Dance in Review

Minita Gandhi’s autobiographical one-woman show is making its official world premiere as the final production of the 16th Street Theater’s tenth anniversary season, but it’s already been subject to a huge number of raves. Developed at Silk Road Rising and Victory Gardens, earlier versions of Muthaland were performed at everything from the Raven Theatre and Lifeline on Chicago’s north side to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and more. It’s making was the subject of a feature in The Atlantic and a documentary called My Muthaland which won a regional Emmy. The play is about reconciling pride in one’s heritage with being subjected to the very worst aspects in that culture, and after receiving so much attention, the show absolutely lives up to its expectations.

In 2009, Gandhi received word that her younger brother had agreed to an arranged marriage while visiting India. This befuddled her since they are first-generation Americans and had always rebuffed their parents’ efforts to get them to embrace that custom. Gandhi is a faithful Jain who speaks Gujarati and had enjoyed family trips to India before, but she found traditional attitudes toward sex and romance to be the most problematic aspect of her upbringing. Nonetheless, after learning her brother was okay with the match, and facing this reminder that she was nearly at the end of her fertile years with no prospective husband in sight, she decided to go to India in search of her own spiritual awakening. She brought along with her a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and yoga instructions, eagerly anticipating meeting her destiny in Bollywood rom-com style.

What ended up happening was something very different and horrible. But while the sexual assault Gandhi suffered naturally has a very prominent place in the show, her message is that it exists alongside other aspects of her life and heritage. Over the course of ninety minutes, Gandhi deftly mixes horror with levity and beauty, creating a rich portrait of herself as teenager, a theatre student, and a growing young actress. Director Heidi Stillman worked closely with her for years to craft a piece which is emotionally authentic throughout as Gandhi switches characters between herself and others. By the end, it is easy to feel like we know not only her, but also her parents, and how their lives in each country are intertwined.

Pulling off any one-person show, let alone one which requires such honesty about things that are deeply personal, requires an incredible amount of technical and physical finesse. Gandhi had Lanise Antione Shelly as her voice and movement coach, as well as Anu Bhatt as a co-choreographer. With just an accent and some gestures with her left hand, she embodies each of her parents as fully-formed and separate personalities. From their first appearance, we understand them to be deeply loving, albeit somewhat overbearing, and her relationship with them winds up being the heart of the play. Her description of an incident involving a vibrator is as hilarious as it is cringe-inducing and their acceptance of her acting career, to name just one thing they unexpectedly had to adjust to, is heart-warming. It is fitting that a play about heritage should so strongly foreground the parent-child relationship, especially when the relationship is one between responsible adults who are still learning from each other. Muthaland is a story that everybody in America who is aware of what they’ve chosen to keep from their ancestors’ culture can identify with in some way, and in refreshing contrast to a lot of other plays which make up the American theatre scene, it shows us what happens when a family we can admire encounters a crisis.

Highly Recommended

Muthaland is performed at the 16th Street Theater in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th St, Berwyn, Illinois. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm through October 7. Tickets are $18-22, free parking is available in the lot at 16th St and Gunderson. Visit 16thstreettheater.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

It’s been quite a year in Chicagoland for Karen Zacarías, and it’s not over yet. One year after her The Book Club Play graced the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, a month after Destiny of Desire opened at the Goodman, and a month before Native Gardens plays at Victory Gardens, her new play Into the Beautiful North is receiving a rolling world premiere back at 16th Street. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Naperville resident Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North is a hilarious, bitingly satirical, and occasionally terrifying and disturbing adventure story about a group of young Mexicans going on a quest to the distant, fabled city of Kankakee. The dangers awaiting them will change how they see everything.

The small Mexican town of Tres Camarones doesn’t have much. There’s just one internet-capable computer, owned by Tacho (Esteban Andres Cruz), the gay proprietor of the internet café. There’s a shuttered movie theatre where people used to escape into wild flights of fancy. And recently, nearly all the men seem to have deserted for the United States. This makes Tres Camarones easy prey to the evil narcos, who steal and abuse the town’s inhabitants as they please. But the town still successfully holds a mayoral election, which is won by Irma Cervantes (Laura Crotte) on a platform of boosting female employment by holding a Yul Brenner festival (though the cinema owner insists on a Steve McQueen festival).

While the town watches The Magnificent Seven, Irma’s niece, Nayeli (Ilse Zacharias), has a bold idea: why not go to the United States and gather seven brave Mexican men to fight off the narcos? They could even start with her father, who sent her a postcard once from Kankakee claiming he had done well. Irma supports the idea and contributes a lead of her own, while Nayeli gathers Tacho and her goth friend, Vampi (Allyce Torres), to make the journey to Tijuana, and then, illegally cross the border and go onward to Illinois, with stops for sight-seeing in Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

All does not go well. The band of friends is subjected to harassment and assault by federal troops searching for illegal Central American immigrants while still deep within Mexico. At Tijuana, they are joined by the dump-dwelling garbage warrior, Atomiko (Brandon Rivera), but their first crossing attempt is a disaster. The friends soon realize they have no idea what they will do even if they do get across, but this only proves to Nayeli that only the braves heroes can survive going to the United States.

Directed by Ann Filmer and cast member Miguel Nuñez, Into the Beautiful North rides the peaks of absurdity and valleys of real life horror like a roller coaster. Though we may be chuckling at Nayeli’s silhouetted Jack Sparrow-fantasy-lover one minute and cringing at an all-too-real incident of homophobia or xenophobia the next, the play is very much a coherent whole. Partly that’s because of a brilliant design by Joanna Iwanicka (set), Cat Wilson (lighting), Rachel Sypniewski (costumes) and Barry Bennett (sound/music), which capture the look of a Technicolor Western. We’re half-in the land of myth, where good and evil, love, and coming of age journeys are all outsized, so, of course, anything can happen.

But we’re also in the realm of shrewd political commentary, and that’s where the eight-person ensemble really shines. Zacharias, Crotte, Cruz, Nuñez, Torres, Rivera, and Andrés Enriquez and Juan Munoz go through a whirlwind of character changes as they perform this epic, each moving between larger-than-life performance styles and brief, but fascinating portraits of people from a massive swath of North America. Nayeli is so optimistic it’s impossible not to love her, and Tacho likewise emerges as a true hero in the face of the crap he is subjected to.

Filmer’s pre-show announcement hails the Mexican pride in this play, and that’s certainly present in abundance. Despite the outward simplicity of the presentation, we feel as though we are going on this journey with these characters as they learn about their own country and the United States. Atomiko the garbage warrior is amusing, but we are pointedly reminded that people really do live and die in such dumps. That’s an indictment of both countries’ social structures as well as a tribute to ordinary peoples’ courage, resourcefulness, and determination to survive. As is often the case with 16th Street, the play was extended before it even opened. As fine as this story is, it works especially well in an intimate setting. Don’t wait to get your tickets.

Highly Recommended

Into the Beautiful North is playing at the 16th St Theater in the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Il. Performances run Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm through June 3rd. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Free parking is available in the parking lot at 16th St and Gunderson.

To order, call 708-795-6704 or visit 16thstreettheater.org.

*Extended through June 17th

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Tuesday, 24 January 2017 13:17

Review: Blizzard '67 at 16th Street Theater

If you don’t already know about the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, now’s a great time to check it out. For ten years, the Equity company run by Ann Filmer in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center has endeavored to produce high-quality work for an affordable price while paying artists fairly, and for this anniversary season, they’re reviving several of their hits as staged readings (I can personally recommend Yasmina’s Necklace). As for the current mainstage production, Blizzard ’67 by local playwright Jon Steinhagen is an expertly crafted character study in a setting familiar to every Chicagoan of a certain age, but is easily accessible to those whom the blizzard long predates.

The play begins a few days before the January 26th blizzard with the characters breaking the fourth wall to introduce themselves to us in a narrative device, which Steinhagen will return to a few times over the evening. In this early segment, the audience chuckles knowingly along with the four men in a carpool as they marvel over how quickly Illinois weather can go from 65 degrees to dropping two feet of snow. That humor is a necessity for keeping the audience’s interest, too, because calling our characters creatures of their era is about the nicest thing which can be said about them.

Four steel chairs represent the car Lanfield (Mark Pracht) drives his co-workers in. They alternate four times a year, and Lanfield’s functional alcoholism and his car’s faulty radio and horn gain him no reprieve from his duties. Riding with him are Henkin (Stephen Spencer), a bachelor rising in the company, family man Bell (Noah Simon), and young new guy Emery (Christian Stokes). They are not friends. Emery claims he can see that Henkin’s recent promotion is simply a meaningless carrot the bosses wave in front of them, but Lanfield is seething with jealous insecurity and stokes Bell’s low-key dissatisfaction, as well. Henkin is unapologetic about doing “well” and Emery internally debates whether siding with him or Lanfield would be more advantageous.

Besides making up for in paper-thin egos what they lack in social skills and self-awareness, our characters have very little in their lives which gives them any happiness, and our look into their home lives earns them a bit of pity. Bell is luckier than the others in that he at least as a child he loves and is loved by. Emery has a doting father who has provided him with everything and a new wife; even if his life is disappointing now, there’s reason to expect it will get better. Lanfield is an emotional mess but has a wife who nurses him while enabling his self-destruction. Henkin’s loneliness is a more subtle kind of sadness, and one more easily hidden under affected disdain. When the men are caught in the sudden blizzard as a result of preferring the risk of commuting home to the certain misery of sharing a room, they are thrown into crises. In a moment of panic, three abandon the fourth, and are left to confront their mounting horror and disgust at how far they are from how they perceived themselves.

Sometime after Blizzard ’67, Steinhagen wrote The Devil’s Day Off, which was performed by Signal Ensemble in 2014 and depicted the consequences of a heat wave in Chicago. Whether Blizzard ‘67’s script was revised after that I do not know, but Steinhagen has developed a formidable skill at writing characters in extreme, but easily recognizable, situations. However, while The Devil’s Day Off was written to give the actors and director as much latitude as possible, Blizzard ’67 thrives on its specificity. Filmer guides her four actors seamlessly from the satirical tone at the play’s opening to the harrowing meditations at its end. Her direction and Steinhagen’s script draw us into the characters’ lack of closure, making us suffer prolonged tension along with them in the play’s second act. Assisting in this is the minimal design, with a brutal grey set by Grant Sabin, cold lights by Benjamin White, projections with the slightest dream-like edge by Anthony Churchill, evocative weather sound-effects by Barry Bennett, and period and character-appropriate costumes by Rachel Sypniewski.

Even so, the four actors are, of course, the pillars on whom the play rests, and each provides a full portrait of a man mired in his own different kind of frustration. While Bell may be the most conventionally likeable, each has petty weaknesses and aspirations we can easily identify with. Spencer, in particular, does stand-out work, as he not only plays Henkin, but also has to transform himself into several other characters who are treated seriously by the narrative. Wisely, he and Filmer have not attempted to be completely illusionary with this, but give us a good enough idea of a bartender and a close relative of each of the other characters for us to understand how they relate to each other. For the most part, the relationships are very troubled, and what makes Blizzard ’67 interesting on a level deeper than mere nostalgia for the blizzard is its examination of a failure of people to value each other. It takes a televised speech by Richard J. Daley, of all people, for the characters to realize what the true source of their unhappiness is. Those of us today with more satisfactory work environments, families, and friendships may come away grateful for how far things have come, and remember to safeguard mundane kindnesses and our consciousness of others.

Highly Recommended

Blizzard ’67 is being performed at 6420 16th St in Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours, with one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at 16thstreettheater.org. Admission is $18-22.

Performances are Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm (often with a post-show discussion) and Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 pm now extended through March 4th. Parking is available for free in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Sunday, 18 September 2016 18:40

Carroll Gardens Grows Heavy with Plot

Well-to-do friends clashing over hidden resentments and jealousies while dining is a common scenario in the contemporary American theatre. Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, which focused on romantic entanglements, and Ayad Akhtar won in 2013 for Disgraced, which also addressed issues of Islam-inspired and anti-Islamic prejudice. To wrap up a year of smash-hits, the 16th Street Theater is producing the world premiere of A. Zell Williams’s Carroll Gardens, a “comedy” of the same genre which is about an interracial childhood friendship in working-class Stockton, and how it changes when one of the parties becomes a New York creative professional. Williams commented that theatre is bereft of the experience of today’s young African-Americans, and perhaps in an attempt to compensate for not seeing his concerns addressed elsewhere, he overloads his play with plot points, and exposition. However, he also has a very strong director in Ann Filmer, the 16th Street Theater’s artistic director, and a more than capable cast.

The story begins in 1993, when Davis (played as a child by Davu Smith) is visiting the home of Robby (played as a child by Rowan Moxley) for the first time. Robby is new to town and doesn’t have many friends yet, but he just made one in Davis by beating up his bully. Davis isn’t sure what to make of Robby: though they are only ten, Robby’s deceased mother forced him to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and he uses terms such as “cultural appropriation,” yet Robby, who is white, totally fails to recognize what the other kids mean by calling Davis an “oreo” and thinks ending feuds is as simple as telling his adversaries he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Still, they bond by introducing each other to Nirvana and The Coup, and though Davis is bemused by Robby, they genuinely like each other.

Flash forward to Davis’s thirtieth birthday, and things are no longer so warm. Davis (Gregory Geffard) hasn’t responded to any of Robby’s attempts to contact him in years, and Robby (Andy Lutz) mostly stopped trying until right before announcing that he will be visiting Davis’s new apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. While Davis is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, Robby still dresses like a teenager, apparently has no occupation other than selling weed, and still spouts leftist dogma. Davis’s girlfriend, image-conscious Pilates instructor Quinlan (Alex Fisher), does not care for Robby’s uncouthness, and Davis is getting irritated with him, too, when a confluence of events reminds him of how strangled he feels by the upper-class liberalism, trendiness, and materialism of his new environment. Quinlan genuinely loves him, and Robby’s jealous interference in their lives prompts more than just a culture clash, but on the eve of his total transition into adulthood, Davis is forced to ask himself what he truly wants.

There is another couple present who Davis and Quinlan are friends with. Deepti (Minita Gandhi, Leena Kurishingal later in the run) is an Indian-American OB-GYN and the kind of person who thinks declaring “you can tell that injera bread was created to go with lambs raised on African grass” could be anything other than obnoxious. Her boyfriend and Davis’s director, Jamie (Brian J. Hurst), is a politically correct conscious-raising-type who somehow manages to say something casually racist with every breath, and Davis suspects he has outgrown him, too. Williams has drawn his characters in great detail, and Filmer chose well in casting actors who pick up all the details he supplies them with. As the child Davis, Smith’s incredulity at Moxley’s Robby is adorable, and as the adult Robby, Lutz’s clumsy attempts to get along with Quinlan’s Fisher are hilariously uncomfortable.

 

The problem with Carroll Gardens is that Williams creates too many complications. Davis must not only decide whether it is possible to continue his relationship with Robby, but also whether he wants to continue on with Quinlan and Brian, all for different reasons. While it is understandable for Williams to want to put him under pressure, the defining traits of each character are hammered on a few too many times. Carroll Gardens does, however, have two saving graces. The first is that, in Geffard’s hands, Davis does not come across as weak, but as disillusioned and somewhat disappointed. The script’s other strength is that Quinlan is a fully-developed, sympathetic character, who has her own concerns about their new lifestyle. Fisher captures a great deal of conflict and nuance in her performance, and is able to wrest an equal position in the play to Geffard and Lutz. Joanna Iwanicka has supplied the 16th St with another fine, naturalistic set, which, with just a few touches, suggests a converted space being occupied by people whose income is being almost entirely eaten up by their rent. Would that Williams had left just a few more details to his other collaborators, but what he has written is respectable, and the inaugural production is an ideal telling of the story.

Recommended

Playing through October 15 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups. Free parking is provided in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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