Tag: Joel Ewing
The Ultimate Downer
|Strawdog Theatre presents|
|The Conquest of the South Pole|
|Written by Manfred Karge
Directed by Kimberly Senior
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 28 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
The title suggests a sprawling epic, not this intriguing 90-minute allegorical comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge (a Brecht protege who has worked for the Berliner Ensemble). A richly surreal trove, The Conquest of the South Pole is an action portrait of four unemployed workers who, vaguely sensing they’ve lost their usefulness, pass their time recreating Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the bottom of the earth.
With no glory to seek themselves, they ape a long-gone fame. (It beats playing pinball, swilling schnapps or pretending that they’re force-feeding political prisoners.) This borrowed lusters is one of many pungent ironies archly detailed in Kimberly Senior’s staging for Strawdog Theatre.
Mired in the dying industrial town of Herne, the twentysomethings congregate on their crowded tenement rooftop (evoked by Jack Magaw in a sparely neutral dormer set design). Their make-believe offers them a refuge from the bleak life of the Ruhr valley. (Envying the boredom of "unemployed millionaires," one worker comments: "They don’t even want to work. I want to, and I can’t!") Well, they’re not attacking immigrant workers like so many German skinheads.
But, far from offering an escape, their ritualized polar saga perversely mirrors their own dark plight and it’s easier to connect with Scott’s doomed expedition than Amundsen’s successful one.
Led by gruff Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the crew–skeptical Buscher (John Ferrick), mysterious Seiffert (Michael Dailey) and very married Braukmann (Tom Hickey)–are joined by the dimwitted but doglike Frankieboy (Joel Ewing), as they meticulously recreate the Norwegian’s race to the Pole, scrounging around for antarctic-ish costumes, using a laundry line as an icy landscape, rappelling across the stage, breaking into song and dance.
Inevitably the fantasy must be paid for or, as they put it, "Watch out for crevasses." Sexually confident even if strapped for funds, Slupianek seduces Brauckmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery), who’s furious that their boyish “monkey games” are keeping her husband from going to work. Buscher almost derails the pageant by demanding that they enact Scott’s doomed expedition, a reflection of failure a lot closer to their own.
Oddly, the event that renews their ardor to resume their "play" is an ugly encounter with Rudi (Anderson Lawfer), a boorish and fatuous Hitler lover and his divorced trull Rosi (Justine C. Turner); nothing could be worse than his idea of fascist pleasure.
When they finally "reach" the Pole, it’s a glorious, redeeming moment, followed all too quickly by the inevitable let-down (even a suicide). Clearly art was not enough.
In its pell-mell energy and kinetic stage pictures ”Conquest” strongly recalls past Chicago productions of English plays about bored and wasted youth–Road, Stags and Hens, Bouncers, (It also resembles Marat/Sade in its inspired yoking of an historical event with a dysfunctional present.) What’s unique to Karge’s 1986 work is the depiction of untapped ingenuity; in the desperation of the men’s elaborate theatrics, midlife crises and frenetic male-bonding, you taste the loss of so much thwarted art, squandered by hard times and bad luck.
With a translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt, the script is a volatile mix of cascading street poetry, no-nonsense confessionals, and the rigid, haunting prose of the original antarctic journals.
Unfortunately, this revival is much less thrilling than the play’s first Chicago production in 1992 by the late Famous Door Theatre. The Strawdog stage just isn’t big enough for the men to take real risks in recreating their polar hero journey. The script’s adventurous aspects get short shrift and we’re left with undiluted desperation.
Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script
|LiveWire Chicago Theater presents|
|The 13th of Paris|
|Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.
The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.
A major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.
Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.
The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336. More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.
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