REVIEW: Dracula – A Tragedy (Redtwist Theatre)

 

Odd adaptation upends clever atmospherics

 

DracMIna

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Dracula: A Tragedy
   
Written by Mark Mason
Directed by Stephen James Anderson
Inspired by the novel by Bram Stoker
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago (map)
Through October 31  |  
tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Along with Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s vampire, Dracula, is among the most iconic figures of horror ever created. Even those who’ve never read the original novel (which you really should) or seen one of the scores of films inspired by it (is there anyone who hasn’t?), know something of the tale, although it has been twisted and turned and altered in innumerable ways.

Mina and Renf in Redtwist Theatre DraculaFor Redtwist Theatre’s perverse and gruesome version, Dracula: A Tragedy, playwright Mark Mason takes more liberties than most. He has appropriated Stoker’s characters but almost none of his plot. Instead we get an incoherent mess of spooky weirdness.

The atmospherics are great. Stephen James Anderson, who doubles as director and designer, has done a great job with the set. Arriving theater goers walk down a long dark corridor past ragged gray-robed figures muttering prayers into a long, narrow black box theater. A woman sits near a fire, working at an old-fashioned manual typewriter. At rear stage, we see a huge crucifix. Shimmery hangings enhance the creepy effects.

The music, muttering and typing continue all the while the spectators file in and the play starts. The effect is spoiled somewhat, though, by the viewers, since without a clear signal of the start of the action, the audience doesn’t know when to stop yakking and turn off their cell phones. It’s a pity, but these times require some kind of announcement.

Playing Count Dracula, Bob Pries looks the part, I’ll give him that. Deep set eyes, sharp nose, widow’s peak, prominent ears — he looks like a handsome Nosferatu — with a hokey Bela Lugosi accent.

Drac has just arrived in England on an exploding ship, and purchased a lunatic asylum, complete with inmates, and the count seems bent on making more crazies.

The novel’s chief victims, Mina Harker (Ariana Dziedzic) and Lucy Westenra (Shannon Riley) have been turned into closet lesbians; the madman Renfield (Dustin Whitehead) is Jack the Ripper. Dracula intends to take over England, apparently by forcing Mina’s husband, Jonathan (Sean Ogren), to impregnate her, an act that occurs on stage in a sort of black sabbath.

 

Koffa JonMina Mina

Anderson does some clever things with the staging, such as characters who crawl onstage out of a fireplace, but he’s aimed his cast somewhere between melodrama and over-the-top camp. That follows the script, which segues between histrionics, violence and sudden, disconcerting efforts at humor — which, judging by audience reaction on opening night — rarely succeed.

Ninety minutes without intermission, this version leaves out Van Helsing, the novel’s chief vampire hunter, as well as two of Lucy’s three suitors, Transylvania and nearly all of power of the original.

Dracula: A Tragedy, might be best enjoyed if you forget about trying to follow the storyline and just take it as a sit-down version of a haunted house. (Some of the seats in the 29-seat theater are backless benches, by the way, so arrive early for a comfortable selection.)

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

JonMina

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REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

EQUUS2

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

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Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: Redtwist Theatre’s “The Pillowman”

Unrelenting yet still insufficient

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We like to execute writers . . . It sends a message . . . I don’t know what message it sends. I don’t know where it sends a message—that’s not my department—but it sends a message.”       –Detective Tupolski

 

Redtwist Theatre presents:

The Pillowman

by Martin McDonagh
directed by Kimberly Senior
thru December 27th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

A local playwright once told me that productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays in Ireland are different from American ones–they are actually very funny. “What you have to remember about Waiting for Godot,” she told me, “is that it’s all pub talk.” Mad Irish humor shuffles side by side with bleak existentialism.

Sons Somewhere in the middle of Martin McDonagh’s bleak, sadistic writing is the fun and play of talk–storytelling for the pure hell of it. Even if the story is supposed to shock, laughter comes somewhere before or after the gasp. Actors in Chekhov’s plays have to balance between making the audience laugh or cry. Here actors have to balance on the razor’s edge between laughter and horror. Suspended in the tension of the moment, audiences must be caught between the discomfort they feel over the violence before them and their own sadistic, humorous reaction to it.

As guest director for Redtwist Theatre’s production of The Pillowman, Kimberly Senior has successfully crafted an exhibition of unrelenting tension and suspense. Nothing disrupts the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room that police officers Tupolski (Tom Hickey) and Ariel (Johnny Garcia) have dragged Katurian (Andrew Jessop) into to account for his life’s work as a writer. A few children have been murdered according to methods described in his macabre and unpublished stories. Protesting his innocence, the author gradually discovers just how he is implicated in those crimes.

A writer’s murder fiction becomes reality. How many times have we seen that device? But The Pillowman springboards from worn-out premise into reason-defying psychological depths. The audience is plunged into the black pool of connections between horror and childhood. According to psychologists, the very state of being shocked or horrified recreates in the victim a childlike state of frozen powerlessness, passivity, and surrealism. McDonagh’s work draws no distinction between that paralyzed, surreal consciousness and the world of childlike creativity and play. In The Pillowman, both are inextricably enmeshed. Horror gives birth to, or deeply informs, creativity and even when creativity seems to transform or redeem the impact of horror, it is, in fact, planting the seeds for more.

Happy JesusFam

Redtwist’s production achieves the suspension of time required to create deep horror. In deep horror, there is no future–only an oppressive present that never improves. Nothing describes The Pillowman’s totalitarian state better than a nameless land, much like the land in many fairy tales, of uninterrupted horror, whose residents are kept in childlike submission. Even the agents of the state, like the good cop-bad cop team of Tupolski and Ariel, reveal their childlike natures through the stories they tell about themselves. Here the production shows its greatest strength. Hickey captures all the nuances of a cop who playfully revels in the arbitrary, meaningless nature of state sanctioned sadism, and then revises in front of Katurian a story about himself, in which he goes from heartless mastermind to ingenious savior. As unwavering bad cop, Garcia gives earnest pathos to a man who yearningly hopes his perpetual brutality will reap the love and adoration of children in old age.

ArielKat The relationship between Katurian and his mentally challenged brother, Michal (Peter Oyloe), does not continue that wicked thread. We learn the authorities have dragged in Michal in order to force a confession. Even if Katurian suffers shock from police brutality and the revelation of real child murders, Jessop’s performance is still a little too somnambulant to realize any core of brotherly connection. For my money—and this is a matter of personal taste—I prefer a realist performance of a mentally handicapped person to a performance that simply alludes to it. At least readers can be aware of my bias. In any case, the scene between Katurian and Michal lacks the emotional range to raise the stakes.

Above all, the cast must go further to pull out all the dark humor that inhabits this play, dancing on that razor’s edge between laughs that undermine and laughs that reinforce its sadism. To this end, the side theaters that depict Katurian’s stories are quite impressive. Special attention should be given Marissa Meo’s depiction of the little girl who believes she is Jesus and willingly goes to violent limits to fulfill that belief. Her performance reflects the essence of play, something this production could use a little more of.

Rating: ★★★

PM-Brothers

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