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I am back. Finally. It has been a beatch of a summer between 15 hour workdays for weeks on end, lingering physical wear and tear, and a distressing week-long business trip into the dark unknown that is central Pennsylvania where gay Asian men from Chicago are about as common as two-headed dogs with wings and pig hooves. Jeah (in the words of that adorable boy Ryan Lochte), it’s been rough. Fortunately, theater in Chicago during the dog days of August is often quiet, so I didn’t feel too guilty, hmmm, sleeping instead of writing a blog post.  But the fall theater season is creeping up on us, and I was able to catch a couple of shows that opened this weekend.  Interestingly enough, both are quite distinctively-written and staged, and pretty gutsy:  Sideshow Theatre Company is mounting the US premiere of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, an intriguing and quite political take on the Greek myth of the Cretan king’s return to his country, while Vitalist Theatre is presenting the Midwest premiere of British writer Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water), about envy and loyalty among a group of artist-friends, maddeningly yet at times hypnotically staged.  Both are risky, adventurous, demanding productions, so I was pretty thrilled to see the packed houses at the performances I attended. Chicago audiences are definitely not pushovers!

Despite being one of the most produced European playwrights in Europe, I haven’t seen any of Schimmelpfennig’s previous plays, so I was glad to be introduced to them via this play. Idomeneus is about the Cretan king who implores the gods to spare his life during a tumultuous sea voyage back to Crete by vowing to kill the first living thing he sees when he lands.  Well, as I know from that trip to Central Pennsylvania in July, life’s a bitch, so the first living thing Idomeneus sees is his son, and he kills him.  But does he really? Schimmelpfennig writes an hour-long choral poem that ambiguously, and at times obtusely, weaves the alternative events that could have transpired during Ideomeneus’ return (he kills his son, he doesn’t kill his son, he lives a happy life, he lives and dies unhappily and violently) in a hazy, ambiguous, pseudo-Rashomon-like manner.  Ultimately, I’m not really clear as to what actually happened, but Schimmelpfennig makes a good point (though it takes a while to get there) about the elusiveness and pliability of truth, especially in the hands of ambivalent, flip-flopping political leaders. Wow, is he writing about ancient Greece or about pre-Presidential-election US?

Sideshow Artistic Director Jonathan L. Green bravely stages Idomeneus with a 15-actor chorus, in synchronized movements, inside a huge sand pit. Yes, in a sand pit. It is an audacious, and ultimately successful, vision since it visually represents the importance of country to the Greeks within the myth’s context, but also to us in the play’s contemporary reverberations.  Could he have set the play on a plain stage? Sure, but the visuals will not be as arresting, and the final scene, which makes good use of the sand pit, not as wrenching.  The actors are all able, but it’s really hard to stand out in a choral performance, plus the blocking and movement choreography are a little clunky.  Idomeneus is worth checking out for a little-known (at least in the US) playwright’s powerful voice, brought to vivid life by an ambitious Chicago theater company.

Vitalist Theatre’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water) also involves movement, but instead of a sand pit, it is set in an empty swimming pool (designer Courtney O’Neill creates an evocative the set design).  The play uses the movement form called contact improvisation which to my untrained performance eye seems to be a lot of crashing into walls and floors, cartwheels, lifts and hurls, and zumba dance moves gone wild.  Why Artistic Director Liz Carlin Metz would use contact improvisation to tell the story of how a group of four unsuccessful artists respond to the near-fatal accident (yep, involving a pool with no water) of their more successful friend is beyond me.  Ravenhill’s text is choppy, sometimes disjointed, full of anger, hurt, emotional violence, and to be frank, uncomfortable misogyny in parts, but I’m pretty sure it could have been told using some other form of active, bombastic movement or choreography.  It just feels very chaotic at times, which is distracting since Ravenhill does make good points about human nature, and all the ugly emotions that envelope us when a friend becomes more successful, more prosperous, more recognized, more anything than us. Ravenhill writes unflinchingly and honestly about the dark, dirty side of human emotions, sometimes too unflinchingly (did that character actually take a photo of the unconscious hospital patient fellating him? Yuck.)  This is a tough production to sit through, not to mention perform, so I heartily commend the commitment and the courage of the impressive ensemble- Antonio Brunetti, Todd Michael Keich, Meghan Reardon, and Anne Sheridan Smith- who are all physically and emotionally battered at the end of the 82 minute play.  Brunetti is particularly exceptional in a no-holds-barred, somewhat insane performance that would not be out-of-place at the Trap Door Theatre (where he is an ensemble member).  Adventurous audiences will find pool (no water) an interesting night at the theater, but other audience members may find it as painful as crashing into an empty pool’s concrete floor.

You can see Idomeneus at the DCA Storefront Theater, 60 E. Randolph St., until September 23 and pool (no water) at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., until September 30.

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One Response to “Gutsy”

  1. joel Says:

    another empty swimming pool… what’s with that set. seen one empty swimming pool (at Steppenwolf), seen them all…

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