REVIEW: Toronto, Mississippi (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

      
  

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

  
  

Eve Rydberg and Daniel Behrendt - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

   
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
   
Toronto, Mississippi
   
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
at
Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $13-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Kitchen sink dramas often spell death for real theatricality. However raw or radical they were post-WWII, overplayed working-class melodramas, set in the same old, worn out living rooms, give audiences little more than rehashed and trite explorations of troubled lives truncated by cramped, dreary social and economic conditions. I had my worries about Toronto, Mississippi, which is enjoying its Midwest premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre under the direction of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Certainly its set design (William Anderson) has “Momma-on-the-couch-play” written all over it. But Garcia has honed his cast to make the audience see the particular beauty of Joan MacLeod’s mercurial script and also what is thoroughly special about these characters.

Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn in Toronto Mississippi - Mary-Arrchie TheatreTo that end, no young actor could be better cast to take on the role of a mentally handicapped teenage girl than Eve Rydberg. She plays18-year old Jhana, a young woman roiled by adolescent, hormonal drives for independence and sexual exploration, but who still needs daily training to remember her home address and how to dial 911 in the case of emergency. Jhana’s developmental challenges require a tight leash and perpetual watchfulness over her exceptionally vulnerable future. Her mother, Maddie (Laura Sturm), seems quite used to playing hardball with Jhana, whether she’s firmly and patiently correcting her inappropriate emotional outbursts or confronting her about her crappy work performance at “The Workshop,” a place that employs the developmentally challenged.

Rydberg and Sturm make a beautifully realistic mother-daughter team. Sturm definitely sculpts Maddie’s demeanor and body language to reflect the wear and strain of constant tending to Jhana’s needs. But one equally feels secure in the presence of Sturm’s performance. The way she strides across the living room, treating the difficulties of raising a specially challenged daughter like an everyday thing, evokes Maddie’s inner toughness and resiliency in the face Sisyphean duty.

Yet the play clearly belongs to Jhana. She is not this family’s burden, but its star. Classed vaguely by medical experts as having “soft autism,” Jhana’s way of perceiving and communicating with the world could only be defined as fragmented pastiche. The loved ones around her must interpret her jumbled words and gestures intuitively to understand her. Lucky for the audience, Jhana’s emotions are always on the surface. She’s incapable of hiding them away, either out of deception or self-deception. Watching Rydberg nail every emotional moment and gesture in Jhana’s journey is truly the overriding delight of this production.

That leaves the men of the play who, besides being flawed with their own particular obsessions and weaknesses, get an uneven interpretation from the actors. Bill (Daniel Behrendt) is the struggling and frustrated poet who boards at Maddie’s house. Behrendt delivers a bountifully sympathetic performance through Bill’s generous, funny and empathic relationship with Jhana. Only by increments do we discover Bill’s bitter neuroses over women, at least until the arrival of “the King” awakens them to full ugly glory. King (Luke Renn), Maddie’s ex and Jhana’s dad, is a traveling Elvis impersonator who shows up when it suits him. Clearly a guy who believes in living his legend—even if it is somebody else’s legend—King darkens Maddie’s door once more for a little ex-sex, Eve Rydberg and Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatresome filial adoration from Jhana and a general lifestyle regrouping.

Jhana is not the dysfunctional one as her dysfunctions are excusable because they can be explained away by her disability. But Maddie, King and Bill’s dysfunctions are also understandable. They want to be more than what they are; they want to have a life that meets their dreams; they want what they don’t have, might never have, and that alone leads to lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. Their dreary day-to-day malaise is ours. Yet the actors have to particularize, in exacting detail, each of their character’s individual malaises in order to capture our attention before our eyes glaze over at the sight of another working-class stereotype.

There is really nothing normal about normal. The devil is in the details; the devil is also in MacLeod’s sparsely poetic language. Bill’s definition for poetry is nothing less than MacLeod’s strategy for laying out her dialogue: “Poetry is at its best when no one knows what’s going on.” Rather, the meaning of what’s poetically said can only be intuited from the emotional impact that the actor deduces from subtext. The audience needs to grasp all the subtext of Bill and King’s territorial pissing contests, no matter what poetic depths MacLeod’s script strays into. What’s more, Sturm and and Renn need to take the latent chemistry between Maddie and King and notch it up a skotch. That’s the only way to make the assignation of this otherwise tough and pragmatic lady more realistic.

Since the production can resolve these issues in the course of the run, I urge people to make time for Toronto, Mississippi. MacLeod’s script is not the same old kitchen sink. Rydberg’s performance elevates the play’s message about the unique beauty of every individual’s self-expression to lovingly brilliant heights. Jhana’s small victories make the grey drudgery in her world shrink away. Would that we faced each day with the same perspective.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Daniel Behrendt, Laura Sturm, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Production Personnel

Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Featuring: Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn, & Laura Sturm.
Designers include Bill Anderson (set), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Matt Gawryk (lighting design), Carlo Lorenzo Garcia (sound design), CoCo Ree Lemery (paint charge), Mary Patchell (stage manager)

  
  

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REVIEW: Peter Pan (A Play) – Lookingglass Theatre

     
     

Endearing young cast creates a playful Neverland

 

 

Kay Kron as Wendy in Peter Pan at Lookingglass Chicago

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Peter Pan (a play)   
     
Written and directed by Amanda Dehnert
Based on the books by
J.M. Barrie
at
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map)
through Dec 12  |  tickets: $24-$62  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Amanda Dehnert has adapted and staged a very faithful version of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic (well, almost–it’s too politically correct to retain the island’s Indian tribe). It’s not just faithful to Barrie, with its multiple narrators describing the exotic and imaginary topography of Neverland, detailing the psychology of its make-believe, and providing back stories on the lesser characters like Tootles, Slightly and Smee. It’s even more faithful to the challenges of childhood, all those non-negotiable, first-time joys and fears where from moment to moment everything that happens can seem the end of the world.

It’s not just the runaway or throwaway Lost Boys who are clueless and compass-less in Neverland. It’s also the Darling siblings, the equally abandoned Pirates and their “leader of monsters” Captain Hook, still hurting from being considered nice when he knew he was nasty. Above all, it’s Peter Pan who is terrified of being “grown up and done for.” He is rightly described as “young and innocent and heartless,” which is just how the author saw the beautiful Davies brothers who he immortalized in “Peter Pan.” Barrie, more than Pewter, didn’t want them to grow up–specifically old and ugly. Only one died young and that was because he perished in World War I.

Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art workThat doesn’t mean that Lookingglass’ rampaging staging is really children’s theater, however much the inventive hijinks recall a school pageant. The few kids in the opening night audience seemed more perplexed than enraptured by the pell-mell action. A bit too hip and flippant for its good, this slickly knowing, slyly winking staging is full of in-jokes for former children. But it does capture the renegade power of children’s imagination , as remembered after the fact by Barrie and Dehnert. Practically everything that Ryan Nunn’s Peter – a true and stalwart Alpha boy with cockiness and superiority to spare – proposes is a game, if only because he’s never had anyone older than himself to sober him up into something like seriousness.

The second act in particular slows down enough to really consider the question of whether there’s a point to all these endless adventures that offer no lessons beyond winning or losing. Peter recruits Wendy to be the mother who the boys lost along with everything else (making them pockets, tucking them in, etc.). For him that mostly means telling stories even as they’re actually living them from action-packed day to dream-laden night. The stories provide stability, but then Neverland is nothing but stories: Lacking a context and contrast, they gradually lose their power to charm. At first Wendy (Kay Kron) just revels in the anarchic freedom of Neverland’s total lack of rules and expectations (”I want to DO EVERYTHING FOREVER!”). But slowly she finds that she’s becoming the thing she pretends to be, a nurturing and protective person whose homesickness is just another way to grow up. (The text says that they had no word for “love” and had to make do with “home” instead.) Neverland is a misnomer because, except for Peter, it must end and the lost boys must be found.

It’s not as preciously philosophical as it sounds because Dehnert wisely distracts from the darker doings with all the romper-room exuberance that a young and athletic cast can bring to this escape fantasy. Of course there’s the usual flying (though not on wires but rope lifts). Wendy’s house is created, as children would, entirely from chalk Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art work2drawings by the cast prettily scrawled across the stage. Lily’s (“Tiger” is now missing) escape from Skull Rock and Hook’s final showdown with Peter are performed on dangling ramps and rolling scaffolding. It’s hectic fun and child’s play in the best sense of the term.

Deliberately or unintentionally, the cast could not be more endearing. Kay Kron’s radiant Wendy shows everything she feels with all the naked honesty of open-hearted children. Jamie Abelson’s no-nonsense John recalls his father (a respectable Raymond Fox), while Alex Weisman’s silly Michael seems little more mature than this nursemaid Nana (Royer Bockus, speaking rather than barking). Thomas J. Cox’s Hook is evil incarnate, a caricature built from memories of the meanest adults the children ever met. Aislinn Mulligan’s tomboyish Tinkerbell is mute but memorable as she evolves from fairy petulance to something like battlefield heroism. Above all, Nunn’s valiant, resourceful and incorrigible Peter sets the standard for this young and able cast. We don’t want him to grow up anymore than Barrie did.

   
   
Rating: ★★★ 
   
     

 

 

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REVIEW: Obscura (Red Tape Theatre)

 

A Nightmare of the Observed

 

Obscura at Chicago's Red Tape Theatre: (Left to right) Robert Oakes, Meghan Reardon, Lona Livingston, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

   
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
Obscura: a voyeuristic love story
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at
Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I guess that I will call it synchronicity. Before I went to see Obscura at Red Tape Theatre, I read a story about Franz Kafka and the present day battle over his unpublished papers. Kafka has always been both fascinating and terrifying to me. Obscura: a voyeuristic love story delves into several layers of the bureaucracy that threatens to delete the remnants of humanity. It is darkly funny, emotional, and simmering below the surface is the threat that this can happen to you the observer. It haunted me like Kafka.

(Left to right) Lona Livingston, Meghan Reardon (legs), Nicholas Combs, Robert Oakes.  Photo by James PalmerWhen entering the theatre, you walk down a runway to your seat.  The runway is lit up and a part of the play’s set. The effect is that you feel like a trespasser in someone’s yard because upstage from the runway is the cutaway of a dreary apartment building. The actors are already on stage going through the motions of their characters. Meghan Reardon as Salvia is obsessively mixing brightly colored potions and doing an inventory of the ingredients. Lona Livingston as Mrs. Craw the landlady is cleaning and checking on repairs. Nicholas Combs as Ned is suffering over a typewriter in a tiny garret crowded with so many books that he sits on a stack of them. Robert L. Oakes as Rodney seems to be the most menacing character of all. Rodney sits in a spare and utilitarian room with only a calculator and a desk. He pores over data with the preciseness of an actuary.

All of the characters have something to hide and yet cannot keep it from the unseen bureaucracy. Rodney is spying on Salvia and sending her green letters that send her into a panic. Salvia hears Ned coughing all night along with the clacking of the typewriter and offers him a remedy from her collection of potions. The offer is a timid ruse to get to know another human being and yet she does not want to reveal herself. Ned is surprised when the girl he has been watching through the peephole speaks to him and quickly makes up a story about what he is writing. He cannot reveal that he has written nothing for all of his efforts and makes up an absurd circus story that enchants Salvia. Enter into this Mrs. Craw who breaks into the tenants apartments and burrows through their belongings on a regular basis.

These characters are at odds with each other while trying to connect at the same time. It makes for fantastic tension and sardonic humor. They are all in a hidden hell with the rules for escape being doled out in coded fragments. They barely seem human until the lustful sounds of wild sex emanates from a hidden apartment’s walls. A metaphoric mass orgasm breaks the fever under which they have suffered and the bureaucracy also goes berserk. Their humanity starts to emerge and they tentatively try to connect with each other.

Chicagoan Jennifer Barclay is the playwright for Obscura, and she spins quite the tale with some Brechtian influences as well. I acquired feelings of prewar decay from the characters, the set, and the dialog. Director Julianne Ehre has pulled off a feat reminiscent of Orson Welles, director for an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial”. This tale could have happened at any time in this century or the one we just left and that is what is so surreal. The apartments look as if there has been a war. Accordingly, we know that there is always a war somewhere on this planet, with certainly a domino affect tangentially leading right back to us.

It is funny and frightening when Rodney picks up his telephone to inquire about the green letter he has received. He has been the observer and finds himself on the other side of the pinhole with his life upside down. He is put on eternal hold by a robotic voice and is kept on tethers by an intermittent human who sends him to another extension. Music from “Oklahoma!” plays in the background. Hell is ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ on continuous loop.

(Left to right) Meghan Reardon, Nicholas Combs.  Photo by James Palmer

The character of Mrs. Craw – and her snooping – is the connection for everyone. She is seemingly trapped in her own painful past and justifies her intrusions by reasoning that she’s really caring for people. I found the denouement between her and the Stranger (played by Chris Carr) to be the one part that’s too neat and openly emotional. It is one layer too much for the irony of the rest of the writing. Mrs. Craw has survived a war; the connection between her and the Stranger should be more of a shock instead of the maudlin feel that comes across. Perhaps Ms. Barclay was attempting to humanize everyone to show that bureaucracy does not have to win.

In any case, that small flaw is no fault of the cast. They are all very good and did a brilliant job of pulling me into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Special kudos goes to scenic designer William Anderson. The visual of an urban apartment building is perfect down to the use of the concrete floor outside of Rodney’s sparse apartment.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Obscura –A Voyeuristic Love Story runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until October 23rd. There are additional shows on October 16th and 23rd. For more information go to www.redtapetheatre.org.

   
   

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REVIEW: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (Two Pence)

A mixed bag at Two Pence Shakespeare

 

2Pence # 6

   
Two Pence Shakespeare present
 
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
 
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Wells
at
Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main St., Evanston (map)
through August 21  | 
tickets: $9-$20   |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The publicity materials for The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet led me to believe that this adaptation was to show the after-effects of war, and how society deals with returning veterans. Such an interpretation of possibly the Bard’s most renowned  work held, for me, remarkable potential – but I saw very little effort to portray a post war mentality. The conflict in most of Shakespeare is universal. There are and will be rivalries and feuds for as long as there is humanity. The civil unrest in Romeo and Juliet comes off here more as a feud or an unfortunate gang war.

2Pence # 3 In spite of this, It is the actors that make this production spellbinding and fun, despite the tragic outcome. Taking place in a converted train station, the sounds of the Metra pulling in add to the production’s nostalgic setting between the wars.

The tussling between the Capulet and Montague fractions is convincingly vicious and bloody. Daniel McEvilly is absolutely stunning as Mercutio. Some would argue that Mercutio is the most compelling character and McEvilly makes the case in this production. He stalks the stage with a feral presence that gives a razor sharp edge to the gang unrest. The words of Shakespeare sound mellifluent and stabbing all at once. Mr. McEvilly’s Mercutio is profane and fierce; one feels more sadness when he meets his tragic end than at the conclusion of the play when the titled lovers lay dead.

Austin Campion portrays a gentle Romeo with grace and a light touch. Mr. Campion begins tentatively, but then we have to remember that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet’s characters as youths on the brink of adulthood. This Romeo fights with his buddies against the Montague’s and speaks lustily of girls, but Campion successfully portrays the longing soul beneath the veneer of bravado.

Christa Sablic (Juliet) brings joy and a wonderful colt-like energy to her role. Juliet has been played as a mooning petulant girl for literally 400+ years. Ms. Sablic portrays her as a teenager who falls in love. It’s been a while since I was a teenager but I do remember how ‘he’ was all consuming and all about which I thought. Ms. Sablic plays Juliet as a sensuous young woman who is ripening under the spell of love and, yes, lust.

Another standout in this production is Sherry Legare as Nurse. Ms. Legare adds a compelling comic touch to her role as Juliet’s guardian and conspirator. She takes on the visage of a toddling old nanny with all but the rolled up stockings, seemingly paying homage to Carol Burnett, but with a more muted slapstick take.

2Pence # 5Charles Cowen as Juliet’s parent-approved suitor is something out of a 1930’s film drama. His portrayal of all a parent wants for a daughter to marry is spot on. Cowen has a royal posture and perfects the arrogant sneer that one has come to love in the character, versus the tragic hero story.

The rest of the cast performs quite ably, but the rhythm noticeably changes in the speaking scenes with Lady Capulet and Juliet. KC Karen Hill plays Lady Capulet, and she comes off as miscast. Ms. Hill is a beautiful actress, but she projects a speedy energy that is out of sync with the story and the rest of the cast. Part of this is costume and makeup/hair choices – the production’s setting is between the wars that took place in the earlier 20th century and Ms. Hill is costumed and coiffed for the post punk 90’s.

Andy Baldeschwiler is appropriately stern as Lord Capulet, possessing a very dignified presence and a most traditional Shakespearean-sounding voice. Additionally, Eliza Hofman is fun to watch in two dual male roles. She has excellent comic timing and exudes a nice gangster aura in spite of being quite pretty.

Any adaptation of Shakespeare runs the risk of seeming pompous and out of touch with the times. It is classic theatre, and taught in almost every school as a reading assignment. Getting the rhythm of Shakespeare and having the ability to translate it into universal understanding is what is difficult for a lot of people. Two Pence’s aspirations for creating a post war ambiance falls a little flat and perhaps should have been more conventional with the era costuming and props.

Given the production’s material and groovy performance space, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is an enjoyable evening of classic theatre.

   
       
Rating: ★★½
   
   
2Pence # 1 2Pence # 2

NOTE: For this production, Two Pence has collaborated with the Vet Art Project, and some production proceeds will be donated to the organization. The show is performed at the Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main Street. This is a cool space in the Metra station and accessible by CTA, Pace and of course Metra. Check out www.twopenceshakespeare.org for tickets and information about the Vet Art Project. The play runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm through August 21st 2010.

      
       

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 002

   
Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 008 Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 006
Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 005 Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 001

Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Love of the Nightingale (Red Tape Theatre)

This eerie ‘Nightingale’ sings a refreshingly resonant tune

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 1

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
  
The Love of the Nightingale
  
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
directed by
James Palmer
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
(map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not going to lie, my expectations weren’t so high when I entered the space for Red Tape Theatre’s newest production, The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The last (and admittedly, only) show I saw by them, last season’s Enemy of the People (our review ★½), was pretty weak. That said, I was completely blown away. Directed by Artistic Director James Palmer, Red Tape’s Love of the Nightingale was refreshing, bizarre, and remarkably resonant.

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 Nightingale explores the ancient Greek myth of Philomele who, as all those mythology buffs out there will tell you, was transformed into a nightingale after some pretty traumatic experiences. And given that it’s written by Wertenbaker, you can bet the whole story is given a feminist twist. Palmer and his enormous cast explode the story into life, ripping it from its ancient Greek context and filling it with anachronism and theatricality. Set designer William Anderson builds a completely new space within the heart of the gym in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The set is its own little world, encircling the audience and featuring plenty of hidden drawers, doors, and other surprises. Palmer’s production is intensely physical, demanding the actors throw all they got out on-stage, just a few inches from the audience.

The story tells of the relationship between Philomele (Meghan Reardon), her sister Procne (Kathleen Romond), and her brother-in-law and King of Thrace, Tereus (Vic May). For those unfamiliar with the Greek myth, Procne asks her husband, Tereus, to bring her little sister out to Thrace for a visit. He sails over to Athens to pick her up, but things get a little heated on the trip back. Through a brilliant choice, the play is shaped and revealed by an almost silent dollmaker/carpenter/puppetmaster (Robert Oakes), who seems compelled to tell this unsettling story to us.

The dream team of designers Palmer amassed has concocted a marvelous world. Ricky Lurie’s modern-dress costumes are stunning, reveling in the uncanny style Palmer has set out. The suits and dresses are bright and colorful, contrasting sharply with the terrifying depths the play plunges towards. Anderson’s set is simple enough REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2 to hold all of the different scenes required in the text, yet exudes its own bizarre essence. This is all pushed by Palmer, who moonlights as lighting designer, and his fetish for flickering fluorescents. The show is eerie and surreal, sometimes a dream and sometimes a nightmare.

Although the performances are at times outdone by the incredible design, there are some choice actors here. Romond’s tortured Procne is excellent; although the character doesn’t feature much in the original myth, here we’re entranced by her struggle. As Philomele, it takes Reardon a scene or two to hit her stride but she gets there, especially as the play gets heavier. May does great work as well, finding both Tereus’ sliminess and his royalty. For such a small stage, the cast is massive. However, they all fit the play extremely well, and everyone out there is required for the world to work as well as it does.

Much of the chorus is used in choreographed movement that surrounds the audience, trapping them into Philomele’s tragic tale. However, sometimes the movement pieces overstay their welcome and reach into repetitive territory, then our interest flags. The play calls for plenty of brutality, but Zack Meyer and Claire Yearman’s fight choreography doesn’t really hack it. It works well technically, but doesn’t have the piercing specificity the rest of the show has.

From their The Love of the Nightinggale, it is clear Red Tape has an aesthetic that works for them. Hopefully, they’ll expand and explore more of what made this play great. If Red Tape keeps churning out work like this, they’ll become a tiger of the storefront scene.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

REDTAPE THEATRE - Photo 2

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REVIEW: Here Where It’s Safe (Stage Left Theatre)

Exposes disturbing trend of foreign surrogate mothers

 safe3

Stage Left Theatre presents:

Here Where It’s Safe

 

Written by M.E.H. Lewis
Directed by
Scott Bishop
through April 3rd
(more info)

Review by Barry Eitel

Stage Left’s most recent offering, Here Where It’s Safe, definitely fits in with their declared purpose of exploring socio-political subjects. The new play sifts through an ethical quagmire that has international implications: the rising issue of barren couples paying foreign women to have children for them. M.E.H. Lewis focuses on Indian surrogates in Here Where it’s Safe, telling a very contemporary story about an American woman’s relationship with the young Indian girl that’s carrying her baby. It’s a massively relevant tale full of current statistics, figures, and headlines, but the social topics of the play overshadow the dramatic gravitas.

safe2 This is the last show Stage Left is doing in their long time space on Sheffield; they will be moving into the Theatre Wit complex for next season. They make a grand exit with scenic designer William Anderson’s gorgeous set. His design envelopes the space, placing us in a traditional Indian world with intricate motifs in metal and wood. Scenes travel thousands of miles and take us from America to India, and the set is open enough to allow all of the scenes to happen with short transitions. Complemented by Jessica Harpenau’s lights and Elizabeth Flauto’s colorful costumes, the production forms a fascinating world.

On the whole, the performances are pretty convincing, although sometimes there seems to be a disconnect among the ensemble. Cat Dean is Abigail, a woman ravaged by her failed attempts to have a child. Dean carries the show, but can also be a bit too stoic at times, which teeters on boring an audience. Her best work is when she is in the scenes with Mouzam Makkar, who plays Beena, the 19-year old girl Abigail is paying to have her baby. Makkar has the best performance in the production, capturing the youthful brattiness of a teenager combined with the emotional maturity of a wife and mother forced to make tough choices. She is a blank slate with the ability to project and withhold intentions and motivations from her scene partners and the audience. Occasionally, though, what drives her forward is hard to read even in the intimate space. Cory Krebsbach is goofy yet lovable as Abigail’s husband and Anita Chandwaney is excellent as Dr. Uma, Beena’s “boss” at the surrogate agency. safe1 The weak link in the cast is Kate Black as Abigail super-liberal friend Jem, who doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides providing a progressive worldview on the matter and saying “breeder” a lot. Supposedly Jem helps flesh out the ethical issues, but Black comes across as detached and uncaring.

I think the cutting of a couple of scenes would strengthen the play. As it is, Lewis’ script extends itself too far, having a lot of shorter scenes. They begin to feel extraneous after awhile. The plot and themes could be consolidated; the play could kick harder. It feels like Lewis was really excited to confront her audience with an issue that gets very little facetime in the media. However, the play that wraps it could be more coherent. The text evolves around themes, instead of a script giving birth to social, political, and economic questions. The characters all have their reasons, personalities, and the plot is logical, but the work as a whole seems more concerned with putting out a message than telling a compelling story.

I was never bored by the show, nor turned off by any of the more overt political discussions, and it does shed light on a little-known yet somewhat disturbing trend. Here Where it’s Safe could just be made a lot more powerful if it didn’t tangle itself in some vague opinions.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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