October 28, 2014

A Review of Loyola Academy’s “The Burial At Thebes”

Loyola Academy’s Thespian Troupe 4729 performed Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” this past weekend. As I’ve said in past blogs regarding this group’s talents on stage, I was not disappointed.

The play in itself is relevant, and these students’ addition of their talents brought a 2,500 year old Greek classic, through Heaney’s work, to 21st Century urban America. Through music, set layout and costume the stage was transformed into an eerie post-apocalyptic-like arena of 9/11 gloom and protective gear.

Not being a devotee of much “yell-y” music I wasn’t familiar with many of the songs that Rogue Manatees performed at the beginning. That being said, I experienced it with great pleasure. I was satisfied that I could recognize the band logos on the chorus’ t-shirts…at least the Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones ones! The style of music, especially the opening set, lent itself to a great sense of desperation, helplessness and fear – yet with that very human ability to “rise above” hopelessness. The concert-like atmosphere as the music began aided the audience in our entering into the play; it was very easy to be put into the play’s present and share in the events.

The plastic tarp as backdrop and background and props was another method used to facilitate the all-encompassing experience for us. The ladders on stage throughout the play lent to the sense of a post-disaster destruction or reconstruction. The choreography was stunning – the use of movement, song, words and props succeeded in tying the action together. The chorus’ agility with the props and set design, as well as their ability to sing without gasping, always impresses me – very professional.

Color was key to setting the tone, I think. The overall sense of milky grey dominated the stage because of the previously mentioned tarp. It provided a stark backdrop to the blackness around the eyes and pasty whiteness of the casts’ faces. Some color variety leeched in through the clothing, but not too much – until the end. The white fabric with which Antigone hanged herself and the red of Haemon’s blood stood out as key to the non-verbal expressions of the play.

Heaney wrote the adaptation in the early days of the “War On Terrorism” and captured the fear, both real and fabricated, that held, and still holds to some extent, American society hostage. The parallels with the ancient Greek world’s tension of obedience to the State versus to a higher authority still rings relevant. This obedience, patriotism, loyalty, fear and ignorance have plagued us from Sophocles’ day through inquisitions and witch hunts through Red Scares and Mafia/gang-related retaliations through Guantanamo interrogations and jihads. These are unfortunate truths that reach beyond the Bush and Obama Administrations and nullify any argument based on the partisan politics of our age.

I’m consistently heartened by the talent of local theatre in our city and surrounding area. My experience of Loyal Academy’s Thespians over the past three years has only added to that. It is even more of a joy to experience socially-relevant issues on stage than in simply being entertained.

Thank you once again to all involved with the performances!

October 28, 2013

A Review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Loyola Academy

Ugh! Shakespeare again?! Hasn’t he been done to death?

Well, he’s been done and done a lot, but not to death. There are reasons why theatre troupes have done and will continue to put on his plays. They’re challenging, both in dramatic/comedic/physical requirements and in language comprehension for actors and audiences four centuries after he lived. We don’t speak as Hamlet did; Athenians didn’t speak in Shakespearean English 2,000+ years ago, either. So why continue to put his plays on? For the challenge, the enjoyment, the two hour escape from our reality, and, simply, because they’re great.

“Brilliant” is one of our overused and drained-of-real-meaning words, but the works of Shakespeare are brilliant in that they’ve cast light on our humanity and our conditions since the end of the 16th Century. His plays are among the most commonly done and re-done and “modernized”. Human love, folly, depravity all shine on stage through his lens and audiences since his time have enjoyed them. This past Friday at Loyola Academy I personally re-joined this almost-half a millennium tradition.

The Academy’s Thespian Troupe #4729 once again impressed me with their professionalism and energy in a constant call for stamina, both in mind and body. The physical display of choreographed movements by the three main dancers with fabric as well as the group of fairies was magical. They were present on stage but were not overbearing in their presence. They provided a harmony that helped convey me out of my seat in a high school theatrical auditorium in Wilmette, IL in the 21st Century and into a forest of unknown location and reality.

The main actors showed their abilities in their performances. While some had a better grasp of the flow of the dialogue in Shakespeare’s tongue than others, all of them kept up the energy level necessary to sustain the overall performance – a true group effort. Their endurance for the combination of speaking and moving about, running about, chasing, fighting was impressive. Also, the actors of the “play-within-the-play” conveyed all of the buffoonery, arrogance and love-ability  of the characters in the script.

In addition to the modern costumes, the occasional “slip” into our colloquial expressions like “Oh, snap!” and asking for the pass code from an actor with an iPad added humor to a great comedy – not an easy thing to do!

As with past performances I’ve seen at Loyola, the simplicity of the set was its strength. With the music, the movements, the smoke, flower pedals, moon, green fabric and lighting I never once doubted I was not in a forest. The presence of the Oberon, Titania, their entourage and Puck added that mystical environment that I’ve gotten when simply reading the play.

Thank you all for your involvement in the theatrical arts – the performers, the backstage, set, and lighting crews and the directors. As I’ve said before, it’s very heartening to see first hand the dedication to the arts at the high school level executed with such a professional flair. Well done.

March 10, 2013

A Review of Loyola Academy’s “Once On This Island”

In addition to the desire to hyper-link to a tropical island as winter makes its last gasps in Chicago, going to Loyola Academy’s Thespian Troupe 4729’s performance of Once On This Island, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, was a boost to my cultural immune system – bolstering it against network television’s blizzard of blather I would’ve been subjected to had I stayed home on Friday night.

I’ve seen the two performances this academic year by the Troupe and have not been disappointed. The musical kept pace with last fall’s Elephant’s Graveyard and even raised the level. Musicals are different by nature from non-musical productions and carry with them a different standard. My expectations were met and exceeded in the quality of the singing and in the energy and stage presence of the actors. It’s refreshing to see, hear, experience young talent onstage with the immediate goal of entertaining an audience who is present at the moment and for the moment, as opposed to impressing celeb judges and a home audience with an eye to a multi-million dollar recording contract.

The sets were simple and powerful yet again as was the case in Elephant’s – stark simplicity, allowing for freedom of movement and interpretation . Slats served to “support” the stage against a lightly lit backdrop creating an open, airy atmosphere. It was clear from the outset, as they watched from the balconies, that the gods Water, Earth, Love and Death, were major players. They each took their appropriate roles in the tale, marked by appropriate symbolic colors and executing their talents divinely. Costuming was vibrant and flashed across the stage with everyone’s movements in a seamless weave of visuals, music and dance.

The downside is in the fact that it was only one act! The play is what it is, the script is what it is, and the troupe kept to it in letter and spirit. A longer version (not the responsibility of Loyola Academy, btw) would’ve shown greater depth in the relationship between Ti Moun and Daniel, the tension between their two worlds which shared the same island, and the higher stakes of their love. This is something that a novel can do in more detail than a stage production. (The musical is an adaptation of My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy.)

I enjoy watching gods being portrayed as either “other than us” or “just like us”. When there’s a mixture of the two as the play is written, I’m usually a bit put off when the divine beings come off as more human than divine – I figure, hey, if they’re just like us, what the hell are we paying them for? My proclivities for superhuman gods aside, I think the regeneration of Love as shown at the end through the tree, another child and Daniel’s son brings everything to its hoped for conclusion. A very hope-filled play with a well-deserved cast, crew, orchestra et al. brings it all to life.

This is yet another sign that America’s got talent…and it ain’t on TV.

October 21, 2012

A Review of Loyola Academy’s performance of “Elephant’s Graveyard”

It’s a particular trait of human dysfunction to ignore “the elephant in the room”. It was an energizing, albeit emotionally exhausting, exercise to remember an incident in small town, World War I-era mid-America that tossed off the covers.

Elephant’s Graveyard by George Brant reveals not simply the depth of insanity, folly and cruelty of a group of people at a particular time in a specific place, but the depths that any one of us with our shared humanity can plunge when emotion rules and the sound grounding of Reason is buried.

The performance of Brant’s play on October 19th at Loyola Academy in Wilmette filled well the “shoes” of the elephant that was killed in Erwin, Tennessee on September 13, 1916. The stage was simple and skeletal – circus-type seating, a short boardwalk and a ringmaster’s circular platform. The play came alive with the Academy’s Thespian Troupe 4729. The drama of the tragedy flowed through the actors, each of the players evoking some aspect of the lighter and darker sides of the human condition.

The Ringmaster and Tour Manager, Jimmy Hogan and Lena Volpe respectively, rained down greed and conventional American business “sense”. The Trainer, “Shorty”, Ryan O’Toole, displayed love, friendship and, ultimately, hopelessness. The Ballet Girl, Grace Parker, pared innocence and seduction. The Clown and Strongman, Danny Holmberg and Jonathan Schoenheider, blended humor, denial, outer strength/inner weakness and task-orientation. The railroad crew, townspeople, sheriff and preacher played by Elizabeth Wittenberg, Tara Maloney, Joe Pesman, Molly Brekke, Tris Bucaro, Haley Loquercio, Sarah Mozack and Michele Frehe were all able to weave together fear, ignorance, power and misguided faith. The Drummer and Guitarist, Aidan Gleber and Danny Connolly, modernized the Greek Chorus model along with The Hungry Townsperson, Debo Balogun, serving as the conscience of humanity, the one whose memory stays clear; the one who is shocked that people would remember hanging an elephant, but forget the lynchings of black men, particularly the May 19, 1918 vigilante murder of Tom Devert and the subsequent expulsion of the town’s African-American population.

All in all it’s an uplifting story…provided we don’t forget. Not remembering dooms us to continue to throw young people into the feeding trough of sensationalized celebrity, holding them up to scrutiny until they are dropped and crushed and buried, replaced by the next Judy Garland, Michael Jackson or Heath Ledger – plated up and served. Not remembering dooms us to the cycle of ethnic and racial strife; and it dooms us to the unending bloodletting of warfare. The actors held this up throughout their performance.

While there was some (minimal) struggle with articulation and volume by a few of the cast, they rallied early on and overcame it. The level of emotion which the main players reached was impressive. O’Toole, as the elephant’s trainer was particularly strong, both in speaking and in his gestures and facial expressions. While Mary, the elephant, never made an appearance on stage, we saw her clearly all the way to the end.

The mixture of dramatic tension and humor was effective. The only flaw was in the audience’s discomfort: there were a few instances of nervous chuckles at highly dramatic and poignant times. The cast kept their course, though, and didn’t appear distracted.

It was a very enjoyable evening and heartening to see an excited, full theater on a Friday at a high school in the United States in the 21st Century! If Troupe 4729 and crew are typical of our area’s dramatic talent, then I am most-optimistic for the future of stage in general and Chicago theatre in particular.