Review: Magpie Project’s “The Happy Family Series”

A Weird and Gifted “Family” Pulls It Together

happy-family-poster

The Magpies Project present:

The Happy Family Series:
Demonstrations Exploring “Harmonic Antagonisms

inspired by P.T. Barnum’s “The Happy Family
Curated by Shawn Reddy
Emceed by H.B. Ward a.k.a. "The Tamer"
thru December 6th at Viaduct Theatre (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

I hardly knew what to make of the press put out by The Magpies Project over The Happy Family Series: Demonstrations Exploring “Harmonic Antagonisms” inspired by P. T. Barnum’s museum piece “The Happy Family.” Living by the creed “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Barnum constructed a fallacious exhibit wherein an assortment of animals, both predators and prey, were forced to live in harmony with each other as a spectacle of example to humankind. As such, The Magpie Project’s own assortment of talented misfits, drawn together from the usual fringe theater suspects, could easily be collected under any random title. Maybe the overwhelming wholesomeness of the holiday season has wormed its way into the company’s artistic direction. Never mind. Any excuse to see these performers is good one.

viaduct Emceeing the madness is H. B. Ward, aka “The Tamer,” who delivers the funniest, most intelligent opening comic monologue I’ve witnessed in years. He’s a man in complete control of the audience—without need of whips and little need of chairs! Most of the rest of the collection, curated by Shawn Reddy, follows in this comic and quirky vein. Whether any of it refers to family hardly matters, but one will find some startling depth along with the laughs.

The first weekend run in particular saw a short memoir simply read aloud by writer and critic Brian Nemtusak. It was the sort of thing one might hear on Public Radio’s This American Life, only with greater psychological depth, quiet power, and less desperate need to please the audience. It came closest to all the evening’s exhibits in articulating the antagonisms between three generations of men and what each generation tried to do to compensate for them. Ira Glass, eat your heart out.

Other sketches executed by Ian Belknap and Edward Thomas-Herrera, such as the subtext of corporate meetings and the dramatic, glamorous imaginings of a lone gay child, were more conventionally funny, but no less entertaining for being so. Far more far out performances were dealt by the musical stylings of Jenny Magnus of Curious Theatre and Chris Schoen of Theatre Oobleck.  I kept thinking Jenny was coming up with any old excuse to sing her songs under the rubric of “family.”

Stopping by to see The Happy Family Series over the next few weeks will be more than worth your while. Who knows, maybe the oddness of the “exhibits” will strike some familial similarity.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Curated by Shawn Reddy
Emceed by H.B. Ward A.K.A. "The Tamer"

Featuring work by: Martha Bayne, Ian Belknap, Dave Buchen, Chris Bower, Eiren Caffall, Mark Chrisler, Robin Cline, Barrie Cole, Elvisbride Band, Idris Goodwin, David Isaacson, David Kodeski, Jenny Magnus, Brian Nemtusak, Beau O’Reilly, David Pavkovic and Vicki Walden (of DOG), The Lawrence Peters Outfit, Diana Slickman, Edward Thomas-Herrera, and David Wilcox.

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Review: Pinter’s “The Caretaker” (Curious Theatre Branch)

Hauntingly primal, animalistic performances are fascinating to watch

Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker"Moving season was the right time for Curious Theatre Branch to produce The Caretaker, by Harold Pinter. Tucked away in the intimate Side Project space, the set, recreating a dilapidated London apartment, is a chaos of broken down debris. A stuffed fox, old newspapers, a paint-splattered ladder, and at least four vacuum cleaners litter the space, designed by Shawn Reddy. Being a Rogers Park native, I was actually looking around to see if I recognized anything as something I threw out. The trashy setting provides a suitable backdrop to the perplexing play, itself a cacophony of dented personalities.

caretaker3 The Caretaker, first produced in 1960, was the first successful play of the writer who later would be hailed as Britain’s greatest living playwright until his recent death in 2008. In true absurdist tradition, not much actually happens in the play. Over the three acts (spanning 2.5 hours in this production), an arm is twisted, a bag is passed around, and the three characters enter and exit the apartment; other than that, the running time is filled with dialogue and Pinter’s famous pauses.

Without the cast having a keen understanding of Pinter’s language and characters, this could have been excruciatingly boring. Depicting one of the worst roommate situations imaginable, where a vagrant is taken in by two emotionally disturbed brothers, the play can flip from cynically hilarious to chilling over the course of a pause. Curious Theatre Branch, though, has a love-affair with the absurd, usually producing original works with the occasional Beckett thrown in for good measure. Directed by the cast along with Jayita Bhattacharya, who also stage manages, the staging of this somewhat baffling masterpiece is darkly visceral yet smartly communicative.

The most relatable character in the play is Davies, a petty, old transient who is both beggar and chooser. Like him, we suddenly find ourselves in the rundown flat that is inhabited by one brother, Aston, yet owned by another, Mick. Alongside Davies, we are slowly submerged into each of their bizarre and intimidating worlds.

Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker" This Caretaker values character above all else, and the performances electrify the space; the actors precisely envelope the damaged personalities they portray. Beau O’Reilly’s Davies is conniving and manipulative, decayed by xenophobia and a refusal to examine himself. O’Reilly captures Davies’ intense neediness as well as his fussiness. Jeffrey Bivens is menacing as Mick, speaking and moving in short bursts like a machine gun. The crowning performance, though, is (Beau’s son) Colm O’Reilly’s Aston. Quiet and unassuming, Aston speaks in nonsequitors, tossing out random facts about himself that lead to more questions than answers. The young O’Reilly captures the stoic energy of the character, speaking with much less volume than his father’s impassioned Davies. His gentle voice works perfectly in the tiny space. The best moment in the production is Aston’s marathon monologue describing his experience in a mental ward—O’Reilly barely moves an inch yet the audience is wholly entranced the entire time.

caretaker4 The end result is hauntingly primal. Some moments are stretched a little long, and a bit shorter run time would improve the show. The ending leaves the play wide open for a myriad of interpretations, which can be a more overwhelming than thought-provoking. This Caretaker is also void of British accents, which makes some of the colloquialisms a little out-of-place, but never distracts too much.

The animalistic performances, however, are fascinating to watch. All three actors have a deep respect and love for Pinter’s notoriously sharp language. In this production, they reveal Pinter’s true genius, his ability to stuff the absurd into the realistic.

Rating: «««

The Caretaker
May 22 – June 28
Fridays + Saturdays 8pm • Sundays 7pm
INDUSTRY NIGHT Monday, June 22 7pm

 

 

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