Review: Soul One (Clock Productions)

  
  

A meaningless trip through time

  
  

The cast from 'Soul One', being produced by Clock Productions at Natiional Pastime Theater

 
Clock Productions presents
  
Soul One
   
Written by Travis Hughes
Directed by Jessie Stratton
at National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There are some new plays that can benefit from readings, workshops and multiple productions. Even if they don’t quite work at first, they can continue to grow upon their strengths while fixing their weaknesses. And then, there are scripts that possibly need to be completely rebooted or scrapped all together. Travis HughesSoul One may unfortunately fall into the latter. Jessie Stratton’s direction of this new play with Clock Productions does it no favors. While there are some sparks of talent in this cast and the design, in the end, Hughes’ script provides a hollow jumbled journey that falls somewhere between bad sketch comedy and a 3am History Channel reenactment from the 90’s.

Travis Hughes’ muddled script is centered on a troubled rock star, Jack Straw (Ryan Hughes). Straw is tormented by his producer pressuring him to create a more “pop sound.” His solution is to fly off to the Caribbean where he hires three prostitutes, who just so happen to be able to sing and play instruments on command. The women in Hughes’ play are almost always of the submissive objectified type. From here, things get strange—but not in a fun way. Straw seemingly seeks help from a crackpot therapist (Chad Ramsey). Ramsey’s character, using “Hypnotherapy for Dummies,” puts Straw under hypnosis. This takes Straw back in time to the caveman era. After this, he travels to pseudo versions of Ancient Greece, Rome, the American West and the future. Each one of these scenarios is more nonsensical and underdeveloped than the previous. It appears Hughes’ purpose for this convention is to teach Straw the lesson that he should love his wife, but there is nothing of substance written for these characters to care whether he does or not.

The play opens as though this may be another character study on a troubled artist. We even get a heavily produced mock Behind the Music video. However, this play goes from overplayed to pointless. Hughes opts rather for one cringe worthy joke after another. The sophomoric humor falls flat and advances no story. Stratton’s direction halts the pacing to near unbearably slow. At points, literally nothing happens on stage for a good amount of time. There’s another moment where we simply sit and watch Ramsey blow bubbles in silence for almost a full minute. More salvageable, there are a handful of interchanges between characters that could almost hold their own in a more sketch comedy setting. The main issue with these moments in the play is that nothing is seemingly ever at stake. Ryan Hughes is not believable and is an extremely bland rock star with none of the eccentricities. Straw is written to be the world’s greatest rock frontman, yet, he doesn’t seem to ever sing, only speak lyrics in a rhythmic monotone. Ryan Hughes is doubled by his brother, Travis Hughes, as the “time travelling version” of the character. Hughes comes off much better as an actor in these segments than he does as the writer of frequently flat dialogue.

There is very little rock music played live for a play that is largely billed as a story about a rock star. However, Nikos Brisco demonstrates some skillful guitar playing that could have benefited from more stage time. Also, the female actors clearly have some wonderful talent that isn’t getting tapped in this production, particularly a charming Gemma Crowley. However, the women are consistently utilized as the butt of dull and somewhat misogynistic jokes and are never given an ounce of dimension. Stratton’s video design is polished, but the video-centric director relies too heavily on the projections. Also notable, costume designer Sienna Macedon pulls off her job admirably, providing the only clear indication of what time period we are in.

In addition to script flaws, the overall production lacks clarity and appears under-rehearsed with no polish to timing and pace. Ultimately, the play suffers from an identity crisis on all ends in regards to what type of play this is. There exists a lack of focus on any particular action or storyline. Ramsey, as the psychiatrist, states at the end of the two hours, “Time is meaningless.” Apparently, the same goes for the audience’s time spent.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Graphic-Soul-One2

Soul One continues at National Pastime Theater through April 30th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 3pm.  No Performances on Easter Weekend. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased online or by calling 773.327.7077.  More info at clockproductions.com.

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Living Canvas – Demons (National Pastime)

Across space and time in the Autistic Mind

 

livingcanvas4

 
National Pastime Theater presents
   
The Living Canvas – Demons
       
Developed by Peter Guither
Directed by Lisa Adams
Written by Lisa Adams and Don Alsafi
at
National Pastime Theater, address (map)
through July 31st  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

livingcanvas5The Living Canvas is a perennial performance art piece that has been commandeered by photographer Peter Guither since 2001. Each year Guither works with a cast of actors and dancers to develop a story or theme using music, dance and movement under a collection of images and designs that are projected onto their  naked bodies. Far from being art for the prurient, The Living Canvas provokes a dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state for the theatergoer. Naked bodies of all shapes and sizes take on the moods and meanings invoked by the images that are projected upon them—even to the point of questioning whether these are human forms at all.

So, naturally, this year’s theme, produced by National Pastime Theater as part of its Naked July Series, fits like a glove. The Living Canvas – Demons is a pretty telling impression of the creatures that captivate and propel this year’s storyline, which involves taking a journey into the mind of a mentally handicapped young woman. Young Lilly sees figures that only become apparent to her sister once some sort of mind-meld takes place between them, drawing her from the so-called real world into the world that Lilly sees. Lilly’s world may indeed be filled with capricious, mischievous, and dangerous demons. However, it might be better to call them daemons, the ancient Greek term from which “demons” is derived. For the ancient Greeks, daemons were simply spirits–and those spirits can be either bad or good; their motives are not always certain or obvious.

livingcanvas6 livingcanvas7

That concept for the beings in Lilly’s inner world fits far better than our Judeo-Christian construct of evil, otherworldly creatures. Lilly’s sister must try to determine whether Lilly’s daemons mean her harm or good; whether they draw her into maddening misery or whether they open her up to fresh perspectives; destroy her connection to reality or give her alternatives to reality that truly liberate. It’s a journey filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is also conceptually broadening and emotionally inspiring. It’s a dreamscape that Lilly may be unwilling to leave and, frankly, the audience may not want to leave it either.

livingcanvas9What is truly fascinating for me is that The Living Canvas – Demons seems to take the audience on a journey, not just through Lilly’s mind, but also through time and art in Western Civilization. The naked vulnerability of Lilly’s body, coupled with the appearance of the daemons when they seem truly demonic, brings to mind medieval imagery—in particular, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Likewise, the psychedelic floral images projected onto the cast bring a strong flavor of 1960s Flower Power, but they can also evoke Bosch’s happier imagery in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

It’s clear now that The Living Canvas is not just a performance piece but also a Chicago performance tradition. The community formed by the performers and  audience around each new story or theme evokes a “happening” in the style of the 60s. At the end of the show, performers talk about their personal evolution in body consciousness after performing under Guither’s projections in the nude and then audience members are invited onstage to partake of the experience. It’s nice to see so many in the audience take up the invitation and allow their human bodies to have a greater range of expression than most art usually permits.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

livingcanvas3 All photos by Peter Guither

Continue reading

REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

street-scene-collage

 
National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

Continue reading