"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

"Johanna Faustus" at The Hypocrites

Seldom do I urge the playwright and director to make a production longer, but this time I wrote to Sean Graney, director and co-author, suggesting that he slow it down.  The production was crammed into an hour.  Lines spoken so fast, they were unintelligible.  Funny bits lost because the actors stepped on lines and did not allow the audience to absorb the jokes.  

And, the plot was rendered unintelligible as well.  Was it really Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or just parts of the plot woven into a new take on the validity of religion?  Overall, it felt like we were being exposed to the first version of a new work with many changes to come - at least I hope they come before they perform it again.  Graney is known for his new takes on old plays.  Ed and I have been twice to enjoy the 10 hour "All Our Tragic", based on the remaining 18 Greek plays.  Loved it both times.  Score:  Toad

P.S. - Sean replied, "I hated the production".

"The Secretaries" and "The Few" - Toad Kissing in Chicago

We're toad-kissing again in Chicago. There is so much live theater produced in Chicago, it’s like diving into a chocolate sundae.  But, though worthy, not all of these plays are princes, and DBH and I will spend lots of time kissing toads throughout the summer.  I’ll keep you apprised of our adventures.

First up, The Few at Steep Theater. These are the folks who produce edgy, small plays that make you think.  Sort of like Steppenwolf Theater before they because such a money machine. Written by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Brad Akin, starring Peter Moore, Dana Black (looking and acting like former Steppenwolf star, Laurie Metcalf, just a bit more zaftig) and Travis Coe.  
Synopsis from the website: “Four years ago, Bryan walked away from his life, his lover, and his labor of love: a newspaper for long haul truck drivers. Now he’s back, without any answers and looking to finish what he couldn’t on the road. In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of the millennium, The Few pulls together the pieces of lives filled with loss.”

A newspaper for long haul truck drivers…really?  Yup, Bryan was a driver who saw and experienced the loneliness of the long-distance trucker and wrote about it.  Without him for four years, the paper has become pages of “seeking” ads, placed by truckers and for truckers. These play from the phone answering machine at poignant moments throughout the play. There are lots of small sub-plots artfully woven into the 90 minutes.  Overall a well-crafted, well-performed production.  Hunter won a MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant in 2014.  Good investment of their money – ours too.  Score:  Prince

Today, we grabbed last minute tickets to see The Secretaries produced by About Face Theater, a LGBTQA group.  Description from their website, “The Secretaries chronicles the initiation of Patty Johnson as she lands the job of her dreams at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. But those dreams turn into bloody nightmares when she discovers that her coworkers are chainsaw-wielding lumberjack killers!  Amidst the campy carnage, this feminist satire skewers female stereotypes of the 80s and 90s while hilariously subverting sexist ideas of femininity. And while it was written more than two decades ago, The Secretaries remains startlingly fresh with regard to how little has changed in the last 20 years.”

The Secretaries reminded me a bit of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom which Ed and I saw in a dicey area of New York City about 1985.  Today, we went to the Sunday matinee – you need to be slightly more than high to really enjoy The Secretaries.  But it did have its moments, including the tyrannical office manager, Kelli Simpkins, who is a ringer for Tilda Swinton, the ingénue, played by Erin Barlow, one of our favorites at The Hippocrates Theater ensemble. Best of all, it brought back floods of memories of my first job in the Trust Department of Lake Shore Bank, 601 N Michigan Avenue.  Where are they now:  The office manager, Evelyn Nerdowitz, the vault teller, Bonita Dufik, the secretary to the EVP of the Trust Department, Susan Schultz, the bookkeeper, Josie Mancuso?  These women formed me in ways no college ever did.  But, score for the play:  Toad.  

How Could Anyone Forget "Moby Dick"? More summer theater in Chicago

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Well, I did!  We "experienced" the full Moby at Lookingglass Theater on June 17th.  Lookingglass has become known for productions that combine drama with circus-type athleticism, imaginative staging and solid acting.  But reduce Moby Dick to two and a half hours?  Presenting a book as a drama is difficult enough, but MD is a novel inside of a natural history text.  And they did it very well.  

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For me, hearing and seeing the beginning line, "Call me Ishmael", was like meeting an old friend in person.  The coffin was the central icon from the beginning.  The staging included stripping whale blubber off the hoop skirts of "whale ladies", men climbing and swinging from the rigging over 2/3 of the theater, a Greek chorus of New Bedford widows - there was hardly a factor in the plot that went usused.  Thankfully, they did not "waste" hours informing us about the different kinds of whales, my least favorite section of the book.  

Lookingglass is located at the old Water Tower at Pearson and Michigan, so a prime tourist area. Their productions combine the excellence and edginess of the Chicago theater scene with enough "tourist wow" to keep the crowds attending.  Their current production, which we will miss by one day, is Treasure Island, adapted by Mary Zimmerman.  If you plan to be in Chicago, don't miss it.  

Savoring Theater in Chicago, Summer 2015

DBH, his sister, Norah and I gorged on luscious theater this summer in Chicago.  Here’s a rundown on our outings. 

 The Drowning Girls 

The Drowning Girls 

May 31st – The Drowning Girls at Signal Theater Ensemble.  Turn of the 20th century, three women, all murdered by George Joseph Smith, all in the bathtub.  Water, water everywhere in this innovatively staged one act play.

June 12 – The Birds – Dramatization of Daphne du Maurier’s short story.  Could have been truly frightening, but lacked sustained suspense.

June 26 – Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at The Goodman.  Based somewhat on The Cherry Orchard, the play featured excellent actors working an often banal script.  

June 28 – Bad Jews produced by Theater Wit.  7/8 of this play was tight, funny and featured outstanding performances.  The ending was maudlin and disappointing.  

 All Our Tragic

All Our Tragic

July 4th – All Our Tragic – We celebrated the 4th by seeing for the 2nd time the 12 hour extravaganza produced by The Hypocrites.  Perhaps even better than the first time, we thrilled at revisiting the surviving 32 Greek plays smashed into a slam bang tale of lust, greed, death, spells and laughter.  Significant improvements made to the production, but the ending still a bit shallow. 

 A Little Business at the Big Top

A Little Business at the Big Top

July 12 – Physical Theater Festival – Saw a Spanish duo present Popal is Gone and a solo performance by David Gaines of A Little Business at the Big Top.  Amazing theater.  Put this festival on your list for next year.  The performances were first rate and I think we paid $15 for tickets.  

July 26 – Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw – Ok, this is cheat.  I saw this fabulous production courtesy of the National Theater Live, broadcast to the Music Box Theater.  Ralph Fiennes was amazing.  Indira Varma was luscious and smart.  The production was amazing.  Thank you National Theater for bringing exceptional productions to such a large audience.  

August 15 – Brilliant Adventures at the Steep Theater.  Much like we discovered the Hypocrites in 2014, this year our discovery is Steep Theater.  They specialize in new, edgy plays, mostly from the UK.  The ensemble members are "steeped" in the Steppenwolf tradition of trauma in drama, which we love.  Brilliant Adventures is an interesting play about time travel – not great, but the acting was exceptional.  

 American Idiot

American Idiot

August 30 – American Idiot produced by The Hypocrites.  A rock musical featuring the songs of Green Day, performed at the Den Theater on Milwaukee Avenue.  It looked like the locals took over the stage, as Milwaukee Avenue is a mash-up of homeless, helpless, hot spots.  Lots of rocking by amazing cast, but the effort lacked a soul.  I have never even heard of Green Day, much less their music.

 Sideshow

Sideshow

Sept. 13 – Sideshow – musical at Porchlight Theater.  Story of Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton who try to make it in show business.  First act like a Disney musical.  Second act like a Sondheim musical.  We love Porchlight, but the first act needs work.

Sept. 27 – Disgraced at The Goodman – Pulitzer Prize winner by Ayad Akhtar.  Everyone has the opportunity to play the race or religion card in this play.  Supposed to be a great conversation starter for theater goers, but we agreed that there is no escaping race as a part of our national gestalt.  What matters is how you behave.

 Lucio Silla

Lucio Silla

Sept. 30 – Chicago Opera Theater – Mozart’s first opera, Lucio Silla.  You can’t beat the Chicago Opera Theater for dramatic, economical staging.  About 20 members of the Apollo Chorus appeared on stage in what can only be described as, “Wear whatever’s comfortable, so long as it’s pants, long sleeved shirt, black, and casual.”  But it fit in with the sparse staging that used lighting to make the drama work.  Four sopranos, two in trouser roles and one tenor.  All magnificent voices.  Glad they are spending money on the right things.  Well, it was early Mozart, cut from six hours to two and a half.  Lots of trilling and repetition.  I enjoyed it as a “period piece”, but was ever so pleased that we did not have to witness all six hours. 

 The Cheats

The Cheats

October 2nd – Steep Theater world premiere of Hamish Linklater’s The Cheats.  Intense and unsettling from the first words.  Moral of the play: be careful what you choose to share about your personal dark side.  This ensemble is definitely “Son of Steppenwolf” – complete with a fistfight.  We love it.  Excellent acting and a well-crafted play.  

We're ready to dive into the Tucson theater scene - yes, there really is one.  First up, Saint Joan by Shaw.  

 

Orgy at the end


DBH and I leave for Tucson in a week – so we decided to go out in a blaze of Chicago theatrical glory.  Three very different experiences: Macbeth, All Our Tragic and The Whaleship Essex.

 Nmon Ford

Nmon Ford

Macbeth, the opera version by Ernest Bloch, and staged by Chicago Opera Theater, is a rather lugubrious 1904 version of the Scots tragedy, totally saved by Sean T. Cawelti, the Video Designer.   Not that there were not great moments of opera:  Nmon Ford as Macbeth was both eye and ear candy.  We will see more of him in larger opera venues.  The few minutes of chorus time were splendid.  98% of the score was quasi-modern atonal, but the chorus was robust and alive with late 19th century tonality and lots of major and minor chords.  

 Table with video above

Table with video above

Sean T. Cawelti transformed the huge box of the Harris Theater into a stage framed with integrated video action.  The three witches (here zaftig, young women) aimed video camera at their faces and bodies, producing huge close-up projected videos over the stage, which often featured other action.  (The viewing challenge was not unlike attending an NBA game and finding yourself focusing on the video screens rather than the live action.) The only furnishings on the stage were a 25 x 6 table on which most of the action centered – and a few plain gray chairs.  Video directly over the table doubled the action.  Video at the corners transported the featured singer into swirls of mirror images, almost seeming to reveal the inner mind.  How does Mr. Cawelti do it?  Who knows, but he is magical.  In our previous Chicago Opera Theater production, he designed the shadow puppets and video elements.  Again, a significant enhancement to the theatrical experience.  www.seancawelti.com

 Survivors in their "whalers"

Survivors in their "whalers"

The Whaleship Essex, produced by Shattered Globe Theatre, and written by ensemble member, Joe Forbrich, is based on the book, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex.  This book was originally published in 1821 and written by First Mate Owen Chase just months after he returned home to Nantucket. It is the basis for Hermann Melville Moby Dick.  The theater version includes 15 crew members that move from naïve land-lubbers to seasoned crew to dying survivors after a whale rams and sinks their ship.  Survivors travel 2000 miles in three whalers.  Most died and were eaten by the rest.  No rainbows and unicorns in this story.  Overall, well done, well-staged.  I particularly enjoyed the sea chanties and spirituals that tied the story together.

 Helen of Troy and her daughter, Hermione

Helen of Troy and her daughter, Hermione

Then there is All Our Tragic – 12 hours in the theater.  Yes, you read right, 12 hours.  We arrived about 10:30 A.M. to be there when the doors opened to obtain prime seats.  And we really didn’t leave the theater until 11:15 in the evening.  The event combines the 22 surviving Greek tragedies (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) into a single 12-hour epic.  We loved it.  This is “balls out”, “think no small thoughts” theater.  What you expect in Chicago.  14 actors each played three roles and it seemed that many were in all the episodes, but that would be impossible.  Still the pages of lines memorized and characters inhabited are staggering.  Several things noted:
* 90% of the attendees were under 40 – Chicago is a young theater town.
* The producing company, The Hypocrites, gets it.  Everything was perfectly handled from comfortable chairs, to restrooms cleaned, to lots of food, to a totally engaged and accommodating staff.  We were left with nothing to complain about…
* We don’t know nearly enough about the Greek tragedies.  Yes, we will reread them and enjoy them more than ever.


So we depart Chicago infused with the great cultural life and look forward to Tucson where the thoughts are not so large nor the productions so daring.  But we anticipate fun at the local theater and frequent visits to the cinema for the Metropolitan Opera Live broadcasts.