Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sweet Confinement (Sinnerman Theatre)

Recently I have become obsessed with the show “The Walking Dead.” I’ve always been partial to zombie films, like the classic scenario of a group of people trying to survive against an onslaught of bloodthirsty monsters. I have a weakness for indiscriminate violence on film (“28 Days Later), or the addition of humor while still retaining solid zombie kills (“Shaun of the Dead, or “Zombieland).

I enjoy “Walking Dead “so much more is because of the examination of the human condition. The zombies become the circumstance that helps propel the dramatic tension. The characters then have to deal with each other in this heightened reality, and the audience can then watch how humans deal with each other in crisis situations. Factors like family ties, race, past transgressions, and memories of the way the world used to be bring out feelings of hate and jealousy, acts of kindness or cruelty, and revolving alliances amongst the actors.

This use of a classic symbol is put to great use in the single bathroom set of Sinnerman Ensemble’s production of “Sweet Confinement,” written by Co-artistic director Anna Carini, and directed by Brea Hayes. In this case, the action begins with Amy (Cyd Blakewell) and her punky friend Amelia (Calliope Porter) standing around a giant pool of blood in the middle of the floor. Amy’s husband William has slit his wrists after Amy had decided to leave him and sent divorce papers, and is now in the hospital. This desperate attempt at getting her attention has brought their friends and relatives into the same house to help Amy, and to face ugly truths about their relationships and secret desires.

The characters spend the play trying to clean the gore, and by doing so, are forced to deal with each other. Amy’s brother Josh (Keith Neagle) returns from Washington D.C. to find his best friend dying and his sister practically catatonic, but is so emotionally stunted that he can’t or won’t share the burden. Ginger (Anna Carini), the flighty career woman, tries to help with supplies and food, flitting about the room trying not to vomit, but has to admit to sleeping with William. Amelia is the tough girl, but really wants Josh back in her life. Caleb (Howie Johnson), the next door neighbor, wants William out of the picture so he can have Amy all to himself.

The “elephant in the room,” William, never appears onstage, but his presence is all about. His past is filled with incidents caused by his manic depression, and his loved ones have borne the brunt of the effects. The human condition, and how we all react when we are up against it, is examined here to fine effect. The company is fully represented onstage, and shows the usual strong ensemble work of Sinnerman. Blakewell is particularly effecting as Amy, dazed by the event, and then exploding with rage over being once again tortured by another person’s condition.

The acting is only augmented by the clean white tile of the bathroom set, created by John Ross Wilson, which effectively contrasts the massive amount of blood onstage. Brea Hayes has the relationships between characters, past and present, perfectly clear and relatable to any audience. Carini also captures the dramatic weight of the situation, but also peppers the scenario with timely humor. If you enjoy a keyhole view into someone’s world, be sure to check out this show.


-John Moran

Friday, November 4, 2011

Follies (theatre review)

Now when you think Chicago Shakespeare, what comes to mind? Is it aging vaudevilians getting sauced in a broken down theater, cheating on their wives and husbands, and breaking into song? Well, if that wasn’t your thought, perhaps there is something wrong with you.

The regional Tony award-winning theater known for its updating of the Bard’s work, as well as bringing international companies to Chicago to perform, has started off its season with the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Follies.” This is the tale of the cast of the Weismann Follies, who, in 1971, have returned to the theater in New York where they sang, danced, performed slapstick, and couldn’t keep their hands off each other. 30 years after the Follies closed, the theater itself is set to be demolished, and the the performers are having one last get together to relive the memories, drink a lot of booze, get felt up by butlers and cabaret boys, and perform their big numbers.

The story revolves the 4 friends Sally and Buddy, Ben and Phyllis, who met here, fell in love, got married, and have returned with their marriages on the rocks. Throught the night, they reveal their true feelings, and decide whom they will be going home with on this night.

The production was astonishing. Director Gary Griffin has made a play that happens to have music. The acting is so strong across the board, but Caroline O’Connor as Phyllis is a force. She belts her song “Could I leave You” with such feelling that it is both funny and intimidating. She burns up the floor in the second act, showing the skills that have made her a Broadway star for years.

Griffin has taken the stage and created a world both reality and fantasy. The play begins with an angelic lead flapper, who enters the space, and effectively allows the world of the Follies to enter. The stage is a busted down theater that once captured the imagination, but has fallen on hard times. The entertainment of the Follies act as a vehicle for the characters to express their deepest regrets. Susan Moniz as Sally goes from a bubbly ingenue still holding onto hope for a lost love, to a scorned songstress in her version of “Losing My Mind.”

Robert Petkoff as Buddy, the good guy trying to do the right thing, only to realize he has a one sided marriage, brings the tragedy in “The Right Girl,” and the comedy in “Buddy’s Blues.” Brent Barret, the performer turned politician, who is mired in a loveless marriage, is able to seduce Sally once more with “Too Many Mornings,” and emaotionally fall to pieces in “Live, Laugh, Love.” These characters are confronted with memory, but, as the play seems to say, memory is often how one chooses to remember it.

The show also plays with time, as th younger versions of the four lovers, flow in and out of the party, showing the truth of where these four went wrong. Adrian Aguilar as Young Ben, Andrew Keltz as young Buddy, Rachel Cantor as Phyllis and L. R. Davidson as Sally are wonderful, showing the foursome while they still had their lives ahead of them.

I felt as if I was in New York watching a Broadway show. If you want the next best thing (without Broadway prices), go see this show.

-John Moran