Tag: Morgan Manasa
Old-fashioned thrills, new-fashioned heroines
|Babes with Blades presents|
|A Gulag Mouse|
|by Arthur M. Jolly
directed by Brian Plocharczyk
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 1st (more info)
reviewed by Paige Listerud
So much about A Gulag Mouse feels like an old-fashioned, post-World War II thriller. Showing now at Trap Door Theatre, this award-winning original play by Arthur M. Jolly is densely packed with dark suspense, non-stop tension, well-timed action scenes, and black humor precisely placed and played for all its grim power by the cast. Only . . . only . . .
Only – its story is set in the Soviet Union after WW II–perhaps not a plotline chosen for development in Hollywood during those dangerous post-war years. Only – it has an all-women cast, trained by the intrepid Babes With Blades, the production company that “showcases the strength, vitality, and proficiency of women in the art of stage combat.” Yet another reason why this story would not have come out of Hollywood after the Second World War. With the war over and men coming home, media moguls in America quickly shifted film and television iconography from Rosie the Riveter, and other powerful women’s roles, into the docile, domestic goddesses of the 1950s–something to think about, as you gaze at the Russian versions of Rosie smiling from the period Soviet posters integrated into the set design (Jeff Lisse).
Playwright Arthur M. Jolly won the Joining Sword and Pen 2009-2010 competition for this work, an award sponsored by Babes With Blades to generate good, solid playwriting for fighting women actors. BWB also workshops with its playwrights to achieve the right balance of drama with action and Managing Director Amy Harmon, who plays the role of Masha, informs me that playwriting quality has definitely gone up since they first held the competition in 2005-2006.
The playwriting shows real quality. It’s still a dark, noir-ish thriller, but it’s a thriller with a brain, showing historical and cultural sophistication. Its language leans toward the melodramatic side, but so does a lot of that old thriller stuff, and the cast, wisely, does not over play it.
The young, beautiful, terrified Anastasia (Gillian Humiston) waits on a Moscow street for her husband Evgeny (Dustin Spence) to return from his service at the Eastern Front after the war. We soon learn the reason for her terror. Evgeny’s sadistic nature and abusive relationship with his young wife quickly reveals itself–exacerbated, undoubtedly, by the horrors he has had to survive. Svetlana kills Evgeny with the knife she has brought with her, but that simply propels her into the Siberian Gulag, where she faces greater dangers from her fellow female inmates.
The story shifts back and forth from mental to physical fights for survival between the women prisoners. But this is no Co-ed Soviet Prison Sluts. Both playwright and production take their subject very seriously, although there’s still honest fun to be had watching women battle each other. Overall, there’s an artistic cohesiveness to the storytelling that seemed lacking in the last Babes With Blades production I critiqued. Director Brian Plocharcyk keeps a sharp pace with the cast, so there’s never a dull moment from dramatic scenes to fight scenes. Blocking alone informs so much of the characterization here, whether an inmate strolls arrogantly to the center of the stage or cringes defensively in a bunk.
Fight choreography (David Woolley and Libby Beyreis) also serves to inform the audience about a character, crafted to exhibit a woman prisoner’s willingness or reluctance to engage her opponents. Woolley and Beyreis do a lot with the limitations of Trap Door Theatre’s space—they go almost unnoticed in the course of the storytelling. Lighting (Leigh Barrett) and sound design (Adam Smith) add tension to the story and reveal its poignancy.
Babes With Blades is close, so close, to having it all come together perfectly. There’s still some unevenness in the casting and a bit of woodenness in the acting. All these fierce women actors need is just a little more technique to sharpen the spontaneity of their performances and they would have a devastating production on their hands. Powerful women actors in powerful roles doing physically powerful things on stage—it’s almost all there. And what is there, while not perfect, is definitely worth seeing. So whether you want to support the Babes in their endeavors or you’re just looking for a smart, thrilling ride, A Gulag Mouse will not disappoint.
A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point
Point of Contention Theatre presents:
reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.
Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.
This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.
Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.
Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.
Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.
Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.
Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.
Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.
A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.
This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.
As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.
Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.
“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.
Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s
“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”
Point of Contention Theatre presents:
The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret
Review by Paige Listerud
This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.
Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.
Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.
Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.
As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?
One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.
Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.