Category: Barry Eitel
Tennessee Williams finds religion
|Uncovered Theatre presents|
|Sister Calling My Name|
|Written by Buzz McLaughlin
Directed by Rob Arbaugh
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 12 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Although it isn’t explicitly mentioned in their mission statement, Chicago newcomer Uncovered Theatre has a definite Christian bent. Not only does their debut production, Sister Calling My Name, dabble quite heavily in Catholicism, their list of donors reveals several Christian charities. With a city where every theatre company has their niche, it’s refreshing that Uncovered decided to cater to a Christian crowd. Sort of. Buzz McLaughlin’s Sister Calling My Name veers dangerously close to a Sunday School video with a few naughty words thrown in. While some intriguingly honest dissenting opinions are explored, they are simply cast off by the end. I think director Rob Arbaugh was aiming for contemplative but he winds up with preachy.
Let’s not forget that people are paying good money for these seats. It seems deceitful to wholeheartedly shove a worldview down their throats without fair warning, no matter if the point of view is religious, political or otherwise. This play definitely had my Catholic guilt churning. After about the third or fourth “Hail Mary” said on-stage, I felt compelled to go to confession. (I guess they got me. Well played.)
McLaughlin’s script is ripped straight out of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. A cynical young man, Michael (Luke Daigle), keys the audience into his memories, most of which concern his disabled sister, Lindsey (but here she’s severely mentally retarded, played by Katie Cheely). Empty picture frames hang from the walls. Supposedly colorful paintings are presented as stark white paper. Instead of an overbearing Southern mother, though, we get Sister Anne (Kelly Helgeson), the sister’s overseer and former flame of Michael. It’s all a bit too close to Williams’ masterpiece for comfort.
The basic premise is that Michael has crossed Lindsey out of his life for years. Lindsey becomes a successful painter yet has no one to manage the huge sums of money people are paying. Sister Anne phones up Michael to let him know the situation, telling him he has a legal obligation. He visits, sticks around, and offers plenty of thoughts regarding religion. Maybe he feels called by God. Maybe he feels an underlying desire to see his sister. Or maybe he’s hoping Sister Anne will leave the Church for him. Half of McLaughlin’s play is devoid of stakes—you’re wondering why Michael doesn’t just bolt once he finds out Sister Anne tricked him into coming out.
Even though the finale is predictable and didactic, Sister Calling My Name isn’t empty of complexity. I was worried they would equate Lindsey’s condition to possession by evil spirits, but that never happens. Lindsey’s story is pretty bleak. There’s no shying away from the real-life horrors many similarly disabled people face, which imparts some honesty to the text. And Michael raises some nagging existential questions. God, seemingly, made his life (and Lindsey’s, for that matter) awful. Why shouldn’t he hate God?
McLaughlin’s answers are unsatisfying. Instead of the touchingly sad ending of Williams’ play, this ties itself up too nicely. And Michael’s vitriolic hate for his sister rings false—his constant referring to her as “subhuman” didn’t match the rest of his character.
Daigle’s performance occasionally dips into melodrama and he can’t work out the script’s glaring holes, but he’s a decent go-between for the audience. Cheely plays Lindsey simply and honestly, carefully avoiding an offensive depiction of disability. Helgeson’s nun is great, if sometimes overly earnest.
It’d be easy to dismiss Uncovered as missionaries on a stage (most of them hail from Regent University), but I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Sister Calling My Name’s religious message doesn’t fully convey the complexities of the situation it sets up. They can leave some hard questions unanswered. That’s just how life works sometimes.
Mother Bear roars with danger
|Mortar Theatre presents|
|Written by Jayme McGhan
Directed by Jason Boat
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through June 19 | tickets: $15-$20 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
As a normal, sedan-wielding citizen, the life of a trucker has a white trash mystique for me. Rest stop showers. Knowledge of every 24-hour diner in the country. A glove compartment bulging with methamphetamines for those all-night long hauls. Yes, much of this is a big rig fantasy. But it’s a whimsy Mortar Theatre’s Mother Bear indulges in heavily. While the tone is unstable and the story questionable, Jayme McGhan’s play is a white-knuckle ride, full of scumbags. I’ve reviewed most of Mortar’s production history and Mother Bear is the most entertaining piece I’ve seen.
The world-premiere tale isn’t set on the open road, but in a tiny trucker diner in the middle of nowhere, Utah. The pancake house, run by the pictured-sweatshirt-wearing Vera (J. Kingsford Goode) is a front operation for the Disciples, a quasi-Christian mob of truckers who earn higher wages because a Disciples’ trident stamp is on their rig. They also nab a few bucks from hijacking trucks transporting drugs and arms fresh from Mexico. They are led by Mother (Jim Farrell), an unapproachable God-like figure who on some days seems like a reasonable dude, but, on others, won’t hesitate to smash a disrespectful fellow’s head into a table. A young outsider, Freely (Brian Plocharczyk), wants Mother to sign the Disciples to his new truckers’ union. Mother is plenty content with his semi-legal operation. Mother’s days are numbered, though. Spunky female trucker Delia (Maria Enriquez) looks to take down the Disciples from the inside. And Bones (Dustin Whitehead, in the most delicious performance in the piece), Mother’s amoral bodyguard, has his own loyalty issues.
McGhan can’t keep the mood of the piece stable. The first act, though there are plenty of head injuries, knives, and guns, emits a charming warmth and mostly likable, albeit rough around the edges, crew of lowlifes. This feeling flees from the second act, which takes a dark, undeserved turn. The final few scenes have more immediacy, but it comes out of nowhere. The characters unravel, all of them revealing that they are much different than what we first thought.
This makes for an interesting study of appearances vs. reality, but I don’t think that’s McGhan’s point. According to Mortar’s promotion (and their usual pick of work), Mother Bear is a social issues play which opines on the hotly-contested subject of unions. The series of twists undercut the message. I left the Athenaeum unsure of what I should be taking away. There’s no final thesis on labor relations—it’s a play about the nature of evil. This is fine, but McGhan could frame the theme better.
The performances fit right into the text. To be honest, I don’t think the world of truckers and the world of theatre intersect often, but Jason Boat’s cast is wholly authentic. Farrell’s Mother is a King Lear of the open road. There’s a welcoming twinkle in his eye, but also a repressed ferocity just waiting for the cage to be opened. Plocharczyk is a bit whiney, but it works for the oft-abused Freely. Goode’s deadpan portrayal of Vera is spot-on for a cynical diner owner/only waitress. Enriquez’s Delia is tough-as-nails and brashly sexual, except in her last scene where her bravery and dignity disappear—a disappointment. Whitehead rounds out the cast excellently. His Bones is straight out of that bar where your kind isn’t welcome.
Mother Bear pulls as much inspiration from the Bible as it does from America’s highways. It’s this oddly spiritual realm that McGhan seems to really want to explore. McGhan’s script requires re-evaluation and tightening. Boat and the cast invest so much of themselves in the world, though, McGhan’s true intent doesn’t seem so important.
Mortar Theatre’s Mother Bear continues through June 19th at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20 ($18 seniors, $15 students, $12 veterans), and can be purchased by phone (800-982-2787) or online here.
We loves you, Porgy and Bess!
|Court Theatre presents|
|Porgy and Bess|
|Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3 | tickets: $10-$55 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.
However, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.
Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.
Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.
While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”
Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.
Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.
Tragedy: a new theatrical experience
|Red Tape Theatre presents|
|Tragedy: a tragedy|
|Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $25 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.
The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?
Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.
Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.
That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.
The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.
I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.
The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?
Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough
|Strangeloop Theatre presents|
|The Maid of Orleans|
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.
With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.
Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.
I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.
A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.
In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.
The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.