Review: Erratica (The American Demigods)

     
     

Sex and Shakespeare for the scholastically inclined

     
     

Erratica at America Demigods, by Reina Hardy

   
American Demigods present
  
Erratica
  
Written by Reina Hardy
Directed by Dan Foss
at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 14  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The American Demigods are working with one sharp and sassy script for their latest production at Second Stage Theatre. Dan Foss directs a taut, dynamically funny cast for Erratica, by Reina Hardy. An academic farce, Erratica brings brains and loins together with a typical dash of intellectual neurosis. Hardy, being the founder and Artistic Director of The Viola Project, which introduces young girls to Shakespeare, is eminently familiar with the academic field she spoofs. Her professorial protagonist, Dr. Samantha Stafford (Lisa Herceg), idolizes her subject, the Bard, to the rejection of all others. Yet she finds herself up to her eyeballs in moonstruck, mediocre student-poets, glib, scheming and mercenary publicists, and competitive colleagues who would also like to get into her pants. Even the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (David A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Wilhelm) desires her amorous, as well as academic, attention. But all the good doctor wants is love distilled to a purity of lived experience that matches Shakespeare’s sublime and ineffable lines.

Of course, no one can live up to that—but that doesn’t stop the puerile attempts of one of her students, Gregory, to woo her with his verse. We never get to see Gregory. But we do get a full on rant against Dr. Stafford from Elspeth (Victoria Bucknell), his defender, for rebuffing Gregory’s advances by savaging his poems. Though stuck on Gregory herself, Elspeth reviles the professor for reducing Gregory to cringing under the table at Commons “eating nothing but Triscuits and powdered Tang.” If Elspeth cannot have Gregory, she at least wants him to be happy in his own heart’s desire—something that absolutely dumbfounds the professor.

Against her wishes to be left alone, Stafford is pulled into an undertow of messy, hormonally-driven desire. Likewise, her desire for academic purity, such as the publication of her highly intellectual treatise on Shakespeare, meets with the mercenary side of publishing–represented by her leggy, fast-talking and devious publicist Lisa Milkmin (Kelly Yacono). Herceg charmingly delivers Stafford’s smart and sardonic exasperation down pat and, while Bucknell makes a classic comic foil with her character’s adolescent insecurity and Wilhelm bounces off her rebuffs of Marlowe with intelligent, roguish charm, nothing crackles as much as the showdown between professor and publicist. It’s style meets substance—and superficial style is definitely winning.

A scene from the American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.Lisa wants Stafford to shape her book into a “Shakespeare for the Cosmo girl.” But failing that, she pressures Stafford into translating the newly discovered “Quinberry Diaries,” a recent academic find of an Elizabethan trollop’s journals that has garnered intense notoriety and landed a career coup for the university’s head librarian, Dr. Hooper. “You’re pleading like an undergraduate,” Hooper smarmily quips once Stafford comes asking for the dairies, “that’s exciting.” If Hardy’s play has any flaws, it’s in the way her cerebral protagonist has to skirt sexual harassment moments like these to keep the whole play light and fluid. Foss’s direction simply drives the play forward and the mysterious theft of the Quinberry Diaries distracts from Hooper delivering even further unwanted sexual advances.

Likewise, for such a smart comedy, the play wraps up a little formulaically, with a character leaping from behind an arras to resolve the final entanglement or Stafford showing sudden sexual interest in Hooper where there was none before. All that can be said is that Hardy’s shrewd dialogue and Foss’s clean-cut direction takes the audience through the journey with zippy alacrity. So, savor the juicy conspiratorial scene between Elspeth and Lisa. Enjoy Stafford’s alcoholic binge breakdown, when she declares, “Vodka’s like black—it goes with everything.” Appreciate the quieter moments when Marlowe tries to get through to her. Life isn’t pure poetry. And that’s a good thing.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of American Demigods' "Erratica" by Reina Hardy, now playing at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield.

     

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REVIEW: Vanishing Points (Point of Contention Theatre)

A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point

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Point of Contention Theatre presents:

Vanishing Points

 

by Martin Jones
directed by Dan Foss
at Boho Theatre, 7016 N Glenwood
through March 20th  (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.

Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.

This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.

Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.

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Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.

Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.

Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.

Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.

Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.

A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.

This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.

As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.

Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.