Theatre in Review

The House Theatre is currently performing one of its past productions, The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz, Phillip Klapperich’s 2005 spin on L. Frank Baum’s classic Wizard of Oz. First produced by House Theatre of Chicago in their third season, Klappernich’s The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz is a darker version of the original, magnifying the story’s undercurrents while keeping the integrity of the Baum’s story intact. Modern touches are also added throughout the show that bring Dorothy and friends to present day. 

Most of us know the story of Dorothy, a teenage girl from Kansas who is magically transported from her family’s farm house (thanks to a massive tornado) to the enchanting and vividly colorful world of Oz, a magical place where almost anything can happen. Klapperich’s version gives us a whole new perspective on the classic.

Contemporary Dorothy (played by the talented Kara Davidson), armed with a cell phone and toting her beloved dog Toto, (animated by Joey Steakley, who truly makes the stuffed animal come to life) both land in the whimsical land of Oz (specifically Munchkinland) when a severe storm carries the two by means of the beforementioned powerful twister. Upon landing, we soon find out that Dorothy’s house ends up crushing the wicked witch. Dorothy is greeted and admired by the locals (Munchkins, played by Elana Elyce, Ben Hartej, Carlos Olmedo, and Tina Munoz Pandya) and The Good Witch Glinda (Amanda de la Guardia). Everyone wants their new hero to stay, after all, she killed the wicked witch. But Dorothy longs to get back home to her family in Kansas. The deceased witch however, had a sis who is very nasty and is out to get Dorothy to reclaim her sister’s magic boots that are now clinging to Dorothy’s feet. And so, Dorothy is given directions on how to the grand Emerald City to find the Wizard of Oz, who will hopefully help her get back home. While searching for the great wizard, Dorothy befriends our favorite characters from the classic: The Scarecrow (enchanting Christina Maryland Perkins), Tin Woodsman (Jeremy Sonkin), and Cowardly Lion (lively Michael E. Smith). 

But it’s not as easy as simply meeting the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, now called the “Witch Slayer” thanks to the Munchkins, is asked by the Wizard to kill the wicked witch in exchange for passage home. 

The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz is beautifully directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley and is very well cast. Kara Davidson transcends expectation as Dorothy while AnJi White is absolutely mesmerizing as The Wicked Witch of the West. White moves with grace, speaks with conviction and injects just the right amount of wicked into the wicked witch.

The show is delightful non-stop entertainment featuring live music, giant animated puppets, monsters and even flying monkeys soaring through the air, OH MY! Creative, energetic and colorful, it’s mostly joyful, occasionally dark and even sad, but always entertaining. 

Highly recommended.

The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz is being performed at Chopin Theatre through May 7th. The performance schedule is Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. Preview tickets (evenings March 17 – March 26, no performance March 25) are $15 and regular run tickets range from $25 – $45. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.TheHouseTheatre.com

*This show is not recommended for children under ten.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Wednesday, 25 January 2017 18:41

Review: The House Theatre's "Diamond Dogs"

The House Theatre of Chicago artistic director Nate Allen introduces the world premiere of Diamond Dogs, an adaptation of a short story by Alastair Reynolds, by noting that it is “hard sci-fi” and a departure from the optimism usually implicit in House Theatre shows. Since a significant plot point of Diamond Dogs is people undergoing medical transformation into floating diamonds, I question how “hard” the science in this fiction actually is, but I think it is fair to say that the term signals that the story caters to a different set of expectations and interests than people usually expect from other genres. The House has also performed enough tragedies recently, including an adaptation of The Bacchae, that the optimism Allen refers to is meant in the sense that people have significant enough good qualities for their self-destruction to elicit sorrow. Diamond Dogs doesn’t really do that. Like Moby Dick, one of the stories best known for a pessimistic view of peoples’ graces to flaws ratio, Diamond Dogs depicts people slowly killing themselves in pursuit of an idiotic objective, but it depicts them in a manner which is far more frustrating.

The adaptors, called Althos Low (a group also known as Shanghai Low Theatricals led by Steve Pickering) are working from one of sixteen stories within Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. The backstory is long and complicated, but basically, hundreds of years from now, humans have colonized space, developed cybernetic enhancements to our bodies and intelligence, and can skip over the boring centuries traveling in between stars by freezing and unfreezing ourselves. Our viewpoint character, Richard Swift (John Henry Roberts), is still youthful at one hundred and seventy-two years old, and in mourning for his parents and dozens of other people who died in an experiment meant to achieve immortality. It seems that effective immortality has been achieved through other means anyway, but Swift refuses to criticize the dead, and while honoring them, is surprised to find their leader, his boyhood friend Roland Childe (Chris Hainsworth), still very much alive. Childe claims he has found the key to technology which could lead to resurrection, and asks Swift to join his exploration team.

Though no living aliens have been encountered thus far, traces of their long-dead civilizations have been found, and Childe is particularly interested in a structure he has named Blood Spire on a desolate planet he calls Golgotha. The Blood Spire is a floating spiral tower with a pile of corpses at its base. Childe claims to have spoken with a survivor who said that to climb within the tower, explorers must answer increasingly difficult mathematical questions as they move from room to room. A wrong answer results in mutilation, and repeated failures in death. Also, the Blood Spire’s AI is advanced enough to be considered sentient. The motley crew Childe has assembled consists of Swift, Swift’s ex-wife, Celestine (Katherine Keberlein), who has cybernetic implants to make her a math whiz and whom Swift has had suppressed in his memories, Forqueray (Abu Ansari), a captain, Hirz (Elana Elyce), a mercenary hacker, and Dr. Trintignant (Joey Steakley), a fugitive who kidnapped and murdered dozens of people while developing new cybernetics. They do not get along and their attempts to climb the tower do not go very well.

It takes until the beginning of the second act for somebody to point out that they do not have the slightest reason to believe that the tower is in any way related to their supposed objective, and even longer for someone to point out that there is no reason to believe the tower would ever allow them to win. However, it is also made clear early on that none of their objections matter. While Captain Ahab was a charismatic figure who inspired his men to believe in him and made them feel valued, Childe is a bully who immediately resorts to physical intimidation and openly delights in humiliating his crew and watching them quaver in terror of Blood Spire’s traps. But he’s only one man, and what really keeps the other five returning to the tower again and again is ego and spite. I was reminded while watching Diamond Dogs of a game my family played last Christmas which all of us hated, but which went on for hours because none of us would quit first or allow ourselves to lose. Diamond Dogs is about people who are supposedly very intelligent and truly loathe each other doing something with serious consequences for losing, but not winning.

As for the staging, it’s technically brilliant, but in service of a story which is claustrophobic and cerebral. Lee Keenan has supplied all sorts of special lights to create the Blood Spire environment, and several of these are integrated into Izumi Inaba’s very cool space costumes. Inaba and sound designer Sarah Espinoza also had the foresight to put microphones into the masks and helmets. Mary Robinette Kowal’s puppets are also visually impressive, and I gather that they are considerably more graceful and ghostly than what is described of the titular diamond dogs in Reynolds’s text. But Allen’s direction can’t avoid the Sisyphean nature of the plot and theme, so the visual elements’ power wears thin after not very long.

The six actors also do a fine job with broadly written characters. Steakley, in particular, has mastered an odd movement vocabulary, which he relies on because Dr. Trintignant always wears a mask and may not even have a face. Roberts is also a stand-out in a role which requires the audience to become increasingly disillusioned with his character. For fans of the Revelation Space series, Diamond Dogs is a must-see, and The House’s production values are used here in service of an interesting aesthetic rarely seen elsewhere. But the aggravating nature of the story makes it important for anybody who is not a hard sci-fi fan to know what they are getting into beforehand. Certain plot points late in the play which seemed too convenient or didn’t make sense made me even more frustrated. Diamond Dogs has its strong points, but is firmly situated within its niche.

Somewhat Recommended

Diamond Dogs is performed in the upstairs at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St, Chicago, Illinois. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $30-35; to order, visit thehousetheatre.com or call 773-769-3832.

Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through March 5. 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

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