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.

October 1, 2012

A Review of “Six Dead Queens and An Inflatable Henry”

If Timothy Burton were one of my history teachers, I would’ve been prepared for the performance of Six Dead Queens. As it stands, I was educated by the Piccolo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago on September 28th in the lives, through the deaths, of the six wives of Henry VIII.

This lively postmortem vindicates and gives satisfaction to these women in the historical record. The sextet portraying the royal Six kept the audience engaged, chuckling, pausing to reflect, and laughing more. They were energized and energizing, the personas of each articulated and poured out over the bed and on the rest of the stage.

The music and song were an added pleasure and a well-fit comic accompaniment to the play. The actors played and sang in a bit of a medieval danse macabre meets The King and I meets Edward Scissorhands style. They were boisterous and bawdy and altogether believable in their expressions of anger, jealousy, insecurity and hatred.

This is not simply a “dead” comedy, though. The themes of Woman’s dignity, honesty regarding the injustices perpetrated against women by a culture obsessed with male succession, and the hypocrisy of demanding female fidelity in the presence of socially-sanctioned male harlotry are much the issues today as in pre-Elizabethan England. The script, acting, scores and singing helped finger all places at all times when inconsistencies and unquestioned biases raise their ugliness.

The setting of a large bed as the main prop/stage was the perfect scaffold for the winching of female utilitarianism. The shadowy crowns that were donned at different points of the performance highlighted the historical back steps of women’s continued struggle with the temptation of being “The One” in a man’s life. The incessant competitiveness, sniping, jabbing and fighting (once with swords and daggers) showed this tragic, millennia-old pattern.

The red and black dominant in the costuming was the perfect backdrop for the death white on the actors’ faces. The highlighting of their eyes and mouths cooperated well with actors’ own facial expressions, each one symbolizing with clarity their own character’s persona.

Henry’s “appearance” at the end was a fitting climax and provided the tools of a satisfactory resolution. The mock execution was cathartic and sewed this tragi-comedic drama into a well-received conclusion.

Six Dead Queens and An Inflatable Henry plays through October 6th at the Greenhouse Theater.