Dance in Review

Winner of four Jeff Awards, including Best Production, and fresh off a national tour, Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Catlin from the book by Herman Melville, returns to the Lookingglass Theatre. The play is produced in association with The Actors Gymnasium, a circus and performing arts training center.


The story is narrated by adventurous Ishmael, a sailor en route to sign up with a whaling ship, Piqued. Ishmael (superbly played by Jamie Abelson at evening performances) first lands in an overcrowded hotel, where the innkeeper casually informs him that due to lack of room he’ll have to share a bed with another fellow. His muscular, tattoo covered bedmate, Queequeg (the absolutely splendid Anthony Fleming III), is a son of a Polynesian island king, who is on his own soul-searching journey. The two men bond and decide to board the ship together.


The rest of the show takes us onto Piqued. The ship is a testosterone infused man-cave; the sailors do what real men are supposed to do: they go out to dangerous sea to hunt down whales in order to obtain whale oil, a valuable commodity at the time. Their jaw-dropping circus-inspired acrobatic fits of agility (choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi) add to the feel of masculine energy and the everyday struggle to stay alive.


But Piqued’s disheveled and angry Captain Ahab (fiercely played by Nathan Hosner) is not interested in whale oil, he’s got a score to settle: the giant white whale named Moby Dick bit off his leg during their previous encounter. Captain has been at sea for a very long time, and in his insanity he imagines that the white whale represents all the evil in the world, and thus it must be destroyed. It’s pure all-consuming madness!


Costume designer Sully Ratke’s clever use of fabrics play games with our minds: an oversized woman’s skirt swallows drowning men, a vast piece of white silk brushing past our heads is a giant white whale.


The feminine energy in the play is very distinct. The three female actors (Kelley Abell, Mattie Hawkinson, Cordelia Dewdney) play all the female parts as well as the three Fates. They set the mood with their eerie presence and graceful movements, while their beautiful voices provide live score (sound designer/composer Rick Sims). Sometimes they are just lurking around, and other times they are the forces of nature and nature itself. One of them turns into a whale carcass being stripped of meat and drained of oil by sailors in a vaguely sexual way.


That feminine energy is of stark contrast to the mere mortal men’s struggles to survive. It’s Man vs. Nature, and nature can never be conquered. Spoiler alert: in the end, the Ill-fated ship is swallowed by the over-sized skirt. Vengeance is a two-way street.


About the venue: Lookingglass Theatre is housed in Water Tower Water Works, the historic still functioning water station built in 1869, which pumps 250,000 gallons of water to the north side of Chicago every day. Separated from the theatre space by a glass wall, it feels like a time warp, which sets the mood perfectly for this mid-19th century classic. For more information on this show or to purchase tickets, visit www.Lookingglasstheatre.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

The Chicago premiere of a Tom Stoppard play is one of the most hotly anticipated events of this season. We’re never short for great Stoppard productions in this town, but The Hard Problem was Stoppard’s first new play in nine years when it debuted in 2015, and since Court Theatre’s Charlie Newell can be trusted to mount a strong production, the author is undoubtedly the main draw. Some of his best-known plays, such as the recently produced Travesties and Arcadia, were extremely complicated, sprawling works which required the audience to have a sizable pre-existing knowledge of artistic movements and the interplay between culture and technology, but The Hard Problem, as the title states, zeroes in on a single issue which, depending on which side of it you fall on, might not really seem to be a problem at all. Whether the mind is a function of the brain or has an ethereal quality is not something Stoppard attempts to answer definitively, but the degree to which this play interests you will largely depend on your investment in the debate.

Chaon Cross owns the part of Hilary, the only fully three-dimensional character in the play. A young psychologist whose path in life has had some unexpected hiccups, Hilary is dependent on Spike (Jürgen Hooper), an evolutionary biologist, to help her fake the mathematical credentials she needs to get a job with the Krohl Institute, a research lab dedicated to solving the mind-body problem. She doesn’t even particularly want to work there, but it was the only place she applied to and heard back from. Spike is an utterly noxious, self-justifying proponent of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to be more than just a need to be perceived as good at data processing which causes Hilary to keep inviting him into her bed. Anyway, it turns out that Leo (Brian McCaskill), the man running the part of the Krohl Institute Hilary’s interested in, shares her preference for psychology over neurology, and she gets the job on her own merits.

The Krohl Institute was created by Jerry Krohl (Nathan Hosner), a billionaire hedge fund manager, to help him gain an edge over other traders. Krohl himself doesn’t really care whether the brain is a meat computer or a conduit for the sublime; he just wants to eliminate uncertainty in practical matters. Early on, we meet Amal (Owais Ahmed), a mathematician who holds the position that the soul is flesh and whom Krohl later punishes for publicly predicting the 2008 crash instead of keeping it close to the vest. Amal’s growing disillusion with humans’ capacity for rational thought is driven largely by what he sees happening in the stock market, but he’s reluctant to fall into line with Hilary’s belief that this leaves us with no alternatives but belief in some kind of divinity.

The plot concerns Hilary’s struggle with a job that was never a good fit for her while her entire field appears to be in jeopardy. But Stoppard’s interest seems to be in how nobody really wants to acknowledge the true implications of their belief system, whatever that happens to be. Hilary is a less forceful arguer than Spike, but Newell’s centering of her on stage almost throughout the show and Cross’s commitment to her full range of emotions prevent us from dismissing her. Stoppard has also made her opponents repulsive Thersites-like characters, while Hilary’s on-stage ally is the kind-hearted, idealistic Bo (Emjoy Gavino). John Culbert’s scenic design doesn’t give them very many hiding places, which is perhaps why they resort to vicious verbal, and eventually, physical confrontations to make their points.

If Stoppard’s goal was to show how the debate over the hard problem spills out of sealed realms such as universities and think tanks to strike at peoples’ deepest vulnerabilities, the flatness of the other characters prevents him from quite getting there. However, he does a good enough job of illustrating his point for us to understand it. A great many people love Stoppard and Court Theatre simply for having these conversations, with no expectation the problem will be resolved. Pointing out how divorced from real life rationalism and rationalizations are is enough to make a fruitful evening, and getting to experience it being put so eloquently by fine actors is a bonus.

Recommended

The Hard Problem plays at Court Theatre through April 9, with performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Running time is one hour and forty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $48–68; to order, call 773-753-4472 or visit CourtTheatre.org. For more information, see TheatreinChicago.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Saturday, 13 June 2015 00:00

Review: Abraham Lincoln Was A F*gg*t

What do Michael Jackson and Abraham Lincoln have in common? Playwright Bixby Elliot explores the parallels between the sixteenth president, the king of pop and the landscape for LGBT youth in his new play “Abraham Lincoln was a Faggot” at About Face Theatre.

Elliot’s play follows two intertwining narratives in an attempt to answer the eternal question: was Abraham Lincoln gay? In the present, there is Cal (Matt Farabee), a high schooler coming to terms with his sexuality while trying to prove Lincoln’s orientation. In the past, there is the supposed story of Lincoln’s homosexual love affairs. In between are Cal’s terrified mother (Jessie Fisher) and uncle (Nathan Hosner) who must traverse the uneasy waters of an older generation’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Director Andrew Volkoff brings together a well-equipped cast for this show. Dana Black’s clowning as narrator, historian and Ellen Degeneres will likely be most remembered. She accents and punctuates nearly every scene and it brings a much needed sense of lightness. Jessie Fisher in a duel role as both Mary Todd Lincoln and Cal’s mother balances  eccentricity and subtlety.

Bixby’s script, even if at times extraneous, has a lot of heart and makes a lot of great points about our media obsessed culture. At first the Michael Jackson musical numbers and background tracks seem strangely out of place, but as the show continues the script points to two lives lived under grueling American scrutiny. The author writes from a much more closeted generation than our current times, but still the struggle to live a life that is true to oneself is the ultimate argument. This essential human necessity transcends race, gender, class and sexuality. The script is well-structured and under Volkoff’s direction, has a real sense of emotional authenticity that could be lost in such an inventive concept.

Through July 5th. At the Green House Theatre Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 773-404-7336

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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