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Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
Words by Alice Singleton / Images by Michael Brosilow

In 1970, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron declared that, “the revolution will not be televised.” Playwright Tom Stoppard reminds us, however, that just because the revolution might not be televised, that doesn’t negate the need for a groovy soundtrack as tanks roll in, bullets whiz, and dissidents get beaten senseless into hopelessness, submission, and enemy collaboration. The final and fatal assault in Stoppard’s play comes when those that fought the hardest transmogrify into plain ol’ political progressives, settling for the serenity of a gentler and kinder body politic that they once put their love and lives at stake for.


The year is 1968 and Professor Max Morrow (Stephen Yoakam), is a loyalist to the Communism ideal, yet resides in a decidedly un-Communist abode in Cambridge, England, where he tutors students in the ways of classical philosophy and Socialist order. His wife Eleanor (Mary Beth Fisher) is also an academic and shares Max’s passion to open their home to further tutoring students, all while battling the chronic effects of breast cancer. Max’s pupil and protégé, Jan (Timothy Edward Kane), wants only to lose himself in the rock music that fills up the milk crates on his apartment floor, including the music of Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident Czech rock band. Max teaches and preaches to Jan why they all must remain true to the Communist cause, ignoring the Czech government, as it turns menacing and violent against protesters. In turn, Max ignores Eleanor’s desperate need for her husband’s erotic validation, which is now possessed by her student Lenka (Amy J. Carle). Eleanor also loses her sixteen-year-old daughter Esme (Mattie Hawkinson) to the embrace of London hippie culture and her barely hidden sexual desire for Jan.


Unable to contain his boredom of the socialist ideal as academic argument, Jan returns to Prague to get up close and personal with his love of all things rock ‘n’ roll. He positions himself a disciple of the Plastic People, who have become an enemy of the state for their refusal to discontinue playing music not sanctioned by the government, which has banned all Western-influenced commodities. August 1968, and Soviet tanks roll through Prague. Czech dissidents and idealistic college students valiantly but unsuccessfully fight back; the Plastic People go further underground and Jan recommits himself as a disciple to rock ‘n’ roll, following the Plastic People, and purchasing the music of the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd.


Jan builds his rock ‘n’ roll monument even as government agents stand sentry outside his rundown Prague flat until the damn breaks. By the mid-‘70s the government, losing patience with those ideologues who challenge them, order the destruction of all things anti-government, including Jan’s precious record collection, an act that culminates with his interrogation, beating, and imprisonment. Jan stays behind bars until Max, lonely via widowhood, speaks with the higher-ups during a return visit to Prague, and arranges his release.


The years pass. Glasnost arrives. The Berlin Wall falls. The ‘90s bring a new name, government, and political philosophy to the Czech people, while Max’s heart breaks in double time to the fall of Communism in the East and the rise of political Conservatism in his adopted West. Max is now an old man, still professing in Cambridge, taking up British citizenship and living with the now-divorced daughter, Esme. His former son-in-law Nigel has gone to the Czech Republic to document the rise and fall of old and new, and meets a dejected and disillusioned Jan, using him as a “guide”. When Nigel confirms that he and Esme are no longer married, Jan makes the journey to Cambridge to visit Max and thank him for his kindness at arranging his release from prison.


Esme greets her old crush Jan as if she’s sixteen again, her spirit and sexuality renewed. About to lose her daughter Alice to university, and with her father becoming more embittered by romantic regret both human and political, Esme wants more than the occasional sighting of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett cycling through Cambridge to quench her desire. She plans a dinner party to include Lenka, Nigel, and Nigel’s new wife Candida (Susie McMonagle). The dinner table passes around shared histories and the evening ends with regrets, reshaping of lives, and the absolution that love never dies… and neither will rock ‘n’ roll.


Rock ‘N’ Roll makes its Chicago debut after critical and commercial success on Broadway and London’s West End. A revolution may or may not be televised, but Stoppard does a most excellent job of writing the revolution as a powerful presence on stage. Director Charles Newell shapes the music to deftly ebb and flow with the characters’ emotional rise and fall, failures and triumphs, and all the actors live up to their places on stage, with Mary Beth Fisher literally consuming the theater as Eleanor and the adult Esme, absorbing the moisture from the stage rafters to give her characters their very life’s blood and dimension. So convincing and scene-chewing was Ms. Fischer’s presence, it was not until the end when the actors took their requisite bows that I realized only one actress played two decidedly different generations.


Rock ‘N’ Roll is a force of cultural nature, and a lyrical reminder that no matter where we stand, with a revolt before us, there’s a soundtrack for it, and we pick the selections from an ethereal jukebox.


Runs through June 7th


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Wednesday, Apr 8, 2009
Show runs through April 12th

Running a total of three and half hours with two intermissions, the Theater for a New Audience’s production of Hamlet at the Duke Theater, like the character Polonius, fails to be brief. Fortunately, director David Esbjornson made every line count and managed to keep almost everyone in the theater, and fully engaged. 


In order for a modern production of such a canonical (and ubiquitous) play as Hamlet to succeed, it must unearth new mysteries. Shakespeare buffs will easily revert to the usual banalities such as “how will they decide to stage the ghost?” These questions are inevitable, but a stellar production must transcend them to acquire sufficient raison d’etre. In Esbjornson’s version, that compelling, thought-provoking tension stemmed from a dexterous treatment of moral ambiguity and emphatic emotion. The set was a minimalist yet seductive blend of shifting black, whites, and grays; each tone a deliberate but naïve instrument of inevitable confusion and discontent.


 


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
By Craig Wright; Directed by Gregory Scott Campbell; Starring Damon Bonetti, Chris Fluck, Amanda Grove, and Janice Rowland

The set of this drama defines suburban anxiety: Four chairs, each at a corner of the stage, are centered around a bed. Four characters take their spots, awaiting the looming confrontation. Playwright Craig Wright obviously relishes the benefits of the theatrical medium, which allows such heavy visual allegory. Such a design wouldn’t fly in the even the most stylized cinema.


We know two couples will be finagling before long, as we’ve seen so many times before. I can’t shake this play’s association to We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a 2004 film over-concerned with married folks’ need to stray—so concerned is it with infidelity that the film forgets to develop its characters. The same is true in the new anti-nostalgia film Revolutionary Road, whose lifeforce drains under such weighty thematic grounds. 


Yet, in the opening monologue of Wright’s drama comes redemption, especially as performed by Amanda Grove as Cathy in Luna Theatre Company’s new production (Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, Philadelphia, through February 14th). We recall that the language is the thing in true stage drama, and the set its mere bag of bones. Cathy recites a letter—if it existed or is imaginary, we are unsure—in words of loss and desperation coming at the end of something. Her spotlight fades, as she takes her seat to see her life unravel. A fade in reveals David (Damon Bonetti) and Beth (Janice Rowland) on the bed (transposed to a motel room), turning us in medias res to the status their affair. At once promising, it is now crumbling at the foundation. 


Regretfully, the drama’s strongest players sit out the first scene. They are Grove and Chris Fluck (playing the wronged husband, Brad), a standby for Luna. When an interviewer perplexed over what exactly makes Gene Hackman such a powerful actor, Woody Allen responded casually: “It’s a reserve of energy.” We cannot call Fluck another Hackman, but he has access to a similar kind of power. His arguments with Rowland in later scenes make the latter seem not to register. Fluck was far better matched against Mary Lee Bednarek in Luna’s 2005 production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, in which he grounded the drama-mystery’s final revelation in pathos as much as fury. 


As a woman about to be abandoned, Grove steals her scenes with Bonetti, who plays her husband moving on and has trouble evening out a Minnesota accent. Grove suggests there is subdued rage behind her character’s inquest, a right to know all as she forces her husband into goodbye sex. Orange Flower Water wears the clichéd cultural archetype of couples mixing like a subversive persona. Blasé anxieties turn visceral, indeed.


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Friday, Jan 23, 2009
Eugene O’Neill’s Longa Viagem de Volta Pra Casa  (The Long Voyage Home)  runs 21-25 January 2009 at Goodman Owen Theatre, Chicago.

Comedian Wanda Sykes has a stinging, yet accurate observation on the moral high ground the common street thug has over an Enron executive:” The thug, well he just rips you off of what you have on you, maybe an ambitious thug drags you to the cash station and makes you take out the day’s draw. But those Enron f———?  They took peoples futures! Their whole futures. Their damned kids futures. Gone.”


Such is the fate of Olson (Roberto Leite), a beaten-down slightly reformed drunken sailor in Brazil’s Companhia Triptal’s Portuguese-language presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home under the direction of Andre Garolli. Olson meets his living damnation in the bosom of a bar fly possessing the heart of curdled arsenic. Olson has never seen better days – matter of fact his days have been a haze of drunkenness and self-destruction, gone for so long from his native Sweden that his planned return is less for leisure and more for seeing his elderly mother before she passes.


Sick from the waves (sailors riding the waves to Perdition is the running theme for O’Neill’s “Sea Plays” series, which the troupe will perform in its entirety for the Goodman run), sick of the pestilence, loneliness and the frittering away of his money to the bottle, Olson dreams of returning to visit his mother one last time, buying some farmland, planting some crops, and sifting the soil through his fingers.


“I don’t like…this place”, his shipmate Ivan (Pepe Ramirez), a drunken Russian bear of man, declares over again between inebriated nod-offs and slobbing up a hooker’s delights. Olson’s comrades-of-the-sea know “this place”, they’ve been here before, knowing shipmates Driscoll (Guilherme Lopes) and Cocky (Bruno Feldman) warn him that drinking the brute barkeep Joe’s fortified swill will surely bring unconsciousness and immediate poverty of one’s soul and wallet.


“You want to see your mother? You want your farm in your homeland”, Driscoll asks.  Driscoll and Cocky are vested in Olson’s reconnection with mother and motherland, both struggling with – Corky, the loudest and most melancholy, with “havin’ never had no mother”.  To be without parentage, a mother, is an idea of constant voice for O’Neill, the writer having been shipped off to boarding school by his own parents and left to navigate the emotional waves of abandonment and vulnerability to a world devoid of morality.


As Olson’s shipmates buy into drugged-spiked whiskey and booze-spiked hookers in the backroom, Olson rents a seat at the bar, sipping the cup of water that accompanied him on his night out. But Olson’s newfound sobriety and social virtuousness is no match for Joe, a brutal entrepreneur with an employment incentive plan that includes beating the bar flies to “sales” increases for the bar, and taking precious little interest in one of his long time girls as she withers into death’s realm in front of Joe’s very eyes. He looks away, turning his gaze to the deep pouch that keeps his profits.


Joe brutally commissions Miss Freda (Juliana Liegel – a dead ringer for Courtney Love at her worst) to take Olson for all he’s worth. She could offer him a warm place to lay to substitute his new aversion to alcohol.  Instead, she saddles up to him like a personal relationship banker, inquisitive, questioning, conversational, and making suggestive add-ons to his dreams of his new life in Sweden. Miss Freda assures and reassures Olson that he’ll return to see his not-long-for-this-world mother once more, and sift the sweet earth of Sweden through his fingers.


But what kind of man would not drink to his new life? Miss Freda uses all of the seller’s terminology and tricks, including a last minute buyer – a ringer to “up” the price, make the loss palpable. After a quick visit from “Mr. Michael Finley”, courtesy of Joe & Ms. Freda’s teamwork, Olson is forever lost– to ship, mates, family and future. His initial sign-on to a simple deal literally spirals into a balloon payment request of his future. A waking ghost, gone. Indeed.


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Friday, Jan 16, 2009
This may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones' hands.


Arden Theatre Company presents
James and the Giant Peach
By David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
10 December 2008 – 8 February 2009
F. Otto Haas Stage


Readers hold Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—itself a standout from the author’s body of classics—as personal as Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, and countless others children’s tales.  Peach also proves to be an “interactive” as any other.  After the premiere of David Wood’s new Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden in Philadelphia, adult audience members shared their favorite character from childhood.  “I always likes the spider,” one woman said.  A man returned: “I love that centipede, with all his shoes.”  Nostalgia was in the air, while their kids found a new delight.  Some recognized the bright-lit and -spirited performance from a book their parents recently read to them.  With questions and enthusiastic comments, others were obviously newcomers.


As for my favorite characters, I have always loved those wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker.  They offer the darkest dimension to Dahl’s text.  As recognizable family members, they are at once associated with the familiar, but nonetheless are distant, strange.  When James comes to live with them—after Dahl’s whimsically placed rhino kills the boy’s parents—they set little James to endless chores, thus serving as the wicked stepmother motif of classic fairy tales.  Meanwhile, we have two aunts living together who are not clearly marked as sisters—two lesbians that society (and cultural history) has locked away, perhaps?  If so, then their wickedness is no fault of their own, in that they are trapped in the cultural “closet” for the story’s purpose. 


Mean-spirited or no, the aunts serve as an accidental jest to modern audiences, and it certainly isn’t lost on Whit MacLaughlin.  This stage director has cast Harum Ulmer (Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theater) as Aunt Spiker in David Wood’s Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden (running through February 8), next to Stephanie English’s Sponge.  Ulmer makes for an outright tranny-ish Spiker, lovably villainous to the kids as the parents wink along.  The gangly actor grates his lines and hams them up like Tyler Perry’s Madea, shrunken thin to fit the current proceedings.  English’s pillowy Sponge – complete with butt pads the size of basketballs – serves as a sidekick. 


Their victim, the unlikely named James Ijames, plays the title character with wide eyes, a sure friend for the young audience.  Wandering into a nightmarish life, he is a noble savage that finds a better family in those bugs that have grown along with the peach, the boys wish-fulfillment escape realized as a fantasy device.  (While never forgetting his young audience, Ijames’s appearance in a schoolboy uniform with cap cannot escape the image of Angus young of AC/DC.  Later in the show, the phrase “Hell’s Bells!” pops into the dialog, in case anyone’s missed the connection.)  The title’s other main attraction comes in three forms: as a 12-foot-high prop emerging from the backstage, a floating version the size of a softball, and as a centered platform on the jutting stage, on which the bugs and James travel from the aunts’ grounds to a new home. 


Of ripe color that’s almost florescent, the giant peach(es) is framed by a multi-panel digital screen friendly to the eyes of our digital youth.  On screen appears backgrounds, and a cute introduction to the bugs, who are soon to be James’ friends.  The digital projection adds much landscape to the jutting stage, even if it is outdone by the analog elements before it, more tactile to the intimate audience. 


And, naturally, the other dark subtexts of Dahl are jettisoned in this very child-friendly adaptation, such as the sperm-like jewels that squirm into the ground to impregnate the waiting peach pit.  Ijames’ mimed immersion into the peach—after it has grown large but is only imagined on the stage, at this point—sure feels like a birth-in-reverse, but that’s as close as this telling comes to Freudianism.  Wood and MacLaughlin use the layout of the thrust stage in the F. Otto Haas theater to draw the kids into a (mostly) classical approach to children’s theater.  It may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones’ hands.


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