Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Iliad (A Red Orchid)

   
  

Young women and the warrior code

 

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad

   
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
The Iliad
   
Adapted by Craig Wright
Directed by
Steve Wilson
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Dec 19   |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than a little sly feminism goes into A Red Orchid’s production The Iliad, a one-act play adapted for young female actors by award-winning playwright Craig Wright. The girls take on the masculine roles of this Bronze Age classic and staunchly play out its warrior codes of honor, duty, and submission to fate and/or the gods. The idea is to provide young female actors with roles that they wouldn’t usually get to play and introduce them to the classics. However, employing an all-girl cast pulls double, triple, even quadruple duty by implicitly interrogating the ancient gender roles of Mycenaean Greek culture, wherein dissent between the hero, Achilles (Jaiden Fallo-Sauter), and his king, Agamemnon (Najwa Joy Brown), begins with a dispute over who has claim to a woman they’ve won as spoils of war.

A Red Orchid Theatre - The Illiad posterAs for the women’s roles, they are all played by dolls–dolls to be fought over, to possess, to be prized, to surrender, to be thrown around or to be ordered into submission. It’s this light bit of child’s play between the girls over dolls that brings home the more serious recognition that women were chattel back in the day, no matter how highly born. In the shadow of men at war, women and children could, at best, only hope that their side won–or that whomever won, the victors would be reasonably merciful. Even Michelle Lilly O’Brien’s set design reminds one of children caught at play in the middle of violent upheavals in Bosnia or the Gaza Strip.

That’s quite harsh stuff for a very young cast to convey. But Steve Wilson’s direction unflaggingly keeps up the energy and humor in the show’s vivid confrontations between enemies who should be allies, between brothers Paris (Nicole Rudakova) and Hector (Aria Szalai-Raymond), and, oh yes, between the warring Greeks and Trojans. Sarah Fornace’s fight choreography packs a lot of good visual excitement. The final showdown between Achilles and Hector is all the more thrilling for the economy with which it’s executed. Finally, the strutting stuff in Wright’s script regarding male disputes over honor gets its comeuppance from the girls’ deadpan delivery–to even greater comic effect.

Wright cuts out much of the original Iliad for his adaptation and that, for the purposes of this production, is more than fine. If anyone had told me before now that this epic could be performed on stage in an hour, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I mourn the radical alteration of one scene—the final meeting between Priam (Melanie Neilan) and Achilles, when the aged king comes to beg from him the body of his slain son. It’s passing strange that, having come so far, Wright does not simply pull whole and darkly beautiful lines from the original text:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my son.

It is not as if Neilan couldn’t handle that kind of poetry. She, not to mention most of the cast, seems up to it and should be given the chance. If exposure to the classics is part of the actor’s journey in this production then not just gender roles, but also an exploration of the Ancient Greek concept of Ananke, or Harsh Necessity, is just as much part of the process of discovering this culture and these characters. A Red Orchid’s production succeeds with a certain cuteness factor—little girls playing big men’s roles. That works to great effect, especially when 5th grader Eden Strong delivers the lines of the mighty Ajax. But behind the play lies war’s devastation. I say, let the girls bring it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Production Personnel

Featuring Najwa Brown*, Jaiden Fallo-Sauter*, Katie Jordan*, Paola Lehman*, Marissa Meo, Isabella Mugliari, Melanie Neilan*, Madison Pullman, Nicole Rudakova, Kara Ryan*, Elenna Sindler*, Eden Strong and Aria Szalai-Raymond

The creative team includes Steve Wilson (Director), Erin Barlow (Assistant Director), Sarah Fornace (Fight and Movement Director), Michelle Lilly O’Brien (Scenic Design), Joanna Melville (Costume Design), Sean Mallary (Lighting Design), Nick Keenan (Sound Design), Kelli Moreno (Dramaturg) and Mary Ellen Rieck is the Stage Manager, Mackenzie Yeager the Company Manager and the Production Manager is Katherine Welham

*A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble Member

     
       

REVIEW: The Comedy of Errors (Court Theatre)

Graney’s adaptation brings the laughs, but lacks substance

 

Wilson, Ehrmann, Goodrich, Hellman - h

       
Court Theatre presents
   
The Comedy of Errors
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by
Sean Graney
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $30-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (our review ★★★★) was one of the highlights of last season, with the seamless execution of the quick-change heavy script garnering huge laughs and multiple Jeff nominations for Court Theatre. With their new adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, it’s apparent that Court is trying to see if lightning can strike twice, with six actors playing 20 characters in another quick change extravaganza, but the script lacks the sophistication that made Irma Vep so memorable. In Graney’s hands, Shakespeare’s story of two sets of separated twins is taken to new levels of Goodrich, Hellman - vabsurdity, building humor around the characters’ awareness of the plot’s implausibility. The jokes are very funny, but too much of the play’s substance is lost as the story essentially becomes a 90-minute running gag.

In the dilapidated town of Ephesus, Antipholus (Erik Hellman) and Dromio (Alex Goodrich) of Syracuse search for their missing twin brothers, separated from them in a shipwreck during infancy. Because of a feud between the two cities, they conceal their true identities, inciting mass confusion as they are mistaken for their counterparts. Hellman and Goodrich are the focal points of the production, playing both sets of twins, leading to some impressively rapid costume changes (see video example here) and backstage movement.

As the characters most bewitched by the events surrounding them, Antipholus and Dromio are also the most self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on the ridiculous nature of the plot they are in. When Antipholus calls out Dromio for interrupting him mid-soliloquy, this works. But when Goodrich constantly checks in with the audience to check if a joke landed, it gets old. These scenes are also when Graney returns to some of his Irma Vep tricks, with varying degrees of success. An audience participation segment as Dromio describes his beastly wife Luce (Elizabeth Ledo) works incredibly well to create a relationship with the viewer, but a song sung by Dromio later in the show seems out of place and odd for odds sake (Irma Vep used dulcimers, here it’s a ukulele).

 

Ledo - v Goodrich, Stoltz - v

As more time becomes devoted to meta-comedy and increasing the slapstick, less time is spent on the actual story and the characters’ relationships. The actors turn to exaggeration to differentiate their multiple roles, and in doing so the illusion becomes more important than the action. Steve Wilson is the major exception to this as Officer Jailor and Balthazar, with the Jailor’s unreturned love for Luciana (Ledo) garnering a vocal lament from the audience in the play’s closest thing to a “dramatic” moment. On the flip side, Wilson has amazing talent for slapstick, and the fate of Balthazar is of the funniest moments of the show.

As the play becomes more and more absurd, it becomes obvious that the story is just a launching pad for an endless barrage of meta-theatrical gags. By the end it feels like there are no stakes at all, and while it is fun to be along for the ride, there’s still a huge emotional connection missing. Granted, when the ride is Kurt Ehrmann in drag recounting his days at the mall getting his ears pierced, it’s worth it.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Sketchbook X (Collaboraction)

Collaboraction celebrates the creative spirit with Sketchbook X

 Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre. http://www.collaboraction.org

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook X:   People’s Choice
   
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $20-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

What is a play exactly? Is it a dramatic staging of a story? Is it people moving around in a physical space in front of an audience? And furthermore, what separates a play from a sketch or a scene or even a performance art installation?

Pictured (left to right): Jeffrey Gitelle, Ian McLaren and Emily Shain in “Eighty Four” written by Cory Tamler, directed by Dan Stermer. “Eighty Four” is one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27 at The Chopin Theatre These are the questions I was left pondering after seeing Collaboraction’s tenth annual Sketchbook festival, a showcase of original mixed media performances. This  year’s theme was “exponential.” Yes, it is fairly nebulous, and this is perhaps one reason why the output lacks a certain concreteness and cohesion. Characters and plot become secondary to evoking visceral emotions. Sketchbook X in many ways is more circus than drama.

This isn’t to say that the finished product is all spectacle and no substance. There are some standout pieces.

The one that clearly stands out the most is Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Unlike other pieces that become crushed under their own weight, Five Lesbians is a witty, stylized comedy. Devised by Evan Linder, the play features five women (Sarah Gitenstein, Mary Hollis Inboden, Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa and Megan Johns) who head a local social club centered around a shared love of quiche. The women click and cluck like 1950s southern church ladies and harass the audience. When communist Russia bombs the outside world, all quiche is destroyed. The women go into a tizzy, which leads to their outings.

Five Lesbians works because it is the most refined piece of the festival. The script feels fully fleshed out, the actors are well aware of their characters and the comedic timing is impeccable. There is a lot of commitment, and there is little ambiguity. It has an aesthetic all its own that is so engaging I’d pay to see a full-length production.

Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre

Other standouts include Sacrebleu (devised and performed by Dean Evans, Molly Plunk and Anthony Courser), a pantomimed, slapstick comedy about two eccentric French fur trappers. The short monologue The Blueberry (written by Sean Graney and featuring Celeste Januszewski) is a thoughtful meditation on existence that explains string theory with blueberry imagery.

Other pieces, however, just don’t pan out. What I’m Looking For (written by Brett C. Leonard and featuring Joel Gross and Heather Bodie) is little more than a heavy-handed music video for a Rufus Wainwright song. Meanwhile, The Untimely Death of  Adolf Hitler (written by Andy Grigg and featuring Eddie Karch, Anthony Moseley, Erin Myers, Greg Hardigan and Dan Krall) lacks enough wit to drive the piece beyond its premise. But you can’t expect all the pieces to be gems. Besides, if you don’t like something, just wait 7 to 10 minutes for another play.

Sketchbook-Four-Women As usual, Collaboraction has succeeded in making the festival feel like a big event. The interior of the Chopin Theatre is awash in glowing light and fog. Two large screens flank the sides of the stage and streamers stretch from the floor to the ceiling. It all makes for a breath-taking first impression.

If you want to see all 19 pieces in a row, you’ll have to see the show on a Saturday. Be warned, though. It’s a 4.5-hour long journey, though you are encouraged to come and go as you please.

Overall, Sketchbook X is a mixed bag of intriguing works. The majority of the pieces lack refinement, but there are a few plays that are polished treasures. The theme gets lost among the many productions, but I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, Sketchbook is more of a party that aims to celebrate the creative spirit, and in that sense, it succeeds.

   
   
Rating:  ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The Wreck of the Medusa (The Plagiarists)

Cannibal Fare for Cannibal Times

 
The Plagiarists present:
 
The Wreck of the Medusa
 
created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters
directed by
Jack Tamburrie
at
Angel Island Theatre, 731 W. Sheridan (map)
through May 9th | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There are plays that you admire; since their productions are also admirable, you recommend them. There are plays that you carry with you long after you leave the theater; these you recommend highly. Then, there are plays that you wish would Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0534 spread like wildfire around the world and this play is one of them. The Wreck of the Medusa, created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters, is now enjoying its world-premiere at Angel Island Theatre (home of Mary-Arrchie Theatre). The Plagiarists, who produce only original works, have been workshopping the play for at least two years, unveiling its fledgling prototype in the DCA Incubator Series in January 2009.

Such meticulous care in development was more than worth the effort. Based on the worst maritime disaster of the 19th-century, The Wreck of the Medusa relies upon multiple narratives, medias and styles to relay the horror of the event and its attempted cover-up by the French government. But the play also challenges the notion of ever really knowing what its survivors went through, especially through the vehicle of art. It’s a decidedly self-conscious play that never becomes precious about its ability to tell the truth. Rather, it generates layer upon layer of ambiguous meaning, made manifest through the disparities that crop up in narrative and perception.

In 1816, the French Naval Minister Dubouchage (Marsha Harman), under the Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII (Kasia Januszewski), appointed Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys (Andrew Marchetti) as captain of the frigate Medusa. His mission, with three other ships, was to deliver Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz (Christopher Marcum) as the new governor of Senegal in a peaceful handover of the colony from the British to the French. The crown chose Chaumareys based on his pedigree and Royalist loyalties—quite understandable, since Napoleon’s 100 days had embroiled France the summer before. However, they completely overlooked Chaumareys’ extreme lack of naval experience and personal knack for gross incompetence.

What was supposed to be a standard voyage turned into mind-numbing disaster. On July 2, the Medusa ran aground off the coast of Senegal. 150 passengers were abandoned on a cobbled-together raft while the captain, the governor and high-ranking officers made it to shore in two days in lifeboats. Stranded without sails, navigational equipment, or decent provisions, the passengers quickly turned on each other, to the point of murder and cannibalism. After 12 days at sea, only 15 survived from the original 150 and 5 of those died soon after rescue by the Argus, a companion ship they’d lost sight of before the wreck.

Plagiarists_Wreck Promos_02272010_0055_fade[1] The disaster resulted in absolute scandal for the newly established Bourbon monarchy. Especially when, against all government efforts to discredit them, two survivors, ship’s surgeon J.B. Henry de Sevigny (Kevin V. Smith) and geographical engineer Alexander Correard (Greg Hess) collaborated on a tell-all book about the shipwreck that spread like wildfire across Europe.

Peters and Miller’s genius employs many different points of view leading up to the abandonment of the passengers on the raft, then intricately explores the wreck’s political and cultural aftermath once its survivors have been rescued.  But the horror of the raft itself they leave to the dark pit of the imagination. Indeed, all narratives surrounding those fatal twelve days, as well as all attempts by artists to graphically depict it, seem more like the human mind struggling to comprehend unimaginably dangerous depths within the human psyche.

But for ignorant Americans, like myself, who know nothing about the Bourbon Restoration, this is fine storytelling theater–the narratives themselves contain full acknowledgement of their frailties and incompleteness. Furthermore, the absurdity of the storytelling becomes heightened by the exuberantly melodramatic rendition of the wreck that bookend the play’s straightforward sections. Here, the dark, macabre tale of The Wreck of the Medusa receives some Monty Python treatment. I have no idea whether Peters and Miller are quoting directly from W. T. Moncrieff’s The Fatal Raft, but these scenes certainly do read like a 19th-century melodrama “based on true events!” While the cast is brilliantly even and superlative in their multiple roles, Steve Wilson’s versatility stands out both as Jack Gallant, the plucky British sailor with the ridiculously pregnant pause, and as the disturbingly creepy Richefort, a stranger to whom Captain de Chaumareys inexplicably gives over command of the ship.

Other roles also stand out. Christopher Marcum’s insidiously evil Governor Schmaltz looks like the Bourbon version of the Bush/Cheney administration. His aide Griffon Du Bellay (Griffin Sharps) creates with him the perfect match made in hell. Kevin Smith so convincingly portrays the psychology of the ship’s doctor, one fears for the actor’s own sanity. Sevigny’s ratiocinated dissection of events and their effects on the minds of the survivors, including his own, cannot spare him the hallucinatory horrors of PTSD. Marsha Harmon conveys a kind of androgynous polish in her roles as Dubouchage and as the Herald for the Lord of the Tropic (Kasia Januszewski). Through it all, even on trial, Marchetti’s Chaumareys remains perfectly proper, slightly aloof, and totally clueless.

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509 Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0521

Greg Hess’s engineer, Correard, comes across as the play’s one regular guy. But even his ambiguities over our capacity to relay what really happened get teased out through his partnership with Theodore Gericault (James Dunn), the artist willing go to extremes to paint the truth about the raft. Gericault’s work hangs in the Louvre, now regarded as a seminal work for the Romantic Movement in painting. Several characters explore its meaning during the play. Their responses are generally ours, to any catastrophic event we get to see up close and in person.

Surely, the story of the wreck of the Medusa isn’t worse than the economic and war-as-foreign-policy wrecks into which we have so blithely and incompetently sailed. This Plagiarists production reflects our own country’s monstrous wreck—told in miniature, told in fragments, told in horror, told in farce. Perfect for a broken world, perfect for a world we have pushed to the breaking point.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509

Review: “A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant”

Red Orchid Lets Religious Absurdity Loose

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A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow from a concept by Alex Timbers
Directed by Steve Wilson
Music Direction by Brandon Magid
thru January 3, 2010 (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Szalai-Raymond, V It’s only November, but if you are already tired of virgin births, wise men led by stars, angels singing to shepherds or animals talking in mangers, then A Red Orchid Theatre’s remount of A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant just might be the cure for what ails you. Based upon the self-promoted achievements of L. Ron Hubbard, the pageant explores one man’s search for the answers to life’s most important questions and his creation of the religion Scientology.

That children enact this story is the stroke of genius that A Red Orchid Theatre can pat itself on the back over for years to come. The pageant has quickly morphed into Chicago’s brand new holiday favorite–what with Next Theatre opening its production in two weeks. Will Chicago survive dueling Scientology pageants? Will these theaters survive an onslaught from Scientology’s lawyers? Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?

I hardly know which is scarier–Scientology, the story of the creation of Scientology, or the amount of talent these kids possess. Director Steve Wilson has one tight group of young actors at his disposal. They rock the house with angelic paeans to L. Ron Hubbard, slow-motion battle scenes, hilarious E-meter demonstrations, and fabulous portrayal of the sinister galactic overlord, Xenu. One actor even looks like a pre-teen Tom Cruise—now that’s scary.

Brown, V Fallo, V Szalai-Raymond, Allen, Fallo,V

In a classic moment of paranoia, I considered whether this satire could actually be a vehicle promoting Scientology. For L. Ron, all paths for spiritual growth sooner or later lead to Hawaii. And why not? All the same, other than blasting away your engrams or your Thetans, Scientology still doesn’t have answers for who we are or what life’s purpose is all about. But in the midst of the joy of the Scientology pageant, we really don’t care.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

ScientologyCast09

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant features A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble members Chaz Allen, Najwa Brown, Jaiden Fallo, Paola Lehman, Adam Rebora, Kara Ryan, Elenna Sindler and Aria Szalai-Raymond; as well as newcomers Elita Ernsteen, Katherine Jordan, and Alex Turner.

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

Review: Hypocrite Theatre’s ‘Oedipus’

  

 

Stacey Stoltz in 'Oedipus'. Picture taken by Paul Metreyeon

 

Oedipus
Adapted and Directed by Sean Graney
The Hypocrites, May 31-July 12 (buy tickets here )

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is not laudable about this production of Oedipus? Sean Graney’s rockin’ adaptation harkens back to the first productions of Hair, when our country badly needed to let the sunshine in. We need, these days, that same purifying light. Rare is the theatrical event that can stand on its own, in terms of theme, artistry, and invention, yet also address, in profound and universal ways, the sickness of our nation.

The Hypocrites do Oedipus as rock opera! Yet it is a rock opera that preserves the poetry and tragedy of Classical tradition, without slipping into the maudlin solipsism to which rock opera is prone. Inspired by Ted Hughes’ translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, Sean Graney maintains a healthy devotion to the history and beauty of this ancient myth, while still managing to kick out the props and go for something fresh–something both the kids and the old Classical Lit geeks can thoroughly enjoy.

Steve Wilson and Stacy Stoltz in 'Oedipus".  Picture taken by Paul Metreyeon.If the set were not enough to create a carnival mood, with it bright colors, its McDonald’s style plastic picnic tables, its totem pole booth ringed with lights, or its pink painted filing cabinets growing a cactus out of one open drawer, then the actors tossing around balloons between themselves and the audience engender a carnival atmosphere. The set design expresses both the horror and mock horror aspects of the production, which one discovers upon noticing that the blue plastic sheets, enclosing the set from floor to ceiling, are dripped with thick red paint, simultaneously suggesting both blood and fake blood.

This strikes a balanced interrogation between the plastic and the real. Stacy Holtz, as the Blind Seer, may sing about the emptiness of life and, therefore, the emptiness of losing life; but her final rock solo, as Jocasta, brings the emptying loss of life to its raw, devastating conclusion. Thank God–or the gods–and/or the terrific cast—that, here, we have a show that uses irony and distancing to intense theatrical purpose, not as a faddish ploy. What is done to Oedipus (Steve Wilson), by fate or by his people, is truly horrifying. Yet humor is played for all it’s worth—whether between Creon (Halena Kays) and Oedipus jockeying for position or the gratuitous tongue-wrestling between Oedipus and Jocasta.

One wonders whether can be no “over the top” for this production precisely because it takes place “under the big top”. Yet, what grounds and sustains it is its unmistakable, unyielding commitment to poetry. If anything, Sean Graney’s careful preservation of poetic language consecrates this theatrical space, as surely as it consecrates Oedipus’s struggle for the truth that will demand his ultimate sacrifice. While Graney has never had a classical education, his work relies on self-education, a thorough love for the tragedians, and copious research, both prior to writing as well as all the way through development.

Steve Wilson and Halena Kays in The Hypocrites' 'Oedipus'.  Picture taken by Paul Metreyeon.“Sean and Stacey and I have worked together close to 10 years now,” says Halena Kays. “We all worked together for 4.48 Psychosis. Sean has very definite ideas. He’s really clear about the world the play is going to be in. We would get the script filled with clues about how the tone would change, things like, ‘they’re underwater,’–things he knows for himself and his instincts. I find that the best way to work with Sean is to make really strong choices. The actors’ contributions come through in the minutiae—the clarity, the magic and the fun.”

The delicate minutiae wield the greatest political punch. The first moment Oedipus appears on stage, a surgical mask covers his face—recalling all our panics over H1N1, SARS, and AIDS. But diseases that mark a country “rotting from within” do not end with viruses. Oedipus may believe a little too completely in his own legend, as self-made man and conqueror of the Hell Bitch. Steve Wilson brings realistic pathos to a man who will nobly prevail past the point where others would rationalize their ideals away. Such an uncompromising nature will lead him to be self-sacrificing. It will also lead him to commit torture. For all who care about the power of theater to reveal our political, psychological, and spiritual selves, hie thee to this show for shame. Or live thee in the shame of our nation’s present state without it.

Rating: ««««

Venue:  The Building Stage
Location: 412 N. Carpenter Street, 2 blocks south of Grand, Blue line to Grand or via the #8 or #56 bus.  (Click on map below for larger view.)

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