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Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:15

Review: "T" at American Theater Company

The 90s really must be back because this is the second show about Tonya Harding and Nancy Karigan to debut in Chicago in the past year. American Theater Company's telling is a new play called "T" by Dan Aibel. "T" is a ninety-minute retelling of the infamous 1994 incident from the perspective of Tonya Harding's family. Margot Bordelon returned to Chicago to direct the conclusion of Will Davis' first as artistic director of American Theater Company.

"T" steers clear of camp and tabloid. What this play is essentially about is how much T, or Tonya Harding was worth to the people around her. In quick-moving scenes, Dan Aibel calculates all the ways in which Tonya Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly could profit from endorsements. In other scenes, we see her only female companion is her coach who's desperate for a win.

There is something a little strange about "T"­--a slightly lyrical tempo to the dialogue. Sentences read like work emails, missing regular parts of speech. It's an interesting choice, but it often puts uncharacteristically poetic words into otherwise simple people's mouths. It takes for granted that most of us are probably too familiar with the particulars of this crime, and therefore breezes through events without much context. There's a lot to cover in this story and while it's brief, it sufficiently wraps up in a single act.

Leah Raidt plays Tonya Harding with fierce intensity. The look is perfect. There's a duality in her interpretation that strongly resembles the real Tonya Harding without resorting to impression. She's endearingly naive but also bullish and brash. Her coach, Joanne is played by Kelli Simpkins. Her performance is like a cross of Tilda Swinton and Jodi Foster. Her scenes are the most captivating. Her character, however flawed, proves to be the moral backbone of the play.

It makes you wonder what the relevance of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan feud is to today. Aibel tries to connect it to the beginning of the digital age, and maybe he's right. It was the last time in history that shlock news didn't go "viral." This story held a nation's attention at the speed of nightly news. Like the OJ Simpson trial, this time will always hold a special place in a certain generation's heart.

At American Theater Company through June 25th. 1909 W Byron St. 60613

Published in Theatre in Review

American Theater Company's  (ATC) regional premiere of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by artistic director Will Davis, took on the story of the one-arm captain, William Wesley Powell, who was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1869 to map the Green and Colorado rivers of the Grand Canyon.

 

Davis was recently appointed as ATC artistic director and Men on Boats is his first production for the company. He was also responsible for staging the Off Broadway version of the play in 2015.

 

The expedition, the first sanctioned in the American West, consisted of 10 grizzled explorers who set out on four boats, courageously riding through the rivers of the Grand Canyon. However, their varied personalities were almost as difficult to navigate as the terrain.

 

Backhaus' Men on Boats, performed by a genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined, provides an entertaining look this historic journey as well as perhaps providing a statement on just how much American society and the role of women have changed since the 1800's. 

 

The ATC cast includes ATC ensemble member Kelly O'Sullivan (William Dunn) and ATC youth ensemble alumna Lawren Carter (Hall), with Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Brittney Love Smith (Bradley), Sarai Rodriguez (Seneca Howland), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell) and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).

 

A simple yet effective set and props, as well as carefully choreographed movements, provide a heightened sense of action, especially when the explorers tackle the imagined vertical drops in the rivers.

 

Although the cast is really good at selling the quirkiness and reticence of some of the explorers and how those differences lead to small skirmishes among the crews, at times it is not enough to sustain it through the 100-minute performance.

 

Overall Backhaus provides is an interesting and sobering look at how a group of people can risk everything in the name of adventure and discovery. It speaks to the heroism we often bestow on our early American West explorers, their faith and commitment in their own visions yet it also highlights the vulnerabilities, conflicts and contradictions of blind loyalty. For it is only one person, John Wesley Powell, who reaps the actual benefits of their bravery as a team.

 

Recommended

 

Men on Boats is playing at ATC now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at the ATC box office or by visiting atcweb.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

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