Review: Mary (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Unflinching comedy makes you flinch

     
     

(l to r) James (Scott Jaeck), David (Alex Weisman), Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and Dolores (Barbara Garrick) sit down to a family dinner while Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tends to them in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
  
Mary
  
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by May Adrales
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

In his short time as a professional playwright, Thomas Bradshaw has developed a reputation as one of the foremost provocateurs in the theatre. And after having seen the Goodman Theatre’s production of Mary, it’s a title that is well deserved.

Bradshaw obviously is not one to shy away from such controversial topics as homosexuality, race relations, religion and AIDS, all of which he tackles in the exceedingly dark comedy. But he also is able to deal with these subjects in a way that isn’t sensational. His handling may be over-the-top, taking notions of racism, for example, to absurd heights in order to comically portray the realities of racial inequality. But he never loses sight of the point he is trying to make. In other words, the material isn’t shocking merely to be shocking.

College sweethearts (l to r) Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and David (Alex Weisman) embrace as they get ready to leave school for winter break in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.Mary begins in the year 1983. A collegiate gay couple, David (Alex Weisman) and Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), are preparing for the holidays. When David asks if Jonathan would like to spend the Christmas season with his family, Jonathan apprehensively agrees. The two decide to hide their sexuality from the parents, insisting instead they are just really good buddies.

To say David’s family is unusual is an understatement. His extraordinarily over-the-top WASPy parents (played by Barbara Garrick and Scott Jaeck) keep a black maid on hand who they endearingly refer to as Nigger Mary. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) embodies the mammy caricature, that portly maternal good-natured but simple black woman that has permeated white representations of blacks for decades. She is subservient with a smile and treated as a member of the family.

Jonathan is our fish-out-of-water in this scenario, and so we view David’s bizarre family dynamic through his eyes. Of course, seeing a black woman who is affectionately referred to as a nigger and who lives in a cabin on the property doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. And so he urges David to convince his parents to make some changes. David eventually confronts his mother, pleading with her to send Mary to community college so that she may learn to read.

Meanwhile, Mary and her husband Elroy are uncomfortable with David’s obvious homosexuality. The notion of two men engaging in a sexual relationship goes against their strong Christian roots. And so Mary vows to do God’s work and instructs Elroy to shoot Jonathan in the crotch with a BB gun.

     
Dolores (Barbara Garrick) surprises her husband James (Scott Jaeck) with an early Christmas present in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) recites the Biblical story of Lot to her husband Elroy (Cedric Young) in Thomas Bradshaw’s 'Mary'.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

It certainly sounds like we’re venturing into sitcom territory here. And that seems to be Bradshaw’s intention. But I can assure you that the play does not end on a hearty laugh and a freeze frame. In fact, the ending is quite possibly one of the most unsettling endings to any play I have ever seen. Without giving too much away, Bradshaw in essence pulls the rug out from under the audience, delivering a big "Fuck you!" It’s both ingenious and sadistic.

My problem is that, although I think the ending is a brilliant concept, it feels like the punch line to a very long sketch. It’s a little glib; a little out of left field. It doesn’t entirely make sense when you really sit and think about the characters and the journey they have undergone. And so as much as I really do appreciate the ending as a conceit, I can’t say it was necessarily good playwriting. Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Nigger Mary, struggles with her relationship with the Jennings family in Thomas Bradshaw's 'Mary'. Photo by Liz Lauren.It just makes too big of a leap in logic in order to express how religion and good intentions can send people on misguided missions.

Kudos to the actors, all of whom hold their own in this topsy-turvy play. Weisman and Bennett are good at playing up the puppy love of their relationship, while Bennett scores big laughs with his nimble prancing and shocked facial expressions. Meanwhile, Taylor is incredibly likeable as Mary, even when her character is scheming to shoot a man in the testicles. This likeability makes the play’s conclusion that much more revolting.

May Adrales‘ direction is adept. She keeps the play in motion constantly, giving little time for pause between scenes. It’s exceptional pacing that makes this 90-minute one act breeze by.

The accolades that Bradshaw has received have been earned. Mary really is a thought-provoking and important piece of theatre. I just wish Bradshaw could have found a way to draft his ending so that it wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the characters. Still, the point is made. Just don’t expect to leave the Goodman feeling uplifted.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

(l to r) David (Alex Weisman) plays his new violin for his mother Dolores (Barbara Garrick), his father James (Scott Jaeck), Elroy (Cedric Young) and Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren

All photos by Liz Lauren

         
           

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REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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REVIEW: War With The Newts (Next Theatre at Loyola)

A provocative, timely ode to newts.

 

war-with-newts2

  
Next Theatre presents
 
War With The Newts
 
written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer
Based on the novel by
Karel Capek
directed by Jason Loewith
at Loyola University’s
Mullady Theatre, (map)
through June 20th   |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed 

“Art must not serve might.”-Karel Capek

Watching the truly gorgeous world premier of War With The Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, written by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, one can’t but feel awed by the sheer creativity, expression, and professionalism displayed by the cast and crew of this bold undertaking. Produced by Next Theatre in partnership with Loyola University, full license has been given to create a space that is an incredible natural otherworld of form and function, with free reign from the director for actors to turn in performances from the soul.

newts200 Based on Karel Capek’s raucous 1936 science fiction novel, “War With The Newts,” the playwrights go to lofty heights to capture such an immensely important work and bring it to the stage. While the script is lovely in the linguistic sense, and seeks to dig as deeply as Capek did into fascism, anti-Semitism, individualism versus collectivism, and the very nature of all economic systems gone awry, they quite unfortunately remain politically correct. This correctness does not serve to punctuate the play as Capek’s satire does in his seminal work. Capek draws verbal cartoons around anti-Semitic propaganda that are so big, there is no question as to the ridiculousness of its source. And under the cartoon, we get the glittering individual in a continual struggle to be free from the oppression of it. Conversely, Palmer and Loewith simply do not push this out far enough to hit the high Capek does.

The Newts, giant salamanders, are a brilliant and hardworking new discovery who become enslaved and exploited by Czech industrialist, G.H. Bondy. The Newts gain human knowledge and rise up in a bid for global supremacy. It is in this essential theme that the script falls short again and away from Capek’s philosophy.

One must understand Capek’s context and perhaps read his essay, Why I Am Not A Communist, to fully grasp The War With The Newts. He was not simply delving into the fight between the masses and the dictator, but getting at the very root of slavery; that it’s existence is due to the very idea of the masses at all. In Capek’s view, it was in the very concept of what we call the masses, that the truly egregious takes place. An eradication of the individual case in favor of a one size fits all mentality. And in this bonding between one very like another, where poverty and degradation occur, the desire to rise as one and become dictator always presents itself. It is in these deep considerations that the script doesn’t always find its voice (and to my mind, the only element that would stand in the way of this show running on Broadway). Capek looks at the root causes and conditions underlying warring factions, and seeks to break the never ending cycle of masses to rulers to masses again.

The scenic design, by Collette Pollard, is a dreamscape of pure imagination partnered with a skill that is breathtaking. There is a stark simplicity coupled with the raw element of rain that culminates in a surreal movement of the set itself into a tilted version of reality, bringing intensity and breadth to this work. Puppet designer, Michael Montenegro is a full scope imagineer, creating and realizing the Newts so artfully, that one leans in with the delight of it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines from the era, changing to reference Newts rather than the actual warring factions of World War II, are absolutely of the quality one sees in larger productions. Executed with style and humor, the projections tell the story through popular media, bearing every resemblance to the period, with a witty nod toward what we are given today by way of headlines. Lighting designer Keith Parham delivers a scheme in which locales are changed by light. The scenes at the ocean are lit so perfectly, so believably, they are transporting.

Directed by Jason Loewith, the elements of the wildly imaginative set and players are brought finely and warmly together in a mosaic of color and focus. Interestingly, while finding the script lacking in the ways mentioned, Loewith gives full play to each and every individual in the show, bringing unique performances from the actors and relying heavily on the very special cast and crew he has to work with. There is nothing one size fits all about Loewith’s style. He shows great command in allowing full expression of the artist, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is impressive. The script does not undercut this in any way, but with a falling away from the masses versus power theme in favor of attention to the core of Capek’s own philosophy, this piece would be explosive.

This is not an ensemble piece, and the actors are up to the challenge of strength in the unique, playing off one another to create an energy that is alive and present. Will Zahrn, as Mr. Bondy, the wealthy businessman with an idea of how he can exploit the Newts, dares to play this character unassumingly in the physical sense and with all the bravado of a captain of industry in the vocal sense. He is the wizard in Oz, the man behind the voice, unsure and quaking, afraid to stop what he is doing, and at the same time seemingly afraid to continue. At the intermission, Zahrn becomes Professor Frantisek Czerny, delivering a lecture entitled, Up The Ladder of Civilization.  The placement of this during intermission is unfortunate as it continues into the play when it resumes. The noise in the theatre of breaking between acts made it difficult to hear what was a very clever and fun way to add historical overview to the themes at hand.

Steve Pickering as Captain Van Toch, is the sad, protective, captain of the sea turned Mr. Van Dot, budding captain of industry. Pickering plays the Captain, who arrives one stormy night on the doorstep of Mr. Bondy, with all the pushed out maudlin quality required for the audience to realize he did show up at the man’s home one night to tell him of the Newts and their pearls. Feigning a love for the sea and her beauty with no agenda, all the while seeking to benefit himself from the Newts’ ability to produce from it, Pickering suspends our disbelief deftly. He does all the work necessary to bring the full realization that he is central to the exploitation at hand, by way of exploiting a Jew, Bondy. He first enters the scene, demeaning Bondy with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Bondy accepts it, belittled. As Mr. Dot, Pickering takes center stage and we are left to look at the true villain, the once seemingly altruistic man of the ocean, now a true captain of enterprise in all his glory, dressed up, sure, the real thing coming like a train wreck on the backs of others out of nowhere. There were audible gasps from the audience at the revelation.

war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2  war-with-newts2

Mr. Povondra, played by Joseph Wycoff, is Bondy’s butler, faithful to the point he becomes so enmeshed in the unfolding drama of the Newts that he devotes his every moment to writing their history. Wycoff goes from the staid and formal butler to the wild abandon of a man obsessed by grand scale political arenas with a smoothness that is flawless. He remains loyal to Bondy in the telling, blind to reality, believing that he is the one who brought what he views as a historically glowing moment together by answering the door that fateful night the captain arrived. Mr. Povondra loses his family and job over his devotion to the overwhelming political events playing out before him and, in the end, we see he survives, old, not broken, wiser, less obedient. Wycoff plays Povondra as aged without cliché, a natural evolution of a man’s passionate mind seized for a time by folly, never fully realized as individual.

Jennifer Avery as Mrs. Povondra takes a star turn as the beset wife of a once reliable man gone politico. Avery plays this without victimization, a simple woman who loves her husband, and is willing to sacrifice luxury for his return from his madness. Avery carries the understanding of a woman in such circumstances to great depth, while still maintaining the veneer of a woman devoted to knitting. There is a moment in which Mrs. Povondra becomes chanteuse, singing to the Captain and Bondy, dressed to the nines, in a fantasy of wealth and power. Avery does this without breaking out into the unreal. She remains the humble woman with a secret longing to be adorned and adored.

Joel Ewing as Frankie Povondra, young son of the Povondra’s, is quirky and light, bringing humor to this piece, and the naivete of a child to a world of corruption and greed, a confusing father, and an upset mother. Ewing is delightfully errant and precocious as the young Frankie, and smoothly and effortlessly soft and caring as the older Frankie. It is through this character that we get to the heart of the matter – that these grievous economic situation are the responsibility of all of us; that we have each played a part in the outcome.

Eddie Bennett as Stanislaus, Mildred Langford as Marguerite, and James Anthony Zoccoli as Gunther, bring high energy and a crisp take to smaller roles throughout the play. These are each standout performances for their unique approach and follow through.

War With The Newts is an important work, especially now. In this troubled world, to see Karel Capek stunningly delivered onto the stage is indeed a sight for sore eyes. That two young playwrights dare to take on Capek’s work and realize it in a truly individual sense, is the stuff of which theatre dreams are made.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½