Fall Frenzy

Theater Add comments

With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings.  I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo:  Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)

Elling (Redtwist Theatre) –  Now I know why this play ran for only nine regular performances and 22 previews when it premiered on Broadway last year, despite a cast headlined by Brendan Fraser and True Blood’s Denis O’Hare.  Axel Hellstenius’ and Petter Naess’ theatrical adaptation of the 1996 novel and 2001 movie, which was a surprise Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film is, simply put, quite awful. I haven’t read the book nor seen the film, so I’m not really sure whether the problems lie in the source material or in the dramatic adaptation.  Two men are released from the Norwegian state mental institution to prove that they can live a “normal” life under the auspices of the government.  I’m not Norwegian, nor have I ever lived in Norway, so the whole set-up is quite perplexing to me –What drives these patients release from the mental institution? What’s in it for the government?  Seems like some kind of European social experiment that isn’t really clearly articulated in the text.  How are Elling and his best friend  Kjell Bjarne making a living?  They have subsidized housing but don’t seem to have any jobs.  What does living a “normal” life mean and what conditions will send them back to the institution they were released from?  Both seem to still be quirky and eccentric, and their government handler, Frank, pops in and out of scenes, but seems to have quite a vague relationship with the two.  The play’s tone also seems to flirt between sitcom naturalism and low-rent Sarah Ruhl whimsy, without really any apparent reason.  Steve Scott’s uneven direction doesn’t help clarify things – some scenes are played as farce with pratfalls and all, while others as sweet-silly bromantic comedy.   The main reason to see the show is the appealing stage presence and undeniable chemistry of Andrew Jessop as Elling (hilariously manic) and Peter Oyloe’s Kjell (good-naturedly boorish) the stars of Redtwist’s much superior The Pillowman from a couple of years back.   Jessop also serves as set designer and impressively configures the intimate black box theater for beds to become fireplaces and refrigerators to transform into urinals. I just wish these actors, two of the bright lights of the city’s storefront theater scene, had more worthy material to showcase their mettle. Elling runs until October 30 at 1044 W. Bryn Mawr.

Violet (Bailiwick Chicago) – Based on Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim”, this musical is about Violet, a young North Carolina woman with a huge scar on her face from a childhood accident, who is traveling to Tulsa, Oklahoma to see a preacher who she believes will heal her disfigurement.  And the story occurs during the early 60s in the midst of the initial rumblings of the Civil Rights movement. Caroline, or Change’s composer Jeanine Tesori has put together an intricate score, beautifully mixing rousing, gospel-like numbers with melancholy ballads that reflect the characters’ inner lives.  The cast, led by the extremely watchable duo of Harmony France as Violet and Courtney Crouse as the soldier she initially falls for, sings gorgeously and passionately, ably supported by a five person band. Some of the melodies are reminiscent of the musical theater masterpiece that is Caroline, and the performers tackle the complex songs with verve.  However, like Elling, the main problem I have with this show is Brian Crawley’s uninvolving, meandering book.  What seems to be on the surface an emotionally and politically-charged narrative is flat and unsatisfying.  The parallels between Violet’s self-discovery and the nation’s awakening to civil rights are not fully or vividly explored.  Her deepening attraction to the African-American soldier Flick isn’t consistently portrayed so the climax of the show feels rushed and dishonest.  I’m also very perplexed as well by director Elizabeth Margolius’ decision to have characters that appear in flashback scenes onstage all the time crumpled in the background, and for staging many of the musical numbers in static, Glee-like formations. For subject matter this potent, a listless production is a disservice.  Violet is at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, until October 16.

Becky Shaw (A Red Orchid Theatre) – Although she doesn’t appear until the second scene of Gina Gionfriddo’s puzzling comedy about contemporary mores, and shows up pretty late in the last scene, thanks to the layered, carefully calibrated performance of Mierka Gierten-a riveting mix of menace, neediness, and heartbreak- the titular character dominates this show. Becky Shaw doesn’t get the showiest scenes or the spiciest, wittiest lines – those belong to Max, an emotional bully of a financial adviser, who is set up on the blind date from the ninth circle of Dante’s hell with Becky.  Gionfriddo has a great hand with dialogue, and pokes wicked fun at the prevalence of dishonesty and emotional and psychological blackmail in relationships of our 21st century life.  However, I’m not really sure I totally get the points she makes about our contemporary First World culture’s values and emotional responses.  Maybe because I don’t think she makes them clearly or articulately. Damon Kiely’s direction, despite some really awkward scene transitions, is solid, but it’s the cast that makes this show a worthwhile night out, despite the weakness of the writing.  Gierten’s excellent portrayal is wonderfully matched by a quartet of terrific performances:  Lance Baker as a caustic, emotionally-fraught Max; Jen Engstrom as Max’s neurotic, self-involved half sister Susanna (another one of the divine Ms. Engstrom’s vividly outsized portraits); Dan Granata as Susanna’s amiable husband Andrew; and Susan Monts-Bologna as Susanna’s Southern dowager of a mother, a fascinating mix of venom and world-wearyness.  I am an ardent supporter of A Red Orchid Theater so I’m a little surprised that for a theater known for their outrageous, balls-out, audience-provoking play selection (uhmm, Blasted, anyone?), they’re opening this season with a play that’s innocuous and unassuming, the theatrical equivalent of filed and buffed manicured nails.  Becky Shaw is playing at 1531 N. Wells until November 6.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in