Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review of Lifeline Theatre's The Man Who Was Thursday

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Man Who Was Thursday. It was adapted by Bilal Dardai based on the novel by G.K. Chesterton. It was directed by Jess Hutchinson. It was about a young poet named Gabriel Syme (Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo) who is recruited to be a police detective. He meets an anarchist poet, Lucien Gregory (Cory Hardin), who takes him to a secret anarchist meeting. The anarchists are led by the mysterious Sunday (Allison Cain) who is seen as all powerful and a person to be feared. Gabriel unexpectedly becomes Thursday, joining: the secretary who keeps everyone in line, Monday (Marsha Harman); Gogol, the outspoken Polish man, who is Tuesday (Christopher M, Walsh); The Marquis de St. Eustache, Wednesday (Corbette Pasko), an egotistical French person; the knowledgeable Professor de Worms, who is Friday (Linsey Falls); and the terrifying and stoic Dr. Bull, who is Saturday (Jen Ellison). But all is not as it appears when it comes to these anarchists' identities. It is about fear, appearances vs. reality, and camaraderie. I think this show has a great twist and was well-performed.

The characters Wednesday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, and Comrade Buttons (Sonia Goldberg), were all characters that were written as men in the book but played by women in the show. Monday's character was actually female in the play as, I believe, was Comrade Buttons. There is another character who is disguised as a man but is actually a woman, but I don't want to give that away. Many of the women actors seem to be playing male characters, and I noticed that those roles held higher positions of power in the organization. It was hard to tell if the adaptor was being true to the sexism of the time or couldn't imagine the more powerful characters as women, even if they were played by women. These casting choices could be metatheatrical, reminding the audience that it is a play and it is all about illusion. Plays depend on people pretending to be other people. It also pertains to the plot of this play, where no one is telling the truth about their identities.

This play was very humorous due to many of the recurring jokes. One of my favorite elements of visual humor was the obviously false beards. Whenever a character's true identity would get discovered, they would dramatically rip off their beard and declare who they truly were. Tuesday had an especially false beard, and stereotypical Polish accent, so when he was discovered it was a very jarring switch to his normal accent which I thought was hilarious. Also I thought that Lucien's monologue after he found out that he was not going to become the new Thursday, but instead Symes, who he just found out was a police officer, is going to be Thursday was absolutely hilarious. His facial expressions and melodramatic emotions alarmed the people around him. The reactions of his fellow anarchists were also effective and humorous. I also thought that Dr. Bull was funny in an unnerving way and the first time you hear his voice is hilarious. The way he could sense where people were made him like a stereotypical Bond villain. The Marquis was hilarious because of his conceited physical ad libbing, like when he would be checking his teeth in a knife.

People who would like this show are people who like recasting and rethinking older works, hilarious anarchists, and obviously false beards. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed the humor and wit of the play and performances.

Photos: Suzanne Plunkett

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review of Red Rex at Steep Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Red Rex. It was written by Ike Holter and directed by Jonathan Berry. It is about a theater company that has opened up in the gentrifying neighborhood of Rightlynd. The artistic director, Lana (Morgan Lavenstien when I saw it, usually Amanda Powell) is producing a play she wrote that revolves around the relationship of a lower class black mother who is played by Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner), a woman from the neighborhood who is acting in her first play, and an upper class white man, played by a company member Adam (Jack Miggins), and their unlikely love story. Revelations about the source of her play come to light when Trevor (Debo Balogun), a man from the neighborhood begins talking to company members. The company continues to try to produce this show and in the process the company’s own internalized racism comes to light. This deeply affects Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter), the stage manager, who comes to important realizations about the company and her own direction in life. It is about safety in art, appropriation, and privilege in theater. I think this is a really great show. It makes a lot of great points, is beautifully acted and written, and is hilarious as well.

The play was very good at showing realistic scenes of the struggles of rehearsing and producing a play in toxic environments. Red Rex is completely run by young idealists who don't seem to have any idea that what they are doing is unethical. For example, they did not have an intimacy choreographer in the show within the show (though they do for Red Rex--Christina Gorman). The director didn't think she needed one because she is a gay woman and didn't think she could make anyone uncomfortable. But the reason you have intimacy choreographers is because the director's vision can be more important to them than the wellbeing of their actors. It is kind of like a conflict of interest. The play was also very good at showing the relationships that people develop when they are involved in a show they think will suck or is problematic. Nicole and Adam start a romantic relationship (which is then weird and is then not weird) because they have bonded over their annoyance with Lana and the play. The stage manager, Tori, reaches out to the set designer, Max (Nate Faust) because they are both being mistreated/ignored by Lana. By the time the show opens they have gotten closer and related to each other because they've fought for each other to be respected. Tori has to endure the show Lana produced longer because she has to be there every night, watching the show over and over, a show that goes against so many things that she believes in. She has to keep watching all these scenes and interactions that she told Lana repeatedly made the actors uncomfortable. It doesn't destroy Tori's relationships with the actors because they are all trying.

The type of appropriation we see in this show is literally a white person taking a black person's story and passing it off as her own fictional work. It shows what is wrong with Chicago theater as well as appropriation more generally. It shows a situation where you might be tempted to excuse the appropriation because it appears to be well-meaning and not as obviously appropriative as something like Cher wearing a native american feather headdresses or dreadlocks. I don't think that playwrights shouldn't be able to write characters of different races. But it is especially not okay to take a story from someone who is an actual living person and has an actual life story and take it and tell them how they feel. Lana also changes the original story to have a happy ending that fits her idea of white people as heroes and consent as not always important. The managing director, Greg (Chris Chmelik), tries to bribe the person whose story it is into silence so that the company can profit from the story. Just because you pay someone for their story doesn't mean you have a right to tell it, especially if you are going to change it to make your own points.

Even though this play focuses on some very serious topics, it still has a lot of comedic scenes. One of my favorite of those scenes is where Lana explains the artistic vision for Jagged Surrender and you can see the pure concern on the character's faces. Because you can also see the audience across from you, you also see the concern on their faces for the very artsy bullcrap that Lana has decided to try to create. This was quite funny because I related to the experience of looking at a pitch for a show and just being confused. I also loved Tori's reactions to almost everything. She was so deadpan but you could still see her true reaction even though it was masked. The pitch of the poster to Lana when they had already made it seemed reasonable, but Lana's notes for it and her reaction were totally ridiculous. You see this reaction a lot when directors don't know what direction they want to go with a show, so they decide to ask you to take two opposing ideas and make them work together.

People who would like this show are people who like holding a mirror up to the Chicago theater community, realistic plays about plays, and making fun of artsy bullcrap. I think this is an amazing show. I loved the concept and it was done so well all around. I loved it.

Photos: Lee Miller, Gregg Gilman

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 GutiƩrrez. 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