Tag: Jessica Hutchinson
Struggling to save the corporate soul
|New Leaf Theatre presents|
|Written by Bilal Dardai
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
at Rocco Ranalli’s Pizzeria, 1925 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 19 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
A distinctly Eighties vibe pervades New Leaf Theatre’s production, Redeemers — and it’s not just that Pat King, who plays Nick, resembles a young James Spader both in looks and acting style. Directed by Jessica Hutchinson and set in the warm, casual and seasonally festooned environs of Rocco Ranallli’s back dining room, Redeemers revisits class warfare in the same way Eighties Brat Pack films explored them—as if some black and white lesson in morality could be drawn from the conflict.
Nick, Mercy (Marsha Harman) and Abel (Joel Ewing) all work for Charles Edwin of Edwin Financial, then meet at their favorite watering hole each evening to rehash their existence under Mr. Edwin’s rule. Playwright Bilal Dardai gives these characters a sharp, witty and convincingly incestuous rapport while King, Harman and Ewing mark their territory at Ranalli’s with their tight, responsive and slightly sinister threesome. One never questions that they have known each other for years and can map each other’s moods by the stalling tactics they engage in or from the drinks they order. Over time, one silently asks what draws these three together besides shared history or a mutual workplace.
But never mind about that now. Charles Edwin dominates all their thoughts. His role in their lives infects even happy hour, when they might truly desire a break from the boss. Fine enough that they should grouse about Mr. Edwin when he was a tyrant, but a sudden change of heart—literally a double-bypass surgery—transforms him into the noble, fair and generous employer of Charles Dicken’s dreams. All of which strikes the threesome with incredulity and is simply too much for Nick, for one, to take. He masterminds with Mercy and Abel a series of relentless pranks meant to test Mr. Edwin just to see how far his personal reformation endures.
Sadly, the play suffers from the very thing it is founded upon—storytelling style theater. The most significant events have already occurred and must be related to the audience through the obviously suspect threesome. The cast is smart, charming and play their roles to second-skin perfection but the storytelling style inevitably dampens emotional immediacy. Even Nick’s obsession with Mr. Edwin loses tension because he must always be spoken of in the past tense. Even the jokes scripted to make fun of the style cannot relieve its subtly annoying impact. The only segment that doesn’t suffer is Abel’s tragic childhood account regarding his father.
New Leaf has engaged Dardai’s script with thoroughly professional talent to make it present; its crackling dialogue alone indicates the emergence of a promising new playwright that should be watched. However Redeemer’s wrap-up is as paper thin, implausible and morally simplistic as the Eighties films mentioned above. Tyrant or reformed saint, one has the boss one has and acquiesces to that arrangement as part of the cost of accepting the hierarchy of corporate life. Or one joins a commune or a co-operatively owned business—a choice that these cynical three, no doubt, would mercilessly ridicule over a scotch and soda.
Assistant Director: Josh Sobel
Production Manager: Marni Keenan
Stage Manager: Tara Malpass
Dramaturg: Emily Dendinger
Environment Design: Michelle Lilly
Sound & Projections Design: Nick Keenan
Costume Design: Rachel Sypniewski
Thursday, September 2nd
|LiveWire Chicago Theatre
Written by Emily Dendinger
At the DCA Storefront Theater
66 E Randolph, Chicago
Enjoy the world premiere production of Hideous Progeny then join LiveWire Chicago and the Progeny creative team for a post-show discussion on the mezzanine of the Storefront Theater for tea and desserts. It was a dark and stormy night in a house by the lake, when Mary Shelley famously took up her host Lord Byron’s challenge to write a terrifying story and created Frankenstein, one of the most famous novels in the Western canon. Witty, salacious, and often melodramatic, Emily Dendinger’s world premiere play directed by Jessica Hutchinson depicts the larger than life romantic figures as the normal teenagers they were – overeducated, egotistical, and ready to change the world.
Show begins at 7:30 p.m. Event begins at 9:30 p.m.
For reservations call 312.742.8497 and mention "Theater Thursdays," or visit www.dcatheater.org.
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.
Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma
BackStage Theatre Company presents:
Orange Flower Water
reviewed by Keith Ecker
If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.
Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.
Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.
The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.
Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.
As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.
The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.
The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.
The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.
Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.