Review: Helen (Vintage Theater Collective)

     
     

Vividly adept ensemble reveals the emptiness of beauty

     
     

Bergen Anderson (Servant) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

  
Vintage Theater Collective presents
  
Helen
   
Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Kelley Ristow
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 25  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

All I know about the Gods is the anguish of my own body.      –Io

Nothing should come between success and the intense wisdom of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen, produced by the Vintage Theater Collective at Strawdog Theatre’s space. Taking off from Euripides’ play by the same name, Helen investigates the troubling and enigmatic power that beauty maintains over women and men, not to mention its interplay with war, fame, fate, and loss. The legendary Greek beauty whose face launched a thousand ships finds herself stuck in a three-star hotel in Egypt, transported there by the gods to wait out the end of the Trojan War–at least until her husband Menelaus arrives to take her home. Meanwhile, to fool everyone and keep the war going at Troy, the gods have replaced her with an eidolon, an ancient Greek word that means both “phantom” and “image.”

Vintage Theater Collective - Helen poster“I do worry about the world. The splitting of image from being doesn’t bode well,” says Helen (Katy Caroline Collins) to the Servant (Bergen Anderson) of the hotel who perpetually offers her manicures and facials to pass the time. To be in a desired body or not to be in one—that is the question. Director Kelly Ristow assembles an excellent and intuitively adept ensemble cast to take on McLaughlin’s heady and thoroughly philosophical script. This they achieve with a lightness and ease that, nevertheless, nails some pretty dark and powerful revelations.

Collins holds the center with her bored, frustrated, yet quintessentially entitled heroine, solidly elucidating the tendency for perfect beauty to be emptied of everything pertaining to the self, flattened to a reflective surface for the projections of others. Her Waiting for Godot-style role is vitally flanked by the vivid performances of Miriam Mintz as Io and Emily Shain as Athena. Charmingly self-effacing, Io arrives in Helen’s room after being agelessly driven across the Mediterranean by Hera’s gadfly, still recovering her woman’s body after its transformation into a cow. “It made a kind of awful sense,” she says of Zeus’ attempt to hide her from Hera through the transformation, “because it arrived at a time when my body wasn’t my own anymore.” Of being at the mercy of the gods she can only surmise, “I guess I have to think of my suffering as sacred—it’s the only thing they ever gave me.”

Alternately, Athena shows up in chic black, callously glib about the Trojan War, which, as she announces to Helen, has already been over for 7 years. Humanity is a curiosity for the gods because we, unlike them, experience death. But their aspirations for the war to be a compelling spectacle were soon worn out by its boring 10-year siege of Troy. “We lost respect for you guys. You looked like a bunch of beetles scrambling around on a dung heap. When all is said and done, death is pretty boring.” To her credit, Shain blithely tosses off these lines with all the effortlessness as a socialite at a cocktail party.

If there is one snag in the fabric of McLaughlin’s script, it seems to be its over-reliance on the Servant’s storytelling to provide context for Helen’s next set of choices or emotional journey. Also, Jeff Trainor makes a terribly sympathetic war-torn Menelaus, yet his arrival in Helen’s room seems almost anti-climatic. McLaughlin has brought up and fleshed the conundrums involved over women being adored for their physical appearance–yet still having very little control or agency in their lives. She doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up what she’s plunged into. A certain form of immortality is held out to Helen but that hardly seems to compensate for the life the gods have taken from her. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next great beauty of Western culture to have independence, resourcefulness and self-possession. That would certainly be a refreshing change from her literary predecessors.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jeff Trainor (Menelaus) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

Vintage Theater Collective’s Helen continues through May 25th, with perfomances Mondays-Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 1pm. Performances are located at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway).  Tickets cost $20, and are available by phone (214-725-5217) or online at vintagetheatercollective.com.
  
  

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Review: The Master and Margarita (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

Strawdog explores intersection of religion, magic, insanity – and actors

  
  

(From L to R): Kyle Gibson (Ivan), Tom Hickey (Woland) and Rob Thomas (Berlioz) in Strawdog's "The Master and Margarita". 
Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Master and Margarita
   
Adapted by Edward Kemp
Based on novel by
Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

As artistic differences threaten the theatrical production of Pontius Pilate, Satan arrives in town to set the record straight. Strawdog Theatre presents The Master and Margarita. In anti-religion Moscow, a writer works feverishly to create a masterpiece play. His girlfriend Margarita believes he is ‘The Master’ and is willing to do anything to support his writing. The government’s theatrical department interferes with his show. They want to ensure Pontius Pilate discredits Jesus’ existence. Satan and his cronies visit for a little civilization observation. They also want to get their magic show on the stage. Arrested, committed, beheaded, the poor souls of Russia are in chaos. When Satan sheds insight into mortals’ psyches, the balance of life has a peaceful neutralization. The Master and Margarita blurs the division between magic and religion, imagination and psychoses, theatrical and actual, life and death.

Dennis Grimes (Master) and Justine C. Turner (Margarita) in Strawdog's 'The Master and Margarita'. Photo by Chris Ocken.Is it a play about a play about the historical decision maker Pontius Pilate? Or is it the full blown hallucination from an asylum inmate? Is it pro-religion or just anti- being anti? The Master and Margarita is for certain an epic of biblical portions. On a primarily stark set, crowd scenes are choreographed using cast as colorful and changing scenery. The large ensemble is white-faced (make-up designer Aly Renee Amidei) and sometimes black-masked. (Special nod to Amidei for the Centurion’s makeup: I was transfixed.) The mass unified look effectively emphasizes the alternating mood from theatrical to threatening to comical to spooky. Costume designer Joanna Melville goes hellish, dressing up an underworld ball in goth prom attire. The vibrant swirl of activity is non-stop. Under the direction of Louis Contey, the multiple themes and scene transitions flow smoothly and briskly into the next.

A plethora of Russian names, myriad of actors playing numerous roles, and the whitening effect add to a quandary of identification. Among the easily recognized, the damned bunch are hilarious misfits. Tom Hickey (Woland aka Satan) leads with smug wisdom and a surprising twisted kindness. Anderson Lawfer (Behemoth) is hysterical as a talking cat. Without even that many lines, Lawfer drawls the funny out with a bow tie without pants comment. Double-vision, Danny Taylor (Fagott) has a comedic and mysterious allure. Anita Deely (Azazello) is the non-nonsense assistant from hell. As the enduring lovers, Dennis Grimes (The Master) is a gentle martyr-type and Justine Turner (Margarita) is his strong lovely rescuer. The entire ensemble are convincing as actors playing theatre types, actors playing crazies or actors playing people going to hell… or maybe there isn’t a distinction.

The first act is a bubbling manifesto of intriguing confusion. The intermission is a pause from the frenzy to admit uncertainty to the point of the show. At some point in act two, there is an ‘A-ha moment.‘ All the dots connect for art open to interpretation. To sum it up, the cat said it best in one of the final scenes, ‘now, I get this play!’ What the cat said!

     
     
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Guests at the Ball of the Damned, a scene from "The Master and Margarita". Photo by Chris Ocken

The Master and Margarita continues through April 2nd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm. There is no performanceSunday, April 3. Tickets are $20 with group, senior and student discounts available. Tickets may be ordered by calling 773.528.9696 or by visiting www.strawdog.org.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

     
     

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REVIEW: Red Noses (Strawdog Theatre)

Laughing in the face nose of the Black Plague

 

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 2

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
RED NOSES
   
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Matt Hawkins
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through August 15th |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 1 ‘It’s easy to find someone to share your life with. What about someone to share your death?’  Serious contemplations about the fragility of life get a laugh with the addition of a clown prosthetic.  Strawdog Theatre presents the remount of its successful 2009 production RED NOSES.  14th Century Europe is being plagued with death.  The dying is reaching epidemic proportions.  The survivors are targets for flagellant crazed religious types and victim-hunting scavengers.  From this hopeless void, a joyful priest recruits individuals to fight death with humor.  He forms a traveling troupe of performers to ‘ripple and spread’ amusement across the grieving countryside.   Strawdog’s RED NOSES explores the humorous side of the Black Plague by adding a clown-car-filled cast, jamming it to eighties music and letting death urinate on the wall.

The show starts playfully with a game of toss.  Death arrives with a neon yellow ball. The game becomes deadly.  Victims spew out neon yellow barf.  Game over!  The dying has begun.   Death doesn’t keep anyone down for long.  Zombies rise, dance and sing “Only the Good Die Young.” 

Under the direction of Matt Hawkins, the twenty-three cast members are lively, moving from scene to scene and role to role.  They juggle balls, play instruments, and remove spittle as a tight working ensemble.   It’s all about finding the comedic moment and putting a red nose on it.  Shannon Hoag (Marguerite) is hilarious as the disappointed almost-raped nun.  She belts out a wonderful rendition of “I don’t want to lose your love tonight.”  Sarah Goeden (Bells) and Chelsea Paice (Tricycle Clown Messenger) without a word effectively amuse and communicate with ringing and expressive faces.  Michael E. Smith (Pope) delivers a humorous line and attitude with ‘I don’t have to be wise just decisive.’  It’s the small touches that change dire to funny.  Two amputees do a stub version of a high five.  A blind man calls out a color.  
Death gets his cloak caught in his suitcase.  Cause of death?  Talented cast injects shots of fatal humor.  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 3 

‘If there is life after death, why do we have to die?’ Playwright Peter Barnes penned a tale about laughing in the face of death.  To exploit the absurd, he set it in a plague killing era and added clown noses.  The script could go “Patch Adams” cute as one man’s quest to bring joy to the infirmed.  Strawdog wisely chooses a “Monty Python” approach with comedy influenced by pushing the funny aspect of sensitive content.  Barnes’ play has a propensity to go long and tedious with some productions exceeding a three hour running time.  Even with Mike Przygoda (Music Director) orchestrating the 80’s flashback with a high-energy, live soundtrack, the second act gets a little tiresome with death-defying religious undercurrents. Still, “You gotta have faith!” Strawdog’s RED NOSES is plagued with comedy for whatever ails you! 

 

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 4

Running Time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

  
   

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REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

Strawdog and Brecht a wicked good combo

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

 
Strawdog Theatre presents
 
The Good Soul of Szechuan
 
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
David Harrower
Directed by
Shade Murray
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 29th  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Bertolt Brecht believed epic theatre would reveal society’s immorality and incite virtuous action in its viewer. The genre is formulaic by nature, and in the wrong hands, epic theatre is just tedious. The techniques intended to alienate the audience – actors playing multiple characters, unrealistic settings, costumes and props in plain sight, the occasional musical interlude – do just that, but have the potential to disinterest more than disaffect. It takes a skilled ensemble to find emotional resonance when a script intentionally creates a hurdle in the actor’s connection with the audience, but Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.comStrawdog Theatre’s cast and creative team use the conventions of epic theatre to enhance David Harrower’s gritty translation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The updated language pulls Szechuan into the present, turning the city into a modern industrial metropolis filled with selfish people that hate their lives as much as they each other. The dialogue should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been on the CTA, with the characters indulging in profanity-driven whining as prostitute protagonist Shen Te (Michaela Petro) tries her hardest to appease their demands. Modernizing the language has the potential to push the style into realism, but there is enough stage business and audience participation to keep the theatrical artifice at the forefront. As patrons are seated, a house band plays rousing folk-rock while actors warm up on stage and interact with unsuspecting members of the audience. Make no mistake, these are actors putting on a show, not actually the characters they portray. So it’s still epic.

From the orgasmic chants of “Shen-te, Shen-te, Shen-te!” that signal the main character’s entrances to the ethereal strings that soundtrack the Gods’ (Adam Shalzi, Amy Dunlap, Anita Chandwaney) scenes, music is used to quickly establish tone and give the actors added support. Intended as one of those pesky alienation techniques, the musical numbers have such energy and passion that it is difficult to not feel moved, especially when the entire ensemble raises their voices together. The actors double as the band, and their vocal quality is matched by clear and confident accompaniment that showcases the various instrumental talents of the cast. The only song that never really clicks is “The Song of Smoke,” a headbanger sung by Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (John Henry Roberts) that lingers a little too long and stretches the character’s fury past its breaking point.

Director Shade Murray is adept at tragicomedy, and he finds the humor in Harrower’s downtrodden Szechuan. When Shen Te can no longer handle the greed of those she aids, she creates Shui Ta, a brash male alter ego. Shui Ta’s tracksuit and gangster swagger are laughable, but when Petro puts on her ass-kicking boots she does not play around, especially when she pulls out a brick of heroin. The exaggeration of her costuming and behavior strike a comedic chord as her actions take her deeper into darkness, creating laughs that are tinged with uneasiness. Most of the humor comes from the characters acting despicably – the aggressive disrespect of Shen Te’s houseguests, the flippant bitchiness of her landlord Mrs. Shin (Shannon Hoag) – and each laugh is another reminder that this is a performance, forcing the audience to question what exactly is so funny.

In the end, it’s another Brecht show with another Brecht message: Capitalism makes people do bad things. The biggest problem with epic theatre is that after a while it’s just not fun to watch people struggling, but when a company is having as much fun as Strawdog does in The Good Soul of Szechuan, the dark corners of human depravity don’t seem that bad a place to be.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Strawdog Theatre - The Good Soul of Szechuan - 4/21/10 
 
Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

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Adventure Stage Chicago forms new artistic ensemble

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Adventure Stage Chicago announces new Artistic Ensemble

As Adventure Stage Chicago (ASC) prepares to end their sixth season with the Midwest premiere of the pirate musical The Ghosts of Treasure Island, ASC announces the formation of a new artistic ensemble.

The eleven-member ensemble is comprised of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, teaching artists and writers committed to achieving artistic excellence through long-term collaboration and the creation of original work. The ensemble will be directly involved in the proposal of new projects, script development, season selection and the production process. A number of ensemble members also work in classrooms as teaching artists, implementing the company’s Neighborhood Bridges program in Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, ensemble members will serve as ambassadors for the company within the community, playing their part during outreach events at libraries, park districts, neighborhood street festivals and celebrations.

The creation of the ensemble re-focuses the development of new and original work to come from within the company, creating dynamic and transformative theatre experiences by Chicagoans for youth and families of Chicago.

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ASC Ensemble Members:

 

Tom Arvetis
  Tom Arvetis is the founding Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Stage Chicago, where he has directed world premieres of Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back by Jason Tremblay, The Blue House by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, and I Dream in Blues, which he co-wrote with Chicago blues singer Katharine Davis. Additionally, he recently helmed a workshop reading of Dragon/Sky by Elizabeth Wong (Silk Road Theatre Project). Tom is an Emeritus Company Member with Barrel of Monkeys, has acted in award-winning productions with the Neo-Futurists, Bailiwick Repertory Company (now Bailiwick Chicago) and Pyewacket Theatre, among others, and is a veteran sound designer. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.

 

Brian Bell
  Brian Bell recently directed Gossamer for ASC (where he also serves as a teaching artist) and will appear in their upcoming production The Ghosts of Treasure Island. Previously he completed a directing internship with the Carrousel Theater an der Parkaue in Germany and went on to direct The Retreating World by Naomi Wallace at Berlin’s Acud Theater. Brian graduated with a B.A. in Theatre Performance from the University of North Texas, where he directed and adapted Woyzeck by Georg Buechner as a final thesis. Brian is the artistic director of Chicago’s Cabaret Vagabond and has worked with Lincoln Square Theatre, Darknight Productions, Piccolo Theatre, Apple Tree Theatre and Collaboraction. He is an alumnus of the Chicago Directors Lab.

 

Brandon Campbell
  Brandon Campbell has worked for Adventure Stage Chicago as a teaching artist, stage manager and production manager since moving to Chicago in 2001. He is also an Associate of Collaboraction, serving as production manager for Sketchbook 5, 6, 7, 8 and Carnaval. Other production credits include the world premiere of Jose Rivera‘s Massacre at Goodman Theatre (with Teatro Vista), Chicago Sketchfest and several shows with the Neo-Futurists. In his creative time he has worked as a writer/performer (Dark Eyed Strangers), a puppeteer and designer (Laika’s Coffin, The Cay, Joe’s Garage, Beowulf Vs. Grendel), and a sax player (Seeking Wonderland, 2nd Story, Jenn Rhoads Project).

 

Sarah Rose Graber
  Sarah Rose Graber graduated from Northwestern University’s theatre program and received her Acting Certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She was the Circumnavigator Foundation’s Travel Around the World Study Grant Scholar, which enabled her to travel the globe while researching the way theatre is used as a tool for communication and education to encourage social change. She chronicled her journey in a play called Time For Take-Off! She adapted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into a bilingual play for English and Spanish viewers and Edmund Spenser‘s epic poem “The Faerie Queene” into a mask play she directed called IMAGO, for which she received the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts Grant (CIRA) and the Program in the Study of the Imagination Grant (PSI). Chicago credits include Northlight Theatre, Metropolis Performing Arts Center, Strawdog Theatre, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, Village Players Theatre, and Factory Theatre, where she is also a company member.  As a teaching artist, Sarah has taught and directed for Northlight Theatre, Arts Berwyn, Chicago Children’s Humanities Festival, the National High School Institute at Northwestern, Neighborhood Bridges, and many residencies at Chicago area schools.

 

Laura Kollar
  Laura Kollar attended Loyola University Chicago, where she earned degrees in Theater and Psychology. Costume design credits at Adventure Stage Chicago include Gossamer, Holes, The Blue House, The Cay and Shakespeare Stealer. She co-designed Still Life With Iris with fellow ASC ensemble member Jessica Kuehnau and helped create costumes for Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back and I Dream in Blues.  Laura’s work has also been seen with Actor’s Theatre Company, Theatre Mir, Lookingglass Theatre, Collaboraction, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Serendipity Theatre, North Park University and Pegasus Players, among others.

 

Jessica Kuehnau
  Jessica Kuehnau‘s previous designs for ASC have included sets for Eye of the Storm, The Shakespeare Stealer, and The Blue House, and costumes for Still Life with Iris, Search for Odysseus and Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back. Since completing her MFA in Scenic and Costume Design at Northwestern University, Chicago design credits include Rivendell Theatre, Pegasus Players, Lifeline Theatre, Griffin Theatre, Backstage Theatre Company, MPAACT, The Building Stage, Metropolis Performing Arts Center, and Light Opera Works. She is also full time faculty and resident scenic designer at Northeastern Illinois University, as well as the resident set designer and design professor at North Park University.

 

Allison Latta
  Allison Latta is a graduate of the theatre program at Virginia Tech. She has also studied Commedia dell ‘Arte with Anotonio Fava in Reggio Emelia, Italy. Chicago performance credits include Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, Strawdog Theatre and Redmoon Theatre. She was a founding member of TriArts, Inc. and created four original Commedia shows with that company, including Hfob-N-Ffos, which was named a Best of Fringe show at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. She has appeared in ASC’s productions of Sideways Stories from the Wayside School, And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, Still Life With Iris, The Ash Girl, Holes and Gossamer. She can also be seen in a number of national commercials and independent films. She has worked as a teaching artist with ASC, Gallery 37 and Metropolis Performing Arts Center

 

Scott Letscher
  Scott Letscher is currently the Managing Director of Adventure Stage Chicago. He was a company member of the late, lamented Terrapin Theatre for over ten years, where he served for two years as their Artistic Director. At Terrapin, he directed the After Dark Award-winning production of Aunt Dan and Lemon, the world premiere of Requiem in a Light Aqua Room by Sean Graney, The Rimers of Eldritch, The Sneeze and Public/Privacy. He appeared in the Terrapin productions Nina Variations, Blue Remembered Hills, The Pooka and Daniel O’Rourke, The Kramer and Laurel and Hardy Sleep Together. He also spent four years with the Children’s Theatre Fantasy Orchard as an actor and adaptor. He received a Theatre Arts degree from Marquette University.

 

Jana Liles
  Jana Liles came to Chicago after receiving her B.F.A. in Theatre from Emporia State University in her home state of Kansas. She completed her M.F.A. in Theatre from The Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. She has performed with such theatre companies as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Light Opera Works, Quest Theatre Ensemble, The GreyZelda Theatre Group, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy and Adventure Stage Chicago, while also appearing in numerous films, local television programs and commercials. An accomplished singer and dancer, she has also been fortunate enough to perform in front of thousands of people at the Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park. In addition to serving as ASC’s Marketing Coordinator, she is the Casting Director at BackStage Theatre Company.

 

Merissa Shunk
  Merissa Shunk has been with Adventure Stage Chicago since 2007 as the Director of Education. Before moving to Chicago she lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She is originally from sunny California where she studied theatre, taught theatre, and studied how to teach theatre at UCLA and Santa Clara University. She has freelanced as a curriculum writer and teaching artist for the Silk Road Theater Project, is the Fine Arts Curriculum Advisor at Rowe Elementary School, and has been a mentor (Drama Mama) in Redmoon Theater‘s Mentoring program, Drama Girls.  In fall of 2008 she co-founded the Chicago Arts Educator Forum and also serves on the board of the Illinois Theatre Association.

 

Brandon Wardell
  Brandon Wardell is a freelance Lighting and Scenic Designer in Chicago. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University and teaches at several universities, including Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, The University of Chicago, and Illinois Wesleyan. Recent lighting credits include The Hollow Lands (Steep Theatre), On An Average Day (Backstage Theatre Company), The Arab-Israeli Cookbook (Theatre Mir), John & Jen (Apple Tree Theatre), The Robber Bridegroom (Griffin Theatre) and The Blue House (ASC).  Scenic Designs include Maria’s Field (TUTA), In Arabia We’d All Be Kings (Steep Theatre), Holes (ASC), Dracula (The Building Stage) and Be More Chill (Griffin Theatre). 

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Maly Drama Theatre at CST)

 

Hear the creative genius of Chekhov in his native tongue

 
vanya 1
 
Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg presents:
 
Uncle Vanya
 
by Anton Chekhov
directed by
Lev Dodin
at
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
performed in Russian with projected English translation
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a hard play for me to crack. The 1899 work is simply subtitled “Scenes from Village Life,” which holds a clue to the nature of the play. It isn’t a straight comedy or devastating tragedy—it has elements of both, of course, but Chekhov’s genius shows through the fact that the play more or less captures snapshots of a summer. I guess that’s why they call him one of the fathers of realism. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre brings a rare treat home this weekend, a chance to catch this masterpiece in the original Russian, performed by one of the greatest theatre companies in the world, the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. Although the whole run is pretty much sold out, it would be well worth it to do whatever possible to get your hands on some tickets.

arts-graphics-2005_1162161a There is another production of the play going on right now at Strawdog, directed by Kimberly Senior (our review, ★★★). That exceptional production is personal and well-acted. However, the Maly Production blows up the play to operatic scale, weighing the work so as to come off like a Dostoyevskian epic. For example, the production at Chicago Shakespeare is about an hour longer than the one at Strawdog even though the dialogue remain pretty close. Lauded director Lev Dodin and his cast sit and stew in Chekhov’s world; they aren’t concerned with pushing the pace to appease an audience. The company has worked on this production for years (there’s European theatre for you) and they know how to drain every drop of subtle emotion from the text. Still, at least for this American audience member, the show wears you down. A certain hyper-receptive mood is required to really appreciate what is happening on-stage, which is different than what we’re used to here in Chicago. Without an open-mind, this production can feel draggy and tiresome. Once you allow yourself to get sucked in, however, Maly’s brilliance jolts the intellect and gut.

The main tension in Vanya, and in most Chekhov’s pieces (and, maybe, in most plays in general), is between talk and action. Doctor Astrov (Igor Chernevich) “does,” the listless housewife Elena (Ksenia Rappoport) mostly complains. Uncle Vanya (Sergei Kurishev) “does” some things—he runs a freakin’ farm—but not the things he believes he should be doing. Nearly all of the characters complain about boredom and mourn their “wasted” lives.

These actors obviously have an intimate knowledge of Chekhov’s language. They truly live in the world, and much of this production’s comedy comes from unscripted physical moments. Watching them move around is like a master-class in how to stage a play. Lev Dodin’s staging is like a chess game played out on the giant hardwood floor supplied by set designer David Borovsky. Every move is meticulous, calculated, yet digs to the root of Chekhov’s characters and themes.

vanya 2All of the actors stand out, even Alexander Zavialov as the rarely-seen Waffles. Kurishev’s Vanya is melancholy and self-effacing, funny and sad at the same time. Rappoport is complicated and sexy as the lusted-over Elena; it is very clear how so many men could be caught in her web of charm. Elena Kalinina gives a marvelous performance as Vanya’s passed-over neice Sonia. Her final speech is positively heartbreaking. It floods the giant theatre like an ocean.

Maly Theatre is renowned as one of the greatest theatres in the world (it is one of three named ‘Theatre of Europe’ by the Union of European Theatres), and they clearly have a profound understanding of drama. By doing a play by their countryman, they add a clarity not often seen in the States. Anton Chekhov is already known as an insightful writer, but these Russians can swim in his genius—Chicago Shakespeare presents an once-in-a-lifetime experience here that should not be missed.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

Extra Credit

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Theater Thursday: Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre

Thursday, March 18

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov

Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago

Join Strawdog Theatre in their Hugen Hall Gallery for a preshow discussion and vodka tasting!  From 7:00 to 7:30 enjoy a discussion about the history and importance of Vodka to the Russian Culture and Russian Literature hosted by Seth Rickard (faculty member of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, Strawdog Board Member, and all-around charming fellow).

straw-uncle vanyaThen stay for Strawdog’s acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya (Jeff, Reader, and NewCity Recommended, Four Stars in TimeOut, Three Stars in the Tribune). Mix Curt Columbus‘ un-stuffy translations of Chekhov with the delicate direction of Kimberly Senior and the irreverent naturalism of Strawdog’s acting ensemble, and you hear people say things like "intensely appealing," "funny" and "smoldering sexual energy" (Chicago Tribune), "unexpectedly emotional" (Time Out), "fabulous" (EDGE Chicago), "perfect" (Chicago Reader), "a pure joy to experience" (Gay Chicago), etc. Frankly, it’s all a bit embarrassing, so when we say you CANNOT MISS Senior’s production of Checkov’s Uncle Vanya, please understand that we’re just trying to help you out. (see our review here★★★)

Event begins at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 

For reservations click here.