Theatre in Review

John Accrocco

John Accrocco

Saturday, 16 May 2015 00:00

Review: Inana at Timeline Theatre

About a month ago, CNN began running a series of clips showing self-proclaimed Islamic State militants destroying Middle Eastern artifacts. While their motives remain unclear, it does point to an unsettling idea that significant pieces of history are lost or destroyed in times of civil unrest.

Michele Lowe’s 2009 play ‘Inana’ makes its Midwestern premiere at TimeLine Theatre. ‘Inana’ centers itself around an Iraqi museum curator Yasin (Demetrios Troy) and his recent bride Shali (Atra Asdou). Yasin is in love with a statue named Inana and fears that with the impending U.S. Invasion of Baghdad, she will end up in the wrong hands. His fanatic obsession leads him to an arranged marriage with Shali, who despite her servile disposition is smarter than she seems.

Director Kimberly Senior arranges her stage in a way that compliments Lowe’s non-linear script. While the present-tense action of the play takes place in a London hotel room – a series of past events are revealed in vignettes that lead us to a final revelation.

TimeLine has assembled a talented cast of Chicago actors, but it’s really Atra Asdou in the role of Shali on which this show hinges. Asdou is a gifted reactionary actress, every little offense Yasin commits registers on her face, and a single tear hangs in her eyes throughout the show. In many aspects Asdou and Troy’s interaction begins as a comedy of errors, but ends a bittersweet love story. Some explosive dialogue builds in between and the chemistry is thrilling.

The political slant in Lowe’s 90-minute play preaches to a choir whose opinion is now the majority in the U.S. “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” is widely regarded as a debacle these days. This play goes back in time to show us a view from the other side of the lines. We sympathize with a people who knew no other world than Saddam’s regime, people who were actually content with what was. Considering today’s disturbing post-war Middle Eastern climate; a crumbled Syria, and the volatile Iraqi infrastructure, it’s hard not to see the parallels between a sacred statue being guarded from corrupt hands and that of a region destroyed by global machismo.

Through July 26th at TimeLine Theatre – 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463

When a play is produced as often as “Doubt,” each theatre company must ask of itself, why now? What can our company give to this work that another has missed? Over the past decade or so, it’s becoming nearly impossible to open a newspaper and not read a headline about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This play is endlessly topical, but can a play lose its punch if it’s overly produced? In Chicago alone we’ve seen several noteworthy companies take on “Doubt” and Writer’s Theatre is no exception.

Director William Brown has a unique vision for John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and it’s remarkably effective in distinguishing this production. Staged in the Glencoe Union Church, this marks the first occasion Writer’s has done a site-specific engagement. It seems borderline blasphemous, but at the same time there’s nothing in the script that either supports or condemns organized religion. The highly atmospheric quality created by Brown even serves to underscore the authority of Sister Aloysius.

That said, Karen Jane Woditsch’s performance as the aggressive school principal is downright scary. Woditsch’s sharp features are constantly at work. There’s a contemplative, calculating look in her eyes throughout the show. It’s as if she sees right through you, just like she instructs naïve teacher, Sister James (Eliza Stoughton) to do. Her intensity in movement and severity in diction are on an entirely different level than the rest of the cast.

There’s a degree of ambiguity in Shanley’s text. Is Father Flynn guilty? It’s a choice the director and the actors must make. Without an actor’s certainty the role comes off as weak. Steve Haggard’s Father Flynn is very convincing, a fascinating choice considering so often Flynn’s character comes off as guilty from the get-go.

The well-being of a child is the central conflict in this briskly-paced work. The problem is the inherent coldness in this play. It’s beautifully worded, but highly mathematical in its structure. It’s too easy to be swayed by Sister Aloysius. Sister James exclaims that the school is run like a prison, and she’s right. It’s a different kind of child abuse. Given all the headlines and the tendency to be drawn to the salacious, it’s easy to overlook the lasting effects of educational system without warmth and life without grey area.

Through July 19th. Writer’s Theatre at Glencoe Union Church – 263 Park Avenue. 847-242-6000

It may be surprising to few that the story of Chicago Public Housing is not a happy one. When we think of the “projects” many of us can only think of the harsh setting in the film “Candyman” or an NWA music video. Not an actual place where families thrive and children experience firsts. Younger Chicago residents strolling the now safe streets of Old Town would find it hard to believe it was once the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

PJ Paparelli’s documentary-style play “The Project(s)” makes its premiere at American Theater Company where he is the artistic director. Paperelli’s unflinching look at the rise and literal fall of the Chicago Housing Association’s projects was a five year endeavor, collecting oral histories from real-life residents. Along with co-writer Joshua Jaeger, Paparelli delivers a well-researched and well-structured documentary about urban living with obvious parallels to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. A talented ensemble of African American actors give a certain levity to this piece through humor and stirring choreography by Jakari Sherman.

“The Project(s)” tells the troubled story of American Public Housing from its inception, to its bright beginnings and finally to its tragic dissolution in the late 1990s. The script is composed of an array of voices that don’t just bemoan the struggles of the working poor, but also romanticize a long-gone sense of community. The ensemble seamlessly moves in and out of mostly nameless characters that become familiar and endearing.

For many theatre-goers, life in the projects is a foreign world. Just as the tragic headlines of South Side violence may only be static for a Lincoln Park homeowner who doesn’t see shootings on their block. “The Project(s)” forces audiences to confront the everyday aggressions of an oppressed community. It also throws gentrification in the face of its supporters. Too often we hear people casually debate, “Gentrification isn’t that bad – it’s a good thing, it helps people.” Paparelli’s script begs to differ. It lends a voice and a face to the droves of people displaced when developers turn neighborhoods.

Through May 24th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125

Friday, 24 April 2015 00:00

Review: The Hypocrites' "Three Sisters

"Maybe it's the wanting we want" muses Vershinin in The Hypocrites' version of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'. At once this new adaptation by Geoff Button (who also directs) is contemporary and charming. Button seems to run with them theme of supressed desires in his production that feels ever-relevant in our #FOMO world (fear of missing out).

If it's only the wanting we want, will we ever be content with what we get? Chekhov leans towards no. Perhaps disappointment is all those who dream are ever rewarded with because they refuse to live in the present. These three sisters seem to have a lot depending on their future in Moscow. As an audience we see that they make no strategic moves to achieve their dreams, which makes their longing all that much more pathetic.

Sadness is personified in color by set designer William Boles. In the first opulent scene, the set is heavily accented with purples and pinks, but when Natasha (Erin Barlow) enters the picture, her love of green brings sadness with it. In each scene as Andrei (Joel Ewing) loses a little more of their estate, a purple accent is pulled away. By the end of the play the stage is washed in green.

While the dialogue of this play is pretty morbid, forcing its audience to confront the delusions we tells ourselves in order to keep living, somehow the cast makes it a lot of fun. There's great deal of chemistry. That's not to say that the punches don't come when necessary, they're even subtle. Mary Williamson's Olga is strong, but it's really Masha (Lindsey Gravel) and Irina's (Hilary Williams) play.

Hilary Williams' outburst at the top of the second act is when the play takes a decidedly darker direction. She has a panic attack, instead of a melodramatic tantrum. Applying a diagnosable pyscological condition to this fragile character is much more convincing than most women are portrayed in literature during this period. It says more about gender inequality and Irina's anxieties than just dismissable female hysteria.

Lindsey Gravel's Masha is a real surprise here. She's sneaky, and likeable in her moodiness. By the middle of the play, her character's future is the only one that seems certain. Costume designer Jeremy W. Floyd does a wise thing by having her Fyoder (D'Wayne Taylor) hand her a green coat. It's a symbol that shows the rest of her life is going to be miserable, but what choice does she have?

Hypocrites' "Three Sisters" is the perfect production for those who fear the classics. For purists it may seem shallow, but really, who wants to sit through three long hours of people complaining? The translation is accessible and the emotions are real. The aesthetic is unique and fresh, without having to modernize it. It's important for this play to remain in a time period in which women were still considered second class citizens. Without these restrictions, we'd be wondering why the heck they don't just move to Moscow and stop whining already?

Through June 6th at Hypocrites Theatre. 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-398-7028. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015 00:00

Review: Between You, Me and the Lampshade

As Chekov supposedly once said, if you bring a gun out in act one, it better go off by act three. Raul Castillo’s new play for Teatro Vista, ‘Between You, Me and the Lampshade’ goes for a metaphoric interpretation of the old rule.

The play starts off with a rush of adrenaline as a mysteriously battered young woman (Aysette Munoz) breaks into the trailer home of Jesse (Sandra Marquez). Jesse stands armed with a rifle, and from there a riveting dialog about race, immigration and love unfolds over 90 minutes.

Castillo’s play is largely plot-driven in an old school kinda way, but he raises it from the pot-boiler genre with the poetic yearnings of a Mexican couple stuck between two countries and on the run from border patrol. Castillo also goes on to comment on the inter-minority caste system. Jesse though Latina, denies her home intruder from calling her senorita or speaking Spanish. She even goes on to use racial slurs. The characters’ use of the vernacular and a plethora of double-negatives subtly provide a very realistic atmosphere of life in southern Texas.

The play isn’t without its lightness. A touching scene between Jesse’s teenage son Woody (Tommy Rivera-Vega) and his gamer, cyber pal K-Ten (Bryce Gangel) hits on issues of loneliness and the feeling of being misunderstood even in a place where everyone speaks the same language. When the cyber pal actually shows up in real life, a romantic current emerges.

The cast works well together under the direction of Ricardo Gutierrez. Bryce Gangel’s self-involved and blissfully unaware character brings with her most of the show’s comedy.  Sandra Marquez is very sure of herself in the role of a flailing mother and reluctant aid, with authentic reactions that are at times abrasive, which is to say very human. Ayssette Munoz as a woman on the run makes careful choices, without veering into melodrama. While this is not yet a perfect play, Raul Castillo’s undoubtedly a talented playwright with the foundation of a provocative play that calls for immigration reform. 

Through May 10th - Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000

Wednesday, 15 April 2015 00:00

The Grown-Up - Shattered Globe Theatre

In today’s culture of OnDemand and streaming entertainment, one has to wonder how theatre art will adapt. Accomplished playwright Jordan Harrison also currently writes for the hit Netflix series ‘Orange is the New Black.’ Nobody can argue that Mr. Harrison hasn’t mastered the one-hour drama format, but what we can argue is whether or not that form works in theatre. Often when audiences stand and applaud even poor performances, they’re standing to congratulate themselves, to say we did it! We spent money and sat still for two hours! It’s over! Are we cultured now? Despite the convenience of home entertainment, people still go to the theatre to be intellectually stimulated and even challenged, they expect the playwright to uphold his end of the bargain.

At the conclusion of Shattered Globe’s production of Harrison’s play ‘The Grown-Up’, an audience of albeit mostly theatre critics was pretty quiet. This is usually an achievement for a playwright whose work has left its audience stunned. In this case, it was an audience left without an impression, and without enough material to commend themselves for sitting through.

‘The Grown-Up’ tells the story of Actor A, or Kai (Keven Viol) who’s grandfather, Actor B (Ben Werling) gives him a magic door-knob with which he can fast forward to the unpleasant and unfulfilling realities of his adulthood. Safely packaged in a chronological structure, we see the very brief disappointments and adult anxieties that await little Kai.  While these scenes have glimmers of relatability, they’re too short to invest in character and instead come off as series of clichés.  Rather than relying on dialog to explain how these moments of Kai’s life are fraught with meaning, we’re lazily told by various narrators. The script capitalizes on too many trendy devices, but doesn’t validate their necessity.

Shattered Globe has the talent to justify the one-hour run time of this play. Director Krissy Vanderwarker’s aesthetic inserts some personality to this static drama.  Actor D (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) plays a few of roles, but really becomes a focal point of the play as a secretary trying to keep up in life. Gonzales-Cruz provides most of the laughs and the most intriguing performance.

Plays like ‘The Grown-Up’ are part of a growing trend in American playwriting that protect themselves in metaphysical chow-chow so that if you don’t like it, you just didn’t get it. What counts in a live performance is what the audience takes away, and if there’s not enough script to resonate with a viewer, what’s the point?

@ Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont. 773-975-8150. Through May 23rd

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