Review: Bury the Dead (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Promethean Ensemble misfires in play about war

  
  

Quinn White, Carl Lindberg, Jared Fernley, Joel Kim Booster, Brian Pastor, Dylan Stuckey - Promethean Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead'

  
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Bury the Dead
  
Wirtten by Irwin Shaw
Directed by Beth Wolf
at The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
thru May 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

When Irwin Shaw penned Bury the Dead in 1936, World War I was still lodged like an artillery shell in the American psyche. An astounding nine million combatants lost their lives fighting in the trenches of Europe in what would be the last war largely fought on foot. At the time, no one could conceive that greater methods of mass destruction were on the horizon and that more death lie in waiting.

Brit Cooper Robinson and Joel Kim Booster. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.Although the play is not specifically about any war (according to the script, it is about a fictitious war that has not yet been fought), it is about the massive human toll that war takes and the desire for a society to forget the dead in an effort to pacify the psychic pain. This phenomenon that certainly existed post-World War I remains today. But today’s wars are oranges compared to yesterday’s apple battles. As societies have bled over borders and become global communities and mass communication is a "Like" button away, the dynamics of war that Shaw highlights do not stand the test of time. Vastly enhanced mobility and weapons technology have drastically reduced the number of causalities. Although military deaths are still a topic for discussion, personal freedoms, religious zealotry, resource acquisition, financial costs and nation building are the predominant concerns of today.

This is unfortunate considering the Promethean Theatre Ensemble decided to take the script, virtually untouched, and plop it into the present world (or more accurately 2013). What results is one of the most hilariously ill-conceived updated period pieces I have ever seen. Just take the opening scene. Two soldiers, presumably in either Iraq or Afghanistan, are shoveling sand graves for their fallen comrades as their sergeant stands watch. They begin smart-talking to each other, commenting on the smell of the bodies and the exhaustion felt from physical labor. But instead of speaking in the contemporary vernacular, the two soldiers sport hilariously anachronistic Brooklyn accents and use such words as "gyped" and "stiff." This would be fine if we were observing a couple of wise guys hanging out at the Black and Tan in 1930, but it’s just blatantly bizarre for 21st-century soldiers.

Besides the dialogue, which is only made more cringe-worthy by the scenery-chewing cast, the artistry of the story is non-existent. David Mamet has written that any play that serves to grandstand is not a play worth producing. Shaw’s play is one giant anti-war polemic. There is no devil’s advocate, no counter view that is meant to challenge our own preconceived notions of war. It is just a long diatribe that preaches to the choir. And today’s choir is too intelligent for this kind of preachy pandering. Challenge us. Make us question our views. The last thing an audience wants to do is wallow in the sense that we were right all along. When a soldier ruminates that "Kids shouldn’t be dead," you can just feel the audience collectively shouting "Duh!"

     
Shawna Tucker and Quinn White in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead' by Irwin Shaw. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography. "Bury the Dead" Cast in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's Irwin Shaw play. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.

The play is about seven dead soldiers who choose to stand in defiance and refuse to be buried and forgotten. In the second act, the military—in a remarkably chauvinistic move—contacts the soldier’s wives, mothers and sisters to coax them into the grave. What follows is a series of two-person scenes with more wistful gazing and maudlin emoting than a Lifetime movie. If you’re a fan of repetitious dialogue (e.g., "Let me see your face. Just let me see your face!"), be prepared to get your fill.

With Bury the Dead, Promethean Theatre has produced the equivalent of taking “Gone with the Wind” and setting it in China. This confusing and poorly thought out concept is further harmed by uneven performances and heavy-handed direction. Yes, the script certainly has its flaws, but with some clever updates, it could still have made for an entertaining watch. But save for a Katy Perry reference, the script seems strangely naive, turning what should be a tense drama into a bizarre farce.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Marco Minichiello and David Fink in Promethean Theatre Ensemble's 'Bury the Dead' by Irwin Shaw. Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.

Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s Bury the Dead, by Irwin Shaw, continues through May 21st at The Artistic Home, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased by phone (800-838-3006) or online. For more information, visit prometheantheatre.org.

All photos by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography, © 2011.

     

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Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

MannersWilettachair

  
The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

     
MannersJohn WilettaSheldon
WilettaManners MannersWilettachair

The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

JudyWilettaJohn


Artists

 

Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress

  

  
     

INTERVIEW: Sweet Bird of Youth – now extended to Jan 16!

        
        

Sex and Power in Artistic Home’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’

 

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Just how shocking was Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth to the average American in 1959? It certainly titillated New York audiences, as well as secured 3 Tony awards and an adaptation to the screen in 1962, with leads Paul Newman and Geraldine Page from the original production. The movie itself offers only expurgated Williams—no explicit mention of racism, syphilis, or castration. Thank goodness, The Artistic Home’s production recalls us to the play’s lusty roots and its lyrical interrogation of the psychology of desperation that leads to corruption (see our review here ★★★½.)

Sweet Bird of Youth may be William’s most political drama, slamming Southern racism and the South’s campaigns against desegregation during this era. Plus, he shows no end of contempt toward the moralizing hypocrisy that keeps corruption in place and blights all kinds of youthful promise. But we wanted to look at the sexual politics inherent in the text and the chanceprincessdiagonal_thumbunderlying constructions of youth, beauty, age, money and fame that mold the relationship between gigolo Chance Wayne (Josh Odor) and his aging actress sugar-momma, Alexandra del Lago (Kathy Scambiatterra). Who’s using whom, who really has the upper hand, and is their any hope for human interaction between these two demoralized sexual partners?

One warning: I commit a little faux pas at the end of the video. Going into the interview, I believed that Director Dale Calandra and actor Frank Nall, who plays Boss Finley, would be joining us for a second 15-minute segment. But Dale was knocked out by a fierce fever and Frank couldn’t get away from his construction job. Something about being stuck on a scaffold three stories up—and in some nasty, windy weather. We hope both are okay. Get well, Dale!

In the interview I talk with the Sweet Bird leads – Kathy Scambiattera (sugar-momma Alexandra de Lago) and Josh Odor (gigolo Chance Wayne).  Enjoy!!

 

        
        

REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

ChancePrincessdiagonal

   
The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

ChancePrincessSmoking

     
     

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REVIEW: The Emigrants (Moving Stories Theatre)

The Polish Odd Couple

The Emigrants - AA and XX

Moving Stories Theatre presents:

The Emigrants

 

by Slawomir Mrozek
directed by Goran Milev
through February 21st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago audiences rarely get a chance to see the stimulating and provocative work of Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. For that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to high tail it to Moving Stories Theatre’s showing of The Emigrants at The Artistic Home. This is the first in a series of World Theater they will be presenting for the 2010 season and if their opening shot is any indication of future productions, we are all in for a real treat.

Written in 1974, The Emigrants reflects both the philosophical and the mundane dilemmas of émigrés from Eastern Block states living in the West. Commenting on his own immigrant experience in a letter, Mrozek wrote, “I never experience such a Image1sharpening of [my] senses and thoughts as in an unfamiliar country, an unfamiliar city, among unfamiliar people, whose language preferably I do not know. [This offers] such intensification of life, of my whole existence.”

That state aptly describes Emigrant XX (Goran Milev, who also directs the productions), the prosaic prole who wants to make just enough money to own a house back in the old, totalitarian home country. Emigrant AA (Joe Mack), a Polish liberal intellectual succeeds him in education and abstract understanding, but hasn’t enough drive to get dressed and step out of the basement apartment they share. Without a dollar in his pocket, XX finds excitement going to the train station and standing among the people there, while AA stays on the subterranean level, imagining himself as an organism in the bowels of a great beast.

Together, XX and AA make up a pre-Perestroika Polish odd couple–getting on each other’s nerves over issues that are either petty, but significant to daily survival, or are deeply profound but, without traction, vanish into airy nothingness. Milev, in particular, strikes all the right notes portraying XX’s new emigrant awkwardness and anxiousness to be acceptable. Compounded by a capacity for taking concepts too far and reluctance in admitting when he doesn’t understand something, XX’s character drives most of the comedy of the piece.

Image7 Indeed, he seems to be its heart and soul, especially when AA determines to make him the center of his new work of political theory. Never mind that AA hasn’t completed any work, intellectual or otherwise, since he’s arrived—XX cannot leave until it is done. Here, the enlightened intellectual begins to reflect the control of the totalitarian state they have both left. But then, as XX astutely pointed out earlier, under totalitarianism the both of them were equal—in slavery. New rules and not-so-new divisions of class and privilege determine their value as human beings in the so-called free world.

It’s here where the production falls short in teasing out all the layers of darkness, paradox, and absurdity. But then, Mzorek packs more into an 80-minute one-act than most playwrights do into two hours. Mack’s interpretation of AA is especially casual—that, and no discernible accent, makes AA like a slightly more educated Dude from The Big Lebowski than a despondent Polish intellectual émigré. A certain lack of fire and intensity, particularly when holding forth dearly held political views, robs Mack of an edge to be realistically threatening once the story turns dark. Both actors do sustain the dynamic tension between them, however, long enough to suggest the pearl of madness at the bottom of AA’s soul–and the pearl of wit that dwells at the bottom of XX’s.

The Emigrant’s run will be short—only until February 21st. For those who crave more intellectual fare and seek a break from the cultural insularity of American life, this small, dense political drama may prove to be a walk on the wild side.

Rating: ★★★

 

the emigrants