Tag: Michelle Medvin

Review: The Way West (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Zoe Perry and Gabriel Ruiz star in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere "The Way West" by Mona Mansour. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
      
The Way West

Written by Mona Mansour 
Directed by Amy Morton
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru June 8  |  tickets: $20-$78   |  more info
       
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April 26, 2014 | 0 Comments More

Review: Tribes (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Francis Guinan and Molly Regan in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre        
      
Tribes

Written by Nina Raine  
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Feb 15  |  tickets: $20-$82   |  more info
       
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December 16, 2013 | 0 Comments More

Review: The Internationalist (Steppenwolf Theatre Next Up)

Kelly O'Sullivan stars in Steppenwolf Theatre's "The Internationalist" by Anne Washburn, directed by Erin Murray. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
      
The Internationalist

Written by Anne Washburn
Directed by Erin Murray 
Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
thru June 16  |  tickets: $20   |  more info
       
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June 6, 2013 | 0 Comments More

Review: Good People (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Mariann Mayberry and Alana Arenas in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Good People by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by ensemble member K. Todd Freeman. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
       
Good People 

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire  
Directed by K. Todd Freeman
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Nov 11  |  tickets: $20-$86   |  more info
       
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September 30, 2012 | 0 Comments More

Review: Time Stands Still (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Randall Newsome as James and ensemble member Sally Murphy as Sarah in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Time Stands Still" by Donald Margulies. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)       
      
Time Stands Still 

Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru May 13  |  tickets: $20-$78   |  more info
       
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February 2, 2012 | 1 Comment More

Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     
April 14, 2011 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite

 

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
Detroit
     
Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

at Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7   |   tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and  top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.

(left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian BarfordDetroit would be a complete non-starter.

The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates.  Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.

At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson).  On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.

 (counterclockwise from upper left) – Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and  functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that  they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And  they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta”  that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s  wonderful dialogue.

The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc.  We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches -  but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good.  Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy  who is a profoundly bad influence.

As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository  monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already.  There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

        
        
September 19, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Blue Door (Victory Gardens)

biograph-marquee

Victory Gardens presents:

Blue Door

 

by Tanya Barfield
directed by Andrea J. Dymond
through February 28th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer-nominated Blue Door is mired in the heaviness of academia and leavened by the poetic treatment of events so horrific they seem to defy the very beauty inherent to poetry. That dichotomy makes for a frustrating evening at the Victory Gardens Biograph.

bluedoor On the one hand, Blue Door is a densely packed introspection into history rendered dusty dry by the cerebral self-examination of a mathematician protagonist. On the other hand, Barfield has penned a devastating, multi-dimensional drama that could be a companion piece to the photographic history of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary.”) Allen and Barfield have no connection that I know of, other than each mined art from the same harsh historical foundation. And if you’ve seen Allen’s work, you may well find it rushing up through your memory in the final, harrowing moments of Blue Door.

Those moments are tough and necessary, arriving as Ivy League math professor Lewis (Bruce A. Young) finally faces the demons that have destroyed his marriage, his career and his sense of self. In the 90 minutes leading up to that emotional breakthrough, Barfield loads her two-hander with a multi-generational litany of sorrows. Wife gone, career in tatters, Lewis finds his home filled with ghosts. Beginning before the Civil War with Lewis’ great-great grandmother and continuing through a family tree afflicted with tragic, strange fruit through decade upon decade, Lewis confronts the woes of a Job. His debilitating personal history is by no means exaggerated – click on any decent U.S. history site and you’ll find many a real-life story that’s far worse. But compressed into a one-act play, Lewis’ family feels more representative than authentic, an overwhelmingly inclusive outline rather than an organically unfolding biography.

The other crucial problem lies with the exposition. It dominates. Andrea J. Dymond’s capable direction can’t change the imbalance of explanation outweighing action. Of course, Lewis’ ghosts are storytellers, so a degree of telling is inevitable. Even so, the drama loses urgency as recitations overshadow events. That’s a shame, because those ghosts – the great-grandfather born into slavery; the hobo grandfather whose life and death call to mind both Robert Earl Hayes and Emmett Till; the alcoholic father who beats his son bloody – are fascinating both as pages from history and as personal narratives. The other man in Lewis’ long night’s journey into day is his brother Rex, a drug addict whose failures provide a telling cracked-mirror image to Lewis’ successes. Lindsay Smiling portrays all of them (as well as Lewis’ great-great grandmother and his grandmother) with vibrancy that’s electric. He’s also cringe-inducing in his pin-point portrayal of race-based humiliation.

Blue%20doo Lewis, by contrast, is problematic, especially when he gets started on subjects such as “the psychological perception of time” as it applies to higher mathematics. He’s an academic, but by having him so often speak in the ultra-erudite language of the very well educated, Barfield leaches the story of some momentum.

The incidents of racism recounted from Lewis’ life – sparking unspoken unease at an otherwise all-white at a cocktail party, an assumption by whites that he’s an expert on racial matters – seem trivial when compared to what his forebears dealt with. It’s only gradually that Barfield unveils just how scarred her protagonist has been by his family history and other peoples’ reactions to the color of his skin. “No matter how many polysyllabic words come out of your mouth, no matter how many tweed suits you wear,” there will always be people harboring the suspicion that you stole those suits, Lewis bitterly notes.

Barfield employs humor to fine effect in the catalyst of Lewis’ crisis – when a student asks a question about Heidegger, Lewis thinks he’s been called a “house nigger.” Without that element of preposterousness , the professor’s lifetime-in-the-making predicament would be almost too depressing to contemplate. But such contemplation is crucial if “Never forget, never again” is ever to be anything more than a bumper sticker. Blue Door (the title comes from the great-great grandmother’s practice of painting the door blue in order to keep night terrors out and family spirits in) opens a portal to history. If only what we glimpsed there were more dramatically resonant and less like chapters in a text-book .

Rating: ★★½

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, continues through Feb. 28 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $20 – $48. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org or call 773/871-3000.

CREATIVE TEAM
Tanya Barfield (playwright), Charlie Cooper (light design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Liviu Pasare (video projections), Judith Lundberg (costume design), Michelle Medvin (stage manager)

CAST: Bruce A. Young, Lindsay Smiling

February 17, 2010 | 0 Comments More