and “That is the art of camouflage, girly” ring hysterically and resonantly funny.

 

Seven Snakes - Mammals - kahler-gods-mouth Seven Snakes - The Mammals - erin-orr-3 Seven Snakes poster

Completing the show’s testosterone is the rest of the Seven Snakes and the American Psychic Surveillance Team. As for the Snakes’ Segundo (Riso Straley), Chupa Fuerte (Bert Matias), Cuchillo (Miguel Nunez) and Angel (Fernando S. Albiar), these are men who have been fighting so long, their culture and history are as mythically-based as their reputation. Their roles don’t carry the comic impact of the Desert Wars Vets–happily, Matias plays his role as a “dirty-old-snake” to the goofy hilt. The rest of the Snakes are mournfully hip and fiercely outlaw–not to mention desperately needy for human touch. But one wonders if a little political correctness has crept into their character development. As for Agent V (Jim Hicks) and Agent Fido (Warwick Johnson), much as I appreciate how they represent the USA, their torture scene goes a little too long for either comedy or political commentary.

Since Erin Orr is the only player with XX chromosomes, one can only salute her no-holds-barred approach to keeping octogenarian lechers at bay, while struggling to get the young guys to open up emotionally. The former keeps the action going at a hilarious tilt, even as things turn dicey. Be prepared for fun stage violence and bloody bandages. Sadly, her romance with the Man drags. Their last crucial scene together doesn’t ring true. There still isn’t enough chemistry between them to sell lines like, “I don’t want to be cold-blooded anymore.” Seven Snakes is a man’s comedy and has to be appreciated as such. Still, even the Marx Brothers knew the importance of producing romance between their romantic leads, film after film. Besides, the world of the Seven Snakes could use a little tenderness. It helps to make the laughs complete.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Seven Snakes- The Mammals - erin-orr-4

 

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