At A Red OrchidTheatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” is an engrossing and poignant play of deceptive simplicity, or it’s two pointless hours in the company of tedious characters doing nothing and going nowhere. The success or failure of the play is all in the eye, and patience, of the beholder.
Baker is a hot young American dramatist who gained national attention with “Circle Mirror Transformation,” seen in Chicago a couple of seasons ago. A Red Orchid Theatre is presenting the local premiere of Baker’s 2011 “The Aliens,” an intimate drama that fits snugly in the Red Orchid compressed playing space.
“The Aliens” is set in the grubby area behind a coffee house in a small Vermont town. There, two layabout young men with intellectual and artistic pretentions have taken up residence. Jasper is a wannabe novelist currently distressed because he has broken up with his girl friend. His buddy is KJ, a bearded thirty something man who is emotionally unstable, though whether he is benign or threatening is unclear to the audience for most of the play. They are both dropouts from school and from everyday life. Jasper tends to serve as KJ’s caretaker, the duo resembling George and Lenny from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Jasper and KJ spend their waking hours in the coffeehouse rear, where the main props are a wooden picnic table and a wooden shed housing the coffeehouse garbage cans. Several minutes into the play a third character enters, a teenager named Evan who works in the coffeehouse. He’s a diffident youngster who notifies Jasper and KJ that they are trespassing on private property reserved for the coffeehouse staff and would have to vacate. The two men genially ignore the lad’s timid demand for their departure and go about their business, which is basically sitting and musing.
Gradually, the withdrawn Evan becomes friendly with the two men. Evan is a loner who murmurs his dialogue, but we manage to learn that he doesn’t have a particularly happy home life, is still a virgin at the age of 17, and is unsettled about his future. He’s flattered that Jasper and KJ notice him and starts to blossom under their attention.
There is very little plot in “The Aliens” but some incidents, including a highly dramatic event that occurs off stage in the second act. The play consists of minimalist, superficially commonplace dialogue that subtly illuminates the personalities of the three characters. Much of the play is consumed with long silences, though not the sinister and mysterious pauses one finds in a Harold Pinter play. Jasper and KJ just sit silently, preoccupied with their own thoughts, quiet because they feel no need to say anything. These silences test the spectator, who may find them tedious and banal. On the other hand, a viewer may accept the silences as dramatically effective and evocative hyperrealism. The still moments within the play carry a whiff of Samuel Beckett, though there isn’t any of the obscurity associated with Beckett’s dramas.
The play’s title refers to the title of a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski, an American poet who wrote about losers and down-and-outers during the 1900’s. Bukowski’s poetry is the kind of literature that would attract a pair of outsiders like Jasper and especially KJ.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
“The Aliens” offers a delicacy and nuance that requires exceptionally sensitive directing and acting, both on ample view in the Red Orchid production. Director Shade Murray draws out performances that meld understatement with a kind of commonplace lyricism. That’s especially true of Brad Akin, a shaggy, heavyset man who perfectly captures KJ’s spaced out dreamer. Akin makes a riveting scene out of KJ laying on his back on the picnic table and reciting the word “ladder” over and over and over again. Likewise, he softly sings delightful, silly songs composed by Michael Chernus and Erin Gann from the cast of the original production, and Patch Darragh.
Steve Haggard’s Jasper is the more normal member of the duo. He reads excerpts from his unfinished novel, suggesting that the young man may have some literary talent. But mostly he is a felt presence, ceding the spotlight to the more colorful and unpredictable KJ.
Michael Finley is effective as the ultra low-keyed and vulnerable Evan, who finds in Jasper and KJ an acceptance that he lacks in his dreary life that rotates from home to school to coffeehouse. I did have trouble accepting how Evan developed such passionate feelings so quickly for his two new and laid back friends, even breaking into despairing tears at one emotional high point in the play. But that’s a blemish in the script, not the performance.
Dan Stratton has designed a persuasively seedy and dispiriting environment for the play. Joanna Melville designed the costumes with a nod to thrift shop couture. Heather Gilbert designed the atmospheric lighting and Brando Triantafillou the mood enhancing sound.
Photo Credit: Michel Brosilow
Spectators who want zippy dialogue and face paced action likely will be dismayed by the laconic flow of “The Aliens.” The pauses and silences, expressive to some patrons, will be wearisome and pretentious to others. I thought the play was fascinating, thanks primarily to Akin’s beautifully shaped performance. My wife thought “The Aliens” was a bore and was ready to leave at the intermission, if not before. So the play may be a gamble for the patron, but the rewards are there for viewers who can dial into Annie Baker’s tiny, suggestive world behind that Vermont coffeehouse.
“The Aliens” runs through March 3 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. January 2013
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At A Red OrchidTheatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “The Opponent” is a play about the gritty world of small time boxing. Brett Neveu’s world premiere two-hander at A Red Orchid Theatre explores the relationship between a white middle-aged gym operator named Tre and a young black fighter named Donell. Tre is a small-time white ex boxer operating a gym in Lafayette, Louisiana. Donnell is a young black fighter who works out in the gym (but race isn’t a factor in the play).
In the first act, Donnell is wrapping up his training in Tre’s gym before a big fight that night that could spring the young man into the big time, satisfying the boxer’s yearning for luxury cars and beautiful houses. As both men run through training exercises they banter and bicker. Donnell is brimming with confidence. Tre talks a good game about how successful his gym is, but it’s an illusion. The older man is a failure, barely existing on boxing’s seedy fringes, living on his memories (probably exaggerated) of a big bout he almost won in his fighting days.
The second act takes place five years later. Tre is still living off his illusions as he tries to keep his gym going. Donnell drops in for a visit, but most of the younger man’s bravado is gone. He got knocked out in that big fight five years previously and has since traveled through the regional boxing circuit, picking up fights where he can and trying to support a wife and child back home in Arkansas.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Neveu’s play is solidly in the noir tradition of boxing stories—grubby and brutal in the toll it extracts from fighters who aren’t good enough to ascend to the glamorous life of a champion. There are no surprises in “The Opponent.” We know early on that Tre is hiding the emptiness of his life in claims that his gym is a beehive of activity for up-and-coming fighters. They just aren’t there at the moment. Tre seems to have no life outside the gym. His brash façade scarcely conceals the hollow man within. Donnell’s early self confidence marks him as a man riding for a fall, and sure enough, his pride and exuberance from the first act have collapsed into a weary and resentful acceptance that life as a boxer hasn‘t worked out for him. His dreams have withered into a bleak present and a future that promises nothing.
The matter of “The Opponent” is predictable, but the manner nails the viewers to their seats. Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden deliver superbly nuanced performances, not only emotionally and dramatically but also in sheer stamina. Much of the play portrays the training routine of a boxer, difficult enough for a real life fighter but exceptionally demanding for actors. The punching drills and footwork exercises require conditioning (as well as technique) which suggest that both performers must have spent considerable time in a real gym to make themselves fit for the physical demands of their roles.
The first act belongs to Bolden. He looks like a fighter, buff and muscular. His certainty of success in the ring marks him as a man riding for a fall, but he remains likable and the skills he demonstrates during his workout suggest that maybe he actually is the real deal and not a semi tragic figure. Tre, meanwhile, talks his good game but the man remains a transparent and pathetic failure. In the last act, Tre and Donnell slowly pick up their relationship where it left off five years ago. Tre gains dramatic weight. We learn more about his backstory and late in the act he sets aside his blowhard front and tries to reach out to a deflated Donnell. But it’s too late. Hard words had been exchanged, leading up to an impromptu boxing match between the two that leaves both men exposed in their failed lives.
This kind of play cries out for an explosive finish and Neveu provides one in the improbable fight between Tre and Donnell. It’s exciting to watching but I had difficulty accepting that a middle-aged man could stay in the ring with a professional boxer maybe 20 years his junior, even if the boxer was on the skids. Still, as a dramatic moment the short bout was the highlight of the play.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
I might have missed some of the shadings of the dialogue because both actors spoke in the thickest of Southern accents. Dialect coach Kate Devore did her job maybe too well. I had difficulty understanding both characters, especially in the first act, even though they were performing only a few feet away from me. The credits also include a fight director (John Tovar) and a boxing consultant (Al Ortiz) who combined to choreograph both the culminating fight and the boxing drills with authenticity and precision. For those who are interested in boxing behind the scenes, “The Opponent” provides a vivid glimpse of the grinding training regimen that every fighter must endure.
Joey Wade designed the set, consisting primarily of an actual boxing ring. Myron Elliott designed the grubby costumes, Mike Durst designed the lighting, and Joe Court was the sound designer. Karen Kessler’s directing melded the dialogue and the action sequences beautifully. The terrific performances, utilizing Neveu’s deceptively simple script, make the play close to a clean knockout.
“The Opponent” runs through December 2 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday ta 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. October 2012
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The Butcher of Baraboo
At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago– The butcher in Marisa Wegrzyn’s new play “The Butcher of Baraboo” is a middle-aged woman named Valerie. Along with cutting meat for a living, she is the center of an over-the-top dysfunctional family who take the audience on a funny, disturbing, sometimes harrowing ride. The play is receiving an impressive production at A Red Orchid Theatre
All the play’s action takes place inside Valerie’s home during one February week in 2003 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Living with Valerie is her 30-year old unmarried daughter Midge, a town pharmacist who deals drugs to local teen-agers. Stopping in from time to time is Gail, Valerie’s sister-in-law and the town sheriff. The family circle is rounded out by Valerie’s brother-in-law Donal and Donal’s timid wife Sevenly. They are a creepy bunch beneath their commonplace midwestern exterior and they all seem to be guarding sinister family secrets.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The sour and suspicious Gail suspects that Valerie had something to do with Frank’s disappearance. Or maybe Midge was responsible for her father’s vanishing. Or maybe Frank just left. There are also hints of a past illicit sexual dalliance between Donal and Valerie. Donal and Sevenly apparently have a happy marriage, though marital tensions percolate beneath the surface.
To underscore the atmosphere of menace, Valerie keeps
brandishing the meat cleaver that’s a key tool of her butcher trade while Gail periodically
waves her police pistol recklessly at everyone on stage. Audiences are
conditioned to expect that any lethal weapon brought on stage in a play eventually
will be used, and that can make a viewer extremely edgy. It’s especially hard
to take one’s eyes off that cleaver, and the utensil finally does take center
stage in a scene that had spectators ready to hide under their seats.
Wegrzyn injects plenty of black humor into her narrative, notably a moment involving a gallon of blood and a bowl of breakfast cereal that is one of the great gross-out scenes I’ve seen in a local theater in years. But most of the comedy comes from the contrast between the outward ordinariness of the characters matched with the bizarre plot.
The playwright continuously ratchets up the tension, dropping
ambiguous hints of danger ahead that stir the audience’s sense of unease,
leading to the ferocious climax. By the final blackout key questions have been
answered, notably the fate of Valerie’s missing husband, with unexpected twists
that might have won the approval of Agatha Christie.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
This isn’t a likable fun play, but it grabs the audience by the throat from first moment to last. Much of the credit goes to the taut, subtle directing by Shade Murray. The cast is exemplary, led by Kirsten Fitzgerald in another of her inimitable intimidating female performances. Natalie West is a hoot as the eccentric town sheriff who would love to pin Frank’s disappearance as an act of foul play perpetrated by Valerie. Missi Davis is spot-on as the rebellious Midge, a young woman whose stony exterior conceals some very deep emotional waters, including a possible lesbian attraction to Sevenly. HB Ward is fine as Donal, superficially the most normal character in the play but roiled with his own emotional pressures. Lara Phillips manages to make Sevenly kookie, pathetic, or dangerously desperate as the dramatic moment demands.
Set designer Grant Sabin created a splendid lower middle class midwestern domestic interior that fits perfectly within the intimate A Red Orchid playing area. Melissa Torchia designed the costumes, Lee Fiskness the lighting, Joe Court the sound, and Linda Laake the properties.
“The Butcher of Baraboo” may never reach Broadway, but it should have a bright feature in regional theater. It’s economical to stage with a single set and just five characters. The play will appeal to viewers who enjoy their dramas flavored with both tension and laughs, building to a shocker finish. I was uncomfortable for most of the play and ready to look away from the stage when the violence threatened to fling some major nastiness at us. But in the final reckoning this is one of the most entertaining shows of the season.
“The Butcher of Baraboo” runs through May 20 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 943 8722.
The how gets a rating of 3½ stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com April 2012
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At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The title character in “Becky Shaw” at A Red Orchid Theatre doesn’t appear until well into the opening act. By that time playwright Gina Gionfriddo has established a web of complicated relationships among the play’s other four characters. Becky’s arrival pulls the pin on the grenade that detonates the story emotionally and psychologically.
Before Becky appears we meet Suzanna, Andrew, Max, and Susan. Andrew is Suzanna’s husband and Susan is her mother. Max is a stepbrother of sorts, being adopted by Suzanna’s father when he was a boy to save him from placement in a foster home.
Suzanna may be married to Andrew, and even love him (or so she says) but there is an erotic connection to Max that is consummated early in the play. Suzanna is a skittish, high-strung woman embroiled in turbulent feelings toward Max and a love-hate relationship with her mother. Her mother (suffering from multiple sclerosis) is a strong willed woman who doesn’t take any guff from her daughter or from Max. Andrew is a good soul, a little out of his depth amid the strong personalities of Max and Susan and his wife’s emotional highs and lows.
Enter Becky Shaw. Suzanna sets Becky up on a blind date with Max, which is like setting up a cobra with a blind date with a mongoose. Max, as we have seen from the opening scene, is a cold fish, snide, sardonic, and sometimes verbally brutal. Becky is a needy 35-year old, friendless, alienated from her family, and trying to exist on a paltry salary as an office temp. She clings to Max as her last chance for a relationship in a life devoid of any current meaning or future prospects. Max rejects her, openly and savagely, but Becky won’t give up.
The dust-up between Max and Becky spreads to Suzanna and Andrew, threatening to impact on their marriage. Meanwhile, Susan has her own agenda, serving as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the flaws and failings of the other characters.
There is plenty of acrimony in the play, and lots of laughs, though the humor is dark and the laughter uneasy. The interlocking relationships grow increasingly dense and destructive and the play ends with nothing really resolved amidst the tension-drenched ambiguity. It would be interesting to see at third act in “Becky Shaw” to see how it all turns out. Possibly the playwright herself doesn’t know.
The play is beautifully written, with layer upon layer of pungent dialogue building up the complications of the assorted relationships among the five characters. “Becky Shaw” was considered for the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the prize committee could have done worse than select this articulate, well-constructed script.
The performances on the intimate A Red Orchid stage are impeccable. Lance Baker has been one of my favorite Chicagoland actors for years and he’s perfectly cast here as the initially deadpan Max who finds he can’t verbally abuse and insult himself out of his connection with the relentless Becky. It’s fascinating to watch Max’s emotional facade crack as his involvements with Suzanna and Becky cross hatch to emotional dynamite.
Mierka Girten is superb as Becky. We first meet her the night of the blind date, inappropriately dressed and wallowing in insecurities. By the end of the show Becky has finally gained a purpose in life, tracking the reluctant Max as she grows in stature, turning from the mousy thing of the opening act to a formidable, confident, even attractive predator at the end of the play. Great stuff!
Jennifer Engstrom’s Suzanna and Dan Granata’s Andrew are first rate as personality opposites, Suzanna edgy and flighty and Andrew sincere and a bit naïve. Susan Monts-Bologna excels in her few scenes as Susan, the least defined character in the play. But Monts-Bologna’s no nonsense portrait of Susan contrasts effectively with all the emotional fireworks emitted from the other four characters.
Director Damon Kiely has done a masterful job of orchestrating this complex web of relationships, the play’s dramatic arc building inexorably to the final blackout. Stephen Carmody designed the minimalist set appropriate for the tiny Red Orchid playing space, allowing scene changes to be made fluidly between scenes. Jeremy Floyd designed the costumes, Michael Stanfill the lighting, Emily Guthrie the props, and Joseph Fosco the sound.
“Becky Shaw” runs through November 6 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 ad $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Facebook. October 2011
The New Electric Ballroom
At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“By their nature, people are talkers,” proclaims Breda in “The New Electric Ballroom” at A Red Orchid Theatre. And do they ever talk in Enda Walsh’s Irish play Great swatches of fervent and lyrical talk swirl through the theater, dazzling verbal arias drenched the playwright’s love of language.
Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” had a brief run last year as a visiting production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Like “Ballroom,” it dealt with a dysfunctional family trying to use the power of storytelling to confront demons in their past. Both are weird plays that proclaim a distinctive new voice in the modern theater (“Walworth” premiered in 2006, “Ballroom” two years earlier). But “The Walworth Farce,” as bizarre as it may be, has a narrative line that’s relatively easy to follow, however improbable the events it portrays. “The New Electric Ballroom” may stymie spectators unfamiliar with the storyline. The plot is there, but it’s buried in so many verbal fireworks that it’s almost impossible to follow.
The play’s action takes place in the small home of three middle-aged sisters--Breda, Clara, and Ada--who live in bleak isolation in a remote fishing village on the coast of Ireland. The women spend their nights recreating an evening Breda and Clara spent as teen-agers at the New Electric Ballroom, swooning over a rock star. That evening produced an ill-defined trauma that has scarred all three sisters to the present moment. Their reenactment of that night is a kind of psychodrama that thus far has resulted in no curative relief.
The play’s fourth character is Patsy, a local fishmonger who bursts into the home periodically, exploding with his own high-octane monologues. Basically, Patsy is a lonely man who aches for affection, or at least some recognition that he’s a human being.
New Electric Ballroom” runs an uninterrupted 80 minutes. Most of the time is
consumed with those extended monologues. They may not make sense as far as
creating a coherent narrative, but they are fascinating to hear. Perhaps the
best audience strategy is to forget about the storyline and just let all that
language, enriched by the characters’ thick Irish brogues, wash over the
listener. If the spectator can grasp a recognizable storyline, so much the
There are heroic performances all-around by the four-member ensemble—Kate Buddeke as Breda, Kirsten Fitzgerald as Ada, Laurie Larson as Clara, and Guy Van Swearingen as Patsy. They all master the demands of Walsh’s arias with astonishing facility while limning distinct personalities—Breda the more strident, Ada the youngest but most dominating of the siblings, and Clara the meek one. Van Swearingen in particular blows the audience away with his impassioned bursts, culminating in a tour de force impersonation of the rock star who performed on that fateful night in the ballroom years ago.
Under Robin Witt’s directing, the four performers are all in enviable command of their roles. If the audience has problems discerning the narrative threads of the play, the actors surge through the play with complete assurance, alternating the white-hot bursts of language with sudden Pinterian silences that can be as eloquent, and mysterious, as the dialogue.
The intimacy of the A Red Orchid stage is the perfect venue for the claustrophobic atmosphere of the play. Jessica Kuehnau’s lower-class interior captures the play’s pervasive hothouse environment, abetted by Sarah Hughey’s often dramatic lighting. Izumi Inaba designed the appropriately grungy costumes and Joseph Fosco designed the moody sound track. The physical production reinforces the stifling parochialism of the characters’ lived imprisoned in the primitive insularity of the fishing village.
“The New Electric Ballroom” makes considerable demands on the audience, and some patrons will leave the theater frustrated by the elusiveness of the storyline. But those who revel in lush language pounded out by terrific actors will be in heaven.
“The New Electric Ballroom” runs through March 6 at the A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com. January 2011
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At the A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Have you been eagerly waiting for a 60-minute adaptation of Homer’s “The Iliad” performed live by a cast of 13 young girls? You’re in luck. That’s what A Red Orchid Theatre is offering on its intimate stage until December 19.
“The Iliad” is the famous ancient Greek epic poem about the conclusion of the Trojan War. The cast of characters includes an A list of Greek mythological heroes—Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Agamemnon, Menelaus—plus a few gods and goddesses who shape the destinies of the warriors on earth.
Craig Wright has adapted the story from a highly regarded translation from the
classical Greek by Robert Fagles. Wright carved out his hour-long version
specifically to be presented an all-female cast of youngsters, with a top age
of about 14.
The Wright adaptation doesn’t dumb down the original narrative. What’s most notable about the production is its ability to touch the major thematic bases of the original epic poem. There is bravery, anger, pathos, arrogance, loyalty, and ambition on display. Great men die over little issues. An atmosphere of acceptance and resignation hovers over the warriors on both sides. A man lives until the gods decree his time is up. There is no disgrace in an honorable death, but there is disgrace in a craven life. But the show isn’t preachy and the staging is peppered with droll and comic bits that ease the tension.
The production under Steve Wilson’s direction does not stint on physical action. The sword fight to the death between Achilles and Hector employs real steel blades and the fight choreography can be risky for the two actors if their movements aren’t in sync. But “The Iliad” is a war story, so the necessary violence is simulated on the stage, with Greek and Trojan warriors slashed to death by blood-covered adversaries. The realism of the violence might disturb some adult viewers who could object that the action is a little too graphic for the sensibilities of the girls in the ensemble. But the kids portray the fight scenes without flinching, the characters inflicting and receiving the gore with no quarter asked and none given.
The girls all wear modern casual clothing, mostly T-shirts and jeans and sneakers. The props run to everyday modern items, like shields made from what look like garbage can lids and weapons made from tools and kitchen objects.
The audience needs to adjust to the generally artless acting. But several minutes into the show the viewer settles into the voices and body movements of the youthful, nonprofessional performers and by the end of the show the attentive spectator should really be into the narrative. While allowances should be made for the inexperience of the girls, the acting bar needn’t be set too low. There is impressive work by Melanie Neilan as King Priam, Paola Lehman as Menelaus, Aria Szalai-Raymond as Hector, and especially Jaiden Fallo-Sauter as Achilles. But none of the 13 girls is less than adequate and their massed movements and chanting are well rehearsed and dramatically persuasive.
The play is performed in front of a permanent set by Michelle Lilly that resembles a stone rampart. Joanne Melville’s costumes are a nice meld of modern playground and enough touches to hint at the classical Greek background. Sean Mallary’s lighting and Nick Keenan’s sound are major contributors to the dramatic ambience of the story. The introduction of dolls to represent human and divine characters adds a further visual dimension to the narrative.
This “Iliad” isn’t just a gimmick so parents can cheer on their little girls while friends and relatives attend out of a sense of obligation. Without making extravagant claims for the show, the adaptation does capture much of the drama of “The Iliad” and it’s a pleasure watching the girls act out a complex and adult story with such intensity and awareness of what they are performing.
“The Iliad” runs through December 19 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. November 2010
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Louis Slotin Sonata
At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – In 1946, a Canadian nuclear physicist named Louis Slotin accidentally received a fatal dose of radiation while performing an informal experiment in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It took only nine days for the radiation to kill Slotin, and it was an agonizing death.
Paul Mullen’s play “Louis Slotin Sonata”
at A Red Orchid Theatre dramatizes the radiation accident and Slotin’s last
days. It’s a dramatic and poignant story about the death of a gifted scientist,
only 35 years old, from a fluke accident (a screwdriver slipped in Slotin’s
hand, triggering the massive release of radiation).
In Mullen’s play, Slotin is a charismatic, sympathetic, cynical young man, engaging as well as brilliant. His youth (he died at the age of 35), scientific genius, and brash charm all combine to reinforce the tragedy of Slotin’s death. He had so much more to give, both on a personal and professional level. Slotin is the one person in the lab who died. The others survived, primarily because Slotin absorbed most of the radiation. For some, that made him a hero, a tribute Slotin vehemently rejected in the few days before his death.
Slotin’s death is gripping, but it doesn’t provide enough material for a play that runs over two hours. So Mullen has inflated the basic narrative with ambitious philosophical themes. He touches on the morality of the atomic bomb and mankind’s willingness to play God in creating such a destructive weapon (which could also lead to great improvements in the lives of humanity through the peaceful use of atomic energy).
The play periodically merges the character of Slotin with Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor of the World War II concentration camps. The playwright seems to tilt his work against nuclear research when he has Mengele sardonically remark “what took us years to do in stinking, filth-filled camps can now, they say, be done in milliseconds from the comfort of an airplane cockpit.”
In one bizarre scene, the scientists at Los Alamos cavort in a vaudeville dance line, belting out lyrics about thermodynamics. God appears from time to time, a fast talker in a suit channeling Harry Truman. There are cameo appearances by scientists Albert Einstein (in a fright wig), J. Robert Oppenheimer, and General Lesley Groves.
One scene displays a black soldier (played by a white actor) storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The script is drenched with technical discussions of nuclear energy as well as graphic medical descriptions of Slotin’s rapid decline from radiation ingestion. The play’s title refers to the sonata form in music, a reference that makes no connection with the spectator and carries a whiff of pretentiousness.
Some of this stuff works theatrically, but too much of it distracts the viewer, diverting the play’s focus on the life and death of Slotin. One of the strongest scenes takes place near the play’s end and after Slotin’s death. Slotin’s orthodox Jewish father confronts two doctors from the lab who want to perform an autopsy on Slotin, with Louis’s pre-death blessing, for research purposes. But violating a dead body is against Jewish law and the father fiercely objects. It’s a powerful exchange but it has nothing to do with any previous action.
The playwright apparently wants to raise lots of questions and issues about science, religion, and morality, using Slotin’s life and death as the trigger. But it’s all too elusive to stir the desired turbulence in the audience’s mind.
The Red Orchid production is fortunate in casting Steve Schine as Slotin. The character has most of the play’s lines and his personality, as well as his plight, dominates the action. Schine captures Slotin’s breezy nature, his ability to inspire affection and loyalty among his colleagues, and ultimately his doubts and despair in the painful days that bridge the radiation accident with his death. It’s a persuasive and resourceful performance that carries the play.
The seven supporting performers play multiple roles, with especially good work from Doug Vickers, William Norris (most moving as Slotin’s father), and Guy Massey. That’s not to denigrate the contributions of the other members of the ensemble—Walter Briggs, Anita Deely, Duncan Riddell, and Christopher Walsh.
Karen Kessler’s directing keeps the action moving briskly through its numerous scenes. And for the most part she keeps the narrative clear amidst the mix of fantasy and realism and the back-and-forth shifts in time. John C. Stark designed the set, Melissa Torchia the costumes, Julia Mack the lighting, and Joseph Fosco the sound.
“Louis Slotin Sonata” runs through October 24 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. Sept. 2010
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At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—There are two parties going in “Abigail’s Party.” The gathering of the play’s title is rollicking off stage where a group of teenagers seem to be having a great time. The other is an adult affair on the stage of A Red Orchid Theatre, a ghastly affair presided over by Beverly, the hostess from Hell.
“Abigail’s Party” was written in 1977 by Mike Leigh, an
English writer better known in the United States for his movies (“Secrets &
Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy”). The play is a funny and rancid send-up of the middle
class English. That sounds like a parochial premise of small interest to an
American audience, but Leigh transcends national cultural boundaries with his
scintillating dialogue and grotesque but entertaining characters.
Leigh has written a spot-on satire that I suspect never looked or sounded better in England than it does at A Red Orchid. It’s early in 2010 to anoint any show as production of the year, but this staging sets the bar very high for the rest of Chicagoland theater companies.
The play takes place in the living room of a residence in suburban London, where Beverly and Laurence preside over a small gathering for an evening of chat, drinking, and listening to LPs. The guest list consists of Angela and Tony, a young married couple recently moved into the neighborhood, and an older single mother named Susan, the parent of Abigail, the 15-year old girl sponsoring the party next door.
Beverly is the engine that drives the play, a brash, vulgar thirty something woman who bullies her party guests, and her woebegone husband, with superficial good cheer. Beverly is one of those annoying, abrasive figures who never takes no for an answer. She’ll force cigarettes on people trying to quit smoking, and repeatedly tops off the glasses of people who don’t want, or need, any more alcohol ion their systems. She belittles her husband and intimidates her guests, especially the passive Susan. Beverly, with her stentorian voice and manner, can make any house guest cringe in defensive embarrassment. The guests try to be civil and polite, only to be mowed down by Beverly’s relentless and domineering good cheer.
There is no real plot in “Abigail’s Party.” The narrative interest resides in the skillful way that Leigh peels away the outer layers of his characters’ personalities. We recognize almost immediately that Laurence and Beverly are horrendously mismatched as husband and wife. Tony and Angela seem pleasant enough at the outset but gradually their marital discontents are revealed. Poor Susan is the only likable person in the play but her timid sensitivity is no match for Beverly’s aggressive backslapping.
Beverly herself may be lonely and unhappy beneath her abrasive façade, at least we hope so. This is one disagreeable woman and we rejoice in any misery that life may visit on her.
“Abigail’s Party” demands ensemble playing of the very highest order, like what the play receives in the stunning A Red Orchid revival. Kirsten Fitzgerald is remarkable as Beverly. Fitzgerald is a tall, heavyset woman and her imposing physique meshes perfectly with Beverly’s overwhelming demeanor. Fitzgerald delivers a titanic performance and any area theater contemplating a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (which shares some similarities with “Abigail’s Party”) need look no farther for the perfect Martha.
The other four performers complement Fitzgerald perfectly. As Laurence, Larry Grimm creates a vivid portrait of a man of some culture and sensibility drowning in the atmosphere of bad taste created by his wife. Mierka Girten (Angela) and Danny McCarthy (Tony) are just right as a couple with the fissures of their marriage already starting to crack wide open. And Natalie West is funny and pathetic and heartbreaking as Susan, the type of self-effacing, nice person who is red meat for a predator like Beverly.
Shade Murray directs with a strong sense of pace, unspooling the dialogue and confrontations like the audience is eavesdropping on a real party, with all its comic horrors. Daniel Stratton designed a nicely detailed living room interior that fits comfortably within the ultra intimate Red Orchid playing area. Melissa Torchia designed the costumes. Her outfit for Beverly instantly brands the woman as the vulgarian she is. Samantha Szigeti designed the lighting and Joe Court the sound.
Special commendation goes to Eva Breneman, the dialect coach. To my uneducated ear, all the performers nailed their working class English accents, essential to establishing the social ambience of the play.
“Abigail’s Party” runs through March 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. February 2010Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mistakes Were Made
At A Red Orchid Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Mistakes Were Made” has its flaws, but it allows Michael Shannon to deliver a stunning performance, so all is forgiven.
The play is installed in the snug little A Red Orchid Theatre where it has become a very tough ticket. And no wonder. First, Shannon, a Red Orchid company mainstay, has become a major actor on the Hollywood scene after being nominated for an Academy Award last year for his role in “Revolutionary Road.” Local audiences have always been quick to react to the presence of a celebrity in their midst.
Second, the buzz is out that Shannon is astounding in the one-actor play. The virtuosity of Shannon’s performance, especially in the up-close-and-personal environment of the Red Orchid theatre, makes the show a must see not only for celebrity watchers but for anyone interested in state-of-the-art acting.
Shannon plays a theater producer named Felix Artifex. The entire action takes place in his disheveled office where Felix feverishly is attempting to get a new play called “Mistakes Were Made” ready for production. The play is a spectacle about the French Revolution and a preposterous choice for Broadway, but Felix is undeterred in his zeal to put all the pieces together to get the show on a stage.
Felix is the only person on the stage (except for a cameo appearance by his secretary late in the play) but the play is still crowded with characters, all of whom exist on the other end of the telephone. They include a temperamental movie star Felix is trying to flatter into starring in the new play, the artsy playwright, the pretentious director, the overwrought designer, and a clutch of people involved in a bizarre subplot involving 10 truckloads of sheep in the Middle East.
The tone throughout the play is one of frenzy as Felix fights one brush fire after another, lying and cajoling over the phone while he pops pills to keep his motor running. Shannon is not only brilliant as Felix, but he has a remarkable ability to flesh out the overbearing and furious people at the other end of the phone. By the conclusion of the play we feel like we know movie star Johnny Bledsoe with his inflated ego and Steve Nelson, the playwright from the Midwest who mistakenly thinks that Broadway is about art and artistic integrity and not commercial compromise.
The play is often bull’s-eye funny and satirical about the theater and the people who inhabit it. Shannon sustains the script’s humor and the satire even though the story has no real narrative arc. It just lurches from crisis to crisis in a spiral of absurdity and frenzy. And therein lies one of the script’s problems. It gets to be too much of a muchness. The show runs 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission and should be blue-penciled down by 20 or 25 minutes.
The play also needs a better ending. The script turns dark and despairing near the end, an emotional jolt that doesn’t mesh well with the free wheeling frenetic comedy that precedes it. Felix suddenly descends from a hilariously desperate manipulator and facilitator into a tragic anti-hero, but the emotional shift in gears doesn’t work.
Still, for the bulk of the show, Shannon rivals Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane in the Hall of Fame of magnificent theatrical con men, except that Shannon’s Felix really loves the theater and has a grasp of how it works on the ground, not in the airy artistic fantasies of an ivory tower playwright. There is enough truth in “Mistakes Were Made” to make the audience ponder how any play finally makes it to opening night.
The only other live human in the play is Esther (Mierka Girten), the secretary, whose stressed voice is heard over the intercom alerting Felix that still another outraged or impatient caller is on the line demanding instant attention. There is even a tropical fish named Denise in a tank on stage who plays a role as Felix’s confidante.
Tom Burch’s marvelously rumpled set perfectly captures Felix’s physical environment of barely organized chaos. Tiffany Bullard designed the costumes, Matt Gawryk the lighting, and Joseph Fosco the sound. Dexter Bullard’s directing keeps the basically one-note turmoil of the story buoyant with sweaty comedy and clever in-jokes until the storyline takes its wrong turn at the end.
The problems with “Mistakes Were Made” can be easily addressed. A judicious trimming and a rethinking of the final 10 minutes should polish the script nicely. But as long as Shannon is in the show, all script blemishes are obliterated by a performance to be wondered at and treasured.
“Mistakes Were Made” runs through October 31 at the A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30. Call 312 943 8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org. Sept.2009
The show gets a rating of 3 ½ stars.Contact Dan at email@example.com