Tag: Dianna Driscoll
The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama
|LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents|
|By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26 | Tickets: $15–20 | more info
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.
Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.
It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.
Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.
Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.
The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.
Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.
Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.
Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)
There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.
While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.
Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.
If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle. The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.
Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.
Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.
Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.
In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.
Perpetuating denial through the company we keep
|the side project presents|
|People We Know|
|by Robert Tenges
directed by Adam Webster
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through June 6th | tickets: $18 | more info
reviewed by Robin Sneed
There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.
The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.
Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.
Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.
Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.
Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.
The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.
In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.
Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.
Begins brilliantly, but has incomplete finish
Trap Door Theatre presents:
12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs
| Ophelia: Do you think my heart is any lesser?
Gertrude: What do you mean?
Ophelia: For being born.
Kate Hendrickson’s direction pulls out all the stops for Trap Door Theatre’s current avant-garde production, 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs. Characters emerge from and descend into black pools, suggesting just how close oblivion always is. Projection screens made up of white petticoats hung on a line, when taken down reveal an altogether different space. Musicians stationed in various locations suggest angels, as well as prostitutes, waiting their turn. Above all, rich poetic language and original songs create a potent atmosphere that may carry the production long past the point when characters’ psychological motivations fall short of the play’s premise.
After floating for centuries, Ophelia (Mildred Marie Langford) emerges in Appalachia, reborn from the water into a world in which Hamlet is now known as Rude Boy (Kevin Lucero Less); Gertrude (Joslyn Jones) runs a brothel; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, simply known as R (Jen Ellison) and G (Casey Chapman), are the brothel’s lackeys; and Horatio, now known as H (Noah Durham), spars with Rude Boy in daily camaraderie. It is a world in which Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet seem to have a second chance at love. But there are times when Caridad Svich’s reworking seems so far from the original, the two only connect superficially.
For one thing, Langford and Jones exude natural power in their acting. For another, their Ophelia and Gertrude, respectively, are not the weak, timid, easily manipulated women of Shakespeare’s work. As much as one appreciates the tremendous beauty in their strength, what should their characters’ former lives be to them or to us, if all resemblance breaks with the past? Svich’s Ophelia remembers her former life. “I left everyone unblessed,” she recalls of her suicide. Yet her ability to relish her robust sexual appetites and her outright pursuit of Rude Boy/Hamlet bear no relation to Shakespeare.
The only characters with any clear correspondence to their pasts are R and G, with memory so retained in their present consciousness, they recite Ophelia and Hamlet’s lines in parody before the newly reborn Ophelia. The commentary and interplay between R and G is probably the strongest feature of Svich’s work. Their foolery during the song “Lonesome Child,” which takes place opposite of Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet’s lovemaking, is delightfully inspired.
Sadly, Rude Boy may be the most underdeveloped character of the play. The most layered, erudite, and mercurial protagonist in Shakespeare’s pantheon is reworked with utter and brutal reductionism here. Gone is the princely state and Renaissance learning—Svich’s Rude Boy/Hamlet is little more than a womanizing thug. His final battle with H is an indulgent act of self-immolation; his eventual rejection by Ophelia reduces him to a pathetic, slobbering mass. About their former romance, Ophelia dismisses him with, “You were just a rude boy.” It’s a line that utterly breaks with Shakespeare’s realized creation. This abridged Rude Boy/Hamlet stacks the deck and buys this Ophelia’s empowerment on the cheap.
Amidst lush poetry, it’s this dramatic shallowness that belies Svich’s shortcomings. At least in this work, Svich shows greater psychological depth in conveying the state of loss and brokenness, rather than any true hope of recovery from it. Even R and G’s repeated commentary, “The crushed come back—there is no mending here,” loses all dramatic tension to become disproved. Some may revel in that kind of pre-scripted fatalism, but others may wonder what spending 90 minutes with this work was all about, if there was never any hope for healing and love. In spite of the cast’s talents and imaginative direction, the audience may walk away feeling cheated.