Review: Volpone (City Lit Theater)

     
     

17th-century satire is sly like a fox

     
     

Don Bender and Eric Damon Smith in Volpone - City Lit Theater.  Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Volpone
   
Written by Ben Jonson
Music composed by Kingsley Day
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Volpone, or The Fox, was written by Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century in just five weeks. It was first performed by the King’s Men at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606. City Lit Theater’s production is the company’s fourth production of their 31st season.

Volpone tells the story of an old miser, Volpone (Don Bender) who, with his servant Mosca (Eric Damon Smith), fakes a deathly illness in order to convince a handful of wealthy men to shower him with expensive gifts after promising each that they are his sole heir. Bender fits into the part of Volpone like a glove. From his voice to his body language, Bender owns the part as well as the stage. Bender’s Volpone is slimy, greedy and everything you would hope to see from such a character. Likewise, Smith’s Mosca is simply entertaining as Volpone’s faithful servant. He plays up the character and is quite funny as he help to Don Bender as Volpone by Ben Jonson - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.work over the wealthy men as they arrive to pay tribute to the “dying” Volpone. Smith, like Bender, understands just want is required of the character, and Smith is both charming and persuasive as Mosca, like a good salesman who could convince anyone man to buy anything he was selling.

Written in the 1600s, Volpone is written in Early Modern English, but the cast does a wonderful job of making the script accessible to the audience. That being said, the script’s dense at times, and while the energy continues to run high through the performance, the action can seem to drag at times.

Occasionally, Volpone calls on his fool (Ben Chang), Castrone (David Fink) and Androgyno (Chris Pomeroy) to entertain him. Equipped with musical instruments, these three sing and play and are a joy. They never fail to get the audience laughing with the lightness and humor of their performances. They are not the best singers but that fact is pushed aside because they’re so enjoyable to watch on stage.

The men whom Volpone tricks are Corvino (Alex Shotts), Corbaccio (Larry Baldacci) and Voltore (Clay Sanderson). These three men deliver exact portrayals of rich and greedy men who think themselves quite clever when, in fact, there are gullible and easily duped. All three men do a fine job, but Shotts in particular as Corvino takes his character over-the-top, not in an obnoxious way, but in a way that works for a satire. He’s very funny in his characterization and his body language.

For the most part the staging is fine-tuned, although Laura Korn, who plays Corvino’s wife Celia, is stiff in her movements and does not completely commit to her actions.

The set, designed by William Anderson, is simple in its style and coloring. With an art deco style set in the 1920s, the palate is of muted colors like brown, beige, blue and black, and there’s not a lot of flair. The simplicity of the set design offers a nice backdrop for the crazy antics of the show and does not detract from the performance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
       

Patti Roeder and Don Bender in Volpone - City Lit Theater. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight. Eric Damon Smith (left) as Mosca and Don Bender as Volpone in City Lit's VOLPONE.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

Volpone plays at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, through February 27. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 773-293-3682 or visiting citylit.org.

All photos by Johnny Knight

  
  

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Gift Theatre offers holiday show, extends ‘Lonesome West’

  
  

Gift Theatre ends 2010 with holiday play, ‘Lonesome West’ extension

  
  

The Lonesome West - Gift Theatre

Written by Allegra Gallian

The Gift Theatre is a Chicago-based theatre company situated in the north-west city neighborhood of Jefferson Park, taking the form an intimate 50-seat storefront space located at located at 4802 N Milwaukee Ave.

Map picture

The Gift Theatre Company, whose mission is to tell great stories on stage with honesty and simplicity, has been producing shows since 2001 with their premiere production of Boy’s Life. The company, led by Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton, has been consistently producing shows at their home location and around the city each year since then.

Most recently their 2010 season included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (review ★★½), Suicide, Incorporated (review ★★★), The Lonesome West (review ★★★) – and they celebrate the season with Get Behind Me, Santa! And The Lonesome West , directed by Sheldon Patinkin, has been so well received by both audiences and critics alike, it has been extended for another 5 weeks, now closing January 30, 2011!

Get Behind Me, Santa! is a two-act comedy performance using both sketch comedy and improv taking on all things holiday-related. Poking fun at everything from tacky sweaters to Yule logs and everything in between, The Gift Theatre Company partnered with the Gale Street Inn to bring a little extra cheer and good tidings to the city.

The Gift Theatre Company also celebrates the season every Wednesday and Friday with Natural Gas performed by the cast of Santa’s Great American Depression Holiday Show, America! The show offers 50 minutes of holiday amusement.

     
Josh Rollins and Mike Harvey - Gift Theatre Gift Theatre - Cuckoo Nest

Not only does the company continue to produce theatre, but they produce film as well under the name of giftFILM, led by artistic directors Kenny Mihlfried and John Kelly Connolly. Part of giftFILM’s mission is to, according the company’s Web site, “produce short and feature-length films and videos, primarily (but not exclusively) written, directed, and performed by ensemble or company members of the Gift Theatre Company, and to actively encourage an ongoing collaborative relationship between theater and filmmaking communities of the city of Chicago and surrounding areas.”

For more information see the Web site at http://www.thegifttheatre.org/.

 

VIDEO: Behind the scenes at Lonesome West, featuring Michael Patrick Thornton and John Gawlik.  Video shot by Aemilia Scott and Tom Blanford, edited by Aemilia Scott.

  
 

REVIEW: The Lonesome West (The Gift Theatre)

  
  

Laughs and loneliness in the Irish countryside

 

 Lonesome West

  
The Gift Theatre presents
   
The Lonesome West
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin 
at
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Dec. 19  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly Midwestern about Martin McDonagh’s depiction of the Irish hamlet Leenane. There are a few scenic landscapes and a ton of boredom. Perhaps that’s why Chicagoans react so well to his homicide-riddled plays. Even though we’re oceans apart from Connemara, something seemed very familiar in The Gift Theatre’s production of The Lonesome West. I believe I’m less inclined to murder, but the monotony of Valene’s and Coleman’s existence is definitely relatable.

The Lonesome West is part of a loose “Connemara trilogy” of plays set in the West Irish hills, the other being Beauty Queen of Leenane (which Gift put up a few years back) and A Skull in Connemara. Although Lonesome West has much less stage blood than many other McDonagh’s plays, it’s still rife with violence. Two brothers (masterfully portrayed here by John Gawlik and John Kelly Connolly) bicker constantly over just about everything, from money to bags of chips. Frequently, the spats boil Lonesome West2 over into armed duels. The brothers’ relationship causes plenty of heartache for the local priest, Father Welsh (Paul D’Addario), who is already wracked by oodles of Catholic guilt and alcoholism. The quartet of characters is rounded out by Girleen (Brittany Burch, who makes a terrific Chicago debut), a girl who might be jailbait, but could also be much more sentimental.

Probably the most striking aspect of the production is the fiery dynamic between Gawlik, who plays the wrathful Coleman, and Connolly, who portrays the miserly Valene. Lonesome West a great example of a play which comes off much different on the stage as opposed to the page. Gawlik and Connolly are tip-toeing towards middle age, which makes the childish infighting of Valene and Coleman feel especially pathetic. When merely reading McDonagh’s text, this doesn’t particularly jump out, it’s easy to forget the character’s ages when they act so immature. But Gawlik and Connolly force out the characters’ pettiness, the major driving force for the production.

Obviously, Gawlik and Connolly have much more than their age going for them. The duo has an engaging chemistry. They can barely hide their glee as the two brothers one-up each other. Gawlik is able to mine dark, vicious depths for a truly spiteful Coleman. Connolly, on the other hand, finds the grubby greediness of a five-year-old.

D’Addario, a Gift favorite, gives another great performance. He comes off as essentially Catholic, sickened and saddened by what he sees around him, but unsure about how to proceed (which, in turn, leads to more guilt). Through Lonesome West, McDonagh joins the leagues of Irish writers before him that comment and struggle with the dominant faith of their island. In the semi-mystical style that modern Celtic playwrights love, the play basically becomes about the damnation of souls, a spectacular turn that works despite seeming destructively heavy. D’Addario is a big part of making the plot churn forward, and he is successful.

Along with D’Addario, the story wouldn’t work without the solid performance of Burch. At first, her Girleen just seems like silly, flirtatious eye candy, but the character’s complex layers shine through as the production progresses. In fact, my favorite scene is the one without the brothers. Halfway through the piece, D’Addario and Burch share a stage alone and the outcome is electric, dripping with loneliness and desperation.

Sheldon Patinkin’s direction shows a smart understanding of the tumultuous relationships that McDonagh writes so well. The first half is uneven, slack in pacing and the cast seems a little timid. It takes until after intermission for the show to start shooting sparks. Once everything snaps together, the production flies. For a show often billed as a black comedy, there’s a hefty amount of heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

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Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

By Leah A. Zeldes

Still wracking your brain for the perfect gift? Here are a few last minute ideas for the local theater fans on your list.

Theater tour tickets

Take your friends on a tour of a treasure of Chicago’s Theatre District. Modestly priced backstage tours highlight the beautiful architecture and rich performance history of the Loop’s gorgeous historic theaters. Check out the Chicago Theatre Marquee Tour, $12; Auditorium Theatre Tour, $10; and the Broadway in Chicago Venue Tours (each BIC tour covers two theaters from among the Oriental Theatre, the Cadillac Palace and the Bank of America Theatre), $10. If you want to be lavish, throw in a gift card for a post-tour meal at Petterino’s in the Theatre District.

Theater passes

The League of Chicago Theatres’ Play Money is the perfect one- size-fits-all gift. These $25 certificates are redeemable at more than 75 Chicagoland theaters for up to a year, so recipients can choose the play and performance that suits them best. A copy of the Chicagoplays Theater Guide is included. Or, for a versatile gift to a family or a theater-loving friend, a $95 Theatre Building Chicago Pass offers five tickets to any shows at the Lakeview theater complex in the coming year: five admissions at once, one at a time, or in any combination the recipient prefers.

Playwriting classes

Sign the budding dramatist on your list up for instruction from seasoned playwrights at the award-winning Chicago Dramatists or a musical workshop at Theatre Building Chicago. Of course, you’ll have to promise to attend any resulting performances.

Chicago theater books

With express shipping, there’s still time to get copies of these books on the fascinating history of Chicago’s theater scene: A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago by longtime Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen; Steppenwolf: Steppenwolf Theatre Company : Twenty-Five Years of an Actor’s Theater, famed photographer Victor Skrebneski‘s book featuring production highlights and portraits of Steppenwolf’s ensemble; and The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater — one of the early directors at the Second City, Sheldon Patinkin traces the origins of Second City back to 1955 in this book with two audio CDs.

Theater toys

For the theater buff who has everything, how about a Shakespeare action figure, complete with removable book and quill pen? Or a set of playing cards each featuring an insulting remark from The Bard? Chicago Shakespeare has it covered.

Review: SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s “Ivanov”

For love or money

 Ivanov_3

SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov
directed and adapted by Sheldon Patinkin
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s production of Ivanov rises above most in that it is performed in the style in which Anton Chekhov wrote the play: not as an adaptation set in modern times or filled in with action to keep the attention of the modern audience, but set instead in the 1800’s, a time dull in activity but vibrant with conflict underneath the passive text and assumed action taking place off-stage. The complex characters portrayed by the lead roles makes this Anton Chekhov play a play worth seeing at Viaduct Theatre, as the ensemble rises to the difficult challenge of maintaining Chekov’s dark tragic feelings with the wittiness of Ivanov’s comedic comments on life.

Ivanov_4 Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov tells the story of self-loathing land owner Nikolai Ivanov (Jeremy Fisher), whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and who is drowning in personal debt. Once a desirable young man – fun, kind and respected – Nikolai married Anna (Cyd Blakewell). After marriage, Anna converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodox and therefore was denied her large family inheritance that many neighbors claim is the only reason Nikolai married Anna in the first place. Stuck in a depression that he cannot shake Nikolai sulks and is unmoved by Barkin’s (Ryan Martin) constant ideas to acquire financial prosperity and The Count’s (Sean Bolger) pleas for companionship or at least entertainment. The honest doctor (honest to the point of being self-righteous) informs Nikolai of his wife’s terminal diagnosis. No additional sadness sweeps Nikolai, for he has already reached an emotional bottom, and – respecting the doctors bluntness – he opens up to him about his own depression and lack of empathy for his wife.

These Chekhovian Characters are played well in the opening scene, especially by Jeremy Fisher as Ivanov and Johnny Russel as the doctor. They have a dark, even-keeled yet sullen personality with a tint of humor in their lines, reflecting the absurdity of life.

Nikolai’s depression doesn’t keep him from gallivanting off at night to a party at the Lyebedev’s estate where his new wealthy attraction Sasha is celebrating her birthday. As the repartee repeatedly drones on about how bored they are (via comical comments on their unfulfilled lives), Nikolai and Sasha are intimately conversing. Once they believe that they are finally alone Sasha and Nikolai are caught in an adulterous kiss by Anna who disobediently followed her husband to the party.

True to Chekhov’s style, the drama (or fight) between the three love interests takes place off stage. Still together with Anna, and trying to be a better man, Nikolai avoids Sasha until two weeks later when she comes to his estate to see him. Sasha, played by Sue Redman, gives an intriguing speech about why women are attracted to whiny desperate men and plays the martyr by telling him to stay with his wife, but with Anna’s illness and Ivanov’s sinful tendencies there is still a lot to play out.

Ivanov_2

The set, designed by Jacqueline Penrod, is able to switch from the outside porch of Nikolai’s property to the inside of the Lyebedev’s upper-class home. In the opening scene Nikolai sits void of emotions at his simply crafted chair and table on the wooden front porch of his wooden home with the eerie death cries of an owl. The outside porch is designed too similar to that of a ranch and there is not much in the set that shows the countryside in which the play takes place. When the wooden walls are removed the depth of the Lyebedev’s living room is shown with a large dining table in the back for the guest to play cards and open space to converse while entering and exiting through the back door. The family room is up front with two couches facing each other (so the eligible bachelors can gaze at the eager young ladies) and a chair at top where Pavel Lyebedev (Howie Johnson) sits in his complacent bliss.

The wardrobe designed by Frances Maggio brings more to the plays atmosphere than the stage design, with dated clothes that have the sense of the 1800’s when this play was written, and all dressed in black as if it were a funeral when outside of Ivanov’s estate.

The main characters of SiNNERMAN’s production are talented – keeping the plainness in Chekhov’s characters while also bringing to life the complexity behind their lives. Chekhov has written no complete villain or saint. We cannot empathize with Nikolai because we do not trust his character, but yet we also do not know if he actually has malicious intent; he may be the victim of gossip and bad luck.

Cyd Blakewell delivers a fantastic performance as Anna; tired, desperate for attention and naive to the true feelings of her husband. She speaks with great drama allowing the humor in her ignorance to hit the audience subtly as Anna herself has no idea that what she is saying sounds ridiculous. Her defense for her husband makes one feel pity for the mistreatment and neglect that she has endured.

For a Chekhov fan, this play is a chance to see one of his lesser known plays, and SiNNERMAN’s performance is worth seeing. It is performed by the book, and the brilliance of Anton Chekhov is supported well by the talented lead actors. Some of the supporting actors/actresses come off a little cartoonish and out of character, but overall this is a quality performance from a very cool theatre company. This is not a play for someone looking for a lot of physical action or even a lot of verbal action, but the conflicts are there and you will be surprised in the way Chekhov’s plays can entertain.

Rating: ««½

Ivanov is playing at Viaduct Theatre, 3111 Western, Chicago, through November 7th.

Ivanov_1

Chicago theater tidbits: Tom O’Horgan, Tuta Theatre, Rachel Rockwell, Oleg Bogaev

Tom O'Horgan's Wikipedia page Sheldon Patinkin, chair and collegue at the Columbia College Theater Department reminisces about about the late Tom O’Horgan, director of the original Broadway production of Hair. Sheldon Patinkin, worked with O’Horgan in the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago.  Read the article at the Chicago Reader’s Onstage blog.

Picture: Tom O’Horgan

aladdinExtended: Marriott‘s “Theatre for Young People” has extended their present production, Aladdin, through August 19th.  Directed and choreographed by Rachel RockwellAladdin features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with the book adapted by Jim Luigs.  For show dates/times, go to Marriott’s website.

 

Mariasfield 

Tuta Theatre hosts Reading of Oleg Bogav’s “Russian National Postal Service”

At 12 noon, Saturday, January 24th, TUTA headquarters are getting a whole lot more interesting. To help celebrate TUTA’s Chicago premier of Maria’s Field, in association with Chicago DCA Theater, playwright Oleg Bogaev will be coming all the way in from Russia. As an added bonus, TUTA is presenting a staged reading of Bogaev’s internationally acclaimed one act play: Russian National Postal Service, a rollicking and heartbreaking story of a lonely pensioner and the historical, popular, and other worldly figures of his imaginary correspondences. The reading, featuring actor Gary Houston, will be followed by a discussion with Oleg Bogaev about his work, his experiences, and the state of the art. Coffee and treats will be served up with this delightful event, and admission is FREE.

What: The Russian National Postal Service

Staged reading and discussion with playwright, Oleg Bogaev

When: Saturday, January 24th, 12pm

Where: The TUTA Loft, 2032 W. Fulton, Chicago, IL 60612

(3 blocks south of Grand, Just west of Damen)

How Much: FREE