REVIEW: Dream of a Common Language (Prologue Theatre)

   
   

Must good-girl painters always finish last?

 

 

Clovis at the wall w Victor, Pola, and Marc (high def)

   
Prologue Theatre presents
    
Dream of a Common Language
     
Written by Heather McDonald
Directed by
Margo Gray
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through Nov 18  |  tickets: $16-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value are women’s gifts? What value are women’s talents, women’s work, or the creativity of women? These are the questions Heather McDonald’s play, Dream of a Common Language, focuses on. No amount of armchair theorizing about women’s critical place in cultural creation can erase the reality that women’s abilities, talents and artistic perspective often get placed at the low end of the hierarchy. Men’s creativity, like men’s work, is invariably classed above the creativity executed by women—and often because men are the judges of what is or is not art.

Clovis and the Train (high def)Director Margo Gray and Prologue Theatre struggle mightily against the restrictions of Oracle Theatre’s space and their own low-budget difficulties in order to carry off McDonald’s impressionistic language and scene structure. Unfortunately, serious lack of vision in doing more with less handicaps the execution of this play’s impressionist style. Especially in the first act, cumbersome, start-and-stop scene changes and awkward, unnecessary puppetry dooms this show to fits of embarrassing amateurism.

That’s really too bad, because Gray has collected a cast that capably teases out the delicate moods and emotional shifts that sculpt McDonald’s focus. Clovis (Carrie Hardin), a woman painter, suffocates under not having her painting taken seriously, as well as the stifling proscriptions of her new role as wife and mother in the mid-19th century. Victor (Michael John Krystosek), her husband, also a painter, is at a loss to understand just what is bothering her. Consumed with planning a dinner to organize an exhibition that will feature artists rejected by the establishment, he fails to see how leaving women artists out of the dinner, and out of the exhibition, disturbs his wife. Her long-time friend and fellow woman artist, Pola (Lara Janson), arrives by bicycle in time to lift Clovis’ spirits. Together with the housekeeper, Delores (Hayley L. Rice), the women stage a revolt. They hold a dinner of their own with food stolen from the men’s dinner.

Hardin is most expert in making the audience palpably feel Clovis’ pain. Shakiness and uncertainty plague Clovis’ attempts to re-establish herself, to find the core of who she is and not be swayed by the roles that have been scripted for her as a woman. We sense Clovis’ uneasiness of self and appreciate her struggle to define just what it is that bothers her. Alex Knell turns in an accurate and natural performance as her neglected son, pushed to the side because Clovis cannot accept her restrictive motherly role.

Clovis and Victor - Touch Me (high def) Clovis Poses Victor

Janson’s performance as Pola aptly contrasts her ruddy mental and physical health with Clovis’ shakiness. However, Janson’s constant good nature contradicts all indications that her character is not totally happy–a little more nuance could let the audience catch her frustration at being reduced to painting flowers, just like “all the good-girl painters.” The appearance of Marc (Les Rorick) kicks up the stakes, both because of the secret affair he’s had with Clovis and because Rorick captures a good, full-bodied 19th-century character within a few lines.

Other performers took more time to warm to their roles on opening night, but it’s difficult to discern whether that is their particular dilemma or the direction. Whatever the source, the cast finally congeals into a cohesive, lively and idyllic whole in the second act, sans scene changes and, mercifully, sans puppets. The restoration of Clovis’ self and her relationship with Victor delicately evokes real wonder and profound beauty.

If at all possible at this juncture, it would be wise for Gray to revise her direction for the first act. Flow from scene to scene is needed to preserve McDonald’s impressionist intent. Furthermore, shadow puppets and other forms of puppetry really should be saved for the budget and expertise to do them well. If the intent was to create a more dreamlike, childlike state, then McDonald’s language alone, as well as the energetic game playing of the women in the second act, connect us to the creative children in these characters. What other accoutrements are needed? Absolutely none.

 
   
Rating: ★★½   
   
   

Centaur in the Garden (high def)

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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