REVIEW: Mike Daisey – How Theater Failed America

A talented voice for the theater-cynic in all of us

mikedaisey2

 
Victory Gardens Theatre presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
At
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through May 2nd  |  Tickets: $25  |   more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

“You should not have come here,” begins Mike Daisey in his one-man tour de force of nature, How Theater Failed America.  For one thing, he continues, the title of the show sucks – ( “What is this, a fucking film strip?”)  For another, Daisey’s simultaneously bleak and brilliant autobiographical walk down the memory lane of his career will outrage the politically correct. It will also send those who view theater as a sacred, noble art spiraling and screaming down a wild rabbit hole of profane realty.  (Spoiler alert: Those who want to cling to the myth of  “community”  in theater should stay home and stick to their Twitter confabs.)  It’s fair to ask why anyone other than out-of-work actors (which is to say – more or less – actors) should give a whit about the death of theater or about Daisey’s scathing monologue.  Will the grid go dark if all of the world’s liberal arts grads collectively decide never to mount another revival of A View from the Bridge? Does the world’s well-being rest on an endless cycle of revisionist Ibsen? Of course not.  Yet this is where Daisey’s explosive and formidable talent becomes so gloriously apparent. Directed by Jean-Michele GregoryHow Theater Failed America will be powerfully entertaining even to those who could not care less about whether Becket and Brecht vanish from the face of the earth, washed away by the likes of “The Little Mermaid”.  As for those with a vested interest in the arts, they will find themselves repeatedly shocked and undeniably entertained by the galvanizing candor of Daisey’s observations.  The man articulates truths that just aren’t spoken aloud and in doing so, breaks what often feels like a conspiracy of silence among artists.  (Question the existence of “community” in local theatrical circles, and you’ll all but be accused of heresy.)

Weaving deeply personal stories into the context of the arts in the 21st century, Daisey  hits the audience with a barrage of blazing immediacy and devastating honesty. While it’s autobiographical,  Gregory’s direction excises the piece of all self-indulgence and paces it so well the two-hour run time feels like 15 minutes, This is a story about MIke Daisey’s life in the theater, but it is also a story about life in general in all its dazzling, manic absurdity and free-falling despair. How Theater Failed America is about how doing an ill-advised version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony with an albino, a dwarf, a mud pit and a perpetually drunk director can prove to be one’s redemption.  And if one achieves that redemption by being forced to masturbate before an audience that includes little children? Then surely there is hope for even the most depressed, hopeless and rudderless among us.

Long before Daisey segues into the suicidal segment of his career (his crystalline description of doing the Dead Man’s float night after night on an icy Maine lake is almost unbearably vivid), he offers a brief lesson in How Theater Works.  Anyone who has perused any given season at  the Goodman already knows about the “ freeze-dried” actors imported from New York on a regular basis. What perhaps isn’t so obvious:  That artistic directors are actually more like factory foremen, that board members are forever trying to run the machinery and that plays aren’t really plays so much as “slots” (as in the winter slot, the spring slot, the minority slot).

Daisey has no illusions about what  prompts the inclusion of his show in a season: that conversation never starts with an artistic director saying something like “I love your work and want to bring you to my stage.” It instead usually starts with a managing director saying something like “You probably heard we had to cancel our ‘Pericles.’ "  Theaters turn to him because he offers a show with no set demands and the smallest possible cast size.  Were it possible to stage a show with a cast of less than one, he’d be out of work, Daisey admits.

daisey 

His experience teaching is similarly forthright  and sentiment-free – which makes its emotional wallop all the more powerful . In a segment that could draw tears from a stone, Daisey recalls a season wherein he shaped a bunch of thuggish juvenile delinquents into an award-winning one-act company.  If you think this chapter merits a “Stand and Deliver” moment, expect to have your rosy romantic expectations dashed under a cold stone of reality.  After the win, Daisey describes his cold, bone-certain knowledge that his teenage star – a deeply troubled boy for whom theater became a lifeline and who dreamed of going to college and majoring in acting – was a loser whose aspirations would never become actualities.  There’s triumph of the human spirit, and then there’s the harsh, bitter reality that some people cannot escape the dead-ends of their own, sad, uncontrollable circumstances. 

Daisey’s youthful attempts at creating his own theater company in western Maine are similarly un-romantic and, often, riotously funny in the telling.  His story of living on rationed Raman noodles and putting on shows held together (literally, in the case of the light board) with duct tape is a misadventure that every 20something, self-appointed artistic director of an Off-Loop start-up would do well to heed.  That you can’t eat idealism (or even fashion an adequate sound design from it)  is the least of the perils faced by young, starry-eyed artists certain that their revival of Suburbia can change if not the world, than  at the very least, their community.

Yet for all Daisey’s clear-eyed vision , How Theater Failed America is hardly a cynical show.  That the actor survived masturbating to Genet is an ironclad testament to the fact that talent, in the end, can trump even the  most daunting of obstacles. Yes, audiences are getting smaller, older and disturbing the actors with their wheezing oxygen tanks. Daisey’s touring nonetheless. And with a cracking fine show. If he has succeeded among theater’s many failures, there’s hope for the arts yet .

 
Rating: ★★★
 

daisey2

Mike Daisey presents a second monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, May 5 – 9 at the Victory Gardens. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org

REVIEW: End Game (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Beckett’s got game

Endgame-1

 
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
 
Endgame
 
by Samuel Beckett 
directed by
Frank Galati
in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through June 6th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was an emblematic play of the 20th-century, it very well could be Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The play captures defining aspects of the past hundred years: the unspeakable horror, the monotony, the inclination towards self-reference. The human crisis is all there, presented as a 75-minute nihilistic chess game (sort of). Steppenwolf throws some of their best talent at Beckett for their production of Endgame. Frank Galati directs, and the play features Ian Barford, William Petersen, Martha Lavey, and Francis Guinan. Steppenwolf concocts a recipe for on-stage brilliance—great theatre artists working with one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The existentialism sure can get depressing, but the talent involved here is a marvel.

Endgame-3 Beckett’s earlier Waiting for Godot is far more accessible and probably more inherently funny. I would put forth, though, that Endgame is the better play. It’s more primal, more desperate. Complete despair looms just out of reach. The world is dense and merely getting through each day seems the ultimate goal for everybody. This is still pretty hard—one guy can’t stand, one guy can’t sit, and two folks are amputees living in garbage cans.

Galati doesn’t throw any crazy tricks at the play; there is nothing here that would invite legal action from the Beckett estate. Hamm (William Petersen), the protagonist as Beckett points out in his character description, sits blind and regal in a throne/DIY wheelchair. His parents, Nell (Martha Lavey) and Nagg (Francis Guinan), live in non-descript trashcans. They’re all serviced by the only mobile inhabitant, Clov (Ian Barford). In typical Beckett fashion, Sammy has constantly denied that the play is post-nuclear apocalypse. James Schuette’s drab set tiptoes around this fact, however, and places the play in an underground room that looks a lot like a fallout shelter. The set works wonders for the play; Schuette doesn’t distract from Beckett’s language but still throws in his own thematic two cents (the dingy room also looks uncannily like the inside of a face).

Petersen and Barford conquer the stage with their intricate chemistry. The relationship between Hamm and Clov is one of the most complex and layered ever penned for the stage. Seen through the chess-metaphor lens, Hamm is a losing king, commanding around the only pawn he has left. But Hamm also suggests ‘hammer,’ and Clov is often linked to the Latin word for ‘nail’ (clavus, for the Latin nerds out there—Nag and Nell’s names also connect to various European terms for nail). And no one can deny the father-son dynamic between the two.

Endgame-2 Endgame-3

For the past few year, Petersen seems set on proving that he’s not just a television actor by treating Chicago to wonderful performances in Dublin Carol (our review ★★★½) and the considerably twisted Blackbird (our review ★★★½) at Victory Gardens. Even though he is stationary and clad in sunglasses, Petersen glides through Beckett’s world as the lonely king. It’s a delight watching him play off Barford, who makes an infinitely relatable Clov. Stuck in a metal drum, Guinan commands our attention whenever he pops open his lid. He’s an ancient relic yet as helpless as a child. For the short bit she’s in, Lavey does good work feeding on Guinan’s vulnerability and hot temper.

Galati clearly knows this game. However, the production seems to favor the philosopher Beckett instead of the clown. While this forces us to contemplate our own mortality (isn’t this everyone’s ideal Friday night plan?), everything gets a little too mired in the existential muck. As bleak as it is, though, there is a ton of genius at work over at the Steppenwolf right now. It is well worth a glimpse, even if you also have to stare at your own imminent demise.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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Kids storytelling workshop to be offered by Adventure Stage and Victory Gardens

storytelling4kids

Workshop Dates: March 30-31, April 1

Adventure Stage Chicago (ASC) and Victory Gardens Theater (VG) are partnering for a three-day storytelling workshop designed to keep kids engaged during the Chicago Public Schools’ spring break.

HOLIDAY DRAMA KIDS STORYTELLING WORKSHOP
Tue.-Wed., March 30-31, 9am-1pm (snacks provided)
Thur., April 1, 9am-4pm (lunch provided)

VG’s Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago

MORE INFO: In the workshop, kids will learn about various story genres, witness professional storytelling, write their own stories, practice storytelling in front of their peers, and ultimately perform their original stories on Victory Gardens’ stage for friends and family. Each workshop is $20 per day, per child. ASC Passport to Adventure holders save 25%. (For more information on ASC’s Passport to Adventure, visit www.adventurestage.org.) Workshop is recommended for children ages 8 and older.

Registration is required and early registration is strongly encouraged. Please contact Adventure Stage Chicago’s Merissa Shunk at 773-278-7471 x173 or merissa@adventurestage.org to register today!

Olympia Dukakis reads for American Blues

By Leah A. Zeldes

Olympia-Dukakis Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis appears in Chicago Monday, Nov. 16, to read from an upcoming American Blues Theater production. The reading, a passage from ABT’s spring 2010 show, "RIPPED: The Living Newspaper Project" by Eduardo Machado and Rick Cleveland, takes place during a benefit for the newly-reconstituted troupe. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, will also read.

Highlights of benefit, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Bridgeview Bank, 4753 N. Broadway, also include live blues by Chicago band The Skirts, an auction of such items as local theater tickets and a walk-on Broadway role, food and drinks. Tickets are $75, $125 for VIP admission, which includes an earlier reception with Dukakis.

Dukakis, whose film credits include Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Moonstruck, for which she was named Best Supporting Actress, is a long-time friend of ABT ensemble member Carmen Roman. "I’ve watched this company continuously produce incredible, groundbreaking work," Dukakis said. "The 2009/10 season is no exception. I’m honored to be a part of their benefit celebration, and fully support this inspirational Chicago ensemble."

"Starting from scratch without staff and absolutely no money has certainly been a challenge," said ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside, part of the company’s executive/artistic/administrator triumvirate, along with Roman and Heather Meyers.

In March, 23 members of the ensemble left American Theater Company, leaving behind a $1 million annual budget and taking back the American Blues name under which that company formed in 1985. The group, which comprised most of ATC’s actors, departed over differences with its artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, who was hired two years ago from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paparelli had reportedly expelled several members of the company and allowed members increasingly less influence on theatrical decision making.

American Blues Theater members include Cleveland, Dawn Bach, Ed Blatchford, Matthew Brumlow, Kate Buddeke, Casey Campbell, Dennis Cockrum, Lauri Dahl, Tom Geraty, Cheryl Graeff, Lindsay Jones, Kevin R. Kelly, Ed Kross, James Leaming, John Mohrlein, Jim Ortlieb, William Payne, Suzanne Petri, Tania Richard, Editha Rosario, John Sterchi and Stef Tovar.

"I believe the work of the ABT ensemble is vital and important to Chicago’s theater community and our city as a whole," Zacek said.

Review: Steep Theatre’s “Kill the Old, Torture Their Young”

Out of Place, Out of Time

kill-old

Victory Gardens presents:

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young

by David Harrower
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The success of Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre this summer has exposed Chicago to the work of Edinburgh born playwright David Harrower. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young, onstage at Steep Theatre, is Harrower’s second play, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998, fresh from his breakout success with Knives in Hens (1995).

“Kill the Old, Torture Their Young” is also the name of a song by Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative grunge band, which also had its beginnings in the mid-90s under the name Screwfish. Interestingly enough, Harrower bookends his play with monologues from a nameless Rock Singer (Derek Garner), commenting on modern alienation from an airplane in flight. But any connection between the two may have more to do with the 90’s explosion of Scottish culture than anything else. It’s not that the playwright might be familiar with Biffy Clyro; it’s that the band’s lyrics, too, are chockfull of the alienation and dislocation that inform Harrower’s central themes.

Steep Theatre’s production dislocates Kill the Old, Torture Their Young even further, from its cultural and historical roots. Placing the action in America, the actors do not engage in Scottish dialect; nor is there much of a strong nod to the 1990s postmodern use of multiple narratives–experimentation that ultimately influenced major commercial films like Magnolia. Director Katherine Walsh’s choices would be more than excusable with a stronger cast, with better timing to pull off all the nuanced humor of Harrower’s writing. However, given the unevenness of performances and lack of a cohesive ensemble, this production loses its bearings in more ways than one.

What also goes missing is daring punk/grunge energy that would better inform the rage of a character like Darren (Niall McGinty), a man whose thwarted ambition to become an actor results in otherwise inexplicable violence. Much like the Scottish novel Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, made into a major motion picture, Kill the Old, Torture Their Young contains an underlying current of rebellion against alienating daily capitalist existence. That rage, unfortunately, goes largely unexploited and un-acted on in this production. Sadly, characters in this production seem to share only common resignation to the dreary, meaninglessness rhythm of their commodified lives.

That being said, a few performances create interest. Jim Poole’s quiet and stirring portrayal of Steven stands out, as the manager who could film the city he loves better than Robert (Peter Moore), the famous documentarian hired to do the job. Nice moments are created between Robert and Heather (Julia Siple) in a hotel room together. Paul (Leonard Kraft) and Angela (Bronwen Prosser) make a realistic pair of lost souls, who will likely stay together even if one doesn’t know what to do about the other. James Allen’s chagrined Birdwatcher and Patricia Donegan’s random Woman in Robes add badly needed humor and spice to the proceedings.

Rating: ««

 

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Kathryn Walsh
Asst. Director: Alex Hugh Brown
Prod. Manager: Julia Siple
Scenic Design: Dan Stratton
Lighting Design Samantha Szigeti
Costume Design: Melissa Torchia
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Choreographer: Joey de Bettencourt
Stage Manager: Jen Poulin
Cast: James Allen
Patricia Donegan
Dereck Garner
Leonard Kraft
Niall McGinty
Peter Moore
Jim Poole
Bronwen Prosser
Julia Siple

Review: Victory Garden’s “Blackbird”

 

Blackbird confrontation

Blackbird

a play by David Harrower

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The much anticipated dramatic play Blackbird, staring William Peterson and Mattie Hawkinson is indeed quite disturbing; it gives humanity to both a child molester and his victim as their characters are presented on stage un-judged by the author David Harrower.

blackbird_mattie&william David Harrower has written a soul-stirring play that shows the complexity of human emotions and the struggle we have with guilt and being honest with ourselves. David Harrower does not try to justify Ray’s action nor is in favor of abolishing the age limit for sexual maturity, he sees his work as more of a metaphor for questioning other social norms. Harrower lets the characters stumble through their emotions, not demonizing or giving false purity to either character. Both characters show their humanity, with flaws and wrongful desires along with kindness and love. How horrible a crime was committed is left to the audience to think about and decide, Ray and Una struggle on stage to find that out for themselves.

Fifteen years ago when Ray was in his forties, he befriended a twelve year old girl Una. After serving three years in prison for child abduction, he has painfully put together a new life. After seeing a picture of Ray in a magazine at her doctor’s office Una has come to confront her past assailant. In Ray’s empty office cafeteria the emotional confrontation between them goes in unexpected directions as the molester and victim meet, or possibly it is past lovers meeting again.

blackbird_arguing William Peterson sucks the life out of his character to portray a beat-down Ray just fighting to get from day to day. Peterson’s ability to darken his emotions and stumble with the confidence to express himself is extraordinary. The choices Ray made in his past were absolutely wrong, but what was his motive? How did he let himself form a relationship with a twelve year old girl? William Peterson captures Ray’s inner struggle with the guilt of his actions and the justifications he believes means something.

William Peterson is a star, but this show belongs to Mattie Hawkinson.

Ms. Hawkinson, capturing her character’s poised and nervous state, came on to the stage as Una and through out her personal conversation with Ray keeps the audience glued to her with their attention. With just two characters in most of the play, Mattie proves that she belonged on stage with the best of them. After watching my favorite actor (William Peterson) the first comment I had when I left the theatre was “Get ready for Mattie Hawkinson.” This should be a break out performance to a great career.

blackbird meetingThe set, a cold, desolate cafeteria, was designed by Dean Taucher, and he presents a set that, thought simplistic, is actually very detailed. The remains of coworkers’ lunches are left strewn about, just another mess in the typical unfinished cleaning-up that takes place in a cafeteria. The room that earlier in the day was busy with people and filled with life is now completely empty until the next morning, like the void that fills both Una and Ray’s heart since their earlier relationship. The setting never leaves the office cafeteria and the time of the day expels a creepy lonesome feeling. It seems strange a victim of a sexual crime would meet her predator there.

Blackbird won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of a Tony Award) for best new play in 2007, beating out tough competition with plays such as Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” and Tom Stoppard’s” Rock and Roll.” Making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens, Director Dennis Zacek allows the unique text and talented actors carry the one act conversation.

Blackbird possesses that unique quality found in theatre of presenting a topic that forces the audience to an uncomfortable edge, as their skin crawls with the thought of empathizing with ideas that go against their moral core. It forces you to question the most reviled actions in society, leading one to question personal crimes you have committed and how it would play out if you were confronted with the past fifteen years later.

Rating: «««½

Where: Victory Gardens Theatre
When: Thru – Aug 9, 2009
Tickets: $30-$58, Box Office: 773-871-3000

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Review: ‘Love Person” at Victory Gardens

 

Using the power of multi-platform story-telling, Love Person explores the emotional toll caused by discordant communications.

 

Love Person: "Well, I mean, it's not like I haven't seen people continuing before.  Continuing right out of my life.

 

 Love Person
by Aditi Brennan Kapil
Victory Gardens Theatre

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Love Person, by Aditi Brennan Kapil, now playing at Victory Gardens, explores the power of communication by creating a play that equally encompasses sign language, Sanskrit, English and modern forms of written communication within inter-tangled love triangles. The actor and actresses do not carry the plot alone due to the audience being able to visually read the texts and emails that are being sent between the characters. This creates a very realistic pause that exists within modern communication. The use of texting and email in this play also brings to question the power of communication between individuals even when you have no physical Love Person: "OK, you're pissed, I'm sorry."contact. The imperfections of translation are discussed in terms of human emotions so that we have a better understanding for the importance of these communication gaps.

The lead character, Free, is a moody, deaf, lesbian, played by Liz Tannebaum, who accidently forms an emotional bond with her sister’s crush while yearning for someone to honestly communicate with. Free lives with her lover and interpreter Maggie, played by Arlene Malinowski. Their relationship seems logical and could hold a real romance about it since they live together with their own separate language, but there is no warmth between them. Maggie’s outgoing attitude and her own conversations with friends leaves Free feeling isolated.

Ram is a Sanskrit professor studying the translation of Sanskrit poems. Ram is played by Rajesh Bose, who was the original Ram at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. His character is unsatisfied with the quality of Sanskrit poems once they are translated, he feels that the original language is far superior and loses some of its true meaning when spoken in English. This is an immediate connection for Free and Ram (even though they argue about it) since Free feels that sign language is inadequately translated into English.

Ram is reluctantly being set-up with Free’s sister. Free’s sister Vic is an English speaking, club-hopping, half-crazy Euro chick. Cheryl Graeff plays Vic‘s extreme emotional highs and lows with an entertaining personality. We are sprung back awake, and laughter is brought back into the theater when she enters the stage. She is not the intellectual or emotional connection that Ram is looking for. Even after Vic’s repeated attempts to attract Ram’s attention, he has no desire to have any sort of relationship with her until he received what he thought was an email from Vic. From that point he started talking through email, sharing his true personality and vulnerabilities with another person who actively shared in this modern form of bonding.

LovePerson: Free signing Maggie

There was a true intimate connection being made, without any physical interaction. The power of the communication was felt in the silence and anticipation while waiting for the next text to appear on screen. For those of us that consistently use texting and instant messaging as a form of communicating, this scenario, directed by Sandy Shinner is a realistic portrayal of the emotions involved while talking in 2009. The sometimes slow and boring moments of waiting for a response, also create an anxious sense of insecurity joined with excitement when you get a response. Liz and Rajesh are able to bring the power of this connection to life as they anticipate their next chance to speak to each other. That is also why the ending felt unfinished or unexplained. Was that connection really that intimate?

Love Person: texting-emailingWe are unable to see the depth of Ram’s character and there is never an emotional connection made with the audience as to why he chooses the path he does for his future. Free’s abrupt affection for her girlfriend Maggie at the end of the play doesn’t seem to fit her character. There is still a lot left unexplained as to why the bond formed through communication was so easy for her to walk away from if it meant so much to her personal happiness. Is she “settling” for Maggie, or do they find a deeper way to communicate through their love?

Love Person is unique in the way that it puts forth a multi-lingual performance. The three languages are used equally as lead languages. The audience is able to follow and fully absorb all forms of communication, which help deepen the impact of the performance. The script does a wonderful job at celebrating differences and poking fun and some humorous stereotypes. In particular, the scenes with Vic and Ram in Vic’s bedroom will make you chuckle.

Rating: «««

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater
When: Runs through June 14th
Tickets: call 773-871-3000

More information regarding Victory Gardens after the fold.

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