Friday, March 15, 2019

Review of Teatro Vista's The Abuelas

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Abuelas. It was by Stephanie Alison Walker and it was directed by Ricardo Gutiérrez. It was about a woman named Gabriela (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) who was a cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was married to a man named Marty (Nate Santana) and they have a new baby. Her mother Soledad (Katie Barberi) is in the states visiting from Argentina to look after the child since the disappearance of their nanny. And on her birthday Soledad invited her friend Cesar (Esteban Schemberg), whom she met at church, over for dinner, but Cesar does not come alone. He brings his friend Carolina (Alba Guerra) who has a great admiration for Gabriela. Many major discoveries about Gabriela's past come to light. This is a sequel to The Madres, which was produced in Teatro Vista's last season and which was moving and well-performed. The Abuelas is about trauma, heritage, and unconditional love. This show was well-made stylistically, moving, and performed beautifully.

Motherhood is a very prominent theme in this play. All of the mother characters have very different ways of going about it. For example, Soledad tries very hard to micromanage her daughter because she believes that she knows what’s best, but her own daughter, Gabriela, parents very freely--possibly because of the way that she grew up. As the play progresses, Gabriela starts to notice that she doesn’t want to be this prodigy that her mother sculpted; she wants to find herself and stop lying to herself. This storyline was very impactful and it translated into this wall of tension that added a lot to the party scene because it kept coming up and down. They wanted to click and work well together, and sometimes they did, but very quickly they were at each other's throats. The possible reason for that comes to light later in the play, but I found the mother-daughter relationship to be one of the most enthralling relationships in the play even before I knew the reason.

The ghost story in the play at first seemed very out of place. At first it was like a loose piece of string holding the two plays--The Abuelas and The Madres--together, but the revelation of who certain characters really were added a lot. The interactions with the ghost became more and more effective and emotional until it came to this great conclusion where the wall between the two worlds broke down and we got to see real interactions. Those interactions may not have really happened, but they needed to happen for the play and for Gabriela. This was emphasized by the startlingly subtle set which looked like a prison as well as Gabriela's home.

The arguments were dealt with very well in this show. They were not repetitive and each time a character would make a new discovery. The moments that were most effective for me were those between Gabriela and her husband Marty because of the moments where it would get so passionate that things would slip out. They use this method a lot in plays and sometimes it seems inorganic, but the actors here were so strong that their relationships, the argument, and their technique seemed very natural. The arguments had a very nice staggered build to them. They don't go from zero to a hundred; they build gradually up and shrink down in a believable way.

People who would like this show are people who like walls of tension, familial ghost stories, and micromanaging mothers. I think this is a very effective show. It has beautiful performances, a compelling script, and strong character relationships. Even though the story is about finding yourself, it was obvious they spent a lot of time developing the relationships between the characters. I think that people should definitely go see this show. I really liked it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Review of Broken Nose Theatre's Girl in the Red Corner

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Girl in the Red Corner. It was by Stephen Spotswood and it was directed by Elizabeth Laidlaw. Fight choreography was by John Tovar. It was about a woman named Halo (Elise Marie Davis) who had recently gotten out of a relationship and wanted to do something new for herself. She decides to take up mixed martial arts with a recovering addict, Gina (August N. Forman). While she explores this new interest, there are a lot of troubles in her family, like her teen niece's rebellion, her mother Terry's (Michelle Courvais) financial problems and drinking, and her sister Brinn (Kim Boler) and brother-in-law Warren's (Mark West) marriage. This is a well-performed, well-choreographed, well-directed, and well-written show. I have never seen anything like it before. It was thrilling and also thought-provoking. I loved it,

I enjoyed that the fights were not just to simulate violence in this show. They would illustrate internal battles. Whenever Halo is having issues within her family, it is shown as her beating up her family but not in a I-want-to kill-my-family kind of way. It was in a this-is-the-way-I-process-my-emotions kind of way. The climactic fight scene used this tactic by Halo starting to fight with one person, played by the same actor as her mother. And as it progressed, she faces other fighters, also played by the actors who played her family. She realized she had to fight her own family to resolve her own problems. It is an interesting way of taking the idea of family conflict and making it literal in a figurative setting. We can see her fighting her family, when in the reality of the show she is fighting with her MMA opponent and her understanding of her own limits. This is what makes this show different from other fighting shows. It is more focused on family and more about life than fighting, though it connects the two.

I thought it was interesting how this play seemed to be reminiscent of a person's everyday life. Scenes went in cycles: work-home-training, work-home-training. Her work is telemarketing for an internet provider, where she is harassed by people she calls. During one of these scenes Halo delivers a fantastically desperate monologue that was beautifully performed. Home--back with her indecisive, paint-shade-obsessed mother--is another load on her back each day. And training is where she can let all that go, even if it is challenging and her relationship with her trainer is at first quite tense. The cycle adds to the effect of Halo seeming like a real person, which in another wrestling show that I really like, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is not so much focused on. That play is more about the drama and the fighting and the damage. That story is more heightened, mystical, and poetic, and this one was more down-to-earth and relatable. I do like both versions of the story, but I had never seen it done in this way before so that was exciting and interesting.

People who would like this show are people who like literal family conflicts, relatable wrestling, and paint-shade-obsessed mothers. I think this is a really well-done show with great actors. It added something new to the wrestling play genre and it was very enjoyable. I really liked it.

Photos: Austin D. Oie

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review of A Doll's House, Part 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called A Doll's House, Part 2. It was by Lucas Hnath and it was directed by Robin Witt. It is the second chapter to A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. It focuses on the aftermath of Nora's (Sandra Marquez) disappearance and how it affected her husband, Torvald (Yasen Peyankov), her daughter, Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper), and her maid Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson). Nora has returned because she needs a divorce (which she thought she already had) to avoid charges of fraud. It is about coming back to your past, abandonment, and what counts as selfishness. I think this is a troubling way to look at A Doll's House and Nora's decision but it is an interesting addition to the conversation about Ibsen's play.

The audience had a different configuration than you would normally see at Steppenwolf; there were audience members on the stage. They were in groups of twelve and six, separated by railings from the stage. It reminded me of either a courthouse or opera house, jury boxes or opera boxes. If it is a courthouse, it explores the idea of the divorce as a legal proceeding and the audience as the jury judging Torvald and Nora. If it is an opera house, it is a callback to the original controversial production of A Doll's House. It was controversial because of the idea that a woman had the right to leave her husband or have a life of her own not centered around a man. You are watching the audience's reaction to the play.

In the first play, Nora leaves her kids as well as her husband, which was very controversial at the time of the the play and still today. Neither play is talking about parents leaving their children; they are only addressing mothers leaving their children. I don't think that anyone should necessarily leave their families unless it is for the greater good. But it troubles me that Nora is judged for leaving her family where a man might not be. I think the playwright is showing Nora as selfish because she is presented as a hyperfeminist crazy lady stereotype and all the other characters are trying to show her how much she hurt them. That makes the audience lose sight of what may have been Torvald's faults. She had to abandon her children to have a fulfilling life, but it is the fault of society not her. Society at that time said that if you are a woman you can have children and take care of them and be a housewife or you can be a woman who never settles down and has a career. Now if a woman says they want kids and a career, they just have to do both. Men have always been able to do both, but it is harder for mothers (because they are traditionally asked to do the bulk of the actual parenting) and women in the workplace (because they don't get paid as much, are harassed more, and usually don't get as many promotions and job offers because of their gender). Society doesn't say that women can't have children and a job anymore, but the truth of it is that it is going to be more difficult in both areas for a woman.

My issue with this show is that it doesn't seem to have a lot of heart. It seems almost to be an essay on stage. It seemed to be people talking, not people living or feeling. I know that all of these actors are phenomenal, and they can show you a lot of range of emotion, but I didn't see that much in this case so I assume that might be on purpose. The stage was also undecorated, besides a box of kleenex and bottles of water, which makes it seem unrealistic, which gives the play a general feeling. It doesn't set a tone or specify time or place. It is sort of a blank canvass that the story doesn't fill because it doesn't seem like much of a story. It seems more like a collection of statements.

People who would like this show are people who like revisiting old work, thinking about how "the place of a woman" has changed and not changed over time, and kleenex. I think this type of show would appeal to people who like less active theater that is thought-provoking rather than emotion-provoking.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review of Red Tape Theatre's In the Blood

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called In the Blood. It was written by Suzan-Lori Parks and it was directed by Chika Ike. It was about a woman named Hester (Jyreika Guest) who had five children who she called her treasures: Jabber (Max Thomas), Trouble (Casey Chapman), Bully (Kiayla Ryann), Beauty (Emilie Modaff), and Baby (Richard Costes). They lived together under a bridge because they could not afford a real house. Each of her children has a different father and as the play progresses we learn the true unromanticized version of how these children came to be. We meet each of the fathers, or women connected to the fathers, who are each played by the same actor as their children. I think this is a really impactful, gorgeously acted play with tons of metaphors to interpret and break down. I loved it.

Hester tells her five children a story about how all of them came to be. It was about how she was a beautiful princess and she had so many people who wanted to marry her that she decided to marry them all. And each of them gave her a child with a different strength and that is how she got the names for each of the children. Each of the actors did a phenomenal job distinguishing the child characters from their adult characters. They also didn't overemphasize the youth of the children. They had behaviors we see in children without making them clichés. I loved all the children, and at some points I would forget that they were played by the same people who played the adult roles because I was so immersed in the performances of the child characters. It exemplifies why Hester loves her children so much because they are so pure compared to the corrupt society around them. It feels like she has to protect them from becoming like her, and it is heartbreaking when we think that she can't.

This show is saying that in our society people are cruel to the poor even though they act like they care. The welfare woman's (Ryann) entire job was to care, but in reality she didn't. She just pretended to care because she was paid for it. She even takes advantage of Hester for her own gain. She gains pleasure, fulfillment for her husband, a relaxed back, and cheap labor on a dress. The show seems to be saying that rich and middle class people like to keep the poor at a distance so they can feel more powerful, important, and successful than others. The Reverend talks about how the world romanticizes the poor, but only the distant poor, because we want to think that the poor near us are poor because they have made wrong decisions. Hester has a lot of children, all by different fathers, and falls for people too quickly, is illiterate, and easily fooled. The point of the play is to shed light on issues like how race, sexuality, and gender relates to poverty. It is not just personal decisions that lead to poverty.

The people who are "helping" Hester manipulate Hester because they know she loves her children more than she loves herself, so they can take sexual advantage of her. Consent is especially complicated in these situations where someone is being willingly manipulated; Hester thinks that she will get what she needs for her and her family if she just does what the "nice" rich man says and doesn't question him. She is literally being f-ed over by society. It is the most visceral way to get across the notion that Hester is being taken advantage of. And a lot is added to visceral reaction by the gorgeous performance of Jyreika Guest. It beautifully combines desperation with power and generosity with pain.

People who would like this show are people who like dark metaphors, compelling child characters, and revealing hard truths. I think this show takes a really beautiful and poetic approach to a very ugly subject. It has a versatile cast, a compelling script, and focused and effective direction. I loved it.

Photos: Austin D. Oie

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of About Face Theatre's Dada Woof Papa Hot

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Dada Woof Papa Hot. It was by Peter Parnell and it was directed by Keira Fromm. It is about a gay couple in New York, Alan (Bruch Reed) and Rob (Benjamin Sprunger), who were raising their first child. Rob feels very comfortable being a parent, but Alan doesn't feel very connected to his daughter. He says he wants to find a way to make their connection stronger, but instead he mostly seems to try to find a way that it is not his fault and he doesn't have to work at it. They become friends with another couple who have just had a second child, Jason (Shane Kenyon) and Scott (Jos N. Banks). They seem to be very happy and young and put together, but end up having some darker secrets. Alan and Rob's longtime friends Michael (Keith Kupferer) and Serena (Lily Mojekwu) also are having some issues in their marriage. It's about parenthood, the meaning of unconditional love, and the complexity of relationships. I think this is a really moving show that makes you think a lot about parenting and what it means to be a good parent.

The relationships in this show are very complicated because of infidelity, differences in the preferred upbringing of children, and misconceptions about the other partner's intentions. There are infidelities in each couple with some interlocking storylines. I noticed the theme of the more committed parent staying committed to the family and not cheating, whereas the more disconnected parent seems to want to forget about responsibility, cheat, and forget they had a child in the first place. The people who are having affairs seem to be looking for people who have the same issues as them. It seems like they are looking for another parent to have an affair with, because they think they understand the issues, but that just ends up ruining more families. Not all the affairs have the same outcome. Scott has dealt with Jason's crap too much and is done with cleaning up his messes and letting him fulfill his needs elsewhere. His mistake was agreeing to have a family with this guy who didn't seem to want to have a family. Jason was very good with the kids, but after he had done what the kids needed him to do he didn't want to deal his husband's needs. He wanted to find someone who would just meet his needs, someone he can be selfish with. I feel like Scott saw a family and Jason just saw kids, which led to the end of the family. Alan and Rob also had a difficult relationship, but their contract was stricter so the affair was more of a betrayal. Because they feel their child will suffer if they split up, they decide to do what is best for the kid and in that way they end up restoring their relationship, loving each other, and finding their spark again. It is also because Alan finally realizes he needs to connect with his kid and not just make excuses. I felt less hopeful for Michael and Serena because they still don't seem to agree about parenting, babysitting, or the way their relationship should be, which is basically the core of every parenting partnership.

Society seems to think of every parenting couple as a mother and a father. Even if technically by gender both are fathers in these gay couples, I found myself thinking about the more nurturing parents as motherly, and the parents who were having a more difficult time connecting with their children as the fathers. That was definitely true about the straight couple, but I also applied it to the gay couples. Society has influenced us to think that women raise children and men provide financial support. But this play breaks those molds and shows that the most nurturing gay parent sometimes has to do both because they are the people who understand how life works and what their kids need to succeed. It is not because a parent is working outside the home that they are disconnected from their kids. In this case it is because both of the less connected parents thought they would like to have children because they were an artist and writer who like making things, but then they discover it is more than just creating and you don't have as as much creative freedom as you hoped. Both of the gay couples show two nearly opposite sides on the spectrum of adulthood. One is the nurturing breadwinner who thinks they know what they need to teach another person and make a functioning person in society. The other is a person who is focused on making a name for themselves, spontaneity, and themselves. This play made me think about the reasons people classify certain behaviors as motherly or fatherly. Nurturing and commitment should be universal parenting tools, and both parents should take responsibility to know what they are doing, no matter what their gender.

People who would like this show are people who like explorations of parenting, complicated pursuits of happiness, and beautifully acted relationships. I really liked this show. It was well-written and made me think a lot about my own unconscious prejudices and assumptions about gender, relationships, and parenthood.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review of Porchlight Music Theatre's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. The book and lyrics were by Robert L. Freedman and the music and lyrics were by Steven Lutvak. It was based on a novel by Roy Horniman. Direction was by Stephen Schellhardt, music direction was by Andra Velis Simon, and choreography was by Schellhardt and Aubrey Adams. It was about a man from a poor family named Monty (Andrés Enriquez) whose mother had recently passed away. He finds out from his mother's old friend, Miss Shingle (Caron Buinis), that he is part of the famous and wealthy D'Ysquith family. But even despite this life-changing discovery, Sibella (Emily Goldberg) would rather marry for money than love, even if Monty has a slight prospect of wealth on the horizon. So he decides to make his way to the earldom even quicker than Sibella could have killing all of his relatives in line for the title (all played by Matt Crowle). I think this play is outrageously funny, well-acted, and well written. I have a real love for this show and I was excited to see another production with a different take.

I really liked how the Monty was more sympathetic in this production than in the Broadway touring production. "Poison in My Pocket" shows his fear and guilt about killing these people, even though he might brush it away. I noticed more in this production how he was fighting for love which is the reason why he kills all these people--for the love of Phoebe (Ann Delaney) and Sibella. I feel that story was more prominent in this show rather than his own personal gain. I also noticed that Phoebe and Sibella both seem smarter than they did in the other production I saw, especially in the song "That Horrible Woman" where you get to see them manipulate, confuse, and prod people for answers, all for love, which is very similar to what Monty has done for them. It shows that they have some of the same evil genius qualities that Monty has. I thought that added an interesting extra layer to what could have been very basic traditional female characters.

Matt Crowle was very funny and portrayed each of the characters very differently but still kept the quirks that showed you they were part of the same family. One of my favorite characters in the D'Ysquith family was Henry. The song that he sings, "Better With a Man," has so many innuendos and the way that the character plays them off as the straightest encounter of all time, is simply hilarious. There was also this very grand number called "Lady Hyacinth Abroad" that was all about Monty's desperate attempts to kill this philanthropist by sending her to various dangerous countries in hopes of getting rid of her once and for all. But, sadly for Monty, she is very resilient--maybe a bit more resilient than her staff who seem to crumble under a lot of the pressure of living abroad. There is a song that perfectly encompasses the D'Ysquiths called "I Don't Understand the Poor." It is the first introduction we have to the D'Ysquiths and in talking about how inconsiderate the poor are--for being curious about what it is like to live large, being needy all the time, and suffering--he reveals himself to be a pompous ass. He also sings the entire song with a dead animal in his hands, which I think says a lot about him. Matt Crowle excelled in showing us a range of parts and personas, shifting quickly and effortlessly between them.

I usually really like large musicals in small spaces like Theo Ubique's Sweeney Todd or Kokandy's Heathers, or Porchlight's Gypsy. I really enjoyed this production, but I feel like the grand and farcical elements of the play were not as effective in this space because of the smaller scale it had to be on. This show is very funny and has a lot of great moments of physical humor, and many of them still work, like Adalbert D'Ysquith (Crowle) casually trying to put his leg up on a chair that was nowhere near his body multiple times. But the more farcical moments did not register for me, like in "I've Decided to Marry You," because of the lack of a door in that scene. A door captures the panic and indecision that Monty is going through, having one woman on one side of Monty and one on the other. That is more effective to me than one woman being down the hall from the other, especially because Monty had to walk away from each person in the middle of the conversation instead of bouncing back and forth through the door. That diffused the farcical tension of the scene for me. I also questioned the choice to have Reverend D'Ysquith (Crowle) walk off stage after his death. I understand that everything is comedic and not realistic in this show, but it is a lot more funny when the realism isn't completely broken.

People who would like this show are people who like resilient philanthropists, blatant innuendo, and heroic chair mishaps. I think people should see this show. I think this is a really funny show. It has lovely performances and a very clever script. It is a lot of fun and I enjoyed it.

Photos: Michael Courier

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review of Cardboard Piano at TimeLine Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Cardboard Piano. It was by Hansol Jung and it was directed by Mechelle Moe. It was about a girl named Chris (Kearstyn Keller) whose parents were missionaries in Uganda. She falls in love with a girl from the township, Adiel(Adia Alli) and we meet them on the day of their marriage, but it is not legal or considered acceptable by their parents or the community. After they have secretly exchanged vows, they accidentally alert rebel soldiers of their whereabouts. One of the soldiers, Pika (Freedom Martin), is trying to escape the rebel army, which he was forced to join, and he takes refuge in the church. But he is followed by a soldier (Kai A. Ealy) who wants to take him back by any means possible. The second act takes place in the same church, but about fifteen years later. It is about love, forgiveness, and the prospect of change. I thought this was very moving and beautifully suspenseful. I had so much love for the characters and really cared about how the story would turn out.

I really liked the relationship between Adiel and Chris. I think the main reason why I grew to love them so quickly was because of how pure their relationship is. They had so much hope invested in each other and everything seemed new and beautiful to them. They love each other so much that they would leave everything behind for each other. And even though they get into arguments, they still find a way to agree. I think that it is interesting that the tape recorder is used to record their wedding vows as well as the judgment and forgiveness Chris gives to Pika later in the act. This one tape contains Pika's confessions of the murders he has committed as a soldier and Adiel and Chris's confessions of their love for each other.

This play sheds light on a relevant problem in the Christian community, which is homophobia. It is true that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. But there are a lot of sins that people trying to defend their homophobia may also commit that are actually in the ten commandments (unlike homosexuality). Both Pika and Paul (Ealy), the new pastor of of Chris's family's former church, believe that homosexuality is a sin, but both of them have done far worse things to people than loving who they want to love. Forgiveness is very important to both Pika and Paul when it comes to getting forgiveness for themselves, but it doesn't seem like they show any mercy or give anyone else a chance before going to extremes. I understand why they are like this because their entire community has told them that feeling attraction to the same sex is utterly wrong. And they had very traumatic childhoods. But I hoped that by them seeing that gay people can help strangers and show devotion to people and give second chances, they would realize that how they were taught was wrong.

The story of the cardboard piano is told twice in this show in two different contexts by two different people. The first time it is a desperate attempt by Chris to show Pika that he can trust her because she knows what it is like to have done something wrong. The story is about how Chris's dad made her a piano out of cardboard when she was little because she wanted a real one so badly. She is so disappointed that it isn't a real piano that she tears it up. But then her father goes into his office with the ruined piano and Chris starts to think he may never love her again. Her father finally opens the door and he has completely rebuilt the piano and gives it back to her, saying "Every time we break something, it’s okay, so long as we fix it." It is basically saying we make mistakes but as long as we don't cover them up and act as if they never happened, it's okay. The story is retold by Paul's wife Ruth (Alli) when she tells the story of how they got engaged. In that version of the story it is not a father and daughter, it is a husband and wife, which changes the dynamic. This version of the story is less about taking responsibility and working together to fix things and more about the husband's hard work being ruined and him striking a bargain to get what he wants--his wife to stay with him. I think that says a lot about each of the characters and what they value.

People who would like this show are people who like analyzing religion in a creative way, adorable secret lesbians, and dueling cardboard pianos. I think this show is really beautiful, heartbreaking, and amazingly acted. All the elements in this play were beautifully done. I think that people should definitely go see this show. It moved me a lot and I think it has important insights.

Photos: Lara Goetsch