Tag: John Taflan
Six Characters in Search
of an Author
Based on play by Luigi Pirandello
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.
Looks like hell to me
|The Hypocrites present|
|By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by Sean Graney
at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through July 11th | tickets: $20-$25 | more info
reviewed by Barry Eitel
In order to receive a degree in theatre at my university, every student has to take an Intro to Design class. In this class, every student had to come up with a design concept for Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spiel No Exit. And then we spent long hours drawing costume sketches and pinning together a model box. I’ve seen Sartre’s vision of hell set in a pirate-themed hotel, an emptied-out swimming pool, and an Arkansas basement (in case you’re wondering, my own stayed pretty close to the stage direction’s Second Empire-style, with a few liberties, of course). So I was pretty excited to see how a full production of the play would pan out, especially in the hands of director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites.
Featuring a massive nude statue and bright pink walls, the ridiculous design did not disappoint.
For those that weren’t in my Intro to Design class, No Exit paints a grim picture of the afterlife, where you’re locked in a garish room with people you soon learn to hate. Trapped in the tiny dwelling are the journalist Garcin (Robert McLean), the Sapphic postal-clerk Inez (Samantha Gleisten), and the coquettish Estelle (Erin Barlow). They attempt to deal with the situation, forging and shattering alliances like Dante combined with “Survivor.” They famously learn that “hell is other people.” There’s a reason existentialists aren’t known for their cheerfulness.
I got the impression that there was some environmental theatre going on here—the hot, stuffy Athenaeum studio theatre provided the audience with their own Hell. Or maybe it’s all coincidence. Even if there really was no deliberate plan to find the most uncomfortable seats possible, the Hypocrites would be smart to take responsibility. The experience definitely helps you connect to the characters.
Graney and scenic designer Tom Burch demand intense physical acting from the cast. The room is tiny and crowded with furniture and bodies. On top of all this, the whole set is on a steep rake. The design requires accuracy and focus; any sloppiness could end in making the chaos too chaotic.
McLean, Barlow, and Gleisten clamor and climb wonderfully, conquering the walls, sloped floor, and sofas. The three claw at each other in lust, anger, and desperation. More importantly, they can balance their characters’ evil qualities with vulnerability and rational thinking. Sometimes they can’t get a firm grasp on Sartre’s lyrical language. McLean is particularly guilty here, sounding wooden and dull at bits. He clearly gets the pettiness and jealousy of Garcin, though. All three add enough personal quirks and charms to make these borderline psychopaths engaging. John Taflan, clad in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, is endlessly fascinating as the valet. He’s tall, weird, and intimidating, which is what I think the Craigslist ad for a doorman in Hell would ask for.
As with most Graney productions, there are exciting conceptual impositions on the text. Many work beautifully. All of the characters carry loads of cash on their person, but, alas, money doesn’t do much for you postmortem (it seems you can either flip coins or operate the vibrating chair). There’s one wonderful moment where Estelle throws fistfuls of change out of her purse, creating visual and aural bedlam.
Other choices don’t stick as well. For example, there’s a globe-stereo-thing the valet brings in. I appreciated the soundtrack it provided (Gaga, Beach Boys, the Police), but it just sort of ended up there. Then there is the cheetah-inspired costuming that begins to appear about three-quarters through. Graney also doesn’t quite find the ending—the story resolves a bit too much for a tale of eternal woe.
Basically, the concepts behind this No Exit were way better than the ones formulated by any freshman in my class. It could’ve been the weather, but I’d like to believe it was the fiery energy and dedication of the cast and team that made that theatre so sweltering. Graney’s version of Hell is no place I’d want to be.
Cool atmosphere jilted by annoying show
|The House Theatre and AMTP* presents|
|Girls vs Boys|
|Book/lyrics by Chris Matthews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen
Music by Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen
Directed by Nathan Allen
Music directed by Ethan Deppe
At the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru May 9th | tickets: $15-$25 | more info
reviewed by Katy Walsh
Break-up vs Kill. If given the consequence-free choice, would you have the uncomfortable conversation with the pending ex or just shoot him? The House Theatre, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, presents Girls vs Boys. The lives of six teenagers unravel in a party world of drugs, alcohol, sex and guns. George wants to be cool. Casey wants to feel something. Jason wants his old girlfriend. Sam wants her brother’s respect. Kate wants Jason. Lanie wants safe sex. To get what they want, they pop Ritalin, slam beers, screw friends and fire weapons… all while singing and dancing. Girls vs Boys is “High School Musical” vs “Gossip Girl” where disputes are settled in the Wild West way.
Visual vs Audio: From the moment of arrival, the transformed Chopin Theatre is impressive. Collette Pollard has created a rock concert venue complete with mosh pit. Ticket holders are given the opportunity to join the party in the pit standing or take traditional audience seats. The band is visibly housed on the stage. The action will take place in an area extending in front of the band and encircling the pit. The ensemble will mingle with pit people during scenes. The visual is unique and the anticipation is high.
Then the music starts. The band is loud and it’s hard to hear the singing. There are two hand-held microphones shared between the six main characters. Without the hand-held ones, the entire ensemble is reliant on ear pieces that are inconsistent in volume. To compensate, some of the singing is more like screaming. The screechy tunes might not be noticeable in a rock concert but Girls vs Boys is a musical. Or is it?
Musical vs Concert: A musical is a play with songs. A concert is songs and play. Girls vs Boys is watching kids at a concert sing with the band, act impulsively and mess up their relationships. This show has a long playlist with in-between conversations that are predictable and trite. It’s similar to concert moments when the band goes unplugged with an anecdote between songs. If Girls vs Boys was all about the music, dialogue would disrupt the concert flow. Unfortunately, the tunes themselves are not memorable. Although the band jams rock, the singers project pop. The fusion is awkward. Even though the script dialogue is flawed, the excessive number of songs promotes a strong desire to return to discourse. “Say it! Don’t sing it!”
Singing vs Dancing: Girls vs Boys is more like a concert with great back-up dancers. Tommy Rapley has choreographed high energy numbers for the cast to dance their way into exhaustion. Climbing in and out of the pit, the ensemble has synchronized, gun-toting, dramatic vigor. Notably, whenever one of the guys takes drugs, their shirt comes off. It was oddly like a Public Service Announcement saying ‘don’t take drugs. They make you strip!’ The good news is the guys are ripped. The bad news is it feels like any Jason Statham movie where the weaker the script, the more he takes his shirt off. Shockingly, Girls vs Boys, shirts came off and I STILL didn’t love it!
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes included a fifteen minute delayed start and a ten minute intermission
- House’s blog entries on Girls vs Boys
- Chris Jones lists House’s 2010-2011 Season
- Girls vs Boys production photos courtesy of John Taflan.
Chess – an ’80s period piece
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
Book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice
music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Directed by Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier
Musical direction by Ryan Brewster
At No Exit Cafe, Rogers Park
Through April 25 (more info)
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
Where you’re seated in a theater often has a big impact on your perception of a show. If, as I did at opening night at Theo Ubique’s Chess, you sit far to one side of the stage, 3 feet from the amps, with a post blocking your view, you’re apt to enjoy the production rather less than if you get to sit at a front-and-center table specially reserved for you.
It’s rare that a 60-seat house has terrible seats, but this one does. The cramped cabaret set-up of No Exit Cafe assures that some people at the back will have heads blocking their view of the stage. Other lucky patrons must perch on barstools throughout the performance. As there are no reserved seats for anyone short of the critic from the Chicago Tribune, plan to arrive very early for a choice of decent views, and if you want to be assured of a table, book the pre-show dinner package for $20 above the $25 ticket price.
Directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have done the best job possible in blocking the show against the handicaps of their setting, and the cast offers some first-rate performances, but from my seat this deeply flawed, overlong and dated musical perhaps seemed exceptionally askew.
A largely unmemorable mishmash of Hungarian folk music, cheesy pop, dirgelike anthems, country-style ballads and ABBA-esque tunes by that band’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyricist Tim Rice, the score originated as a concept album in 1984. Ryan Brewster‘s five-piece band and most of the singers do it full justice, but the musical style, like the Cold War plot, seems stale.
If you’ve heard of one of the songs, it’s likely to be the maudlin love song “I Know Him So Well,” which was covered by Barbra Streisand, Whitney and Cissy Houston, and most recently by Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon Susan Boyle in a TV duet with Elaine Paige, who sang it on the original concept album and in the 1986 West End production.
Produced, to mixed reception, as a largely sung-through musical on the London stage, Chess was reworked, with a new book by Richard Nelson, for Broadway. Theo Ubique uses Nelson’s script, which was supposedly made nicer to Americans and added narrative and dialogue. The West End version played three years; the New York show folded after 68 performances in 1988, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell.
The 1972 World Chess Championship match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky inspired this study in black and white, which seems less like the three-dimensional chessboard than the flat cartoon Spy vs. Spy.
We have the pure Russian chess champ, Anatoly, seeking freedom and love, and ultimately sacrificing them. The Ugly American challenger, Freddie, selfish and vain. Naive Florence, the Hungarian-refugee chess coach who fickly wavers between them, a smart woman who behaves stupidly for love. Stoic Svetlana, Anatoly’s deserted wife, seeking to regain her loveless marriage (or is it merely their revoked apartment?). The tricky Russian spy. His callous and conniving American counterpart. There are no likeable characters here.
Jeremy Trager’s Anatoly comes closest to being a real human being, with a beautiful voice to boot. As Florence, Maggie Portman brings a soulful country-western musical style and a bouncy stage presence befitting her role’s up-and-down character.
The rest are pretty much comic-book figures, though Jon B. Leen offers some subtlety and a fine voice as Anatoly’s minder, Molokov. Stephanie Herman captures cool Russian beauty as Svetlana. Courtney Crouse, as Freddie, acts the jerk well but has some problems with pitch and volume; his vocals are often swallowed by the band. Anthony Apodaca and John Taflan ham it up as Freddie’s “agent,” Walter, and the tournament Arbiter, who somehow manages to do his job without the aid of a chess clock.
The production has loads of talent, but not enough to bring this musty musical into the present. Those who sit staunchly among ABBA fans and ’80s nostalgia buffs will probably enjoy Chess more than others
NOTE: Allow time to find parking. For some performances, theater patrons may use the lot at Christian Mission Elim, 1615 W. Morse Ave.
All photos by Johnny Knight
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents:
The Glorious Ones
Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt
The Heartland Studio, home base for the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (Boho), is one of the smallest black boxes I have ever been to in Chicago. As you walk in off the street, you find yourself inside a box office not much bigger than a phone booth. Finding your seat in the theater is more like squeezing your way into a crowded elevator than getting ready to experience high art. And on Friday night, as the lights went down in that small, communal space, and the actors took to the stage to begin performing the regional premiere of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s The Glorious Ones it was the least lonely place in the world. What could be better, on a cold Chicago night, than to see a group of young, vibrant performers fill a small space with their white hot energy? This is a far from perfect production, but the dedication and energy of this vibrant cast is a treat.
Director/set designer Stephen M. Genovese has created a fine and audacious set; a blank old-world-looking wood stage dressed with simple red curtains and the occasional charmingly low tech surprise. It’s a set that screams, “Fill me! Bring the best you’ve got!” – and Mr. Genovese and his cast make a wholehearted attempt…and sometimes succeed.
The play is set in 16th century Venice, during the creation of Comedia del’ Arte. “The Glorious Ones” are a Comedia troupe, led by the pompous and egocentric Flaminio Scala (based on a real-life Comedia performer) played by Eric Damon Smith. The scenes of actual Comedia are great fun. One sketch is repeated three times, as a mapping device for what we know is going on behind the scenes. The best though, is “Armanda’s Tarantella,” slyly performed by the fearless Dana Tretta. Most of the large group scenes have merit. “Flaminio Scala’s Historical Journey to France” is a showstopper, and highlights the energy and force behind these performances that make this show worthwhile.
The thing the show is missing, and it is sorely missed, is honesty. The one-dimensional character of Flaminio Scala is prouder than proud and intensely serious. He speaks of his work with dignity and pride, and yet, seems to have no relationship with it. The man as a comedian is never explored, or even dignified with attention. In a pivotal scene, Flaminio embraces a struggling street performer (Courtney Crouse), after watching him perform, and takes him under his wing. Flaminio didactically spells out his lesson plan to build the young raw talent into his protégé. Here, Flaminio gets the opportunity to talk about his work; instead of reveling in it’s humor like a comedian, he discuses it with the wistful dreaminess of a school girl recanting her favorite lines from Twilight. Mr., Smith has the most stage time, and so bears the burden of being an example, but I assure you the lack of truth on stage was a cast-wide epidemic. From the audience, it seems that Mr. Genovese focused too intently on the larger than life aspects of the show and forgot that a show needs honesty to be relatable.
About two-thirds of the way through, Danni Smith as Coloumbina breaks the monotony of disconnected energy and hits one out of the park with “My Body Wasn’t Why,” an empowering and tear-jerking ballad about art, aging and womanhood.
Lynn Ahrens’s interesting book races through the first half of the show, asking the audience to simply accept the characters without working for it. In the second half of the show, when the action finally slows down, it is difficult to muster empathy for anyone.
The wonderful thing about it, though, is the subject matter. We are invited to experience the creation of Coloumbina, the sassy maid; Pantalone, the miserly old man; Dottore, the quack doctor, and Harlequin, the sly prankster, which is a real treat for a theater lover. Stephen Flaherty’s music is full-bodied and emotional, and paired with Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics makes for a great soundtrack. It is in this partnership that these two create strong work, but Lynn Ahrens’s book independently leaves much to be desired in terms of character development.
The thing you have to do to enjoy this show is to understand that it is not a musical comedy. It is a musical about comedy. But the entire cast invites you warmly into their view of history, and you get to see a neat, shiny version of the creation of an art form. If you are a comedy lover (who isn’t?) go see this show. It’s a musical about the creation of something really important, and it is worthy of your attention. For a theater lover, this production is a historical journey worth taking, even if there are a few unintended pratfalls along the way.