At the Redmoon Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—I haven’t seen any of the previous Redmoon Theatre “Winter Pageants,” but on the evidence of this year’s edition, the show is aimed at audiences with a taste for whimsy and unexpected visual images.
The 2008 production is called “Winter Pageant Redux,” and the company has rethought its presentation. Puppets and masks aren’t as central to the show as objects, like contraptions that are hand cranked to produce endlessly changing three-dimensional scenes within large clear-sided boxes on wheels.
The production runs for 60 minutes and is largely nonverbal, just as well considering that the Redmoon performance space is an acoustic hell. The theater has been reconfigured into a large open space with seating on all four sides. Children get to sit on mats in front of the first row.
“Winter Pageant Redux” assumes a kind of “what next” attitude. The seven performers make their entrances from beyond the seating area, usually carrying some novel apparatus or riding on some bizarre vehicle. In one scene, a performer sings a song while gliding up and down on a swing. Two performers occupy a bathtub on wheels. A young man enveloped in a giant bed must deal with a pair of disembodied legs. There is a magical bubble machine and a large fan that distributes cut up bits of paper into the audience, the paper presumably representing snow.
There is no narrative flow to the staging, though there is a vague attempt to represent the seasons. But the pageant has no Christmas references that I could discern, so people looking for an alternative to grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge or dancing nutcrackers should be entertained by the Redmoon brand of imagination and creativity.
Because of show is pretty abstract in its content, it runs the risk of losing young audiences. However, on opening night the kids in the audience seemed rapt by the flow of unusual sights that paraded in front of them for an hour. Also, before the performance began, the kids joined the actors in cutting up the bits of paper that flew snow-like through the air, so possibly the youngsters felt they shared in the activities. In any case, the youngsters were all on their best behavior, and the entire crowd was rewarded with cookies at the end of the performance passed out by the cast.
Lots of talented people, both on stage and behind the scenes,
contributed to the pageant. The ensemble consists of Alex Balestrieri, Brandon
Boler, Austin Campion, Missi Davis, Kasey Foster, Casey Kaluza, and Shu Shabat.
They all were obviously having fun and that pleasure in their work communicated
itself to the opening night audience.
The special effects, masks, costumes, and props were collectively designed by Chantai Calato, Lucy Chinen, Marianna Csaszar, and Gabriel Richardson among others. Credit for creating the pageant goes to Jim Lasko, Frank Maugeri, Vanessa Stalling, and Rebecca Hunter, with Stalling the director. Mikhail Fiksel created the original music and sound design and Jared Moore designed the lighting.
“Winter Pageant Redux” doesn’t attempt to be a Big Event, like the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, or the countless presentations of “Messiah” and “The Nutcracker” that will invade the holiday scene for the rest of the year. It’s a small show, reasonably priced, and just the right length to fit the attention span of young viewers. If you aren’t amused or entranced by a particular bit in the production, wait a moment. Something is sure to follow that will delight and charm.
“Winter Pageant Redux” runs through December 21 at the Redmoon Theatre 1463 West Hubbard Street. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2, 5, and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for children 13 and under. Call 312 850 8440 or visit www.Redmoon.org
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at the Redmoon Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The Redmoon premiere of “Boneyard Prayer” clocked in at 57 minutes on opening night. That’s more than enough time to cover a paper-thin plot that is partly salvaged by some striking visual and sound effects.
Unless I missed some crucial plot pieces, “Boneyard Prayer” tells a very basic story about Martin and Alice. The couple marry around the time of World War I. Martin soon starts hitting the bottle and while drunk he accidentally drops their baby boy and kills the tot. Martin then leaves Alice and becomes a hobo for 23 years until he returns home seeking forgiveness.
It’s a glum story but the manner rather than the matter gives “Boneyard Prayer” its theatrical and dramatic value. The story is acted out by five performers known only as gravediggers. The characters of Martin and Alice are represented by two near life-sized puppets manipulated by the gravediggers. There is no spoken dialogue. The narrative is advanced through songs, supplemented by sound and lighting effects and sequences of primitive charcoal drawings scrolled across a screen at the rear of the stage.
The setting itself is a graveyard where the wooden figures of Martin and Alice are unearthed as well as their dead infant. Lots of dirt is shoveled about while a pianist plays pop and folk-like tunes from the side of the stage.
For the first half of the play, the chief interest resided in the remarkably expressive faces of the puppet Martin and Alice created by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. The two figures seemed more human than the live players on the stage and the expressions of pain and grief and confusion on both puppets were eerie.
The press release for “Boneyard Prayer” cites as inspiration William Kennedy’s novel “Ironweed,” T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” Dante’s “Inferno,” tramp art, Santos sculpture, and assorted literature, art, and music of the Great Depression era. That’s as pretty heavy cultural load for any stage work. English and American literature scholars thus may draw greater intellectual sustenance from the show than the average playgoer.
Conceding that “Boneyard Prayer” presents a very slight story, the production does get high marks for staging. Frank Maugeri conceived and directed the production and the play gradually grows on the spectator, thanks to some fine singing, the cumulative impact of the scrolled charcoal drawings, and most of all, those haunting puppets who are hypnotic in their displays of sorrow and loss and pain.
The gravediggers are played by Alex Balestrieri, Brandon Boler, Kasey Foster, Meagan Jenkins, and Alice Wedoff. Two of them sing the roles of Martin and Alice and they are terrific. Unfortunately the playbill doesn’t credit them by name. The pianist who enhances so much of the show’s moody atmosphere is Rob Cruz.
The rest of the artistic team consists of Tracy Orwell (co-director and set design), Charles Kim (original music), Seth Bockley (text and lyrics), John Horan (lighting), Ralph Sledge (sound design), and Michael Braaksma (costume design). They all make meaningful contributions but Mooney-Bullock’s puppets give the hour whatever special quality it can claim.
I left the Redmoon theater insecure in my reaction to the show. I was impressed by the gravity and sincerity of the performances and the creativity of much of the staging. But I thought the first half hour was boring and my emotions weren’t engaged until the storyline was filled out in the final half of the evening. It comes down to individual taste. Some viewers will relish “Boneyard Prayer” as a superior miniature of loss and the search for forgiveness. Others will find it tiresome and lacking in theatrical energy and thematic substance. In the final analysis, it’s worth seeing just to be in the company of those two incomparably flesh and blood and anguished puppets.
“Boneyard Prayer” runs through May 11 at the Redmoon Theatre, 1463 West Hubbard Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $14 to $35. Call 312 850 8440, extension 111.
The show gets a rating of three stars. March 2008
For more information contact: www.redmoon.org
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at the Redmoon Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO - It's been tough going artistically for the Redmoon Theatre recently, so the company is dipping back into its archive of past hits to revive its 2000 version of Victor Hugo's historical novel 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' called simply 'Hunchback' by adaptor-artistic director Jim Lasko.
The show runs a little more than 80 minutes with no intermission, but that¹s plenty of time to give the production the full Redmoon treatment--masks and marionettes and puppets and shadow plays integrated into live acting that is heavy on acrobatics.
''Hunchback" is a postmodern dissection of the Hugo novel. Like the novel, the setting is late 15th century Paris. But the action moves back and forth in time, with characters shifting from late medieval Paris to the present moment (there was even a reference to the snow coming down during opening night).
The stripped down narrative concentrates on twisted passions that lead to three violent deaths. Esmeralda is a beautiful gypsy girl. She is attracted to Captain Phoebus, but she has also caught the fancy of the nasty archdeacon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo. Meanwhile, Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer at the cathedral, adores Esmeralda and initially saves her from a lynch mob, but he can't save her from Frollo's devious plotting that leads to her death.
The show starts slowly. With the absence of dialogue, it's difficult for the audience to get a handle on all the scurrying about on the stage for the first 20 minutes or so. Then the author emerges, a fussy scholar who briefs the spectators on the decay and corruption that was 15th century Paris and makes other comments, some of them comical. But the narrative doesn't kick in with any intensity until the final half of the evening. Frollo murders Phoebus and stalks Esmeralda. After her death, the despairing Quasimodo throws Frollo to his death from a cathedral bell tower.
The characters are conveyed in multiple images-small puppets and live actors wearing masks and, in Frollo's case, a giant puppet figure fearful in its domination over the other characters. The basic set consists of stacks of boxes, some of which serve as entrances and exits for the live performers, and two contraptions on wheels that represent the cathedral bell towers. Each tower houses twin hinged ladders that allow the characters to scramble and climb with daunting dexterity.
Other than the author, there is almost no speaking. But the show is rarely quiet. There is some traditional background music but the dramatic effective is heightened by intense electronic sound, some of it so loud it drowns out the author, especially at the end of the show when we want to hear his wrap-up of the night's events.
While the final disposition of Esmeralda, Frollo, and Quasimodo is pretty gripping storytelling, 'Hunchback' is worth seeing primarily as a celebration of the theater arts. The puppets and masks are brilliant. Andrei Onegin is credited as the technical director, so presumably he assisted designer Lasko in the dramatic lighting, the projections (including a vivid cathedral Rose Window), and the boxes and towers set. Joel Klaff designed the faintly medieval costumes. Michael Zerang composed the original music and Mickle Maher extracted the author's text from the Hugo novel and elsewhere.
The ensemble consists of eight performers, most of them making up an all-purpose mime chorus. Jeremy Sher delivers a droll performance as the author. Katie Rose McLaughlin is an engrossing Esmeralda, complemented by Jay Torrence as Quasimodo and Samuel Taylor as Frollo. Matt Hawkins plays the ill-fated Captain Phoebus, the only other character of note in the story. The remainder of the versatile cast consists of Mary Winn Heider, Alden Moore, and Leah Urzendowski.
'Hunchback' requires patience from the audience in the early going but once it hits its stride, it's fascinating theater and drama. But most of all the revival takes us back to the time when Redmoon was at the top of its game as a purveyor of fascinating puppet based theater. Hopefully the company is on track to return to those glory days.
'Hunchback' runs through January 20 at the Redmoon Theatre, 1463 West Hubbard Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $35. Call 312 850 8440.
The show gets a rating of three 1/2 stars. Nov. 2007
For more information: www.redmoon.org
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