Category: Paige Listerud
A little cuteness, a little charm, a lot of predictability
|Chicago Children’s Theatre presents|
|Dot & Ziggy|
|Created by Linda Hartzell, Mark Perry
and the Seattle Children’s Theatre
Directed by Linda Hartzell
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 26th | tickets: $16-$18 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Dot & Ziggy is Chicago Children’s Theatre’s first crack at targeting the baby and toddler audience—and, of course, those parents seeking a fun, interactive theatrical event to share with their youngest. Theater for the very young, age 6 months to 4 years, has been established in Europe and Australia for over two decades now and is just finding its audience in America, with Seattle and Minneapolis leading the way in baby and toddler theatre. Success for Dot & Ziggy could open the way to a whole new Chicago audience.
Created and directed by Linda Hartzell, Chicago Children’s Theatre also promotes Dot & Ziggy as childhood entertainment that doubles as “time well spent.” Clearly, the production was developed along early child development guidelines. The tried and true formulas first instigated by “Sesame Street” in the 1960s are all over this show. The production’s one variation from television lies in the moments it provides for interactive movement and sound. But the oft-repeated recognition of shapes, the recognition of opposites in language, as well as lessons on socialization – via the budding friendship between a ladybug, Dot (Roni Geva) and a skunk named Ziggy (Don Darryl Rivera) – are plainly safe, comfortable and predictable territory.
Far be it from me, not being a parent, to throw cold water on a theatrical experience that might be exactly what some parents want for their children—something that fits easily into parameters they’ve already been exposed to at home. Obviously, the young audience’s response to Dot and Ziggy’s friendship forms a far better indicator. Geva is charming in the dedicated earnestness with which she tries to make Ziggy see things her way. Rivera employs a hint of cheerful mischief in Ziggy’s opposition to Dot. It’s also a plus that Dot and Ziggy lead the audience with music from the lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater to the upstairs theatre space. Once inside, Nicolas Davio’s fresh and simple musical accompaniment forms a strong underpinning to the storytelling. By far, watching the kids react to the material may be the show’s biggest entertainment value—an element that reinforces the communal nature of live theater, both for adults and the very young.
I do question, however, an over-reliance on the Sesame-Street-model or an over-dependency on sociological approaches when it comes to creating theater, all with the intent that it be “good for children.” What can be lost is wonder; what results is a production that looks like it was created more by a well-meaning committee than by theater artists. Also, at some point, the question of whether parents really need to spend $16 a ticket to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with their children comes into view. Dot & Ziggy does have a very endearing original song near its end and one can only hope that further works for very young people, centered on greater originality and creativity, will be forthcoming.
Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Dot & Ziggy continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays-Thursdays at 10am, Fridays-Sundays at 10am and 12pm. Tickets are $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends, and can be purchased by phone (773-871-3000) or online.
Ritualistic elements explore value and purpose of faith
|Lights Out Theatre presents|
|Iphigeneia at Aulis|
|Written by Euripides
Directed and Adapted by Josh Altman
at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
More than just a little hippie feeling prevails in Lights Out Theatre’s production of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis. That vibe comes, partly, from Collaboraction’s theater-in-the-round space, which seats its audience on pillows at various levels to the stage floor. The other contribution comes from Josh Altman’s cast of barefoot players, complete with hearty drum elements, which make their Greek army stranded on the shores of Aulis look more like a summer of love gone wrong. Love gone wrong isn’t a bad choice of words, since Helen, wife of Menelaos (Michael Hamilton), has run off to Troy with Paris. Now the cuckolded husband and his brother, Agamemnon (Kipp Moorman), must amass their armies to get her back. But even fatherly affection doesn’t stand a chance once the army’s prophets proclaim that Artemis demands the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (Anne Leone), Agamemnon’s daughter, to get the whole enterprise off to sea.
Earthy and casual may be the look but nothing’s sloppy about the cast’s indelible care with Euripides’ language (adaptation also by Altman). Moorman, particularly, wrings every ounce of sympathy, depth and miserable humanity from his guilty and tormented father figure while never casting doubt on his position as commander-in-chief of Greece’s forces. Partnered with a rich and resonant performance by Barbara Figgins as Clytemnestra, Moorman holds the dramatic space through which Euripides savages dubious religion, the insanity of war and the dangerous power of demagoguery—political concerns of an Athens demoralized by the Peloponnesian War 2500 years ago, still finding their resilient parallel today.
While most of Altman’s younger cast members securely back up the principal leads, Iphigeneia’s shrill desperate pleas to Agamemnon’s for mercy doesn’t allow much play or range. Of course, the girl’s about to die, yet Leone needs to find the nuance of Iphigeneia’s mental state to make her anguish more watchable and compelling.
Neither does Iphigeneia’s sudden 180-degree turn toward being the willing victim convince–and for this play, it very badly needs to. Euripides makes a habit of putting his characters through 180-degree turns. He assigns several to other characters in this play alone. It almost seems like a perverse test for the actor, to instantaneously supply their character with psychological veracity in absolute contradiction to what they felt a moment ago. But having begun without much depth toward losing her life, becoming the Greek’s willing sacrificial lamb also proceeds without the intense psychological subtext that makes Iphigeneia’s transformation credible.
At least the ritualistic elements of Altman’s direction, bracingly and cunning bolstered by Hamilton’s drumming and Ben Chang’s violin, close Iphigeneia in Aulis with fundamental questions about the value and purpose of faith. By accepting an absurdity—that her death will bring freedom to Greece and immortality to her–Iphigeneia is able to transcend her misery and embrace her end with serene, courageous, almost godly composure. But should such things be believed? Figgins carries the evening with her exit clouded in doubt and suspense.
All photos by Serena Valenti
Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun
Griffin Theatre presents
|No More Dead Dogs|
|Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19 | tickets: $25-$30 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)
But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher ), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.
By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.
Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.
Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online. More info at www.griffintheatre.com.
Vividly adept ensemble reveals the emptiness of beauty
|Vintage Theater Collective presents|
|Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Kelley Ristow
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 25 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
All I know about the Gods is the anguish of my own body. –Io
Nothing should come between success and the intense wisdom of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen, produced by the Vintage Theater Collective at Strawdog Theatre’s space. Taking off from Euripides’ play by the same name, Helen investigates the troubling and enigmatic power that beauty maintains over women and men, not to mention its interplay with war, fame, fate, and loss. The legendary Greek beauty whose face launched a thousand ships finds herself stuck in a three-star hotel in Egypt, transported there by the gods to wait out the end of the Trojan War–at least until her husband Menelaus arrives to take her home. Meanwhile, to fool everyone and keep the war going at Troy, the gods have replaced her with an eidolon, an ancient Greek word that means both “phantom” and “image.”
“I do worry about the world. The splitting of image from being doesn’t bode well,” says Helen (Katy Caroline Collins) to the Servant (Bergen Anderson) of the hotel who perpetually offers her manicures and facials to pass the time. To be in a desired body or not to be in one—that is the question. Director Kelly Ristow assembles an excellent and intuitively adept ensemble cast to take on McLaughlin’s heady and thoroughly philosophical script. This they achieve with a lightness and ease that, nevertheless, nails some pretty dark and powerful revelations.
Collins holds the center with her bored, frustrated, yet quintessentially entitled heroine, solidly elucidating the tendency for perfect beauty to be emptied of everything pertaining to the self, flattened to a reflective surface for the projections of others. Her Waiting for Godot-style role is vitally flanked by the vivid performances of Miriam Mintz as Io and Emily Shain as Athena. Charmingly self-effacing, Io arrives in Helen’s room after being agelessly driven across the Mediterranean by Hera’s gadfly, still recovering her woman’s body after its transformation into a cow. “It made a kind of awful sense,” she says of Zeus’ attempt to hide her from Hera through the transformation, “because it arrived at a time when my body wasn’t my own anymore.” Of being at the mercy of the gods she can only surmise, “I guess I have to think of my suffering as sacred—it’s the only thing they ever gave me.”
Alternately, Athena shows up in chic black, callously glib about the Trojan War, which, as she announces to Helen, has already been over for 7 years. Humanity is a curiosity for the gods because we, unlike them, experience death. But their aspirations for the war to be a compelling spectacle were soon worn out by its boring 10-year siege of Troy. “We lost respect for you guys. You looked like a bunch of beetles scrambling around on a dung heap. When all is said and done, death is pretty boring.” To her credit, Shain blithely tosses off these lines with all the effortlessness as a socialite at a cocktail party.
If there is one snag in the fabric of McLaughlin’s script, it seems to be its over-reliance on the Servant’s storytelling to provide context for Helen’s next set of choices or emotional journey. Also, Jeff Trainor makes a terribly sympathetic war-torn Menelaus, yet his arrival in Helen’s room seems almost anti-climatic. McLaughlin has brought up and fleshed the conundrums involved over women being adored for their physical appearance–yet still having very little control or agency in their lives. She doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up what she’s plunged into. A certain form of immortality is held out to Helen but that hardly seems to compensate for the life the gods have taken from her. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next great beauty of Western culture to have independence, resourcefulness and self-possession. That would certainly be a refreshing change from her literary predecessors.
Vintage Theater Collective’s Helen continues through May 25th, with perfomances Mondays-Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 1pm. Performances are located at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway). Tickets cost $20, and are available by phone (214-725-5217) or online at vintagetheatercollective.com.
A bloody goth industrial mess
|20% Theatre Company presents|
|Electra and Orestes|
|Written by Sophocles
Adapted and Directed by Melissa Albertario
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main, Evanston (map)
through May 22 | tickets: $15-$20 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Revisions of Classical Greek drama perpetually crop up in Chicago’s theater scene—a testament to their power to reach into the core of the human psyche and provoke renewal of perspective. Emotionally impacted by the Columbine Massacres, playwright and director Melissa Albertario sees a dramatic framework in the story of Electra, addressing how youth react to violence, upheaval and emotional anguish. Unfortunately, her newly minted adaptation, Electra and Orestes, produced by Twenty Percent Theatre Company at the Evanston Arts Depot, is so premature for the stage and so rankly amateurish, it runs the danger of provoking more laughter than empathy for the plight of its title characters.
First, there’s the dialogue, which comes across more like leaden imitation than updated reinterpretation or even homage. Incorporating fragmented lyrics from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Radiohead’s “Creep” into the play’s choral sections more often than not tinges the production with unintentional silliness.
Add further the conceit that Electra (Mindy Yourokos) is a goth girl warring against her sinister mother Clytemnestra (Clarissa Yearman) and her boy-toy king Aegisthus (Don Markus), not to mention constantly assailing her conformist, goody-two-shoes sister, Chrysothemis (Jackie Normand), for accommodating them and you have a feeble attempt at trying to plaster modern domestic relationships onto an ancient epic is, well, more truly epic than the modern relationships. From the get-go, Electra and Orestes has no sense of proportion; it only follows that its characters will go on and on with their conflicts and protestations, with no sign of any editorial sense of where and when to cut.
Finally, Ashley Ann Woods’ set design looks like the goth/industrial aesthetic threw up all over stage in a desperate attempt to be gritty and hardcore. Top it off with clumsy and often needless projections and what you have is a theatrical mess.
What, then, can be salvaged from an impossibly immature production like this? Well, both Zack Meyer and Benjamin Johnson decently acquit their roles as Orestes and Pylades, respectively–even as their opening scene has them loadin’ up with guns and ammo to assail the House of Atreus. Clarissa Yearman packs some punch as good, old, wicked Clytemnestra, although she looks like Ivana Trump after the Eighties have thrown up all over her (costuming Betsey Palmer).
As for the heroine, Electra, I really wish I could say I cared about her emotional distress and compulsive tendency to engage in self-cutting—but the sluggish dialogue, the drawn out and pointless arguments with Chrysothemis and the Chorus’s ridiculous headdresses make it impossible. Nice goth gown, though. Mind if I borrow it for my next night out at Neo?
All photo by Laura Oleska
Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias
|Saint Sebastian Players presents|
|Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
at St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through May 22 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Something happens once one enters Saint Sebastian Players’ theater space at St. Bonaventure Church. First, there’s the sign over the stairs on the way down—“The best theatre in a basement in the universe.” Then, there’s the palpable hominess, the obvious, open responsiveness transmitted between audience and cast. Clearly, SSP is a theater company that has fostered a strong, grounded sense of community over its 30-year run. That they would choose to produce Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias fits their M.O. to a tee. Friendship and community that sees people through the rhythms of the years probably resonates more here in this space than any other in town and Chicago is simply full to the brim with small theaters that offer an intimate experience. But something about the gentle care Steven Walanka’s direction takes with each scene between the women of Truvy’s (Tricia Rogers) hair salon suggests the intimacy of family–or people who know and accept you better than family.
Those ladies who show up to Truvy’s are legendary: Annelle (Kaitlyn Whitebread), nervous, naïve and on the run from her criminal husband; Clairee (Deborah Rodkin), widowed and searching for a life beyond being the mayor’s wife; Shelby (Margaret Scrantom), always pushing herself past the limitations of diabetes; M’Lynn (Jill Chukerman Test), her stoutly pragmatic mother; and Ouiser (Kate O’Connor), cantankerous, idiosyncratic and unstoppable. Saint Sebastian’s cast runs the risk of having every minute of their performance gauged against the 1989 movie. Yet, they succeed in creating a genuine world of their own.
Walanka’s direction starts each scene at a comfortable, neighborly pace, which allows his actors to dip into quiet, confidential moments with each other, before building to surprise or confrontation. For the most part, the cast follows the comedy’s natural rhythms organically. The testy, if loving, relationship between Shelby and her mother, M’lynn, stretches out over years of bright hope for Shelby’s future with her new husband to dire health consequences stemming from choosing to bear a child against the advice of doctors. In the meantime, Chairee and Ouiser gamely get on each other’s nerves and Annelle goes from scared runaway to party girl to born again Christian. It’s capable, sassy Truvy that provides the safe, gossipy space that is their home away from home.
That’s not to say that SSP’s production is perfect. Opening night found a couple of actors starting cold and only warming to their parts by the second scene. Also, while a low-key approach to building relationships between these characters definitely has its pay-offs, there’s equally the danger of some scenes’ moments dragging. But, all in all, this cast projects the essence of camaraderie between women. Furthermore, Scrantom brings the right blend of independence and vulnerability distinctive to Shelby, while Chukerman Test brings her role as M’lynn home with simple and convincing interpretation of her frustration and rage over Shelby’s death, as well as her endurance. Overall, the production communicates the vitality of these characters and they communicate it to an audience that fully, wisely, appreciates its substance, as well as the laughter.
Photos by OCA Photography