Review: This (Theater Wit)

 
  

Theater Wit exposes adultery with intelligence and grace

  
  

Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in 'This' at Theater Wit. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Theater Wit presents
  
This
  
Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler 
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $24  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What if “the other woman” was not some scheming, seductive siren but your best friend? Many dramas make melodramatic hash out of both kinds of scenarios but This, the latest production of Theater Wit, keeps a cool, compassionate head about sexual transgressions between friends. Melissa James Gibson’s comic script handles the subject with insight, gentle maturity and grace. Theater Wit has a hit on its hands because This demonstrates the right mix of humor and common sense about relationships, love, loss, and recovery. Meanwhile, Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is nothing less than a deft touch–keeping the action clear, light and decidedly on track.

Rebecca Spence as Jane in 'This' at Theater Wit.  Photo by Johnny Knight.Jane (Rebecca Spence) has spent the past year grieving the death of her husband, Roy. Fortunately, she’s had the support of her friends from college, Tom (John Byrnes) and Marrill (Lily Mojekwu), who are married and having their first child; and Alan (Mitchell J. Fain), the “gay friend.” While the gay friend has pretty much become a stock character for contemporary comedy, Fain makes the role distinctly his own, delivering Gibson’s dialogue with a razor sharp edge, which makes the humor more vivid and Alan’s personal revelations more poignant.

Jane’s friendships with these three carry their own sharp edge; the play is quite knowing about the ways friendships can both nourish and undermine the individual. Dinner at Tom and Merrill’s starts with Merrill’s attempts to set up Jane with a new guy, Jean-Pierre (Steve Hadnagy), but it also subjects Jane to a game that puts her on the spot and pulls more information out of her than she’s ready to reveal. Later, Tom shows up on Jane’s doorstep, confessing to a well of untapped desire for her. Jane’s slip-up with Tom acts as the catalyst to plumb whole underlying assumptions her friends have about her and about each other.

The show is not just about Jane but also about how a group of friends handles the rocky changes within long-term relationships—new stresses, miscommunication, unspoken needs and momentary betrayals. Scene after scene regales the audience with witty banter, but the play never strays too far from the loss really haunting Jane. Spence makes every moment count–both her surrender to Tom and her final meltdown are convincingly real. Merrill’s postpartum malaise over her marriage to Tom is grounded by Mojekwu’s solid intelligence and sensuality. Byrnes brings the right level of silent frustration to Tom getting shut out in the marriage. As for Hadnagy’s portrayal of Jean-Pierre, he keeps a light touch—all the better to play an easygoing continental without falling into French-y caricature.

If there are any flaws to the play’s otherwise realistic portrayal of friendship and relationships, it’s in Tom and Merrill’s rather rapid recovery after Jane has let the cat out of the bag about her and Tom’s affair. Also, Alan’s perfect memory–to establish the truth of Merrill and Tom’s He Said/She Said moments—comes across as more of a contrivance than actual drama. But the smoothness with which the cast skates through Gibson’s script redeems these flaws. Wechsler’s cast engages the script with an enviable liquid alacrity, creating scenes with instinctually fluid reactions between people who have known each other for ages. For all the burden of Jane’s secret shame and the pressured snippiness between Tom and Merrill, these are people who like each other and rely on each other’s company as a witness to their lives. No matter what their flaws, they are just the people to bring Jane back to the land of the living.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Rebecca Spence and Lily Mojekwu in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

Mitchell J. Fain and Rebecca Spence in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight. Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

This continues through March 27th, with performance  Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.   Single tickets are $15 to $35.  For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call the Theater Wit box office, 773.975.8150.

    
     

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REVIEW: Baal (TUTA Theatre)

   

It’s Bros before Ho’s, Brechtian Style

TUTA BAAL - #1

   
TUTA Theatre presents
  
Baal
  

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
Peter Tegel 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps no one could accuse Bertolt Brecht of being a feminist. But TUTA Theatre’s production of his first play, now at Chopin Studio Theatre, easily lends itself to feminist critique of its patriarchal constructions of rebellion and artistry. Whether or not that was the playwright’s original intention, Zeljko Djukic’s compelling direction opens up examination of all the impulses and beliefs that drive its protagonist, particularly regarding gender construction. Baal (Ian Westerfer) may be the ultimate artistic outcast and iconoclast. All the same, he does not rebel against the codes of masculinity that allow him to abuse women and murder his best friend at the suggestion of homoeroticism.

TUTA BAAL - #2 But first, a critique of the production: the show is brilliant. If you haven’t yet heard that Baal is Jeff recommended, then you heard it here first. That accolade that will be seconded by every critic that has eyes to see and ears to hear. Djukic has developed cohesiveness in his ensemble that would be the envy of many other productions; their unity reveals itself with each fluid moment and inspired scene change. Dramatic transformations carry emotional weight from scene to scene, until the entire wicked fabric of the play unfolds in a rich, decadent tapestry that, nevertheless, maintains its Brechtian distance. For all the cunning by which that effect is wrought, this is a production to run to.

As for the eponymous lead, I really don’t like using the word “star” in Chicago theater. But Westerfer, as Baal, is a star–a man on fire. He is both the Poet as subversive pop idol and a sly Brechtian parody of that very notion. He is an actor who goes the fullest limit of his outrageous role yet never overreaches or looses control. Lucky him, he gets the lushest language of the play; his use of it never disappoints. Peter Oyloe pairs Westerfer accurately and admirably as Ekart, Baal’s bohemian partner in crime, but clearly, the show is Baal’s. Every effort done by the rest of the cast, especially mastery of Brecht’s language, sets Baal at the epicenter and supports him completely—like water that buoys the floating arrow in a compass pointing north.

The centering of Baal within each environment he’s placed is the quintessential dynamic in this clear and sterling translation by Peter Tegel. Whether in the company of posh German elites, ready to publish Baal’s works in order to boost their own image—or singing before rough crowds at a low-end dive—or in the presence of women who show up for furtive sex at his attic flat—or on the road with Ekart–at an insane asylum—dying before of the sort of merciless men he’s known all his life—Baal’s reactions to all these environments reveal his strongly held beliefs and excessive character. Baal acts out, a perpetual motion machine of absolute contrarianism, but his acting out alone would be meaningless a vacuum. The image of the German Expressionist artist in his pre-Nazi environment awakens Brecht’s dramatic interrogation as to the value of such an artist.

TUTA’s production never forgets that delicate balance between the outsider artist and the cynical society through which he passes. What looks like bawdy roughness and uninhibited abandon is really action constructed and choreographed with military precision. That the cast makes it look so friggin’ effortless is the knee-slapping wonder of this show.

Now, on to the feminism: Baal’s serial abuse of his women lovers forms the main action onstage. But his attitudes toward women and sexuality are not simply born of his defiance of the cramped, hypocritical, bourgeois conventions of his time. They spring equally from his culture’s conceptions of masculinity and the outlaw artist. In fact, besides the warrior or the criminal, the rebel male artist may be the uber-masculine figure of Western Civilization, one that repeats itself interminably to the present day. “Bros before ho’s” is a sentiment far more ancient than its current hip-hop expression and Baal is certainly not its first or only representative, in art or in life.

The wonderful paradox about a figure like Baal is that he can rebel on one level, yet conform to age-old gender constructions that allow for the abuse of women. Baal spurns the middle class sycophants who offer his art patronage. His open insult to their offer is fabulously defiant, a theatrical delight. His rejection of middle class mores regarding sex and gentility toward women gives him access of women’s bodies without all that ridiculous, sentimental love stuff. Whether the middle class males Baal mocks have more respect for women as persons than he remains an open question. But Baal’s extreme adherence to working-class masculinity allows him to abuse women as he feels they deserve.

“This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens”–so writes TUTA’s dramaturg, Jacob Juntunen, in the program notes. No kidding. Among the principles Baal is drunk on are those regarding his uber-masculine artistic revolt. To drink heavily is masculine, so Baal drinks by the bucketful. To beat one’s woman is masculine, so of course he slaps his bitches around. To fuck women without attachment is masculine, so he fucks the whores and throws them to the other guys. To get them pregnant and abandon them is really masculine, so he knocks them up and runs from the stupid cows—they’re only trying to trap him anyway.

To top it all off, once they’ve thrown themselves into the river because they’ve been fucked, abandoned, and (maybe) knocked up, he sings about their floating, rotting corpses. That’s not just masculine, it’s deeply profound and poetic. Genius–genius that allows a male artist to get away with it.

I’ve rubbed your faces in it, but so does Brecht. The real genius of his play is that overweening masculinity is not just a principle that Baal is drunk on. Everyone around him is drunk on it, too—both men and women. Women keep offering themselves to Baal, no matter how extreme the abuse. Here, women have bought into the concept of the outlaw artist as totally as the men. In such a culture, Baal gets all the tail he wants, is as abusive as he pleases, and never has to be accountable to anyone about it. As for their consent to all his unprincipled sadomasochism, some women are more consenting than others, not that it makes any difference to our hero.

It’s here, however, that Djukic’s direction exhibits one truly mystifying flaw. In some ways, the fact that everything else flows so smoothly contributes to it showing up like a sore thumb. Toward the end of the play and Baal’s friendship with Ekart, out of jealousy Baal rapes a young woman who is Ekart’s lover. The rape is portrayed in truncated symbolic form. Why? What is the point of pulling that punch–too violent? A previous scene shows Baal tormenting his pregnant lover, who accepts his beatings and begs for his blows instead of abandonment. In a following scene, Baal knifes Ekart in the back for suggesting, in front of their old boozy gang, that Baal is a homo. Would the realistic depiction of a rape be too much, sandwiched as it is between these brutal scenes? The choice to minimize that violence is bizarre and bewildering. If the idea is to prevent Baal from seeming too unsympathetic, then that choice is really bizarre.

Oh well, in terms of this play’s historical place, the Third Reich is just around the corner. Very soon, it will be “Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche” for the women of Germany. Perhaps worse, more hypocritical men than Baal will be enforcing those policies–but only perhaps.

      
       
Rating: ★★★½
  

TUTA BAAL - #3

 

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