Category: 2011 Reviews
Cirque’s ‘Dralion’ a visual feast but lacks thematic arch
|Cirque du Soleil presents|
|Guided by Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix
Directed by Guy Caron
Music composed by Violaine Corradi
at Sears Centre, Hoffman Estates (map)
through Jan 30 | tickets: $33-$100 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Now the definition of circus in the 21st-century, Cirque du Soleil has brought millions of smiles and awe-struck looks to millions of faces. For a few nights, their 11-year-old tour of Dralion shacks up at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates before embarking on the rest of the continent. Its name coming from a mash-up of “dragon” and “lion,” this classic in the Cirque lineup touts a combination of Western and Eastern cultures. The acts are pulled from across the globe, with clowns from South America, dancers from Africa, and acrobats from the Far East. It’s a fascinating, eye-catching medley of cross-cultural pollination, and there is a lot of magic at work.
For a group known for their conceptual wizardry and honest performances, however, Dralion comes across shallow. The concession stand is open the entire show. If you leave for a hot dog at any point, sure, you might miss some stunning performances, but you wouldn’t be totally lost upon reentry (did I mention that there’s free refills on popcorn and pop?!?) Dralion would be better if it forced the audience to follow, instead of being a take-what-you-want of visual delights.
Director Guy Caron claims the show is inspired by Eastern philosophies, especially a sense of connection with nature. To be honest, I didn’t see any driving philosophy working behind-the-scenes. The four elements fire, water, earth, and wind are personified, but there isn’t any sense of journey or character ever.
It’s a shame, because Dralion contains some haunting moments. Amanda Orozco and Lorant Markocsany perform a beautiful and heart-wrenching aerial pas de deux on rich, blue silks in the second act. The ballet-like grace of the two puts one in a trance. Directly following, a large group of performers float around in a high-flying dance. Shrouded in shadow, the stage looks like a home to ghosts. Both moments take your breath away, leaving you hanging on every muscle movement.
Other times are less exciting. Three multi-lingual clowns speckle the show with a few skits here and there. Juan Carlos Bratoz, Michael Edward Hughes, and Christopher Neiman’s brand of comedy is very broad and feels forced at times, especially a bit with a fake hairpiece. The comic breaks seem like interruption.
Many of the show’s light-hearted moments really shine, too – like the chaotic hoop diving or the double-dutch insanity of the final act (see video above). Another astounding part is the bouncy antics of the trampoline jumpers, who literally bounce off the walls.
The ever-pounding orchestra, led by Stephen Poulin, gives the performers all the aural inspiration they need. The score focuses heavily on Eastern rhythms and massive amounts of percussion, but also pulls from classic rock and new age stylings. Agnes Sohier and Cristian Zabala lend their gorgeous voices and foreign tongues. For Cirque, the music score is almost as important as the visuals. The attention to music direction and choreography ensure a dazzling, multi-sensory experience.
Nowadays, Cirque seems most concerned with tacking their shows onto the legends of superstar musicians, with Viva Elvis playing in Vegas and a Michael Jackson-inspired extravaganza in the works. Considering this trajectory, it’s nice to see one of the original innovative shows that propelled Cirque into the common conscience. There’s a zippy, wait-till-ya-see-this energy to the piece.
Judging from the empty rows at the Sears Centre, though, it seems like Cirque will have to keep evolving to keep audiences. The separate acts are truly amazing—Dralion really nailed down a winning cast. But the conceptual glue requires review. The show needs to dive deeper and more strongly connect to its fundamental ethos. Dralion’s biggest failing is that – possessing a more consistent, cognizant thematic arch – it could be even more remarkable and relatable. Then it would really be worth the ticket price.
Flight and fright in a Roman hotel
|Next Theatre presents|
|Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Feb 20 | tickets: $25-$40 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Now in an absorbing but ultimately frustrating Midwest premiere, J.T. Rogers’ 2004 puzzle play employs three characters who deliver concurrent confessions in the same stripped-down hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. They speak from different times and the subject of their unmotivated outpourings gradually becomes the strange vanishing of Gideon. A scion of wealth and privilege, this attractive young man went to Madagascar on a mission that may have ended in disappearance or death.
The testimony is supplied by Lilllian (Carmen Roman), Gideon’s wealthy and detached mother; Gideon’s sister June (Cora Vander Broek), now working as a tour guide for the ancient ruins, and Lillian’s adulterous lover Nathan (Mark Weber), who is also an economist like the boy’s now-dead dad.
As they give themselves away, they provide clues about Gideon, an enigmatic beauty who seems to have been altogether too sensitive to the world’s wrongs; especially his mother’s coldness to him and warmth to Nathan.
Gideon’s discovery that his life was built on a lie (about his mother’s fidelity, his sister’s affection, Nathan’s loyalty to his father, or some schoolgirls recently raped in Africa?) seems to unhinge him and sets in motion a train of tragedies. Why is he so upset? “Because people just can’t be trusted!” and his mother is “selfish” and “grotesque.” Gideon sounds like a poor man’s Hamlet.
Sean Mallary’s lighting changes and the choreographed confessions blocked in Kimberly Senior’s staging keep the clue-mongering fluid and forceful. The play repeatedly raises the fascinating question of why some driven people all but will themselves to be missing persons. Do we have the right to disappear? Or do we owe it to others to keep our identity intact, however wrong it feels within?
Still, there’s too much deliberate or perverse mystery-mangling in this torturous witness to an escape that remains maddeningly evasive. There are too many blanks for the audience to fill in without finally feeling that the playwright hasn’t played fair with the facts.
Roman brings magisterial command to this ultimately devastated mother. Vander Broek’s questing sister, Gideon’s fraternal twin, gives us a refracted portrait of her brother. Weber’s Nathan supplies metaphors from micro-economics that shed a little light on the motivations or mentality of the missing Gideon.
If only this complex kid had appeared, we’d get some closure or at least an illusion of completion. But if you like to spend two hours not solving a missing person’s case, Madagascar is your ticket to nowhere.
The once-in-a-lifetime chance at pure love
|A Red Orchid Theatre presents|
|The New Electric Ballroom|
|Written by Enda Walsh
Directed by Robin Witt
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through March 6 | tickets: $25-$30 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
“Stamped by story, aren’t we Patsy?”
To attend A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of The New Electric Ballroom is to feel Enda Walsh’s sea of language wash over you, wave upon wave, repetitive yet morphing into new constructions, building to exhilarating maximum impact, then receding to leave an inconspicuously altered shore. Here, within the borders of this abstract play, language is king. Words–“idle words, as if there could be anything idle about them,” says Breda—and stories continuously retold, mark and mold each character by repetition as constant as the monotonous, everyday routines that support and curtail daily life. Clara (Laurie Larson), Breda (Kate Buddeke), and Ada (Kirsten Fitzgerald) are like Three Sisters without a Moscow to which to escape or dream of escape. What they have are Clara and Breda’s stories, which Ada directs them to tell over and over again.
If life in their coastal Irish town is bleak, then so, ultimately are Clara and Breda’s tales of young, hopeful love, crushed by betrayal and lost chances. Only Patsy (Guy Van Swearingen), the fisherman, disturbs their telling by his regular and comic fish deliveries. But Patsy himself is haunted by his dull, meaningless routine, imagining that even the seagulls inquire of him: “What is the purpose of you, Patsy?” Walsh owes an immense debt to Samuel Beckett, yet he manages to construct yet another level of existential drama onto Beckett’s cathedral.
Now all that director Robin Witt requires is an acting ensemble of steel to carry and drive the weight of Walsh’s language—and to have fun with it. She has that witty, mature, and polished ensemble in Buddeke, Fitzgerald, Larson and Swearingen. Won’t somebody please get them Superman T-shirts to commemorate their achievement? (Although, I’m quite sure getting yourself to the show would be reward enough.) The play’s beginning is bleak, sometimes so bleak it’s comic, but the action heats up when Patsy is finally allowed into the house, where he allows himself to be transformed into the kind of crooning performer who won Clara and Breda’s hearts years before at the New Electric. The strategic ease with which the play’s atmosphere swings from oppressive melancholy to exuberant, magical fantasy attests to Witt’s mastery of the material and the cast’s ability to submit completely to the theatricality of the work.
Walsh’s surreal and existential play may not be for everyone. However, as a meditation on life’s possibilities being just as overwhelming and personally threatening as its stultifying daily grind, few other works are its equal. Ada has a chance at first love with the transformed Patsy, only to watch that chance melt away because of Patsy’s own failure of nerve. That’s an everyday story–a story that marks and molds a lot of people. A Red Orchid delivers Walsh’s heightened version of that story consummately, professionally, and superlatively. Perhaps that is all we can demand of art.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.
Holla Q Bros – ‘Funk it Up’ is da bomb!
|Chicago Shakes and Merrigong Theatre Company presents|
|Funk It Up About Nothin’|
|Adapted and Directed by JQ and GQ
at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
thru Feb 13 | tickets: $25-$30 | more info
One of our great regrets of 2008 was missing Funk It Up About Nothin’, a “hip-hoptation” of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by a pair of brothers who go by JQ and GQ. It you did likewise, we urge you to run, not walk, to get a ticket to this raptastic take on Shakespeare’s equally brilliant comedy.
Fear not if you’re someone who leans more toward classic rock than the frenzied spin of contemporary scratch ‘n burn djs or the rapid-fire beats of rappers. You definitely do not need to be a hip-hop hipster to appreciate the whipsmart wordplay and percussive joys of Funk It Up. Were Shakespeare alive, dare we say, he would surely love what the Qs have done with “Much Ado”.
The key to the piece’s success is this: The Q Brothers are all about the text. As both directors and adaptors of the piece, they demonstrate a deep understanding of it, and from that well of knowledge, they create an adaptation wherein the words bounce, ricochet, rocket, rattle and hum with all the smarts, heart and – most importantly – the wicked humor of the original. Funk It Up is an hour-long word party that remains true to its source in terms of plot, characters and tone.
The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, spits out the verbiage like master poet slammers. As MC Lady B (Beatrice), Ericka Ratcliff is all sass and strut, a ferocious wit packaged in latex, fishnets and bling, deploying more brains of a Mensa member and more crackling sex appeal than a studio full of gyrating video vixens. As Benedick, JQ swaggers like a peacock, loving the single life and bragging about the ladies with a preening vanity that doesn’t quite conceal the one-woman heart that lies beneath his rep.
One of the (many) joys of Funk It Up is the attention paid to the supporting characters. Sure they’re broad, but they are also as well-defined as the leads – right down to the bumptious groundlings.
As Lady B’s cousin Hero, Jillian Burfete makes the ingénue amusingly simple. Hero is one of Shakespeare’s flatter characters – she’s pretty, and innocent and that’s about it. Burfete uses that one-dimensionality to wonderful comic advantage, making Hero a dim but enthusiastic princess whose head is full of unicorns and rainbows and whose brow furrows with effort whenever she’s called on to understand anything involving more than, oh, two syllables.
GQ is a hoot as the bastard brother Don John, whose clarion call to funk up Hero’s wedding is absolutely infectious. He’s also a terrific Sheriff Dingleberry, “part pimp, part police”, and part “Shaft” homage. As Claudio, Jackson Doran gives the feckless youth the demeanor of an earnest frat boy. And Postell Pringle is utterly riotous as the prince Don Pedro and as Dingleberry’s flamingly flamboyant lieutenant.
In all, Funk It Up is electric, an hour-long onslaught that combines the best parts of a grooving concert, a rip-roaring good story and a night bopping at the clubs. And as the dj who provides the electronic foundation of all the cunning linguistic gymnastics, Adrienne Sanchez brings the noise and the funk, ensuring that the beat goes on throughout the merry war of words.
All photos by John W. Sisson Jr.
Sheriffs! Bandits! Damsels! Passion! What’s not to love?
|Lyric Opera of Chicago presents|
|The Girl of the Golden West|
|Composed by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civini
Directed by Vincent Liotta
at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
through Feb 21 | tickets: $56-$217 | more info
Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
I love a good Western. That may come as a surprise to some but maybe more of a surprise is the idea of a great Western opera – in Italian. Giacomo Puccini’s fascination with the American West is gloriously displayed in the Lyric Opera production of La Fanciulla Del West (or The Girl Of The Golden West). My dad used to call Westerns ‘horse operas’ because of all of the drama, brawling, greed, and damsels in distress. Luckily for us, Puccini’s Minnie is no mere damsel-in-distress when embodied by the fabulous soprano Deborah Voight.
Ms. Voight emanates strength with a healthy dose of ‘don’t mess with me’, making one of the great entrances in an opera – shooting off two rounds from her pistol to break up a fracas at the Polka saloon. Puccini’s interest in the “Wild West” was piqued by the European tours of the Buffalo Bill Western shows that included sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The deal was sealed, then, when – on a visit to New York – Puccini attended the Broadway play Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco.
Ms. Voight’s Minnie has just enough brass and fire to play with the boys and fend off the lascivious charm of the sheriff Jack Rance, played by baritone Marco Vratogna. Mr. Vratogna’s baritone is sexy and sinister. Rance is a sheriff and a gambler who thinks he has a direct line on Minnie’s virtue. Vratogna channels the great Yul Brynner with a shaved head and piercing intense gaze. I wondered if Brynner had modeled his Gunslinger on Jack Rance in the 1973 science fiction Western “Westworld”.
In every Western there must be an outlaw, especially if the bad guy is a smoldering misunderstood one. Enter the great tenor Marcello Giordani as Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson the hunted leader of a murderous gang of thieves out to steal the gold from this mining backwater.
Mr. Giordani has a gorgeous voice with velvety tones that never border on the strident or maudlin. He is a wonderful counterpoint to Ms. Voight’s powerful and clear soprano. Their acting is top notch in portraying two thunderstruck lovers. Voight’s bedroom eyes and womanly countenance enhance her performance. Meanwhile Giordani is quite entrancing and smoldering as her true love enraptured at the thought of one kiss from Minnie.
Mr. Vratogna (Sheriff Rance) and Ms. Voight have an excellent chemistry as well. Sheriff Rance’s intentions are less than honorable. He has a wife and Minnie is more of a trophy to be captured. There is a tense scene with Rance trying to force himself on Minnie and Ms. Voight’s portrayal is explosive in rebuffing him.
The supporting cast of “Fanciulla” is a combination of wonderful voices and fine acting. David Cangelosi is excellent as Nick the Polka bartender. He is a perfect comic relief as he pits the miners against one another in thinking they are at the top of the list for Minnie’s affections. Craig Irvin has a beautiful voice and excellent stage presence as Ashby the Wells Fargo man. I loved the portrayal of Sonora by the baritone Daniel Sutin. He has an exceptionally expressive visage to accompany the voice.
Puccini was my first exposure to opera with a Lyric production of La Boheme back in the 1970’s. His sense of theatre and drama are incomparable. He composed the lush and sweeping tragedies Tosca (recently produced at Lyric ★★★½) and Madama Butterfly. His works infuse humor, irony, and a wonderful sexiness to his characters for which I am grateful. He consistently wrote wonderful roles for women in particular. In “Fanciulla”, the role of Minnie is the only major female among at least forty men on the stage. It’s a powerhouse role to be undertaken by only the best and that is Deborah Voight.
In my opinion, Puccini is the greatest theatrical composer history in history, and many have given homage or outright plagiarized his work. The Puccini estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber over blatant lifts from “Fanciulla” in his version of The Phantom of The Opera – and the estate basically won, as Webber settled out of court. I also feel that Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer owe a debt to Puccini for the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers score as well. Puccini’s rich and sweeping washes of sound are perfect for the Technicolor epics of John Ford and Stanley Donen, and – had Puccini he lived further into the 20th century – he may have been witness to his influence on the American film soundtrack in Douglas Sirk melodramas and film noir classics.
The conductor for the evening was Sir Andrew Davis, who led the orchestra with command and joyful gusto. He has such joy for the music and that translates into an overall beautiful production. The Lyric is also gifted with the legendary Harold Prince as the original producer of “Fanciulla” in 1978 in Chicago. The director Vincent Liotta previously worked with Mr. Prince and has once again directed an excellent production.
Take the time to get acquainted with the treasure that is Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This is theatre and music that has persevered because of its beauty and soul-touching quality. It’s a chance to get dressed nice, put on your Sunday manners, and sit in one of the world’s great opera houses. Brava! Bravo! Te amo Maestro Puccini!
An exciting introduction to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’
|Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents|
|Short Shakespeare! Macbeth|
|Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by David H. Bell
at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
through March 5 | tickets: $16-$20 | more info
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
Ambition. Paranoia. Revenge. Political desires lead to a spiral of destruction and death. Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, a 75-minute adaptation of the Shakespearean classic. A witch predicts Macbeth will be Thane then King. She also predicts Banquo’s sons will be King. Macbeth shares the prophesies with his wife. Lady Macbeth concocts a plan to expedite the process by murdering the current King and framing his staff. The Macbeths murder for the crown. A killing spree ensues to ensure retention of the throne. Although the power-hungry Macbeths are never satiated, their evil acts begin to gnaw at their sanity. Victim apparitions and bloody hallucinations plague their grip on reality. Short Shakespeare! Macbeth is a riveting adaptation with killer visual effects.
Under the adaptation and direction of David Bell, Short Shakespeare! Macbeth detonates from lights up. The talented and ever-moving 14-member cast enters and exits with a frantic urgency. This enthralling pace is enhanced by drumming and flashing lights. The fight scenes are dangerously authentic. The physicality is a choreographed murderous masterpiece. The majority of the cast is clad in black fatigue-like uniforms with boots. Their look, by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, contrasts with the beautiful, oversized red silk tarp used effectively as a versatile utilitarian prop. The spectacle is a dark, bloody stunner. The entire ensemble delivers the action and verse with passionate perfection. Without leaving the stage, several performers morph into other roles with a minor clothing and major personality adjustment. Dorcas Sowunmi (Witch/Lady MacDuff) hexes with a supernatural presence and then transforms into haunting mortal fatality. Some other standouts, Lesley Bevan (Lady Macbeth) is insanely poignant. Mark L. Montgomery (Macbeth) slaughters with masculine intensity. Bernard Balbot (Porter) drinks up the comedy relief.
The ‘Shorts’ series purpose is to introduce adults and young people to classics. Having seen a three hour version of Macbeth a few months ago, Short Shakespeare! Macbeth is definitely an abbreviated, concentrated alternative. Before the show begins, one of the actors introduces the style of the Shakespearean prose. His shared analogy is imagining the verse like ‘listening to a new song.’ The newness requires time to begin to understand the words. Following the opening show, a fifteen minute Q&A was held with the entire cast and audience. It was another way to break down the mystique of Shakespeare’s works. For Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, I was joined by two young people. The fast-paced action kept their interest. Except for few points of clarity, the ten year old understood the basic storyline. In fact, she was intrigued to ‘see the movie’ or ‘read the book.’ The eight year old was confused but enjoyed the live theatrical experience. In their own words…
Dominque (10 years old): ‘good, non-fiction, real life,’ Kaleb (8 years old): ‘fantastic, realistic, cast is great’ and Lashawnda: ‘visual, choreography, understandable.’
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
What happens when the Peanuts gang grows up? It’s not pretty.
|Epic Theatre presents|
|Dog Sees God: Confessions of Teenage Blockhead|
|Written by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Scott Adam Johnston & William Hasty
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 21 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
A play about the “Peanuts” gang as teenagers navigating a contemporary high school setting is ripe with potential. I love seeing beloved characters thrown into unfamiliar environments; Sondheim does it with Into The Woods; Julie Taymor is currently trying with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Unfortunately Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is more the latter than the former, a misguided mess that takes everything lovable Schultz’s characters and degrades it in a wave of sex, drugs, and utter stupidity. Leaving Epic Theatre’s production, I would have guessed the script was still a first draft, but Dog Sees God has played off-Broadway, with some pretty big names in the cast, too. Apparently the public’s morbid curiosity with seeing childhood icons disgraced is higher than I thought.
Dog Sees God begins with CB (Fred Geyer) writing a letter to an undisclosed pen pal, mourning the loss of his beagle after it contracted rabies and killed the little yellow bird that was always around it. Yeah, Snoopy ate Woodstock. It gets much, much worse. After holding a funeral that no one but his sister (Miriam Reuter) shows up to, he ruminates about the nature of life and death with his friend Van (Jason Nelson), a stoner version of Linus that smokes his blanket after his sister and CB burn it. Then we’re introduced to Matt (Matt Hays) the germaphobe, homophobe future version of Pig Pen who does coke before class and gets his kicks by bullying Beethoven (Greg Brew), an alienated Schroeder whose father molested him as a child. Peppermint Patty and Marcie are Tricia (Ashley Preston) and Marcy (Lauren Bourke), stereotypical high school mean girls that sip vodka out of milk cartons while discussing new ways to demean themselves and others. The gang is rounded out by Van’s sister (Nicole Carter), an institutionalized, pyromaniac Lucy who was thrown in an asylum after burning the Little Red-Haired Girl’s curly locks. There they are, the bastardized future selves of the Peanuts gang.
Royal’s script is so cliché-filled that it’s almost as if he were given a list of stereotypical characters and situations in a high school environment. Drinking and drug abuse, abortion, molestation, suicide, bullying, prejudiced jocks, bitchy blondes, the talented, tortured quiet boy…the list goes on and on. The hodgepodge of issues makes the play a disorganized mess, and things happen so quickly that nothing is given time to actually have any sort of emotional gravity. CB kisses Beethoven at a party, and he is immediately ready to accept a homosexual identity because it’s convenient to the story Royal is trying to tell. Who care if it’s completely unrealistic? The entire play is built around bizarre developments, from a completely unnecessary rap interlude by Marcy to everyone’s irrational fear of a “gay disease.” Was this written in 1972? Nope. 2004. In the end, the play’s anti-bullying message comes across as trite, a tacked on epilogue to make the play feel relevant despite the archaic views it presents.
The shameful thing is that there are good actors underneath some of these characters. Geyer, despite being a little too mousy to be one of the “cool kids,” tries to create legitimate conflict in CB although the script is constantly working against him. His first scene with Beethoven is even above average, giving their relationship some believability that will, of course, be completely compromised later. As CB’s sister, Reuter has some strong moments, surprisingly when she performs her one woman show “Cocooning Into Platypus,” which is the kind of juvenile theater piece a high school goth would write. But this isn’t a high school play, this is professional theater with paying patrons, and they shouldn’t have to sit and watch derivative scene after derivative scene.
As messy as the script is, the direction from Johnston and Hasty only serves to muddle up the production further. During the party scene, six actors are all crammed onto one platform, attempting to create the illusion of a crowded party but mostly just looking uncomfortable. One of the play’s most important moments happens during this scene, but the poor blocking takes away its resonance. The production values are minimal, from the sloppy set to the limited lighting and sound that make the show feel incomplete to a large degree.
From the script to the staging, Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is like Charlie Brown and the football. It keeps on kicking, and it keeps on missing. Glorified fan-fiction at its best, low-grade smut at its worst, this play goes against everything Schultz’s characters stand for. The play ends with an attempt to honor the “Peanuts” creator, but after 90 minutes of watching Charlie Brown and his friends humiliate themselves, it’s just offensive.
Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results
|Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents|
|A Doll’s House|
|Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Chris Maher
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.
Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.
Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.
If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.
It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.
As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.
But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.
A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)
Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.
The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson
Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).