REVIEW: Blue Door (Victory Gardens)

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Victory Gardens presents:

Blue Door

 

by Tanya Barfield
directed by Andrea J. Dymond
through February 28th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer-nominated Blue Door is mired in the heaviness of academia and leavened by the poetic treatment of events so horrific they seem to defy the very beauty inherent to poetry. That dichotomy makes for a frustrating evening at the Victory Gardens Biograph.

bluedoor On the one hand, Blue Door is a densely packed introspection into history rendered dusty dry by the cerebral self-examination of a mathematician protagonist. On the other hand, Barfield has penned a devastating, multi-dimensional drama that could be a companion piece to the photographic history of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary.”) Allen and Barfield have no connection that I know of, other than each mined art from the same harsh historical foundation. And if you’ve seen Allen’s work, you may well find it rushing up through your memory in the final, harrowing moments of Blue Door.

Those moments are tough and necessary, arriving as Ivy League math professor Lewis (Bruce A. Young) finally faces the demons that have destroyed his marriage, his career and his sense of self. In the 90 minutes leading up to that emotional breakthrough, Barfield loads her two-hander with a multi-generational litany of sorrows. Wife gone, career in tatters, Lewis finds his home filled with ghosts. Beginning before the Civil War with Lewis’ great-great grandmother and continuing through a family tree afflicted with tragic, strange fruit through decade upon decade, Lewis confronts the woes of a Job. His debilitating personal history is by no means exaggerated – click on any decent U.S. history site and you’ll find many a real-life story that’s far worse. But compressed into a one-act play, Lewis’ family feels more representative than authentic, an overwhelmingly inclusive outline rather than an organically unfolding biography.

The other crucial problem lies with the exposition. It dominates. Andrea J. Dymond’s capable direction can’t change the imbalance of explanation outweighing action. Of course, Lewis’ ghosts are storytellers, so a degree of telling is inevitable. Even so, the drama loses urgency as recitations overshadow events. That’s a shame, because those ghosts – the great-grandfather born into slavery; the hobo grandfather whose life and death call to mind both Robert Earl Hayes and Emmett Till; the alcoholic father who beats his son bloody – are fascinating both as pages from history and as personal narratives. The other man in Lewis’ long night’s journey into day is his brother Rex, a drug addict whose failures provide a telling cracked-mirror image to Lewis’ successes. Lindsay Smiling portrays all of them (as well as Lewis’ great-great grandmother and his grandmother) with vibrancy that’s electric. He’s also cringe-inducing in his pin-point portrayal of race-based humiliation.

Blue%20doo Lewis, by contrast, is problematic, especially when he gets started on subjects such as “the psychological perception of time” as it applies to higher mathematics. He’s an academic, but by having him so often speak in the ultra-erudite language of the very well educated, Barfield leaches the story of some momentum.

The incidents of racism recounted from Lewis’ life – sparking unspoken unease at an otherwise all-white at a cocktail party, an assumption by whites that he’s an expert on racial matters – seem trivial when compared to what his forebears dealt with. It’s only gradually that Barfield unveils just how scarred her protagonist has been by his family history and other peoples’ reactions to the color of his skin. “No matter how many polysyllabic words come out of your mouth, no matter how many tweed suits you wear,” there will always be people harboring the suspicion that you stole those suits, Lewis bitterly notes.

Barfield employs humor to fine effect in the catalyst of Lewis’ crisis – when a student asks a question about Heidegger, Lewis thinks he’s been called a “house nigger.” Without that element of preposterousness , the professor’s lifetime-in-the-making predicament would be almost too depressing to contemplate. But such contemplation is crucial if “Never forget, never again” is ever to be anything more than a bumper sticker. Blue Door (the title comes from the great-great grandmother’s practice of painting the door blue in order to keep night terrors out and family spirits in) opens a portal to history. If only what we glimpsed there were more dramatically resonant and less like chapters in a text-book .

Rating: ★★½

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, continues through Feb. 28 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $20 – $48. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org or call 773/871-3000.

CREATIVE TEAM
Tanya Barfield (playwright), Charlie Cooper (light design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Liviu Pasare (video projections), Judith Lundberg (costume design), Michelle Medvin (stage manager)

CAST: Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Smiling

REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

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Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

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Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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Chicago theater openings/closings this week

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show openings

Bury the Dead

O’Malley Theatre

Boolesque Review Piccolo Theatre 

Dave Rudolf Halloween Spooktacular – Center for Performing Arts – GSU

End Days Next Theatre 

Fulcrum Point Plugged In Evanston SPACE

Hard Headed Heart Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

Little Shop of Horors Beverly Theatre Guild

The Song Show Gorilla Tango Theatre 

The Walworth Face Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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show closings

12 Ophelias Trap Door Theatre 

Anna in the Darkness: The Basement Dream Theatre 

Anton in Show Business Theatre Building Chicago 

Black Comedy Piccolo Theatre

Bucket of Blood Annoyance Theatre

The Castle of Otranto First Folio Theatre 

Death Toll Cornservatory

Disturbed Oracle Productions 

The Dreamers Apollo Theatre 

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity Victory Gardens Biograph Theater 

Erendira Aguijon Theater 

Fear – The Neo-Futurists 

The Flaming Dames in Vamp II New Millenium Theatre

Frankenstein The Hypocrites 

Journey to the Center of the Uterus Greenhouse Theater Center 

Lights Out Alma Annoyance Theatre

Macabaret Porchlight Music Theatre 

The Magic Ofrenda Metropolis Performing Arts Centre 

Married Alive! Noble Fool Theatricals 

Mistakes Were Made A Red Orchid Theatre 

Mouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre 

Nightmares on Lincoln Ave. Cornservatory 

Plans 1 Through 8 from Outer Space New Millenium Theatre 

Salem! The Musical Annoyance Theatre 

Scared Stiff Chemically Imbalanced Theater 

Silk Road Cabaret Silk Road Theatre Project 

Sleepy Hollow Theatre-Hikes 

Splatter Theater Annoyance Theatre 

St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre 

 

List courtesy of the League of Chicago Theatres 

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

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Victory Gardens and Teatro Vista presents:

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by Eddie Torres
thru November 1st (buy tickets)
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Midway through rehearsals for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, actor Christian Litke took a foot to the face that landed him in the emergency room, suborbital socket bone beneath one eye pulverized. Opening night, he went on with a Technicolor shiner you could see from the back row. Per Kristoffer Diaz’s strict must-not-look-like-fight-choreography stage directions, Litke proceeded to take another half a dozen “camel kicks” in the kisser – as well as a few spine-rattling power-bombs. As it is in real life, the professional wrestling world depicted in Chad Deity is a brand of fakery that’s truly brutal.

Chad-Deity-1 While audiences aren’t apt to suffer physical damage like Litke, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a knock-out victory of equal parts brains and brawn.

Power-bombs (wherein one’s spine hits the floor at a velocity surely spines were not intended to withstand) and lightning-quick roundhouses aside, Diaz’ ground (and bone) breaking take on the world of professional wrestling isn’t rooted in violence for the sake of shock, although it’s plenty violent and often shocking. It doesn’t traffic in the pandering stereotypes that fuel the WWE, although it uses those stereotypes point out their ridiculousness. This is a tale of race, racism and all-American boys grasping at the shiny, illusive brass ring of the All American Dream. It unfolds in hip-hop rhythms and is infused with some of the most politically incorrect language you’ll hear outside a meeting of the Alabama Chapter of the John Birch Society.

In director Eddie Torres, Diaz has a collaborator able to grasp and convey this incendiary material without missing a beat. The script requires a keen ear for both polyglot urban rhythms and the unctuous whitebread idiocy. Torres hears them all, and makes them resonate.

Chad Deity (Kamal Angelo Bolden , looking like the after photo in one of those back-of-the-magazine protein powder ads) is a professional wrestling champ who – as his bigot boss Everett K. Olsen (James Krag, a perfect mix of oiliness and ignorance) likes to say – makes people glad to be American. When Chad wins a fight, the terrorists lose.

But the real hero of Chad Deity is Macedonia Guerra (Desmin Borges, in a breakout performance that should have every agent in town clamoring to meet with him), aka The Mace. Macedonia’s job is to make the likes of Chad Deity look good. Stars like Chad Deity can’t exist without people like the Mace willing to act like they’ve lost every bout. Borges is a wholly endearing mix of self-deprecation and fierce pride. He knows he’s far more intelligent than his boss will ever be. He also knows that all his innate intelligence isn’t worth a slap in a world that prefers its villains and heroes in simple, black and white terms.

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So Mace suits up like a Frito Bandito outfit every fight, declares that he lives to steal American jobs and send American money back to drug lords in Mey-hee-co and lets Chad beat the crap out of him. Because when Chad Deity wins, Americans know why they’re fighting in Afghanistan, E.K. declares. To which the Mace sighs under his bright red sombrero and resignedly shakes his maracas.

For Macedonia, a way up in the wrestling world presents itself in Vigneshwar Padujar (Usman Ally), a multi-lingual Brooklyn-born Indian kid who is, no matter where he goes, “the most amazing thing in the room.” Charisma might owe Chad Deity money, but VP owns the entire fricking bank.

“I’m gonna get you a job,” Madedonia tells VP, and so begins the career of Chad Deity’s next enemy. E.K., in a move so awful it’s hilarious, has VP hit the ring as The Fundamentalist, a “Moslem” who enters flanked by women in burkas and praising Allah. In the lead up to a pay-per-view bout with Chad, the Fundamentalist beats up guys with names like Billy America (Litke, draped in a confederate flag and entering to a blast of Sweet Home Alabama) and The Patriot (also Litke, this time wearing an American flag). The fights manage to be both a tragic commentary on ugly Americans like E.K. and a wildly amusing mockery of them.

As animosity in the ring starts bleeding into real life, the dynamic between wrestlers becomes ever more complicated. As Macedonia worriedly notes, without community among in-ring enemies, wrestling gets dangerous. So as Chad and VP come to despise each other for real, the looming bout between them become fraught with the possibility of unscripted danger.

By having greased up, impossibly muscle-y men tear through the audience waving flags and shouting threats, Chad Deity manages to instigate the kind of audience participation you’d find at ringside at a Vegas championship bout. It’s wildly fun, wickedly funny and deeply provocative. In the so-called fake world of professional wrestling, Diaz captures profundity, adventure, aspirations and true triumph. The result is a theatrical prize.

Rating: «««½

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Nov. 1 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $20 – $48.For more information call 773/871-3000 or go to www.victorygardens.org.

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