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: Letters/X (Apollo Theater Chicago)

     
     

‘Anti-Valentine’s cabaret’ comes on too strong, but not without laughs

  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

    
Apollo Theater presents
  
Letters/X
  
Adapted by Anthony Roberts
Directed by
Matthew Zaradich
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through March 12  | 
tickets: $10-$12  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Only in the emotional vacuum of a break-up does it seem like a good idea to e-mail unsolicited diary entries to your married ex-boyfriend.

So goes one hilarious story of dejection in Letters/X, Chicago’s annual cabaret devoted to performing real-life exchanges about love gone sour. Currently in its eighth incarnation, the Shadenfreude slam is currently performing its first run in its new venue at the cozy, well-suited Apollo Studio Theater.

Dressed mostly in V-Day red, white and black, The young five-person ensemble (Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, Anthony Roberts) presents submitted texts as monologues and songs by adaptor Anthony Roberts with direction by Matthew Zaradich.

You can’t ask for better inspiration. Break-up letters are a special brew of bad ideas, written by the emotionally compromised for reasons beyond their better sensibilities. And–surely to Letters/X‘s mirth–the emergence of text messages and Facebook posts as forms of legitimate romantic communication have only grown the broken heart rant supply. After all, unlike their handwritten counterparts, those digital venting-outlets share a brand of immediacy that outperform the body’s rate of metabolizing the alcohol that usually provokes angsty letter-writing in the first place.

Sometimes the performed letters aren’t break-up notes at all, but instead love propositions that are so bad they accomplish the same task. It all makes for superb material for cathartic, cringe-worthy comedy.

When the creative team here trusts that material, it does.

Too often, though, it seems like they feel the need to heighten it. These comedians have talent, but for some reason it gets veiled behind loud, cartoonish facades–never so much so to wholly smother the risible material, but just enough to become grating (the ladies are a little less guilty than the gents). A crank-it-to-eleven style may play well in a 1,000-person proscenium, but the Apollo Studio seats about 50. When good jokes are performed at you instead of to you, they feel less funny as a result.

Fortunately, there are segments where the comics subdue their inner-Screech and relax, bringing out the sensitivity and irony of the monologues. In response, the laughs become easier and more genuine.

The songs too are hit and miss. Numbers like “Psycho Hose Beast” don’t offer much more than their title, but others like “Brokenhearted Anthem” are surprisingly sweet and catchy. The music interludes help keep the pace brisk and the action engaging.

Conceptually, Letters/X is gold, and I hope it remains a Chicago institution–albeit a better tweaked one. This year’s presentation is a satisfying if warbly song for the newly single. 

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

Ensemble: Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts.   

Production: Jessica Jane Childs (producer), Stephanie Clark (stage manager), Anthony Roberts (producer/adaptor & composer), Jessica Roberts (lighting design), Matthew Zaradich (producer/director).

  
  

REVIEW: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire Chicago)

The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama

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LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents
       
Hideous Progeny
  
By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_05 Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.

It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.

Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.

Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.

The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.

Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.

Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.

Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)

 

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There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.

While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.

Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.

If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle.  The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_08 Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.

Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.

Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.

In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

 

  

        
        

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Review: Right Brain Project’s “The Modern Prometheus”

More Entertainment Than Intellectual Challenge

 

The Right Brain Project presents:

The Modern Prometheus

adapted by Brad Lawrence
directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel
thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

IT 3_5x2 - Front - Portrait The Right Brain Project enjoyed success with Brad Lawrence’s play Chalk in 2007, a gumshoe noir retelling of the Oedipus myth. Their collaboration seems a constructive fit with this world premiere of The Modern Prometheus, Lawrence’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in the middle of modern debates between science and religion. It is definitely a more thoughtful piece than most Frankenstein versions—one that RBP gears toward maximum entertainment–but it falls short of being the intellectual challenge touted by its press.

There’s no denying the thrill and accessibility of this production. Right Brain Project has not sacrificed the guilty pleasures of the Frankenstein myth, but tried to integrate them with the play’s more serious content. But before getting into special effects, first and foremost, the production is well grounded in even casting and strong performances. Directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel, the progressive pacing and cast invigorate what could have been a well-worn story stuffed with stock roles.

Dennis Newport, in particular, shows depth and range in his humanistic portrayal of Pastor Friedmann. Erin Elizabeth Orr conveys the full-bodied charm and intelligence of a Victorian heroine as Victor Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth. Tom McGrath makes a delightfully smooth and insouciant villain as the devious lab assistant, Henry. Colby Sellers’ Frankenstein Monster achieves that badly needed balance between terror and pathos to make his creature compelling; while Ned Record (Schultz) and Katherine Jordan (Selma) make a vivid and memorable father-daughter pair.

prometheusStrange that the performance that leaves something of a vacuum is the man of the hour himself, Victor Frankenstein (Nathan Robbel). Brad Lawrence’s Frankenstein is more driven young scientist than mad doctor. Still, Robbel’s interpretation seems a little too relaxed to render a man capable of groundbreaking experiments, let alone playing God.

Likewise, Lawrence’s writing overplays the challenge Frankenstein’s discoveries present to Christian faith, even in this 19th century period. The text shows very little recognition that faith itself is a slippery thing.

In the play, little Selma dies, to be brought back to life dramatically by Victor. Victor Frankenstein’s discoveries have temporarily subverted the natural order. Yet, the scene wherein Pastor Friedmann presents Selma’s testimony that she saw nothing in death, neither heaven nor hell, simply does not hold water. Any tent revivalist preacher could make hash of that “evidence” of God’s non-existence in two minutes.

If fundamentalist Christians in our era build Creationist museums, which squeeze billion of years of geological time into 6000 years of creation, then they can discount any evidence that does not fit the narrative of the faithful. Sadly, Lawrence’s text overshoots this nuance to make the struggle between science and faith a direct and full-throttle wrestling match.

Lawrence shows greater sophistication placing Frankenstein’s discoveries in the context of the Franco-Prussian War. What chaos would erupt if news broke out that brought people all over Europe to Ingolstadt, clamoring for their war dead to be brought back to life? Further recognition that, most likely, the rich would be harvesting the poor to resuscitate their dead would lend even greater horror to Frankenstein’s macabre achievement. Lawrence’s work also shows tremendous promise in the acknowledgement–from the mouth of the pastor, no less–that war is a “terrible invention.” It convincingly depicts the ambiguous, compromised relationship that Frankenstein has with his own creation. A little more consideration of whether any invention actually improves humanity’s lot and this play could be all that it intellectually aspires to be.

Dramatically, the end of the second act requires clean up. One moment especially strains all credulity: the pastor hands over Selma’s prostrate body to the Creature he had denounced as a “vessel of heresy” two minutes before. It’s moments like these that I deeply appreciate the actors’ ability to go full-bore, but they must be corrected all the same.

As is, The Modern Prometheus still provides good, solid entertainment. Special nods go to Anthony Ingram (set design), Mark Hurni (light design), Sarah Elizabeth Miller (costume/makeup/props design), Amy Sokol (music director), and Christopher M. Walsh (fight choreographer) for providing the well balanced and vital special effects needed to vivify a timeless tale.

Rating: «««