In Concert

Title and Deed is a one man show, a 65 minute monologue delivered on a bare stage with a few subtle lighting changes and the gentle rolling of the lead actor’s wheelchair to signal movement throughout the play.  Will Eno’s writing is often compared to Beckett but I found Eno’s work to be much more sensitive, compassionate and outright funny than Beckett’s plays. 

Chicago actor, Michael Patrick Thornton, (one of the founders of The Gift Theatre Co.) is brilliantly cast in the role of the “Traveler” from another world who is traveling feeling estranged from his own homeland, hoping that “the change of locale that comes with international air travel will somehow change him”.

Thornton is confined to a wheelchair - although the play does not call for the use of a wheelchair, and once seeing the play with him at the helm, one cannot imagine the play succeeding as well in its message without the lead character being disabled. Thornton has a remarkable sense of humor and a sad voice, rough with heartfelt regret, which lobs Eno’s long poetic sentences at the audience with a casual yet thoughtful pinpoint accuracy that evoked laughter and sometimes tears in a way that a lesser actor could not achieve. I was totally surprised to find out that the play was not written to be played by an actor in a wheelchair because much of the understanding we feel towards the Traveler comes naturally from seeing a young-ish man confined to a wheelchair - not from seeing a poor wanderer describing his mother’s death and his alienation from the world now that he has no real connection to his home and it’s joyful traditions.

 We all know instantly when we see the young man rolling up the small hill to the stage that because he is in a wheelchair he has suffered permanent and irreversible losses regarding his own lifestyle.  It almost doesn’t make sense to me to see this play cast with an actor without the wheelchair because so much of the truth about the character is implied and is true about the alienation from daily life, the shrinking of your whole world and fortune, which occurs when you are permanently disabled.

I absolutely adored Eno’s sparing, yet lyrical use of words.  What rolls off Thornton’s tongue like ear candy, comes off as true poetry, prose poetry, and paints vibrant, multidimensional scenes in your mind without the use of any set pieces, a painted backdrop or even additional characters.

Eno describes life as basically a “series of funerals” and perfectly describes the universality of how human life begins, “We all come from blood and saltwater and a screaming mother begging us to leave." I actually nodded in agreement and sensed a strong group nod from the entire audience - or as the traveler called us “a clump” of humans gathered to hear him speak - when he said we all know that feeling that life begins triumphantly, but as we lose more and more of the people who constitute our memories of what “home” is, we experience"the human cannonball feeling at the beginning; the sickening thump at the end."

Before the play, I had recently flown to attend the funeral of a very close immediate family member and was not in the mood for something that addressed the issue of death in any way - but I was won over and in the end transformed by the self denigrating humor, common sense and hopeful poetic beauty of this piece.

There was a tremendously universal line in the script, just a heartbreaking and truthful line when the traveler describes the last moment of his mother’s life in the hospital room, “her voice made this sound, this horrible raspy sound and … she just wasn’t my mother anymore.”

I literally walked in to this production feeling shaken with grief, trembling inside, feeling all alone while trying to make sense of my sudden and recent loss but  left feeling that everyone in the mostly middle aged or older audience and indeed everyone in the world must be suffering from many of the same deeply depressing feelings and thoughts.

I highly recommend seeing this extraordinarily written and performed production especially when you are feeling that “life is a series of funerals until the last funeral which is your own” because Eno has created a powerful and profoundly funny monologue about self acceptance, life and compassion which has a very healing effect.

Title and Deed is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through May 3rd. For tickets and/or more show information visit http://lookingglasstheatre.org/

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 23 November 2014 18:00

We're All Mad Here – Alice at Lookingglass

"But how does one know if they've gone mad?" asks Alice of the elusive Cheshire Cat as he swings on a rail, hanging twenty feet off the ground. "You see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased," he answers. "Now, I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry." He grins and disappears, leaving a baffled Alice to contemplate the difference between madness and sanity, the similarities they share, and whether or not they might just be one in the same.

Set in the alternate world that exists beyond – or through – the parlor mirror, Lookingglass Alice is based on Lewis Carroll's sequel to the ever-familiar Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Through the Looking-Glass. So instead of going down the rabbit hole, we literally step through the looking-glass into a dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) world of opposites, nonsense, and whimsy, as if we too have dozed off after a game of chess and awake to find a new dimension waiting for us above the fireplace mantle.

With or without its befitting name, the Lookingglass Theatre couldn't be a more apt setting in which to tell this tale, with its open, industrial structure taking the viewer out of the space of traditional theatre and promising something more immediate and exciting.

Part children's entertainment, part Cirque du Soleil, part vicarious drug trip, Alice takes the audience on a journey simultaneously magical and dark, funny and frightening, alarming and calming, and above all, surreal. Characters have different proportions through the looking-glass, some excessively tall, some uncharacteristically small; one can run fast for hours and wind up in the very same spot from which they started; Red Queens float on umbrellas in the ocean; cats play with oversized balls of yarn (or is it you who are under-sized?); Alice spins so fast on a suspended hoop you don't know which end is her head and which are her legs – the visual equivalent of how both the audience and the heroine feel after their disorienting passage into the world within the mirror.

A very physical show, Alice is the sort of spectacle meant to be enjoyed by all types of audiences. Young children might be best left at home – the loud noises, confusion, and surreality of it all can be a little overwhelming – but it's undoubtable that physical feats like continuous two-person backflips, the lifting and balancing of actors as though they were weightless, and an anxious finale where Alice wraps herself in ropes mid-air and falls without hitting the ground will impress adults, teens, and kids alike.

Remarkably executed by a vastly talented five-person cast, Alice is less a play than it is an experience. It's colorful and unpredictable. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in intrigue. Where it forgets logic, it remembers absurdity. You may run in place for ninety minutes and end up in the self-same spot, but you'll have gained a gleeful acceptance of your own madness and the insight that our world is not always as it looks.

Lookingglass Alice, directed by David Catlin, is playing at the Water Tower Water Works space at 821 N Michigan Ave through February 15th, 2015.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 14 September 2014 19:00

Lookingglass' Death Tax Raises Good Questions

Death Tax by playwright Lucas Hnath is about a wealthy 70-something woman who believes that her daughter is paying off her nurse to kill her before the New Year's death tax kicks in thereby reducing her inheritance significantly. When the play opens, Maxine, played ferociously if not sympathetically by Tony Award winner, Deanna Dunnagan states a truism that I found touching, about the fact that people who have money late in life are "preserved" while those that do not have money are not "preserved."

Dunnagan is absolutely riveting, and beautiful to look at. Even her hand gestures resemble those of a ballerina, very sparing and graceful.

I had hoped that the play would demonstrate more of the very real danger to senior citizens who find themselves deteriorating physically and mentally due to subpar care because of their financial situations, as this happens every day in this country and indeed many elder citizen's deaths are hastened for financial reasons. Unfortunately, Maxine's delusions and combative personality which are common in patients with dementia are treated as the main problem instead of the system of health care in this country that often pits patients and family against the nursing home or hospital in a race to save money or make money off the dying person.

There are several great, rapid fire speeches in the play for all four actors, and Louise Lamson as her hapless estranged daughter, and J. Nicole Brooks, as the nurse Maxine attempts to bribe into her loyalty do a great job delivering them in a way that makes the audience constantly ask themselves, "What would I do in that situation?'”

Hnath is a popular young writer at the moment with two plays in production at once, but in this play he misses the mark when he chooses to make Maxine the villain of the piece. However, there is not enough warmth either in the characters or the staging that cause you to really care much what happens to each character. Instead we are asked to believe that a nurse and her supervisor would easily accept large bribes from an obviously paranoid and overmedicated patient without thinking they would be caught. 

Overall this was still a compelling, quickly moving piece of theatre that raises many important questions about how aging Americans are placed at the mercy of their relatives and caregivers at the very time they need support the most.

Death Tax is playing at Lookingglass Theatre through October 12th. You can find out more about tickets and other dhow information at www.lookingglasstheatre.org.  

Published in Theatre Reviews
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