Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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Review: Woyzeck (The Hypocrites)

     
     

True to form, Sean Graney creates another ‘beautiful murder’

     
     

Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in Woyzeck at The Hypocrites

   
The Hypocrites present
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Directed by Sean Graney
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

When Georg Büchner dropped dead in 1837, he left behind a work-in-progress that has since been a powerful draw for artists and academics…and an even bigger pain in the neck for editors. The original script for Woyzeck–that’s an assumed title, by the way; Büchner never had the chance to choose one himself–was a scribbled hodgepodge of fragments and scenes chronicling a layman’s transformation into a killer written on unnumbered pages.

Lindsey Gavel (Marie, foreground) and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann, background) in The Hypocrites production of WOYZECK By Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Photo by Ryan Bourque.Performing the text as-is is not an option, at least not a compelling one. Producing this soldier story takes a heavy-hand, a willingness to make a directorial mark, and some serious cojones.

Enter Sean Graney.

The Hypocrites artistic director has developed a knack for bold theatre and ranks among the most exciting directors working in Chicago. Graney possesses the ability to unearth the hearts of classic texts and translate them to contemporary audiences by employing an arsenal of visceral elements. In this Woyzeck, he plays maestro–soundscapes, a dumb show, and music by Kevin O’Donnell help forward the plot and give body to heady expressionist ideas. His adaptation streamlines what Büchner left meandering. His rewrites, rearrangements, and omissions are always with clear purpose and are always for the better.

The title tragic hero, played by Geoff Button, is given the full Job treatment from his country, his colleagues and his wife. Subjected to inhumane medical experiments, degrading work conditions and an ungrateful spendthrift spouse, Woyzeck descends into desperation. His misery is amplified by the production’s wry, cruelly detached sense of humor–his child is literally presented as dead weight: a rock.

Visually, it’s captivating. Tom Burch’s set design juxtaposes nature with biohazard plastics in a vast and functional playing space. Dangerous elements get the richest, most appealing colors–appropriate for a show whose characters find beauty in destruction.

The Hyprocrites allow us to pity the tormented protagonist while alienating us just enough to objectively consider the morality of his and our resentment toward his adulteress wife (Lindsey Gavel). Added repetition in dialogue and gestures conveys the soldier’s ability to endure anguish for the people he loves, and suggests a breaking point may be the only solution for escaping the hellish loop of giving-without-return; suggests, but doesn’t dictate. The specific tragic end Graney chooses for his doomed young man leaves some questions open-ended. Unlike in Büchner’s text, they’re the right kind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck).

All photos by Ryan Bourque

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REVIEW: The Earl (The Inconvenience)

  
  

Now extended through March 2nd!

Strange brotherly love in company’s inaugural production

 
 

The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Ryan Borque.

  
The Inconvenience i/a/w A Red Orchid Theatre presents
      
The Earl
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by
Duncan Riddell
at
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Feb 23 March 2  |  tickets: $15  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

Edward Bond’s miscreants have some competition for Theatre’s Most Twisted Youngsters in Brett Neveu’s grisly dark comedy, The Earl.

The Inconvenience’s revival marks the ensemble’s first professional production and the play’s third presentation, following an independent film adaptation by Jim Sikora four years ago and A Red Orchid’s original six-month run in 2006. From the looks of it, The Earl’s blood is still pumping strong.

Danny Goldring, now starring in 'The Earl' by The Inconvenience at A Red Orchid Theatre.  Photo credit Ryan Borque.Strong, or at least bountiful, gushing from the limbs and noses of its characters and streaming down the walls of its set.

The story is straightforward: three brothers reunite in an abandoned basement office for a high stakes game of physical abuse. Think bloody knuckles, but the Olympic version, with faces and knees substituting for knuckles and crowbars substituting for quarters.

Why? Probably for the same reason children in school yards voluntarily play “wall ball” (the innocent title doesn’t imply the notorious “no-block crotch-shots rule“, does it?), or the more presumptive “smear the queer.” Who knows. The rules of the brothers’ contest are never made quite clear–there’s a lot of counting and letters and special exceptions–but it’s not for us to know the details, is it? As Artistic Director Christopher Chmelik puts it in his program note, “[There’s] no judging panel or officials with the final say. The brothers wrote the rule book,” and that book remains a secret. Sick as it may be, the in’s-and-out’s of the unnamed game are honored with a special family bond not extended to outside ranks.

So, when famous action star Lawrence Stephens (played with a nice blend of kitsch and menace by Danny Goldring) is invited to join the brawl, assuming the role of an “Earl,” the game takes a brutal turn for the unexpected.

Like any good thriller, Neveu’s text layers its release of information slowly and unpredictably. Director and A Red Orchid Literary Manager Duncan Riddell paces the action carefully. I didn’t want to see too much, but I couldn’t look away. It’s a ballet of watching and wincing. When violence does erupt, Fight Choreographers Chuck Coyle and Ryan Bourque don’t disappoint. Theatre isn’t the greatest outlet for action (at least in the “wham-bam” sense), so fight choreography typically amounts to aggressive dancing. With the help of a collaborative young cast, Riddell overcomes the form’s limitations and uses the full visual and aural spectrum to create an exhilarating illusion.

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

It’s fair to say that The Earl has more balls than brains, but that’s not to say it‘s dumb. This is an impressive, quick-witted ensemble, and the young trio has built a fascinating, mostly unspoken family dynamic. Among the sadomasochistic clan is Ryan Borque (Kent), a gangly, giggly ball of tics. He’s the severest case of arrested development of the group, and brings an estranged, juvenile sense of joy to the chaos around him, even when injured. Bourque is captivating, remaining charismatic with a broken nose. Likewise, Walter Briggs (Peter) and Chris Chmelik (Rick) know their backgrounds and supply the given circumstances that raise the show above the level of wrestling match to bold work of theatre.

The Earl works as a one-act, but when the house lights came up for curtain call, I was hoping we were at intermission. The dramatic ground work and characterization are laid for a full-length play, and though the show is structurally complete, it did leave me wanting to see more story fleshed out. It originally ran as a late-night show, and likely works better with that mentality going in. But even at 8, it’s a thrilling little piece of pulp fiction. And for that, I’m game.

  
      
Rating: ★★★
         
     

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

        
        

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REVIEW: Louis Slotin Sonata (A Red Orchid Theatre)

Turning quantum physics into an educational sonata

louis slotin sonata poster louis slotin sonata poster - flip

 

A Red Orchid Theatre presents
   
Louis Slotin Sonata
  
Written by Paul Mullin
Directed by
Karen Kessler
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through October 24th  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Tickling the dragon’s tale’ sounds like a fairytale requirement for rescuing the princess. It is not so enchanting! In fact, it’s the testing procedures for a plutonium bomb. A Red Orchid Theatre presents Louis Slotin Sonata, based on the death and times of a historical figure. In 1946, Dr. Louis Slotin has plans. Goodbye bombs! Hello biology! Louie’s bags are packed to leave the military zone and go university academic. Before his departure, he decides to give the dragon one more tickle. louis slotin sonata poster During the routine, Louis’ hand slips and the dragon bites. Everyone in the room is exposed to radiation. Louis Slotin Sonata focuses on the final nine days of a scientist. In a morphine induced haze, Louie tries to piece together his incident, existence and death. His Hebrew lessons and Nazi war criminal memories jumble producing hallucinatory action adventure and a choreographed Nagasaki shuffle. Louis Slotin Sonata is a concerto of science and religion with an underlying comedic rhythm.

Director Karen Kessler orchestrates a swift movement between the surreal and real. Louis’ final days are recollections of the past, present and future. His current state is spliced with future monologues from medical and military personnel reviewing the facts and delirious visits with historical figures. Steve Schine (Louis) portrays the scientist with apologetic arrogance. Former rogue and brilliant bomb maker, Schine transforms in humble vulnerability to a science geek fearful of being remembered for a blunder. The outstanding ensemble plays multiple roles with distinction. Guy Massey displays impressive range from soft-spoken scientist to abrupt military man to evangelizing religious fanatic. William Norris gives a heart-wrenching performance as a Jewish father losing his son to science. Anita Deely is the kind-hearted nurse struggling with anger over the avoidable tragedy. Adding to the laughs, Duncan Riddell haunts, Doug Vickers bumbles, Christopher Walsh deadpans, and Walter Briggs aka ‘Death’ calculates.

The entire ensemble shines around Schine in this dark comedy.

Louis Slotin wanted to fade into obscurity instead of being remembered for ‘dropping the big one’ or more accurately ‘poking the small one’. Playwright Paul Mullin has preserved Dr. Slotin in a playful but educational sonata. The show is an entertaining lesson in science, history and religion. The heavy-duty science instruction made me realize I would have done better in physics if my teacher had been one of the Louis Slotin Sonata ensemble.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

SHOW WARNING: I am cursed with A Red Orchid Theatre bad seat karma. In this production, there is only ONE seat obstructed with regularity. I sat in it! Don’t make my mistake! The theatre is split into three sections. In between, the left and middle section, don’t pick the sole seat on the second row without a chair in front of it. Kessler has chosen to place an actor’s back to the audience directly in front of that seat… in many scenes. The choice effectively blocks the action from view. On the positive side, if there was a real bomb, I would have been shielded from radiation exposure.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

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REVIEW: Of Mice and Men (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Familiar story has power under the stars

 Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men"

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Of Mice and Men
 
By John Steinbeck
Directed by
Belinda Bremner
Austin Gardens Park, 157 N. Forest Ave., Oak Park (map)
Through July 10  | 
Tickets: $10-$25; chair rental: $2 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One trouble with shows based on works almost everybody had to read in high school is they tend to lack suspense. That said, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck evokes all of the power of the original tragic novelette. Even though you know what’s coming at every step, Belinda Bremner’s production provides plenty of impact.

The timeless themes of loneliness and the solace of forged connections and shared dreams come to life under the stars in Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor venue. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a "play-novelette," designed theatrically, so it makes a seamless transition to the stage. (A minor quibble: I disagree with Bremner’s decision to combine the three acts into two, but I suppose that with the show at nearly 2½ hours, she didn’t want to add the extra intermission.)

Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men" You can bring or rent lawn chairs if you like, or sit in the bleachers, though one lady in front of me really knew how to do outdoor theater right — she came equipped with a blanket to spread on the lawn, a pillow to lounge on, votive candles, mosquito sticks, bug spray and a basket of snacks and drinks. (If you bring nothing else, I highly recommend bug spray.) Some scenes take place on the stage and others on the ground at stage left, so whatever you sit on, situate yourself toward "house" right for the best views.

Just in case you went to school in some other country, Of Mice and Men follows George Milton and Lenny Small, two itinerant, California farm workers during the Great Depression. They have been traveling together for years, though George is smart and ambitious and Lenny is mentally impaired — a small child in a strong man’s body. The two aspire one day to have their own place, where they can live off the fat of the land. Lenny never tires of hearing George recount what will happen when they achieve this goal.

George often vents his frustration with Lenny, who gets the pair into odd scrapes and some serious trouble through his love of touching soft things and his lack of understanding, but he never considers abandoning his companion. Lenny is completely confident in George — though he offers to go off and live in a cave, he trusts George won’t take him up on it. Kevin Theis gives George just the right edginess and protectiveness, while David Skvarla does a stupendous job as Lenny, endlessly befuddled and attractively childlike, as the show builds to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

When the two arrive on a new ranch, they meet Candy, a broken-down old hand whose own companion, a beloved, elderly dog, becomes a matter of contention in the bunkhouse. Candy offers George and Lenny a means of bringing their far-off hopes to reality. Veteran Chicago actor William J. Norris’ compelling performance gives the production real depth.

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Meanwhile, Curley (a vigorous Adam Meredith), the pugnacious son of the ranch boss, picks on Lenny just to make up for his own inadequacies; and another lonely ranch hand, Crooks (a sensitive portrayal by Emanueal Buckley), kept at arm’s length because he’s black, is also inclined to take out his resentment on Lenny but ultimately relents.

Curley’s new wife, a nameless and ill-omened young woman who regrets the recent marriage that has done nothing to cure her loneliness, tries to chat up the men just to have something to do, but they misinterpret her friendly overtures. Ricky Lurie’s period clothes for the men look just fine, but Curley’s wife ought to be dressed more provocatively. Her plain-jane overalls and braids, combined with Skyler Schrempp’s rather earnest portrayal, make it difficult to imagine how the men can see her as a tramp.

Ron Butts, Stanton Davis, Ben Carr and Walter Briggs ably fill out the cast.

Unseen live musicians provide a little incidental music, but they seem under-utilized. A recording of Woody Guthrie classics played before the show and at intermission seemed fitting at first, but became tiresome by its third iteration. More live music could make this very good production into a great one.

       
      
Rating:★★★½
   
   

Note: Free parking available in the 19th Century Club lot on North Forest Avenue.

Extra Credit:

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