"Physical Festival" Chicago 2018

This is our fourth year of attending the festival.  Some pieces burned brighter, some exploded.

 Demons of PTSD

Demons of PTSD

Nobody’s Home by Theatre Temoin & Grafted Code Theatre (U.K., U.S.)

We hear so much about PTSD – could it really be as bad as painted?  Granted, there must be degrees, but this 50-minute piece featuring two performers as returned-vet husband and at-home, pregnant, wife, delivers intensity of feeling with a gut punch. Click here for Amy Munice's review on Picture This Post.

 

 Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

The Red Bastard: Lie with Me (New York)

"Body and Motion Theater" defines the buffoon, "a character living at the fringe of society, daring to say what others won’t. Many times the one to tell us a painful truth while the rest prefer to live in a lie."

Oh lord, The Red Bastard did just that.  He  leads the audience down his seductive path until we all admit we are liars.  After all, who really has read all the verbiage in the multiple "terms and conditions" which we agree to on a computer program or website? As he licks his fingers in tasty enjoyment of our admissions, we can’t wait to see him hoist another of us on his petard. 

Eric Davis's performances are sold out year after year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  No wonder, we laughed and laughed, even as he revealed our willingness to lie, lie, lie.

In the second half of the performance, Davis sheds his red garb and we lose the enchantment of theater to not-so-funny improv with several audience members.   Next time, just more buffooning, please.

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Drunken Half-Angel featuring Michael Montenegro of Chicago

Short vignettes feature a local genius of physical theater, Michael Montenegro.  I loved the masks and puppetry, but found it disjointed.  Here's Nate Hall's review from Picture This Post.

 

The Other by Gael Le Cornec (Brazil/France)

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Hers is a story of immigration, separation, loss and insanity.  The narrative is woven by shadow puppets, a doll that represents an abandoned child used as a puppet , and narration by Le Cornec.  The story is powerful.  If we were not reading about this every day, the performance might have more impact. For me, it was difficult to become involved when stories of children ripped from their parents are in our headlines every day.  I'm jaded to this tragedy. 

Shadow puppets are a difficult medium, requiring precise coordination between the lighting designer, the puppeteer and the large or small puppets.  In this instance, the puppets seemed to be designed to appear childish and unfinished--like they might have been torn out of paper in a detention camp.  The puppets became the medium to tell about beating and probably rapes suffered at the hands of the guards. further distancing reality.  Unfortunately, the shadow puppet sequences were laced with technical problems, which distracted everyone.  A talented performer, but the execution was spoiled.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Little Soldier Productions (Spain/UK)

 Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Can you squeeze the whole of Don Quixote into an hour performance?  Well, these three talented performers, accompanied by a Spanish guitarist (For no apparent reason, except that she plays a good classical guitar.) attempt to capture the essence of the masterpiece in silly scenes, mostly on a small platform stage.  They are acrobats as well as actors, and use their bodies to become horses, houses, whores, heros.  But it's likely that, like me, they never read the book.

The setup is a good excuse for lots of romping fun, including an audience-involving pillow fight.  Aside from some good laughs, the magic did not happen for me.  But my sister-in-law has studied Don Quixote, and she loved this much abbreviated version.  I couldn't even make it through the Cliff Notes of Don Quixote.   Perhaps it played better in Spain or the UK where the Don is required reading.  

Onward to 2019 and more physical theater.

“Wastwater” by Simon Stephens at Steep Theater

We’re going to see Stephens’ play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while in London, so wanted to see this 2011 collection of three dark vignettes situated in Sipson, a relic of a town in the flight path of Heathrow.  Stephens is Associate Playwright for Steep; that’s the quality of professionals this tiny theater attracts.  The vignettes are loosely connected, dealing with foster children, sexual brutality, white slavery, pedophilia and those involved.  Not so bright and sunny, good writing and fine acting, but not a significant arc of drama.  But we will continue to toad-kiss frequently at this theater. 

Physical Fest Chicago 2016

Per my friend, Wikipedia, “Physical theatre is a genre of theatrical performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means. Several performance traditions all describe themselves as "physical theatre", but the unifying aspect is a reliance on physical motion of the performers rather than or combined with speech to convey the story. In basic sense, you talk through hand gestures, body language, use of objects and many more physical features."  Mimes, sure, but so much more – puppets, masks, dance, sound effects – components that take “suspension of disbelief” to another sphere. 

Last year, my sister-in-law, Norah, and I stumbled on one night of Physical Fest 2015 and were swept away by two performances:  a one-man show “A Little Business at the Big Top” that recreates the world of circus and “Popol is Gone,” described as "a journey through madness, revolution and solitude" that is conveyed as a dialogue with the audience.  We vowed to return.

And we did, with Festival passes (not quite like Taste of Chicago or Lollapalooza passes), and dragged DBH along, though he did not much protest.  This year we attended all five productions – and wished we could have attended the workshops.  Here’s the lineup with our feedback.

 Hominus Brasilis

Hominus Brasilis

Hominus Brasilis by Cia Manual (Brazil).  6o minutes of non-stop movement and a few words (mostly jibberish) that told the story of Brazil from the creation of the world to Zika virus and the Olympics.  You see the size of the “stage” in the photo.  And the movement rarely stopped on this lily pad for performance.  Magical, definitely a Prince.

 Laura Simms

Laura Simms

How to Find Romania, written and performed by Laura Simms.  Simms is a storyteller, and a substitute in this lineup.  You would not normally put a verbal performer into this festival.  She’s good, sometimes really good.  But, her performance is too long, with sections that could have been easily edited out.  Score:  Toad

 The Bag Lady

The Bag Lady

The Bag Lady by Malgosia Szkandera, a Spanish artist of Polish descent.  Magic with plastic bags, mostly the common white grocery kind.  Such amazing physical control of her body to provide movement for her tiny puppets. What imagination! Definitely a Prince.

Sad Songs for Bad People by Rough House Puppet Theater (Chicago).  Puppets again, mostly with dark themes and, unfortunately, dark lighting.  Instead of regular spots, they used #10 cans on poles wired for lighting.  One sequence featured “black light”, but everything was so dim you could not follow the action.  Understandably they are attempting to create an atmosphere of amateurism, but they must be a bit more appreciative of the needs of the audience to accomplish this reverse of technique.  Some of the sequences were stunning, so very sad.  Score:  Very dark Prince

 Sad Songs for Bad People

Sad Songs for Bad People

Hold Onto Your Butts by Recent Cutbacks (New York).  This rocked the house.  If you have seen Return to Jurassic Park, picture the whole story told by two men and a Foley (sound effects) artist.  Raunchy, punchy, over-the-top athletic with amazing sound-effects and sight-gags.  I want to see it again and again… Score: Prince.

You can actually share a bit of their wild and crazy show on this video promo.

"Sender" by Ike Holter, a Red Orchid Theatre production

Oh to be 35 again – and experiencing Chicago theater for the first time.  Sender, by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, would have sent me to the moon.  This play is well crafted; the acting is excellent; the direction sharp and coherent; the stage and the theater small and gritty. 

But, it’s 30 years later and we’ve been there, done that.  Guess this is part of the price of seniority – not much wows us.  However, this play and Steep’s The Few are the best we have seen this summer.

We saw Holter’s Exit Strategy last summer at the Jackalope Theater.  It dealt with Chicago teachers facing the closing of their high school – a reality in the Chicago Public School District.  It, too, was well written, but Sender shows growth and maturity - also a better troop of actors. 

Interesting that both Sender and The Few begin with the surprise appearance of the male central character who has disappeared for one and four years.  Did the authors attend the same workshop?  It is an interesting device for introducing all sorts of mayhem. 

There is an extended sequence in this play where the two male characters, one the returnee and the other the bereft best friend, rebond.  The language and action seemed so real and true (lots of beer involved, of course) that I asked DBH after the performance how, as a man, he felt about the scene.  He confirmed my reaction. 

Like The Few, Sender deals with characters living on the fringe - in this case, artsy, marginally employed millennials.  One works at Groupon.  Ever read their offer descriptions?  Groupon prides itself on employing Chicago artsy folks, especially actors who need day jobs.  They are given license in writing up offers, often resulting in unintelligible jargon probably fun and funny to their cronies.  They make good grist for the playwright.
Score:  Prince

“Mary Page Marlow” by Tracy Letts - Steppenwolf Theater

 The six Mary Todd Marlowe actresses

The six Mary Todd Marlowe actresses

Tracy Letts is a remarkable playwright – and a remarkable actor.  I’ve not seen all of his plays, but “Killer Joe” and “August Osage County” are memorable.  And his turn on “Homeland” as the nefarious Senator turned CIA Director Lockhart was evil fun.
 
So where did this loving, tender story of an unremarkable woman come from?  It’s told in 90 minutes of vignettes from the life of MPM.  Played by six actresses, with no attempt at physical cohesion, and a large supporting cast, you see MPM from birth through life-accepting senior. What you experience is a woman who grows and learns and makes poor choices, pays the price and moves on.  You want more.  You want a cherry on the top, or a large reveal – and there is none.  

The Chicago Tribune reviewer, Chris Jones, gave it four stars.  And one of his reasons is that the six actresses each have the opportunity to hit it out of the park in their turn on stage – and he’s correct, they do.  But, I was left wanting more.  That’s not a bad thing, and usually indicates that the playwright is crafting a good tale, but it left me undernourished.  

Score:  Toad