Theatre

Lookingglass Theatre Company opens its 30th Anniversary Season with the return of the award-winning “Hard Times”, adapted from Charles Dickens and directed by Artistic Director and Ensemble Member Heidi Stillman , in association with The Actors Gymnasuim. It was first produced at Lookingglass in 2001, and some of the artists involved this season were part of the original production.

The story takes place in post-Industrial Revolution England. In a gloomy fictional small town dominated by mills and factories, art has very little presence. When a travelling circus comes to town, the circus clown manages to get his daughter Sissy (played Audrey Anderson; this is both her Lookingglass and professional debut) admitted to the best school in town. The school headmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (injecting his role with a very precise old-British flare, Raymond Fox is excellent), soon realizes that Sissy doesn’t belong in his school and makes it his business to notify her father in person. But the clown had skipped town, leaving his daughter behind. Mr. Gradgrind kindly offers her a place in his home and his school, alongside his two children, Louisa and Tom. But Sissy is from a different world, the world where imagination rules, the right words are ones that come from the heart, and mathematics is just an abstract subject that can’t be applied to life. Not exactly cut out for school, she’s left to stay home and care for Mr. Gradgrind’s wheelchair-bound wife while he spends increasingly more time out of town as a newly elected member of the Parliament.

The most important person in town is the mill-owner and banker Mr. Bounderby (the bombastic Troy West), a self-proclaimed self-made man. He has an eye on Louisa, so when she reaches an appropriate age [of twenty], he asks her hand in marriage. Mostly joyless Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney), whose only passion is her brother Tom (JJ Phillips), agrees, hoping that this will help advance her brother’s carrier in banking. Some of Dickens’ characters are quite difficult to relate to in part because of their excessive wordiness and overly dramatic demeanor, and Louisa is certainly one of them. Nevertheless, all characters are very well developed, the most entertaining of them being Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s paid companion. Played by Amy J. Carle, who also plays Drunk Woman and Pufflerumpus, she’s manipulative and sarcastic and infuses her role with just the right amount of drama.

The circus performances are effortlessly woven into the plot (Circus Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi), and are like a breath of fresh air in town’s otherwise utilitarian existence. The circus is colorful and joyful, and it’s easy to see the stark contrast between the worlds of art and creativity versus business and hard menial work. Even Louisa starts dreaming of circus in her lowest moments.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling created a highly mobile set that’s both imaginative and practical; it provides ever-changing scenery, and the whimsically painted back wall is capable of becoming magically translucent to allow “dreams and memories” to enter the stage.

While the well-to-do townspeople are being bored with their lives, majority of the town’s inhabitants, the poor miners and factory workers, “work day and night with nothing to look forward to but a little rest”. Struggling to stay alive leaves little room for anything else, much less romance, so when miner Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin, who also plays Sleary) asks his workmate Rachael (Atra Asdou, who also plays Mrs. Gradgrind) to spend time with him, she’s far too hopeless to be interested.

All in all, things are as expected: the wealthy run things, the poor have nothing, and a travelling circus is a refuge from it all. If running away with the circus was ever a good option, Tom, who finds himself in trouble with law, doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Hard Times” is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through January 14th. For more information visit www.lookingglass.org.

Published in Theatre 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

 

 

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