Review: The Conquest of the South Pole (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

The Ultimate Downer

  
  

Tom Hickey, Michael Dailey, John Ferrick in Strawdog Theatre's 'The Conquest of the South Pole'. Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Conquest of the South Pole
   
Written by Manfred Karge
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 28  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The title suggests a sprawling epic, not this intriguing 90-minute allegorical comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge (a Brecht protege who has worked for the Berliner Ensemble). A richly surreal trove, The Conquest of the South Pole is an action portrait of four unemployed workers who, vaguely sensing they’ve lost their usefulness, pass their time recreating Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the bottom of the earth.

Strawdog Theatre presents 'The Conquest of the South Pole' by Manfred Karge and directed by Kimberly Senior.With no glory to seek themselves, they ape a long-gone fame. (It beats playing pinball, swilling schnapps or pretending that they’re force-feeding political prisoners.) This borrowed lusters is one of many pungent ironies archly detailed in Kimberly Senior’s staging for Strawdog Theatre.

Mired in the dying industrial town of Herne, the twentysomethings congregate on their crowded tenement rooftop (evoked by Jack Magaw in a sparely neutral dormer set design). Their make-believe offers them a refuge from the bleak life of the Ruhr valley. (Envying the boredom of "unemployed millionaires," one worker comments: "They don’t even want to work. I want to, and I can’t!") Well, they’re not attacking immigrant workers like so many German skinheads.

But, far from offering an escape, their ritualized polar saga perversely mirrors their own dark plight and it’s easier to connect with Scott’s doomed expedition than Amundsen’s successful one.

Led by gruff Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the crew–skeptical Buscher (John Ferrick), mysterious Seiffert (Michael Dailey) and very married Braukmann (Tom Hickey)–are joined by the dimwitted but doglike Frankieboy (Joel Ewing), as they meticulously recreate the Norwegian’s race to the Pole, scrounging around for antarctic-ish costumes, using a laundry line as an icy landscape, rappelling across the stage, breaking into song and dance.

Inevitably the fantasy must be paid for or, as they put it, "Watch out for crevasses." Sexually confident even if strapped for funds, Slupianek seduces Brauckmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery), who’s furious that their boyish “monkey games” are keeping her husband from going to work.  Buscher almost derails the pageant by demanding that they enact Scott’s doomed expedition, a reflection of failure a lot closer to their own.

Oddly, the event that renews their ardor to resume their "play" is an ugly encounter with Rudi (Anderson Lawfer), a boorish and fatuous Hitler lover and his divorced trull Rosi (Justine C. Turner); nothing could be worse than his idea of fascist pleasure.

When they finally "reach" the Pole, it’s a glorious, redeeming moment, followed all too quickly by the inevitable let-down (even a suicide). Clearly art was not enough.

In its pell-mell energy and kinetic stage pictures ”Conquest” strongly recalls past Chicago productions of English plays about bored and wasted youth–Road, Stags and Hens, Bouncers, (It also resembles Marat/Sade in its inspired yoking of an historical event with a dysfunctional present.) What’s unique to Karge’s 1986 work is the depiction of untapped ingenuity; in the desperation of the men’s elaborate theatrics, midlife crises and frenetic male-bonding, you taste the loss of so much thwarted art, squandered by hard times and bad luck.

With a translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt, the script is a volatile mix of cascading street poetry, no-nonsense confessionals, and the rigid, haunting prose of the original antarctic journals.

Unfortunately, this revival is much less thrilling than the play’s first Chicago production in 1992 by the late Famous Door Theatre. The Strawdog stage just isn’t big enough for the men to take real risks in recreating their polar hero journey. The script’s adventurous aspects get short shrift and we’re left with undiluted desperation.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: State of the Union (Strawdog Theatre)

 

An intriguing political chess game

 

 Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
   
State of the Union
   
Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society. State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre.

Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, the play may be rooted in mid-20th century politics, but its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. And infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, State of the Union manages to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com The play centers around political outsider and businessman Grant Matthews (Michael Dailey). Republican political insiders are priming him to be the dark horse candidate in the upcoming presidential election. This includes Kay Thorndyke (Kristina Johnson), a Republican newspaper editor and not-so-secret mistress to Matthews.

Yet, Matthews gives the political bigwigs reason for hesitation when he hits the speaker circuit where he talks about timely issues from his heart rather than from any party’s platform. Much of this honesty is delivered at the behest of his wife, Mary (Kendra Thulin), who like her husband is an idealist. She believes that politicians serve their own self-interest rather than the interests of the people, and upon finding out that her husband may be running for the presidency, she pushes him to stick to his populist convictions.

Unfortunately, playing politics is a dirty game. As we get a peak behind the political curtain, we see just how much strategizing, manipulating and palm greasing actually takes place. This puts Grant in quite the pickle, pitting him against his party, his ideals, his mistress and his wife.

Although I’ve never been a politician, I can confidently say that State of the Union doesn’t seem to be too far from the truth. Look at modern-day outsider candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who, once receiving their party’s nomination, were quick to start spewing the same Republican talking points. The only difference is that Grant is a likeable and intelligent candidate, whereas his real-life counterparts are divisive and seemingly simple.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com Strawdog has assembled an amazing cast. Dailey portrays grant as a sympathetic idealist. The kindness and sincerity he brings to the role helps us identify with him despite the fact that he’s a flawed husband. Likewise, Thulin provides Mary with a boldness that makes her a believably powerful force against the chummy, political insider boys’ club. Other standout performances include BF Helman as political strategist Jim Conover and Anderson Lawfer as the sassy journalist/campaign manager Spike MacManus.

Geoff Button’s direction is commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he has to manage throughout the play, especially in the third act, which is one of those party scenes that literally fills the room with colorful characters.

If the upcoming elections have you tiring of the theatre of politics, then why not check out some insightful political theatre? Along with voting, go see Strawdog’s snappy and relevant production of State of the Union.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
   

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REVIEW: Wiggerlover (DCA Theatre)

Race relations are a family affair

 photography by Belleville Garringer 

DCA Theatre and Jaz presents:

Wiggerlover

[white boy + black dad = grey areas]

Written and performed by James Anthony Zoccoli 
Directed and edited by
Andrea Fears 
Music by
Gregor Mortis
through February 22nd (more info)

review by Keith Ecker 

There seems to be three ways that art tackles issues of race.

The first is with a naïve lens that diminishes our external differences and plays up the clichéd notion that we are all the same on the inside. These same works tend to give the contradictory message that everyone is special in their own way, which begs the question how can we be the same yet all be unique little snowflakes? These works tend to be trite or targeted toward children or both.

PonyLeaguerThe second intellectualizes the concept of race, analyzing it in an effort to understand it. These are works that bring to mind sociological buzz terms and feel more like lectures than stories. In plays of this ilk, characters serve only as concepts, making the whole production about as interesting as a term paper come to life. What artists who construct these pieces fail to comprehend is that academia and intellectualism are useful to a point, but fall short of providing the critical insight that only comes with experience.

This brings up the third method—the experiential. In the realm of theatre, these are plays that do not have a sermon to deliver or a moral to preach. They aren’t arduous to sit through, and they don’t make you feel stupid by talking down to you. They are entertaining, digestible, full of substance and incredibly thought provoking.

Wiggerlover, a one-man auto-biographical show by James Anthony Zoccoli and playing at the Chicago DCA Studio Theater, embodies this third category.

The play is the story of Zoccoli’s childhood, specifically the year 1979, which for the young Zoccoli was indeed a seminal year. That’s when his white, Polish mother remarried Mr. Bell, a black man. With Zoccoli’s deadbeat Italian father out of the picture, the boy soon begins to call Mr. Bell dad, and in turn, Mr. Bell considers Zoccoli his son. Meanwhile, Zoccoli’s absentee father refers to his mother as a N-word lover, and, to his father’s dismay, Zoccoli proclaims he’s one too.

But life’s not easy when you’re white with a black father. Trying to develop a sense of identity is confusing, especially when the black kids you befriend forever treat you as an outsider.

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Wiggerlover works because of its honesty. Zoccoli has looked deep within himself to understand his identity and has the writing chops to convey this journey in a refreshingly simple and genuine manner. He’s also funny, which saves the show from drifting into sappy Hallmark-card territory. In addition, there’s no ideology being forced down the audience’s throat. Zoccoli knows we’re too smart for that, even if race is a complex topic. It’s great to see someone who respects the intelligence of his audience enough not to hold our hands.

Zoccoli also really knows how to command the stage. He’s a tall lanky guy, which makes him fun to watch. Also, he’s not afraid to show off spastic dance moves or sport a goofy childlike grin. This helps undercut the seriousness of the material, making it much sweeter to swallow than if the story were told with somber sincerity.

The play incorporates video projections and a number of sound cues. All this multimedia is timed perfectly and works to full effect. The disco and early hip hop sound bytes transport you to another time and another place, while also giving Zoccoli an opportunity to shift gears and launch into another fascinating story about his childhood.

Wiggerlover deftly strikes a wonderful balance of hilarious-meets-poignant. Whether you grew up on the South Side of Chicago or the northern suburbs, you’ll find something about his story that rings true to you.

Rating: ★★★★

 

Presented by JAZ

February 05, 2010 — February 22, 2010
DCA Studio Theatre (located within the Chicago Cultural Center)
$20; $15 for seniors and students

Read more about the writer/performer at the Wiggerlover Blog

Running Time: 1 hour (no intermission)

 

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Review: Strawdog Theatre’s “St. Crispin’s Day”

Strawdog season-premiere struggles to find the funny

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Strawdog Theatre presents:

St. Crispin’s Day

by Matt Pepper
directed by Christopher Fox
thru October 31st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Crispin-2 Strawdog’s St. Crispin’s Day looks pretty, but just isn’t all that funny. The show’s striking set (Anders Jacobson, Judy Radovsky) and lighting design (Sean Mallary) is weighed down by the plodding rhythm of the action, and the production seems to drift in a haze of average with the occasional flash of promise.

Matt Pepper’s anti-war comedy, set during the Battle of Agincourt of Shakespeare’s Henry V, tells the story of three soldiers that find themselves engaged in a plot to kidnap the king, masterminded by Irishman Will (Kyle Hamman). Along the way they’ll have their way with French prostitutes, rob a few churches, and occasionally fling shit at each other like monkeys. The problem is that director Christopher Fox and his cast haven’t found the humanity behind the humor, creating caricatures instead of characters.

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Pepper’s script juggles themes of patriotism, conscientious objection, and pacifism with slapstick physical antics and toilet humor, but the contrast would be more effective if the comedy came from a place other than lowest common denominator sight gags. The laughs begin to feel stale and cheap after a while, and the slow pace of the dialogue sucks the energy out of scenes, creating jokes that crash to the ground long before landing in the audience’s laps.

Marika Engelhardt and Caroline Heff bring a much-needed spark to the proceedings as two French prostitutes with ulterior motives, and Heff’s scenes with Carlo Garcia, playing sheepish young soldier Tom, capture all the innocence and naïveté of young love. Unfortunately, the rest of the show lacks the nuance of these few scenes and does not ever manage to rise above being a didactic farce.

Rating: ««

 

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Strawdog Theatre announces new artistic staff and ensemble members

strawdog

As part of their ongoing celebration of 22 years(!) in Chicago theatre, Strawdog Theatre Company proudly announces the hiring of new Managing Director Hank Boland, new General Manager Cortney Hurley, the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, Mike Przygoda and Justine C. Turner and the appointment of Matt Hawkins as Strawdog Artistic Associate and Resident Director.

hboland_large Hank Boland replaces Alex J. Goodman as Managing Director of Strawdog Theatre Company.  Boland’s work with Strawdog Theatre Company includes writing Season Seventeen’s epic musical The True Ballad of Fall’s Blessings, directed by Strawdog’s Artistic Director Nic Dimond and written in collaboration with Strawdog Theatre Company. In 2006, Dimond asked Boland to develop a writing initiative for Strawdog Ensemble Members.  Billed the The Hit Factory, this program regularly schedules late night events and graduations to showcase new work. The Hit Factory now also offers tuition based classes to the public, please see our website for more information. The Hit Factory is committed to creating new works, and strengthening the working relationships between Strawdog Theatre Company and other members of the Chicago theatre community. Boland holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film from Columbia College in Chicago where he is an adjunct faculty member in the screenwriting department.

Cortney Hurley, Strawdog’s Production Manager since 2006, has been promoted to General Manager, overseeing Strawdog’s growing theatrical complex located at

Strawdog Theatre Company is now home to a 70-seat mainstage theatre, 40-seat Hugen Hall cabaret space complete with bar and liquor license and 400 square foot rehearsal space called Nowhere Mountain.

Strawdog Theatre Company is also pleased to announce the addition of four new ensemble members: Amy Dunlap has appeared on the Strawdog stage in Cherry Orchard, Marathon ‘33 and the Strawdog Radio Theatre Series. Dunlap graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts and has been seen in productions at several Chicago theatres including 16th Street Theater, Lifeline Theatre, Factory Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, Adventure Stage Chicago and Estrogen Fest.

Paul Fagen was last seen as Father Toulon in Strawdog’s critically-acclaimed production of Red Noses. Originally from Annapolis, MD, Fagen has also acted in productions at The House Theatre of Chicago, Speaking Ring Theater and Quest Theatre Ensemble.

Mike Przygoda was most recently the Musical Director and Arranger for Strawdog’s Red Noses. Przygoda holds a BFA in music composition from Columbia College Chicago.  He has worked on numerous shows in Chicago both as a composer and as a performing musician for companies such as The House Theatre of Chicago (Valentine Victorious, Ellen Under Glass, The Boy Detective Fails, Hatfield & McCoy, The Sparrow, The Magnificents, The Nutcracker, The Rose & Rime), American Theatre Company (Oklahoma!), The Hypocrites (Camille/La Traviata), Trapdoor (AmeriKafka), Next Theatre (The Busy World Is Hushed, 365 Days/Plays), The Neo-Futurists (Beer) and has written music for Serendipity Theatre Collective‘s Second Story.  He served as a musical director for the Second City Touring Company.

Justine C. Turner joins the Strawdog Ensemble after appearing in Red Noses. Originally from Oak Park, IL and a graduate of Columbia College, Turner was most recently seen in the remount of Rivendell Theatre’s These Shining Lives at Theatre on the Lake and appeared in Ren Faire last summer at The Factory Theatre.

Director of Strawdog’s smash, sold-out production of Red Noses Matt Hawkins joins Artistic Associates Kimberly Senior and Shade Murray in their growing ensemble of Resident Directors. Hawkins previously directed Hatfield & McCoy for The House Theatre of Chicago, On My Parents Hundredth Wedding Anniversary for the side project and will direct Cabaret for The Hypocrites next spring.

Strawdog’s staff includes Artistic Director Nic Dimond, Managing Director Hank Boland and General Manager Cortney Hurley. The complete Strawdog ensemble includes Jennifer Avery, Hank Boland, Abigail Boucher, Don Cardiff, Erin Carlson, Michael Dailey, Anita Deely, Amy Dunlap, Paul Fagen, John Ferrick, Mikhail Fiksel, Aly Renee Greaves, Carmine Grisolia, Christopher Hainsworth, Kyle Hamman, Erik Hellman, Tom Hickey, Shannon Hoag, Anderson Lawfer, Sean Mallary, Kat McDonnell, Gregor Mortis, Stacy Parker Hirsch, Michaela Petro, Mike Przygoda, John Henry Roberts, Justine C. Turner, Jamie Vann and James Anthony Zoccoli.

Map to Strawdog Theatre: