Review: Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…. (Halcyon Theatre)

     
     

Halcyon’s updated Greek tragedy’s as disjointed as its title

     
     

Adam Dodds and Christine Lin  in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

  
Halcyon Theatre presents
  
Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell
  that Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable)
  
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by
Tony Adams
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru March 27  |  tickets: $18-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Modern playwrights know you can get a lot of mileage from shaking up the Greek classics. The themes thought up by Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are vibrant and the stakes are feverish. The drama is easy to understand; lives are on the line. Because of their conceptual enormity, they are easily tinkered with. Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis is one such classic, with a plot boiling down to a king sacrificing his daughter for good luck on the battlefield.

In our day, the ever-inventive Charles Mee and the ever-misanthropic Neil LaBute have all taken swings at Iphigenia. Caridad Svich’s 2004 technology-infused Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) is as disjointed as its title. Svich smashes together 21st Century political discourse, the club scene, and the horrendous violence committed by numerous Christine Lin with Derrick York onscreen in 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)' by Caridad Svich. Photo by Tom McGrath. Latin American dictators with the myth. There’s a lot to swallow. Agamemnon is a despot, Orestes is a crack-addicted baby, and Achilles is a sexually-ambiguous raver. Halcyon’s production, directed by artistic director Tony Adams, stumbles over the script’s weaknesses and the cast fails to fully embrace the material.

General Adolpho (Arch Harmon) is Svich’s envisioning of Agamemnon, but he isn’t planning to invade Troy. Instead, he seeks reelection, which may be hard considering his terrible human rights record. In order to get the people on his side, he hatches a plan to kill his daughter Iphigenia (Christine Lin) for sympathy points (although it’s never made clear why he doesn’t just rig the election—seemingly small potatoes for most dictators). Iphigenia flees to the outskirts of town, meeting several of her father’s victims on the way (including three female ghosts played by men). She also comes across Achilles (Adam Dodds), who always has chemicals in his bloodstream and melancholy in his mind. But, like in all the Classics, Iphigenia learns you just can’t beat fate.

Even though I’m no ecstasy expert, Halcyon’s production feels false. The ever-looping electronica (composed by Zebulun Barnow) never reaches the decibels needed. I wanted to feel the bass (although that would probably disrupt Infamous Commonwealth’s A Doll’s House going on down the hall). Svich’s dialogue seems to be penned by an outsider to the scene, especially in these actors’ mouths. The slang feels awkward and the cast seems uncomfortable (especially the drag queens in their heels). Most importantly, Lin and Dodds don’t reach the epic highs needed for Greek drama. Even though Svich’s scenes pull from a huge wardrobe of influences, she relies heavily on Euripedes’ sense of tragedy. Halcyon is unable to grab hold of that level of hubris.

     
Christine Lin and Derrick York onscreen in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable). Photo by Tom McGrath. Arch Harmon in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable), presented by Chicago's Halcyon Theatre. Photo by Tom McGrath.
Adam Dodds and Christine Lin in Halcyon Theatre's 'Iphigenia ... (a rave fable)'. Photo by Tom McGrath Derrick York in the forground and Arch Harmon on screen in "Iphigeni", produced by Halcyon Theatre in Chicago. Photo by Tom McGrath. Christine Lin  in Iphigenia ... (a rave fable) Photo by Tom McGrath.

To their credit, Adams and video designer Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson do a mostly fantastic job with integrating stage action and video. Steph Charaska’s set and Pete Dully’s lights make the world jump to life. And the cast captures Svich’s dark sense of humor, especially Rafael Franco, Derrick York, and Arvin Jalandoon as the ghosts. The run time is a little over an hour with no intermission, but the play has a kernel of the epic style of Homer. We watch a journey unfold on-stage, with lots of characters, motivations, and points of view.

In the end, the production takes itself too seriously. There are a lot of moments that feel as melodramatic as the angst-ridden tunes that fuel the play. In a bout of meta-theatricality, Iphigenia brings up the burden of playing a character bound by a plot, a very intriguing idea. But like most of the ideas in this Iphigenia, it’s tossed on a heap with all the others. Almost as if we participated in a bender, the audience leaves bewildered and confused.

  
  
Rating: ★★
       
  

Arvin Jalandoon, Derrick York Christine Lin and Rafael Franco in Halcyon Theatre's Iphigenia. Photo by Tom McGrath.

 

Artists

 

Cast: Adam Dodds (achilles), Rafael Franco (fresa girl 1), Arch Harmon (adolpho/general’s ass, soldier x), Erica Cruz Hernández (violeta imperial/hermaphrodite prince), Arvin Jalandoon (fresa girl 3), Christine Lin (iphigenia), Terri Lopez (camila), Miguel Nuñez (virtual mc), Derrick York (orestes/news anchor/virgin puta/fresa girl 2)

Production: Tony Adams (director), Steph Charaska (scenic design), Rasean Davonte Thomas Johnson (video design), Annie Hu (animation design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Pete Dully (lighting design), Zebulun Barnow (sound design and music), Lee Strausberg (props design), Morgan Gire (stage manager), Tom McGrath (photography)

        
       

REVIEW: The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Project 891 Theatre)

    
     

What does it mean to be Jewish at Christmastime?

     
     

Jason Kellerman and Sarah Latin-Kasper

  
Project 891 Theatre Company presents
   
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
   
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
Through Dec. 19  |  
tickets: $15  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Should a Jewish Christmas tree be topped with a star? That argument launches The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry’s delectable examination of Southern Jewish culture in the mid-20th century, now playing in Project 891 Theatre Company’s nearly perfect site-specific production at Edgewater’s historic, 1914 Gunder Mansion (North Lakeside Cultural Center).

The year is 1939 and the place is Atlanta, where the film "Gone with the Wind" is having its premiere, while Hitler has begun his rampages in Europe.

Liz HoffmanHitler seems remote to most of the Freitag family, complacent, long-established, well-to-do Southern Jews of German heritage, as they trim their Christmas tree. They’re part of an ingrained culture so assimilated they barely know what being Jewish is, other than to chafe at the bigotry of the gentiles who keep them from mixing in the South’s highest society. So they create their own, "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians," in turn manifesting their own anti-Semitism against "the other kind" — Jews more recently arrived, more religious, more obviously ethnic.

Uhry mined the true history of the South and his own upbringing here. The play’s name, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refers to the big society event of the season for the well-heeled Southern Jewish younger set, a cotillion at the exclusive Standard Club.

At the outset, anxious, flighty Lala Levy, one of the daughters of the house, doesn’t yet have a date for this important night. Sensitive, prickly and awkward, Lala is a grave disappointment to her bossy, ambitious mother, Boo, who fears her daughter will never "take." Lala suffers in comparison to her prettier, brighter, collegiate cousin, Sunny Freitag, who shares the family home along with her fond, slightly vague mother, Reba. Boo’s bachelor brother, the long-suffering Adolph Freitag, nominally presides over the household, supporting them all in comfort with the family business, Dixie Bedding Co.

Into this mix comes handsome Joe Farkas, a new and highly valued employee at the firm, Brooklyn-born and unmistakably "one of the other kind." He sets the family at odds on a number of levels, ultimately challenging their perception of what it means to be Jews.

Commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was revised for its Broadway opening the following year. It deservedly received both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

   
Darrelyn Marx and Lori Grupp Liz Hoffman and Austin D Oie

Skillfully staged in the mansion’s wood-paneled front parlor, with seating for just 23, this intimate production features superb acting, notably from the senior members of the cast. Darrelyn Marx excels as the acerbic Boo, pushing and goading her daughter with tough love, portraying this unlikable character with power and empathy. Lori Grupp charms as Reba, and Larry Garner puts in a wonderfully wry performance as Adolph.

Liz Hoffman captures Lala’s painful gracelessness beautifully. Sarah Latin-Kasper makes a serene Sunny, and Jason Kellerman gives Joe a perfect balance between brashness and bewildered sensitivity. His smile when Sunny agrees to a date lights up the room. Austin Oie is hilarious as redheaded Peachy Weil, the well-born Louisiana wiseacre whom Boo hopes to capture for Lala.

For those who prefer their December entertainment without cloying overdoses of sentiment and good cheer, The Last Night of Ballyhoo offers everything a holiday show should have: Great performances, depth, humor and pathos.

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Allow time to find street parking

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Reefer Madness (The Brown Paper Box Co.)

 

Hilarious musical romp through the wide world of weed

 

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 003

   
The Brown Paper Box Co. presents
   
Reefer Madness
 
Book and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Music by Dan Studney
Directed by M. William Panek
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The 1938 propaganda film “Reefer Madness” sought to teach the ignorant American masses of the dangers of “marihuana”, including but not limited to grand theft auto, sexual deviance, and murder. Paranoid and misinformed to the extreme, the film’s absurd plot and hilarious depiction of drug users have made it a cult classic, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical spoof is a wonderfully over-the-top  expansion of the film’s best ideas, mainly the claims that marijuana turns people into sex-crazed baby-killing socialists.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co_ 006Directed by M. William Panek, The Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Reefer Madness is at its best during group numbers, when the cast fearlessly tackles the offensive subject matter with vocal gusto. During the smaller numbers, some of the actors struggle to adjust to the absence of the group, and the singing loses precision and clarity.

The musical revels in gratuitous sex and violence, and the exaggeration of these elements highlights the ridiculousness of the movie’s plot, the tragic tale of high school students Jimmy Harper (Tyler Davis) and Mary Lane (Anna Schutz). Under the false pretense of swing dance lessons, drug pusher Jack Stone (David Geinosky) invites Jimmy over to the Reefer Den, where his life will be changed forever.

When Jimmy takes a hit of marijuana for the first time, rather than experiencing lethargy and munchies, Jimmy life descends into a mess of unbridled orgies, Jesus hallucinations, and running over old men with Mary’s car. While Davis’ jonesing can get a little grating to watch at times, he and Schutz showcase impressive vocals, and the two actors have no problem transitioning from adorable sweetness to devilish insanity. Some of the high notes could have more power behind them, and there needs to be a better balance between the volume of the principals and the chorus behind them, but Jimmy and Mary’s tragic romance is a constant source of humor throughout the production.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 004 As the denizens of the Reefer Den, junkies Ralph (Michael Gardner), Sally (Jillian Kate Weingart), and Mae (Chelsea Paice) have some of the best moments in the show as stumble around the stage, humping and smoking whatever they can. Wiley is fantastically manic as Ralph, and is extra creepy as Sally’s baby in one disturbing interlude. Paice gets one of the best ballads of the show, and while she handles the lower register well, the big money notes are lacking in energy and support. Weingart has a similar problem, but she makes up for it with her powerful belting and fierce sexuality.

Reefer Madness is a musical that is not afraid to offend. Whether it is through explicit sexuality or graphic violence, the show pushes the boundaries of musical comedy, taking it to hilariously dark place. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production needs a little more polish to be truly memorable, but the actors tackle the material with dedication and courage. Despite the lows, this musical never comes down from its high.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

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REVIEW: Resurrection Blues (Eclipse Theatre)

Beyond the crucifixion

 

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Eclipse Theatre presents
 
Resurrection Blues
 
by Arthur Miller 
directed by Nathaniel Swift
Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 9th
(more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

A little miracle is taking place at the Greenhouse Theatre CenterEclipse Theatre is brilliantly executing a late and oft misunderstood play by Arthur Miller . Don’t be deceived by the primitive set, the rather flat proscenium space or relatively low production values. Director Nathaniel Swift’s vision for Miller’s only satire works around all these shortcomings. Even the monochromatic set design (Steph Charaska ), whose cheesy faux rocks look like they came off the set of the original Star Trek, become imbued with a kind of poetry, as do the silent, dancing Cuentistas (Jazmin Corona, N. K. Gutierrez, and Lizbeth Silva) who pull double-duty pushing the set pieces between scenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With the exception of Jesus geeks, so much about Resurrection Blues could be lost upon the audience—as its 2006 premier in London demonstrates, review after review. By all accounts its unveiling at the Old Vic, under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey and its director, Robert Altman, was an epic fail. What a difference a great or even good production makes for a play’s reception. Michael Billington, critic at The Guardian, who had seen a 2002 production in Minneapolis, calls Resurrection Blues “sparky and neo-Shavian,” sighting predominant problems with Altman’s direction.

However, Paul Taylor of The Independent, upon seeing the same production, surmises that “Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire;” Kate Bassett, in an earlier Independent review calls Miller’s satire “embarrassingly feeble;” and Jeremy Austin of The Stage calls Resurrection Blues a “lumbering, rambling half-finished effort,” speculating that the man problems of one character represents “Miller’s own impotence in the final years of his life.”

Well, they can all sit down to a big plate of crow. Impotent? Feeble? Lumbering? No. This is an American master at the top of his game. Of course, it is not The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 50 years before; he didn’t need to write another. Resurrection Blues is a satire that shares similar themes on religious zealotry, the political or social desperation that leads to either scapegoating or revolution or suicide. Mixed with a soupcon of rampant, hypocritical commercialism; magnified exponentially by reality-show culture; put on steroids; shaken, not stirred–that’s’ precisely how Swift and his cast play it.

Indeed, there were moments when I questioned whether I could keep up with Miller’s tenaciously mercurial wit or Eclipse’s exactingly fast pace. For those feeling up to it, this show will make them feel the burn—and maybe just a little glow afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA No review could possibly do all the performances justice. Let’s just say Nina O’Keefe as Jeanine, the wheelchair-bound, disillusioned Marxist, starts everyone off with an incredible warm-up. “I failed as a revolutionary and as a dope addict,” she says. She also fails at suicide–although that actually turns out to be a good thing. If fact, maybe even her attempt at suicide wasn’t such a bad thing either—especially since, after leaping from her window, Jeanine starts living each passing moment with passionate intensity. At the pavement she meets with the mysterious healing stranger at the heart of Resurrection Blues. He is nothing less than a spiritual revolutionary, whose mystical powers generate more political upset than any Uzi-packing militia.

Attempted suicide as religious experience—that’s only the beginning of Miller’s tasty treats. O’Keefe knows very well the poetic power of Miller’s dialogue. Her concentration never relents.

Want another little taste? There’s Henri Schulz (Ron Butts), Jeanine’s philosopher father, a Hamlet-like intellectual if ever there was. Butts plays a man too overeducated for his poor country’s good . . . or his family’s good . . . or his own good. He portrays Schulz with just the right balance of pompous erudition and guilty, compromised, liberal befuddlement. Especially in his homeland, an anonymous third world country, all he can be is compromised. His extreme privilege, philosophical bent, and vacillating social consciousness reduce him to being the ultimate fish out of water. He returns home only to repair his relationship with his daughter, the suicidal revolutionary. So he tells his cousin, the country’s frenetic dictator, General Felix Barriaux (Matt Welton)—the character with the man problem.

As for impotence, it’s not just in generalissimo’s dick, but also in his administration. Nothing much can be done, not even ruthlessly, in an impossible country, where even good plans go to rot with corruption, betrayal and backwardness far before their completion. Welton plays Barriaux with all the manic chagrin and desperation of a tyrant who will bring order by any means necessary, even when he admits it probably won’t stop their downward slide in the face of globalization.

But he still has one small trick up his sleeve: the capture and crucifixion of Jeanine’s mysteriously powerful and dangerously inspiring stranger. And he has sold the exclusive television rights to it to an American network. Millions can be gained, for sorely needed development, at the cost of one spiritually endowed freak. For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

Here’s where the “Miller-can’t-do-satire” thing gets exposed for what it is. Miller guides a character down one road; the character turns tail and runs down another. Just when you think you’ve got the play figured out, it turns into another sort of play. It may all be too much to keep up with, but you’d better keep up or you’ll miss the laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the best laughs occur at the expense of the facile and fecklessness Americans who arrive to shoot the crucifixion. Chief among savaged American prototypes is Skip Cheeseboro (Joe McCauley), the TV producer. His business school mentality can’t be bothered with Schulz’s philosophical quandaries over going through with it. Yet, he’s sharp enough to wield every ounce of industry doublespeak and faux multicultural appreciation in the service of securing the gruesome spectacle for his network. “But, realistically,” says Skip to his startled director, Emily Shapiro (Rebecca Prescott), who presumes that she came to shoot a commercial, “who am I to be disgusted?” McCauley’s cold and slippery performance make us doubt that he ever could be.

At least there’s lots of warmth and play in Prescott’s slightly ditzy director, Emily, whose distaste for the crucifixion gamely leads her to attempt seduction of the smitten General Barriaux. JP Pierson shows us some good, old, hippy practicality in his portrayal of Stanley. Stanley’s interrogation by General Barriaux shapes up to being an odd couple encounter of the oddest kind.

Stanley’s the BFF of the present-day Messiah, a miraculous, sensitive misfit who goes by the name of Ralph or Charlie or whatever he’s feeling that day. In fact Pierson’s performance holds a critical center in the last 15 minutes of the last scene of the play. On the industry night when I saw Resurrection Blues, this was the moment when the cast’s prodigious pace, maintained with accuracy and aplomb throughout, began to drag and lose momentum. It’s a bear of a closing scene, in which each character reveals the hypocrisy or authenticity of their motives for wanting Ralph, or Charlie, to stay and be crucified or to freely go. It has to be artificial enough to maintain the even feel of Miller’s satire, but also natural enough to evoke the spontaneity with which each character addresses their uncertain savior. Such things can be worked out in the middle of production, yet still exact crucial tests on a cast’s concentration.

Miller’s morality tale gets to have it all–worldly cynicism and the possibility of real love, truth told to power and power confessing its own grasping frailties, rage unleashed against stupefying oppression and holy relief from desiccating anger, overwhelming doubt and unyielding faith, and miracles, miracles in the most impossible places–especially in the most impossible places. Would that Miller had lived 50 years more to write comedies of this quality for every tragedy he gave us. We need him now more than ever.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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