REVIEW: Debris of the Prophet (Prop Thtr)

 

When Reality Is More Interesting Than Fiction

 

Mark Kollar, Rick Edward Reardon from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet"

   
Prop Thtr presents
  
Debris of the Prophet
   
Written by Paul Carr
Directed by
Stefan Brun and Scott Vehill
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Socio-politically, we are going through some pretty crazy times. If you read the papers, you’ll know there’s a virtual Holy War being waged right now between religious fundamentalists. Bitter conflicts, such as protests over the building of a mosque near Ground Zero and the threat by a Florida pastor to burn a pile of Korans, exemplify this mounting tension.

Shalaka Kulkarni from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet" This rabid passion makes for great drama. And this drama has its share of thespians, from the aforementioned pastor Terry Jones to political pundits like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. You’d think with such characters and tension, these real-life tales of religious zealousness would translate with ease to the stage.

Unfortunately, Prop Theatre’s Debris of the Prophet fails to facilitate this transition from reality to fantasy in nearly every way possible. Written by Paul Carr, the play has as much action as a college lecture and no character development beyond establishing trite archetypes. Throw in the fact that the whole thing is bursting with self-importance and you have one extremely unpolished production.

Debris of the Prophet concerns a political cartoonist simply named Bob (Rick Edward Reardon). Bob’s editor (Mark Kollar) has given him the opportunity to draw a series of religious-themed political cartoons to help attract readership. The idea is that controversial cartoons about religion will incite people, for better or worse, to pick up the paper. Unfortunately, Bob’s a little too skilled in striking the nerves of Muslims, Jews and Christians. What results is a mass protest in front of the news building, which eventually leads to violence and destruction.

The second act takes a dramatic turn into the realm of pure fantasy. Bob is sucked inside one of his own political cartoons where he encounters the physical embodiments of the three major religions. The three religions debate whether or not to kill Bob as punishment for his blasphemy.

Debris of the Prophet is practically devoid of plot. Very little really happens throughout the course of the play. In fact, the first act is composed of two redundant scenes that stretch on for way too long, while the second act amounts to a long-winded diatribe on the perils of religion and the importance of free speech.

In addition, there is almost no energy put into character development. We know very little about Bob other than he’s a cartoonist, and, thanks to a very fleeting and forced mention, his wife died of cancer. It soon becomes obvious that he is merely a two-dimensional prop that Carr uses to convey his thoughts on politics and religion.

Andy Somma, Rick Edward Reardon from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet"

None of this is helped by Stefan Brun and Scott Vehill’s lazy direction. A news reporter (Shalaka Kulkarni), whose accounts of unrest and destruction punctuate the play’s scenes, unconvincingly stands and ducks from unseen gunfire in front of the darkened stage. This gave me no sense of the reporter’s environment or the actual chaos ravaging the city, save for a few gunfire sound effects. In addition, characters rarely move from their marks and almost never cross the center point of the stage. What you end up with is all talk and no movement.

The only reason I didn’t give this play one star is because I can see this same script, with ample revisions, working for a 20-minute one act. The concept of a political cartoonist who gets sucked into his own controversial creation is rife with opportunity. However, as a full-length play, the novelty quickly wears off.

Debris of the Prophet starts off weak and ends up trudging across the finish line. For a show inspired by fascinating events, it’s surprising just how boring it is. If you really want to see a good socio-political drama unfold, just turn on the evening news.

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

Debris of the Prophet poster

Review: The Alumni Bow

 

New works suggest a promising future.

 

The School of the Art Institute presents:

The Alumni Bow
Three one-acts by Rebecca Beegle, Idris Goodwin and Chris Bower
directed by Stefan Brün and Beau O’Reilly
thru September 27th (tickets: 773-539-7838)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

NoteToMollySmall What a pleasure to be able to review The Alumni Bow, the latest offerings from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA Writing Program, particularly since it doesn’t have much in the way of press to promote itself, other than a few hand-distributed flyers and a blogpost by one of its playwrights, Idris Goodwin. Under the direction of Beau O’Reilly of Curious Theatre and Stefan Brün of Prop Thtr, these simple one-acts show surprising maturity and sophistication, even if some could benefit from the editor’s scalpel.

Honey by Rebecca Beegle, is a one-act monologue of a man under the strain of lost love and lost eroticism, finally losing memory of the woman he has loved so intensively. The man, played by Julian Berke, takes the audience on a tour of the home in which their lovemaking took place, room by room. It becomes apparent that the tour, which most likely began as an act of revenge against his lover, has now transformed into a mournful homage over all he has lost, including the ability to love again. “What is not so important as the sex acts is what led to them . . . a trail of bread crumbs I can’t find again.”

The challenge for O’Reilly’s direction will be in how effective that tour will remain should the audience capacity exceed the space for the tour to take place. As it is, it’s just as interesting to view the crowd as the actor—the one that I was in paraded from room to room with an almost funereal solemnity. Berke’s performance is nuanced, a tribute to an actor for whom this is the first full-fledged role; prior performance experience has been mostly as a rock and blues musician.

The Story Farm is the most intellectual of all these works, a savvy bit of meta-theater, commenting on all things corporate, politically correct, and metaphorical. Between an earnest jobseeker (Arin Mulvaney) and a story research trainer (Jonathan Putman), Idris Goodwin gets to pull out all his jibes at corporate world’s ability to devalue everything, including the power of stories, to their most rudimentary and meaningless frameworks. From there, it is just a hop, skip, and jump to having the utterly ratiocinating story researcher swept up beyond reason by a story Mulvaney’s jobseeker brings in, while she remains blithely uninvolved by her own discovery. The transformation is enjoyable to watch in Putman’s hands, given the intensity he delivers through his character and Mulvaney’s good-natured, cat-loving foil is realistically vacuous.

Goodwin seems to have the most experience of all the young playwrights and, concomitant with his break beat poet background, plays with ideas and themes with greater virtuosity than the others. But of all the other playwrights, Goodwin’s work would most benefit from an editor’s eye in taking off a good 10 to 15 minutes from this play.

Notes to Molly by Chris Bower deals the most devastating realism of all these pieces. Based on his short story by the same name, the play etches an indelible portrait of a dead-end alcoholic couple and the psychological forces that barely keep them hanging on, to themselves and to life. It is an intensely realized work, almost perfectly performed by Kate Teichman and Matt Test.

All three one-acts deal with some aspect of story, but Bower’s work shows most knowingly how story is used by this couple to evoke a past or present which gives each of them more power or discredits the other, yet does nothing to really disrupt or improve their passive-aggressive relationship. Bower shows great maturity in delineating the symbiotic nature of their mutual dysfunctions and leaves us hanging where they hang, in a subjective no-man’s land, with Test’s character desperately trying to get his fellow alcoholic lover’s attention.

Don’t leave these works out in no-man’s land. The Alumni Bow has a very short run and Chicago should get to know its next generation of original work.

Rating: «««

Review – "Hizzoner" at Beverly Arts Center

[This review submitted by Michael Fielding, editor of SouthwestObserver.com]

Hizzoner_button “This is a city of neighborhoods,” barks Neil Giuntoli, the man who has resurrected this city’s first big Daley, Richard J. “I can’t go changing the way people think.”

So begins Giuntoli’s production of “Hizzoner,” now staging an encore run at the Beverly Arts Center through Sunday.

The two-hour memory play chronicles the second half of the elder Daley’s 21-year run as mayor – a time that saw the rise of both Jesse Jackson and Jane Byrne, of his legendary bouts with the press (namely the late columnist Mike Royko), of the taut 1968 Democratic convention and of the rise and fall of the neighborhood pals invited into Daley’s inner circle.

It’s a portrait of the ethnic street gangs all grown up and inhabiting the penthouse of municipal politics – City Hall – at a time when the city’s Irish, Italians, Czechs, Polish and the rest found solace in their shared backgrounds and rewarded loyal behavior with honest-to-goodness patronage.

“Hizzoner” opened at Prop Thtr on the North Side nearly two years ago, but despite the city’s fascination with the Daley dynasty as a whole, there’s no doubt the production is at home in Beverly. In this city of neighborhoods, there’s only one place where they don’t ask what neighborhood you grew up in but what parish you grew up in. That’s right here on the South Side. Giuntoli’s characterization of Daley as the prolific altar boy no doubt is appreciated here more than anywhere else in Chicago.

He is at home in the heart of the city’s 19th Ward, where, to this day, there are politics behind the politics, and anyone who knows what’s good for him doesn’t miss Sunday Mass.

Giuntoli, a burly veteran actor and Prop founder, is startling in his bits of “Da Mare’s” legendary outbursts. He clenches his mouth, frowns and slams a fist or points willfully at his target. He turns red – intensely red – and explodes. It’s a superb, inimitable performance. Royko himself is said to have written that Daley exhibited a “blend of smile and scowl,” and Giuntoli has resurrected Daley’s mannerisms to near-perfection, almost eerily, in fact.

The ghost of William J. Daley still lingers in the shadows of the city’s high rises and in the dark corners of Machine offices. He haunts Chicago from City Hall to Cabrini-Green. And he comes alive every time Giuntoli emerges into the spotlight.

Giuntoli interprets well the contradiction between Daley’s no-nonsense South Side values and his belligerent encounters with his adversaries.

The result is a portrait of a man who is flawed and complex but remains bigger than life. And although I’m convinced that Giuntoli has created a drama sprinkled with bits of comedy, Friday night’s Beverly Arts Center audience disagreed, punctuating much of the performance with fits of laughter that were broken only briefly by moments of solemn silence. (Seriously, there was even laughter after the shoot-to-kill order during the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) But let’s agree to disagree.

Daley himself was a man of contradictions, at once stoic and unpredictable, gregarious and introverted. Yet he was far from the tyrant his critics have long suggested, Giuntoli suggests. Rather, Daley himself was burdened by the anxiety of not completely being in control of his city.

Giuntoli doesn’t feign the tears that well up behind the thick spectacles when he relates to an audience member the nights he spent with his sons at Comiskey Park. They’re real, those tears. And so are the trivial outbursts that pop like firecrackers throughout the performance.

Although Giuntoli’s renowned performances have attracted admirers from across the country, the play as a whole – and a couple of its actors – need some work. It is set almost entirely in the mayor’s office, which is fine, but it lacks a cohesiveness, a flow, that might move it along more efficiently between scenes.

In particular, Gordon Gillespie, who plays Earl Bush, Daley’s press secretary, adds too many theatrics to his performance, coming off more vaudevillian than anything else and seeming oddly out of place. Yet William Bullion (City Clerk Matt Danaher and Daley’s patronage coordinator) and Whit Spurgeon (Ald. Tom Keane) turn in notable performances as the Daley loyalists eventually charged with corruption. “Hizzoner” is a play whose characters should be understated. Let the motives of the characters speak for themselves, the philosophy goes, and act as if you’re performing in a closet with an audience of three.

Most of Giuntoli’s cast understands that – and that likely is the reason the production still has plenty of gas.

Giuntoli also cleverly uses multimedia effects (including audio clips and raw video footage) that, when paired with his full use of the stage and house (actors playing reporters during press conference scenes pop up in the aisles), make for an intelligent production.

You might love him, or you might hate him, but if you don’t understand Richard J. Daley, you’re probably not from Chicago.

“Hizzoner” –  written by Neil Giuntoli and directed by Stefan Brun – runs through June 29th, and seats are still available. For ticket information call (773) 445-3838 or visit www.beverlyartcenter.org.  For general info regarding the play, visit www.hizzonertheplay.com.

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