REVIEW: Hunting and Gathering (Theatre Seven)

Who knew the drudgery of moving could be so much fun?

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Theatre Seven presents
 
Hunting and Gathering
  
by Brooke Berman
directed by
Brian Golden
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 27th  tickets: $18-$24   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Here in Chicago, the Memorial Day holiday also coincides with massive inter-city migration. Moving season is very much upon us. How appropriate, then, that the wonder-kids at Theatre Seven are putting on a show focused entirely on that frustrating activity. Hunting and Gathering is about moving, but also not about moving; hunting & gathering it’s really about relationships and finding yourself, among other things. Brooke Berman’s play dwells on listlessness, both geographically and emotionally. Theatre Seven’s production makes for a thoroughly entertaining 85 minutes, even if Berman’s script is too fluffy to make a fresh statement.

The meandering story (set in that other theatre city, New York) is driven by director Brian Golden and features an eager cast of four. Mostly, we journey alongside Ruth (Tracey Kaplan), who finds herself over 30 with most of her stuff stashed in a storage unit. Her struggle to find the perfect apartment is entangled with her history with brothers Astor (Todd Garcia) and Jesse (Michael Salinas). Astor is her best friend and a self-professed “couch-surfer”; however, like many opposite-sex best friends, he desires something more. Jesse, a college professor, had an adulterous affair with Ruth, which seems to have really screwed with her head. But by this moving season, he is divorced and dating a student, Bess (Paige Collins), a girl who has confidence way beyond her years.

Berman’s tale of urban nomads is fun and relatable, especially for anyone who can appreciate the value of a friend with a van. The play has a breezy feel to it, though. It seems like we are skipping along vast swaths of character information, and we don’t have enough to glue together for a complete picture. Relationships are under-nourished, especially the romance between Jesse and Ruth. By the end we’re led to believe that the affair did quite a number on Ruth’s psyche, but we aren’t sure why.

Kaplan digs into the heart of the Ruth, shaping her as both pugilist and irrational idealist. She can be adorable without being sticky sweet, such as in one scene where she stakes out a prospective apartment with techniques ripped from “Mission Impossible” and the “I Ching”. Salinas also connects deeply to his character, nailing down Jesse’s gawky charm. Garcia seems a tad uncomfortable on-stage, but he brings in most of the humor. Collins is fine, but her Bess exudes too much self-assurance. Just a bit more vulnerability, tucked away somewhere, would make her character a lot more likable.

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Although not jaw-dropping, the design of Hunting and Gathering is clever and very fitting. Sarah Burnham’s set consists almost entirely of brown boxes and packing tape. With a few well-placed lights and props, these boxes become everything from refrigerators to café tables. As with past Theatre Seven shows, C.J. Arellano provides refreshing video wizardry, jolting multi-media pizzazz into the production, as well providing narrative guideposts (although they could be cued better).

With all of Theatre Seven’s energetic talent, it’s a letdown that a better play couldn’t be found. Berman’s stories read like memoirs or, more specifically, memoirs written by someone with a sense of humor. Although given a comedic finishing-coat, Ruth is plainly a doppelganger for Berman. Comedies can, and should, have significance, but Hunting and Gathering walks along beaten trails. It seems Berman wants to find dramatic riches in the smoldering coals of Ruth and Jesse’s failed relationship, but she doesn’t earn it. We aren’t given enough to hold onto—the audience is presented with a generalized wave of relationships. Literary importance aside, the play still functions delightfully as a zippy comedy geared towards the younger set. Considering the gallons of sweat, blood, and tears that go into moving season, it’s about time someone tapped into that dramatic well.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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