Lovison reviews two ‘Robust’ movies at Chicago International Film Festival

 

'Robust' at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
‘Robust’ at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

4 stars

“Robust”

In “Robust,” Gerard Depardieu portrays a lonely, bored, aging actor, Georges, unwilling or uninterested in going through the same old motions.

When his regular driver/security guard is temporarily called out of town, Georges creates a new alliance with his replacement, Aissa, brilliantly played by Déborah Lukumuena. She turns out to be the equal of both the character, Georges, and Depardieu, himself. Every scene between the two is a mesmerizing lesson in restraint and underlying tension.

The film is not a thriller with over the top special effects or chase sequences. There is no great plot or cinematic triumph. “Robust” is basically a quiet character study directed by Constance Meyer and written by Meyer with Marcia Romano providing very believable situations.

The tension is created between the male/female and employer/employee relationship specifically since Georges has personal boundary issues.

But this is not a “me too” theme. Instead, though there is an underlying subtle desire, this is more of a paternal relationship between two people trying to deal with their loneliness in spite of their busy professional lives.

In the end, as with any intense relationship between people in close proximity over a period of time, they learn something about each other and about themselves.

“Robust” is produced by Isabelle Madelaine. She apparently has produced a number of short subjects which explains her attraction to this piece that is a kind of expanded short subject.

Kudos to casting director Judith Chalier for putting together such an interesting and talented team. Even the performances of the secondary characters, regardless of the size of their roles, were delivered with sincere perfection.

Cinematographer Simon Beaufils treated us to a number of beautiful close-up portraits that amplified the inner tensions and intimacy. Likewise production designer Julia Lemaire provided an array of interesting, mostly interior, settings that provided subtle insight into the characters and their situations.

“Robust” is much like a warm bath. Just sit back and soak it in. Then when it is over feel refreshed and satisfied.

I highly recommend this film because you will be happy to see Depardieu work his magic. But more importantly, you will be very glad that you got to see an interesting performance by rising star Lukumuena.

This is a North American premiere as part of the Chicago International Film Festival with two live screenings at the AMC River East 10/18 and 10/22 and limited online streaming Oct 14, 2021 to Oct 24, 2021 in the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. For detailed information visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com

Language: French with English subtitles. Running time:  95 minutes.

 

Hit the Road at Chicago International Film Festival. 'Robust' at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
Hit the Road at Chicago International Film Festival. ‘Robust’ at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

4 stars

“Hit the Road”

“Hit the Road” by director Panah Panahi is a story of an Iranian family road trip with overtones of “Little Miss Sunshine” or “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Lest you think Iranian families are very different than yours, this family will dispel that myth.

It is an odd sort of setup that begins with the father,  (Hassan Madjouni) sitting in the back seat with a cast on his leg that is being decorated by his younger 6 year-old son (Rayan Sarlak).

Mom (Pantea Panahiha), a rather attractive forty something wearing a hijab that fashionably reveals her stylish gray hair, is in the front seat, while the elder, twenty-something son (Amin Simiar), is the driver.

You can’t help but to ask, “Who are these people, where are they going and why does he have a broken leg?” For most of the trip the purpose of the journey is unclear.

In the first half of the film, we get to know the quirky characters as they quibble and banter back and forth. Most of the action is directed by the younger son referred to as “the kid” who is full of non-stop energy, curiosity and downright obnoxious silliness.  The Spiderman and Batman obsessed “kid” restlessly tumbles and falls relentlessly next to, and on the lap of, the father who willingly partakes in all of the activity, even encouraging him.  Mom does little to intercede and indeed encourages him while the older son silently keeps his eyes on the road.

Through the course of their day-long travel they make a few rest stops and we begin to get a better, but still fairly unclear, idea of their destination. This is best described as a dramedy with the characters using the antics of “the kid” to interject some humor and provide distraction for their more serious task at hand.

If you’ve been cooped up due to COVID, “Hit the Road” will give you a chance to take a little family adventure while enjoying the beautiful rugged Iranian landscape. Much like one of those 500 piece picture puzzles you might have been working on this past year, the film’s director doles out small colorful pieces that fit together and begin to make sense amid the chaos of “the kid’s” antics.

Incidentally, this is a debut film by Panah Panahi whose father’s directorial feature film debut was the Iranian classic “White Balloon” (Jafar Panahi 1995). It is the humanistic style of both of these films with their subtle criticisms that somehow manages to exist within the country’s authoritarian regime that I find very interesting.

“Hit the Road,” presented as part of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, is available to stream Oct 14 to Oct 24, 2021 in the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

LANGUAGE : Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 94 minutes

 

Reno Lovison

 

‘The Last Shelter’ a must see at Chicago International Film Festival

 

The Last Shelter at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
The Last Shelter at Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

4 stars

A group of random migrants from West Africa destined for Europe stop at “The Last Shelter” on the edge of the Sahel Desert (that transitions into the Sahara) before continuing their journey toward a better life.

Here at “La Maison du Migrants” in Mali they are confronted by a kindly social worker who urges them to return home, explaining that it is admirable that they had gotten this far but many die in the harsh desert conditions beyond. His agency promises them a bus ride back home.

While counseling two sixteen year-old girls from Burkina Faso he pleads with them to reconsider by explaining that even if they do get to Algeria they will likely find no employment and will be forced into prostitution. In a meeting with the others he tells them of his own experience of being cheated of his wages and treated with contempt.

One of the girls reveals how Facebook (and certainly other social media) fuel discontent and spur the hopes of young migrants who see friends and acquaintances who have successfully made the journey. For fifteen or twenty year-olds who hate their life, hardship and even death are abstract ideas that do little to dissuade them.

This is an all too common tale taking place around the world as young people seek a better life, freedom and more opportunity. This story could be told not only in Africa but in nearly any country throughout the Middle-East and South or Central America as well as Mexico.  For many, Europe is a fine destination, but their hope is the ultimate lottery win of reaching the United States.

“The Last Shelter” focuses primarily on the two young girls. Ester says she had hopes of acting, singing or boxing. She chose the latter because she admits having a lot of anger and feels boxing would be a way to release her frustrations.  Her friend expresses hopes of being a teacher or doctor because she wants to help people. During their respite in the shelter she is the one who encourages Ester to study English as they work on simple phrases.

The film is sensitively photographed by director/cinematographer Ousmane Samassekou and Amath Niane. It shines with intimate close-ups and beautiful b-roll of the desert sunrise and evocative cutaways of the shelter’s inspiring blue painted interior. The shots are reminiscent of a beach cabana that belies otherwise minimal accommodations and the hot, dry reality outside its doors.

The story is expertly constructed by Samassekou with editor Céline Ducreux to tell a compelling, important and compassionate human story that sheds light on the motivations and desires of migrating individuals.

The Last Shelter is a U.S. Premier presented as part of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival. Online viewing is available. Visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com for more information.

LANGUAGE : Bambara, French, Fula, Hausa, Mooré, Susu, Waama with English subtitles

Reno Lovison

A look at more Chicago International Film Festival offerings

Reviewer Reno Lovison picks two more shows currently offered by the Chicago International Film Festival worthy of three star ratings. They are either based in Chicago or have Chicago themes or subjects.

The films have limited in-person options but can be viewed virtually  October 14 through October 24, 2021. Check back at CTAA for more International Film Fest reviews. For specific information visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com.

 

'On the Edge of Victory' showing at the Chicago Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
‘On the Edge of Victory’ showing at the Chicago Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

3 stars

On the Edge of Victory

How soon we forget. This intimate behind the scenes documentary “Mayor Pete,” follows his bootstrap campaign for the presidency from its nascent beginnings to the edge of victory.

Sure Pete Buttigieg, (pronounced boot-edge-edge)  mayor of a small Midwestern city, speaks eight languages, is a Rhode Scholar and retired lieutenant in the Navy Reserves who served in Afghanistan; but that didn’t stop this over achiever from being the first openly gay presidential candidate, with an odd name, from soaring from unknown candidate to winner of the Iowa caucuses, primarily by being extremely intelligent and being his authentic self.

Like many documentaries, “Mayor Pete” by Jesse Moss simply follows the action. Since it starts at the beginning of the campaign the filmmaker has no idea how it will end. Very often in these situations you know you have an interesting subject but you don’t really know what the story will be.

In this case you have someone who many might consider a nontraditional candidate with a same-sex partner running for the highest office in the land. But the mundaneness of his relationship with husband Chasten and the “regular guy” laid back attitude of Pete himself kinda shouts, “There’s nothing to see here folks,” illustrating that those who we might consider as being “other” really have more in common with us than our perceived differences suggest.

“Mayor Pete,” will certainly appeal to political wonks and historians, though it doesn’t really offer much strategic insight other than some interesting preparation for his debates and appearances. At its core it is an inspirational story of authenticity, personal growth, love and victory; even if that victory is not exactly what you had expected.

Running time: 96 minutes. Visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com for more information.

 

Harlem Renaissance Man (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
Harlem Renaissance Man (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

3 stars

A Harlem Renaissance Man

The small city of Metropolis sits on the southern-most border of Illinois and is best known for its self-described claim to fame as being the “birthplace” of the fictional comic book hero Superman. However the town’s real life native son is author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Oscar was born in 1884 to former slaves Calvin and Belle Michaux who travelled out of Kentucky over the Ohio River establishing a homestead where the boy spent his early years farming. Eventually he made his way to Chicago getting a very prestigious job as a Pullman porter. This experience no doubt contributed to a wider understanding of the world and introduced him to a more diverse social strata.

Within a short period of time Micheaux was able to obtain a small piece of land in South Dakota. However the harsh winters put his mind to other interests and after a few years he wrote a book about his life experiences and escapades that he self-published then sold door-to-door apparently rather successfully within Black communities.

After gaining some notoriety Micheaux turned down an offer to make one of his stories into a moving picture. Instead in 1919 he opted to buy some equipment, gather some people and do it himself, putting him on the road that would ultimately establish him as the first major Black filmmaker, going on to produce 42 feature films.

Micheaux’s filmmaking business brought him to Harlem, the undisputed Black Capitol of segregated America, at the very dawn of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance no doubt putting him in contact with some of the most notable cultural icons of that era.  Micheaux is in fact credited with hiring Paul Robeson before the actor became an international superstar.

It seems that aside from promoting his own written works Micheaux had a desire to use his early silent films and later talkies to project a more wholesome and authentic view of African-American life presumably to counteract the negative stereotypes that were being portrayed in  White cinema, most notably in films like D.W. Griffith’s (1915) “Birth of a Nation.”

At least from my perspective Micheaux’s story is as much about his entrepreneurial spirit as it is about his filmmaking. Not only did he write and produce film but often appeared in small roles and set up his own distribution scheme to insure that his films would be screened and seen in African American communities nationwide. It seems he was one of those people who was  going to create a place for himself in this world somehow.

“Oscar Micheaux – The Superhero of Black Cinema” had its North American premiere as part of the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival.  Directed by Francesco Zippel, it is a sort of meandering biographical documentary that gets this important story told through a number of expert interviews and original film clips.

The importance of this documentary is perhaps to illustrate to younger generations that in the early nineteen hundreds there were a number of African American entrepreneurs who stepped in to fill a void created by segregation.

They operated their professions and crafts parallel to the more influential white power structure by exploiting opportunities to serve a market that was otherwise being neglected.

As a result of America’s unofficial apartheid system these early industrial pioneers rarely were recognized by the wider society for the contributions they made.

“Oscar Micheaux -The Superhero of Black Film Making” is a useful contribution to the library of Black History subjects placing Micheaux into the pantheon of individuals who contributed to the rise of twentieth century African American culture and ultimately, in a more “woke” sense, to the fabric of American culture as a whole.

Running time: 80 minutes. Visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com for more information.

Reno Lovison

 

 

Chicago related films now showing at the Chicago Film Festival

 

Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

A resounding political battle

4 stars

Before Obama there was Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor who in 1983 challenged the status quo, took on “The Machine,” and ultimately won the hearts of the majority of the city to build the first truly diverse political coalition in the history of Chicago.

A brutal racially divided campaign culminated in what came to be dubbed “council wars” as the majority white opposition maintained control of the city’s legislative body even after Washington’s election.

Strategies employed in this era of Chicago politics would write the playbook for political opposition that continues to resound on the national scene to this day. Alternately the strategies employed by Harold Washington have written the playbook for many successful minority campaigns nationwide for nearly 40 years and likely well into the future.

“Punch 9 for Harold Washington” a Chicago International Film Festival 2021 world premiere  documentary by director Joe Winston, comprised largely of archival footage and interviews, is a sober reminder to those of us who lived through the era and a fitting tribute to one of Chicago’s unique and transformative political figures.

“Punch 9 for Harold Washington”  Run time: 104 minutes

 

Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)
Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of film fest presenter Cinema/Chicago)

4 stars

“SHORTS 1” is an eclectic showcase of eight short subjects from a variety of filmmakers with ties to Chicago.  Each film runs about 10 minutes or less and one ticket at the festival will provide access to the entire collection.

Four of the shorts have immigrant related themes and four have generational or age related themes. Though they each are very personal stories I would describe only one of them as being specifically documentary. Two are essentially art films, one of which is specifically in the genre of horror.

There is a little bit here for everyone, but clearly these folks know how to tell stories and make them look beautiful.

“Sink” is a brilliantly disturbing film shot entirely as an overhead shot of a bathroom sink with the only character a pair of hands and the occasional top of the head of a man, written, performed, and edited by Curtis Matzke with interesting music and great sound effects that really heightened the experience.

In “Close Ties to Home Country,” written, directed and outstandingly performed by Akanksha Cruczynski, an immigrant dog walker pines for home while having a weird connection to the animal she cares for.

“Winning in America,” produced by Amrita Singh, explores the relationship of an immigrant father and daughter as they prepare for the state regional competition of the National Spelling Bee.

“Get well soon” is another terrifically performed visually attractive vignette piece that focuses on the emotions of a young woman dealing with the illness of her father, written and directed by Ashley Thompson.

Similarly, “By the time I reach him” by Meg Walsh, uses black and white imagery with voiceover to portray an intimate voyeuristic conversation between a daughter and her Alzheimer afflicted father.

“Speck of Dust” is also a voiceover driven, introspective narrative film. Produced by Moroccan-American, Chicago-based filmmaker Simo Ezoubeiri, it has a vintage vibe that speaks to themes of loneliness and existence from the point-of-view of an elderly man.

“The Year I Went Looking for Birds” is kind of a video gallery of Danny Carroll that illustrates his ability to find interesting images, but it is more of a demo reel than a fully conceived production.

Virginia R. Matos produced “Monochromatic Dreams” which has a lovely musical score by Natalia Perez. It is the most straightforward documentary in the group offering insight into the work of Latinx media installation artist Yvette Mayorga.

“Shorts 1”  – Run time 76 minutes

Reno Lovison

Chicago themed movies from the Chicago International Film Festival

 

Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)
Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)

Here are three capsule reviews of films at the Chicago International Film Festival that are based in Chicago or that have Chicago themes or subjects.  Each of these films has limited in-person theater viewing options during the festival as well as virtual viewing between October 14, 2021 through October 24, 2021. Check back at CTAA for more International Film Fest reviews. For specific information visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com.

 

A compassionate look at the challenges of mental illness

3 stars

Producer/director Margaret Byrne bravely reveals her own story of mental illness while following three other individuals as they each battle their inner demons and indeed struggle day-by-day just to function. With any luck they may ultimately succeed even though on “Any Given Day” their illness might take hold and set them back.

Byrne lets her camera do a lot of the speaking through aerial shots, cutaways of urban landscapes and close-up glimpses of nature, using artful imagery to convey personal thought processes where words might fail.

“Any Given Day” a Chicago International Film Festival 2021 U.S. premiere should remind us to consider that some human beings have extraordinary challenges beyond their control and important stories to share.

“Any Given Day” Run Time: 94 minutes

 

Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)
Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)

An appealing thrill ride to nowhere

2.5 stars

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” a visually appealing thriller by a talented production team with a great musical score is inspired by a true Chicago mystery.

Based in 1999, video editor James believably portrayed by (Crazy Rich Asians) Harry Shum Jr. sets out to find who is behind the interruptions of local TV broadcast signals that occurred ten years earlier featuring a weird masked figure, speaking some garbled message, through a haze of static which may be connected to the disappearance of several women.

This vintage homage to ’70s paranoid cinema falls short compared to the classics on which it is based with more loose ends then your grandma’s shag carpet. A local odyssey full of intriguing characters is at best a pleasurable buggy ride to nowhere that leaves you mildly exhilarated but ultimately unfulfilled.

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” Run Time 104 minutes

 

Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)
Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 13-24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cinema/Chicago)

This film hits all the right notes

4 stars

An African American senior, physically debilitated due to a childhood injury purposely inflicted by his mentally impaired father, is virtually paralyzed on one side of his body and unable to use his right hand.

“For the left hand” is an inspiring documentary by Leslie Simmer and Gordon Quinn based on a feature story by Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich about Lincoln Park High School choral director Norman Malone who in spite of his challenges followed his passion to teach music and in retirement fulfills a lifelong dream to master Ravel’s “Concerto for left hand” then play it in front of an audience with a full orchestra for the first time at age 79.

“For the left hand”  Run time: 74 minutes

Reno Lovison

 

 

‘Live at Mr. Kelly’s:’ A documentary for Chicago fans and history buffs

 

 

Live at Mr. Kelly's documentary. (Photo courtesy of the film's producers
Live at Mr. Kelly’s documentary. (Photo courtesy of the film’s producers

4 Stars

If you’re new to the city or younger than 60 you might not know that on the corner of Rush and Bellevue where Gibson’s Steakhouse now stands was one of the premiere entertainment venues in the country, a nightclub called Mr. Kelly’s that was the center of the city’s midcentury bohemian nightlife.

Kelly’s was ground zero for the local jet set, Michigan Avenue “Mad Men” and visiting businessmen from around the country who came to the Windy City to cut monumental deals.

It was virtually guaranteed that executives visiting between 1955 and 1975 would be treated to a night at Kelly’s that included a great steak and world class entertainment.

The venue was the brainchild of brothers Oscar and George Marienthal. This documentary film “Live at Mr. Kelly’s” is a love letter from George’s son, Executive Producer David Marienthal.

About 90 minutes long, “Live at Mr. Kelly’s” is  jam packed with testimonials and stories from many entertainers including Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Herbie Hancock, Shecky Green, Ramsey Lewis, Bette Midler, The Smothers Brothers, Lainie Kazan, Tom Dreesen, Tim Reed, Mort Sahl and others who, while in Chicago, called Mr. Kelly’s home or who attribute their appearance at the local club as a significant contribution to their success.

Many of the comedians credit Mr. Kelly’s with helping to fashion the unique American art form of standup comedy. Certainly the club championed the best of the best with early appearances by the likes of Lenny Bruce and Peoria native Richard Pryor.

Barbra Streisand opens the film with a story about shooting publicity photos on Oak Street Beach, one of which went on to win a Grammy for best album cover.

Did you know that the famed poet, Maya Angelou, was once a calypso singer who played congas? It’s true and she performed at Mr. Kelly’s.

The title of this film is something of a misnomer since it gives nearly equal time to the history of the London House, which by the way, also featured great steaks, peerless piano players and  top executives, and mentions the popular Happy Medium. Those venues were also owned and operated by the Marienthal brothers.

I learned from this film that one thing I have in common with Herbie Hancock is we both took prom dates to the London House. I don’t know about Herbie but I married my date

It was actually my now wife’s prom. She was graduating from Senn High School on the northside and going on to study piano at Millikin University in Decatur so of course she wanted a dinner venue with piano music. What could be better than Ramsey Lewis at the London House on Michigan Avenue and Wacker with a romantic late night boat ride afterwards.

The London House was the cool jazz version of Kelly’s, concentrating nearly exclusively on the hippest of the hip including greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Andre Previn and Oscar Peterson.

Both Mr. Kelly’s and London House made live recordings that added to their fame. Luckily for us they’re available to listen to and get a sense of the ambiance of each of the intimate spaces.

This is a bit of Chicago history that with each passing day fades further into obscurity. Thankfully this film has made an effort to stop the clock and capture a snapshot of the past from a few of those who were there to witness it in its heyday.

Directed by Ted Bogosian “Live at Mr. Kelly’s” had a premiere showing at the Siskel Center September 17-19, 2021. It will be released as a video on demand (VOD)  in 2021 on Oct. 12 and on DVD Oct. 19. For information visit www.misterkellyschicago.

 

Reno Lovison

A dark tale of a white whale

Moby Dick by Theatre in the Dark. Clockwise from top L: Robinson Cyprian, Corey Bradberry, Elizabeth McCoy, composer Nick Montopoli, and Mack Gordon. (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Moby Dick by Theatre in the Dark. Clockwise from top L: Robinson Cyprian, Corey Bradberry, Elizabeth McCoy, composer Nick Montopoli, and Mack Gordon. (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

3 Stars

Theatre in the Dark metaphorically sets sail to harpoon the quintessential fish story that is “Moby Dick.”

Maybe you read it in high school or enjoyed Gregory Peck in the screen adaptation proffered one Sunday afternoon by Frazier Thomas on Family Classics, or maybe you’ve missed the story all together.

This 90-minute version of the tale crafted by producing artistic director Corey Bradberry captures the essence of Herman Melville’s classic seafaring novel. It does so in a kind of CliffsNotes fashion that preserves the storyline while doing fair justice to the primary characters including vivid descriptions of the elusive and menacing great white whale, itself.

No need to keep your eyes peeled. Theatre in the Dark is a Chicago based  company specializing in telling stories through sound so this production can be more accurately described as a live radio drama. In this case, it is broadcast via the Internet on Zoom.

The voice of Elizabeth McCoy as the narrator, Ishmael, has a fresh and active timbre. She provides a colorful tone that becomes the foundation of the aural composition.

However, her delivery, at times, is more reminiscent of a Saturday morning children’s librarian than that of an experienced youth intimately recounting details of a horrific, bone-chilling odyssey.

In his portrayal of third mate Stubb, Mack Gordon provides a grizzled gruff but kindly attitude that is imbued with a sense of camaraderie and discipline as well as a longing for home.

“Thar she blows!” He gives it the sweet taste of simple pleasures that have come to define the mental portrait of those hearty souls whose livelihood and willingness for adventure caused them to choose one of the most perilous vocations of all time.

The velvety basso tones of Robinson J. Cyprian as the vengefully obsessed and austere Captain Ahab offers the contrast needed to add aural dimension to the production while simultaneously suggesting the underlying foreboding of his true quest.

Augmented by original music of Nick Montopoli, the soundscape design of Bradberry and Gordon fully delivers the background auditory impressions required to set the stage. It puts the listener on the deck of the Pequod in the midst of the action.

Dim the lights. Don your foul weather gear. Then, settle down with your mug of grog to enjoy the recounting of this time-honored maritime adventure.

“Moby Dick” runs 90 minutes plus a 10 minute intermission. It is online through April 10, 2021. For tickets and information visit theatreinthedark..

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Theatre for one: Here we are, now what?

Theatre for One at the Court Theatre (Photo courtesy of Court Theatre)
Theatre for One at the Court Theatre (Photo courtesy of Court Theatre)

3 Stars

 

Creating an intimate face-to-face theatrical experience seems the primary objective of Theatre For One: Here We Are, a series of eight new microplays.

They are written and directed by black, indigenous, and women of color presented by  Chicago’s Court Theatre under the leadership of Charles Newell, Artistic Director Marilyn F. Vitale and Executive Director Angel Ysaguirre.

Promoted as a live digital theatrical experience, the performances take place via an Internet based video platform similar to Zoom. Audience members are required to participate via a computer preferably using a Chrome browser with their camera, speakers, and microphone operational.

Right off the bat, I find this a little bit of overkill as I did not experience a substantial amount of interaction on my part with any of the actors I encountered.

I will say that the expectation of interaction did set up a sense of intimacy where I might otherwise have stayed a bit more aloof and thus participating as more of an observer than an active listener. So in this sense it works.

Interestingly there are a few minutes between each play where audience members are prompted to chat among themselves in the “lobby” by typing messages anonymously which was amusing, playful and interactive.

Theatre For One: Here We Are brings together one actor with one audience member to share a laugh, tell a story or create an imaginative moment.

Being certain that your audience is “with you” is indeed one of the challenges of online theater. After all, actors thrive on the energy from the audience and the lack of energy can be a drawback in digital theater.

Each audience member is randomly assigned four out of the eight plays in the package which are as follows:

Thank You For Coming. Take Care by Stacey Rose, directed by Miranda Gonzalez, featuring Sydney Charles

What Are The Things I Need To Remember* by Lynn Nottage, directed by Chris Anthony, featuring TayLar

Pandemic Fight by Carmelita Tropicana, directed by Miranda Gonzalez, featuring Melissa DuPrey

Here We Are by Nikkole Salter, directed by Monet Felton, featuring Xavier Edward King

Thank You Letter by Jaclyn Backhaus, directed by Lavina Jadhwani, featuring Adithi Chandrashekar

Before America Was America* by DeLanna Studi, directed by Chris Anthony, featuring Elizabeth Laidlaw

Whiterly negotiations* by Lydia R. Diamond,  directed by Monet Felton, featuring Deanna Reed-Foster.

Vote! (the black album)* written and directed by Regina Taylor, featuring Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

Each of the four “plays” I encountered (see asterisks) were well written, thought provoking, and well delivered. I would of course expect nothing less from this company.

However, I would describe these performances as monologues rather than “plays” as they are each about 10 minutes in length, delivered by one person and do not substantially evolve from their one simple premise.

They are not really “one-man-shows.” Neither are the” plays” part of a cohesive group as in “Spoon River Anthology.”

With that said I felt a bit like I was watching a series of auditions or “Moth” presentations.  Of course in “The Moth” people are telling short stories derived from their own life experience which in itself has a great deal of intimacy.

This is what I felt was lacking here. Then again, isn’t that the challenge of an actor – – to take someone else’s words and make them their own? With maybe one exception generally I felt like I was being “talked at” rather than “spoken to.”

During this stay-at-home period over the past several months I have done a great deal of business online networking which has required me to have a number of spontaneous, intimate, face-to-face digital interactions with perhaps close to 100 strangers, so I understand spontaneous, authentic, digital communication.

The challenge with the Theatre for One concept is to recreate that feeling as a theatrical experience, to make me feel like this actor is sharing an intimate moment with me, personally.

If you have not had a similar online experience think of a fellow bus mate or airplane encounter where you developed a close bond with a stranger over a short period of time and where they were willing to let down their guard and share intimate details with a stranger because of the promise of anonymity. I believe this is what this company is aiming for. They get very close.

These are challenging times for actors and theater companies who need to push their creative bounds so this is a very good effort. I encourage you to check it out and experience it for yourself.

It’s about an hour long and an enjoyable way to extend your idea of what theater has been and what it can be. Grab a beverage, power up your communication portal and go with the flow. After all here we are so let’s make the best of it.

Details: Theatre for One, Feb. 21 through March 14, 2021. Performance Schedule: Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information visit CourtTheatre.

Reno Lovison

A Christmas Carol in the dark

3 Stars

 Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

Theatre in the Dark celebrates the end of 2020 with their spin on Charles Dickens’ beloved classic tale of self-reflection and repentance.

My first impulse is to suggest that this year more than others in recent memory is a perfect time to reflect on the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. But  I realize that human suffering and greed are continually with us to a greater or lesser degree and  that the Christmas spirit as defined by Dickens is our meager attempt once a year to rise above petty self-interests and consider the greater good. “God bless us, every one.”

“A Christmas Carol” is a fictional expose on the Victorian life and times of  Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a character whose very name has become synonymous with miserliness, as in “That guy is a real Scrooge.”

In the story, this tightwad scrimps on coal in the winter months, begrudges his only clerk a day off to celebrate the Christmas holiday with the family and, in response to a solicitation of aid to the poor asks, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

When pointed out that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge suggests that “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

His comment exemplifies a degree of callousness and disregard for the welfare of others for no reason other than to hoard his wealth which we learn brings him no personal pleasure.

As the story begins, Scrooge is visited by the specter of Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner. Marley warns of the torments he has endured in the afterlife as a result of his own greed and indifference. He suggests Scrooge may escape the same fate if he undergoes visitations with three additional apparitions – the ghosts of Christmas present, past and future.

Through a nightmarish one-night odyssey, Scrooge sees his negative effect on others, his disregard of positive role models and a lonely end and lamentable legacy if he does not change.

Dickens’ story continues to work as a modern day parable, revealing the darker nature that lurks within us all.

Scrooge’s journey of self-discovery demonstrates that we can each contribute by paying a little more attention to our place within our community and our part in society.

Observing the loving interactions of the Cratchit family and the kind words of nephew Fred, we realize that it is not just about money. We can be greedy with our emotions and personal interactions as well.

Dickens and the cast of Theater in the Dark also pull at our heart strings through the now iconic character of Tiny Tim who, in contrast to Scrooge, has come to exemplify innocent good cheer in the face of adversity and demonstrates that love does not require monetary wealth but can be given freely in abundance.

This iteration of “A Christmas Carol” is offered as an Internet version of a radio drama designed to be enjoyed in a now, largely bygone, aural tradition. Delivered via zoom it requires only a good set of speakers or a headset. The experience is very much like sitting around your living room reading aloud with friends.

There were no real standout performances though Corey Bradberry as Scrooge did a credible job weaving a thread of continuity throughout the production. The rest of the cast was more than adequate but really broke no new ground nor did they really rise to the level of any of the well-known movie versions or other well regarded stage adaptations.

Still, I do not fault Theatre in the Dark for taking a stab at this. After all, live theater is about having your crack at stepping into the skin of various characters and seeing what it’s like to be them.

This is an ensemble production with each of the actors Sarah Althen, Kathleen Puls, Mack Gordon, and Corey Bradberry playing several roles. The story was adapted and directed by Mack Gordon, featuring original music by Jake Sorgen with sound design by Gordon.

The danger of doing a classic is akin to being a cover band.  If you do not play exactly like the original you will be criticized for not being an exact replica. The other option is to be completely original so it is clear you are doing something fresh.

In this case, think Bill Murray’s version or the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, that has become a classic in its own right.

Unfortunately this company really did neither so the question becomes why choose this version over a number of other options? The main reason is the audio aspect.

If you or your kids have not experienced a radio drama you might find this a refreshing option. If the listener has no previous experience with the play they will be relieved of the burden of comparison.

Finally, Theater in the Dark offers a pay as you please option so it’s a great way to try something new while supporting smaller theater companies during the stay-at-home-period.

To be clear I did not dislike this performance but would put it into the realm of a very good reading as opposed to a thoughtfully well-crafted production. If you’re home with the kids, consider this as a way to develop listening skills sitting in the dark and enjoy some peaceful quiet time together.

Interestingly, the cast is simultaneously in Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver which expands the notion of live theater. The Internet performance is delivered via Zoom with the help of stage manager/sound engineer Cory Bradberry.

I listened via an iPad with amplified computer speakers connected via an analog cable which allowed me to easily adjust the volume in the room. There is no picture to be concerned with so screen sharing is basically a useless option. Also be forewarned that screen sharing via Zoom in most cases will not broadcast the audio so keep it as simple as possible by using a tablet or computer.

Theatre in the Dark is offering Live online performances of “A Christmas Carol” through December  24, 2020. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at www.theatreinthedark.com.  For info only (no ticketing), call (312) 285-0314.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reno Lovison

 

A modern spin on a classic toy story

The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)
The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)

3 stars

“Steadfast Tin Soldier” is reprised for the third year (this year online) by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The plotline devised by nineteenth century Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen might be described to a modern audience as Toy Story 1.0.

It is difficult to say when or where the idea of a theatrical performance about the secret life of toys may have begun. There is of course The Nutcracker Suite, another perennial favorite and no doubt others that predate them both.

In this toybox tale a damaged tin soldier falls in love with a beautiful dollhouse ballerina who is already evidently in a relationship with the somewhat hideous jack-in-the-box.

An unfortunate turn of events sends our soldier hero on an odyssey that separates the lovers until their surprising reunion with a shocking twist.

This version written and directed by Mary Zimmerman presented as a pantomime, has no dialog, relying heavily on the physicality of the actors to tell the story.

The five person cast features Lookingglass Ensemble Members Kasey Foster (Ballerina) and Anthony Irons (Goblin), with Joe Dempsey (Nursemaid), John Gregorio (Rat), and Alex Stein (Steadfast Tin Soldier). In addition to their primary roles each member plays a variety of subordinate roles as well.

Joe Dempsey and John Gregorio are responsible for much of the comedic action with the highlight being a romantic encounter between a Fish Monger and the Nursemaid.

Foster and Irons perform an amusing, slow-motion skirmish as two boys who tussle over the found toy soldier with choreography by Tracy Walsh.

The evocative original music score composed by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert is skillfully executed by Leandro López Várady (Music Director/Piano), Greg Hirte (Violin), Juan Horie (Cello), and Constance Volk (Flutes) in a post-modern genre with jazz elements. The effect is reminiscent of a silent movie with the music setting the tempo of the action and providing emotional accents.

There are no songs per se but rather a series of instrumental vignettes and therefore no lyrics except for the finale number that sort of sums up the moral of the story for those who might be a bit confounded by the various goings on.

My first impulse is to say that this is a non-traditional performance but then I realize that is only true in a modern sense. Actually this production is full of ancient stage craft borrowed from a number of traditions.

There is of course pantomime, music, puppetry large and small designed by Chicago Puppet Studio, circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, and body movement that can certainly be included in the realm of dance, though this is not a ballet to be sure.

Virtually any person from essentially any language group or culture would be able to understand the essence of this story that portrays basic archetypes experiencing universal human relationships.

Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic along with her team provide a kaleidoscope of color and bold fabrics that would rival a Venetian masquerade. Dramatic oversized hats and body silhouettes give the production a kind of Alice in Wonderland feel that accentuates the fantasy.

A two legged deer in fancy dress offers a dreamlike effect with a touch of absurd elegance. The giant baby head and hands, big eyeball peeping inside the dollhouse and anthropomorphized rat, all contribute to the phantasmagorical quality that borders on a nightmare or at least an oversized children’s book.

As a kind of caution, it is fair to say that by some modern standards the characters of the steadfast soldier and ballerina might be regarded as predictable and cliché so should be considered within the context of the time in which they were written.

It is also important to remember that Anderson like the Brothers Grimm did not avoid tough subjects that warned of the harshness and unfairness of life. After all Anderson wrote of a ballerina whose feet are cut off to break a dancing spell and a little match girl who ironically dies in the cold.

At a time when we are all challenged by outside forces, when little boys are taught that they do not always have to be “good soldiers” and little girls can be something other than ballerinas, this could be a good catalyst for discussion about gender roles and in the age of COVID, how each of us deal with adversity and even death.

The entire performance is notably only one hour long which combined with the amusing storyline and delightful theatrics makes this an ideal first experience for younger or otherwise uninitiated theater goers.

I am sure it was originally conceived to capture the attention of Michigan Avenue shoppers who would be happy to have a short respite to round off their holiday excursion before returning home.

However, I think it is fair to say that though an entertaining visual spectacle, this is not exactly a feel good holiday story.

Parents who bring children with curious minds should be prepared for some difficult questions relating to the fate of the main characters.  I would not recommend this for children under twelve.

The production holds up well as an Internet presentation though I suggest trying to get it displayed on the largest screen possible, and perhaps most importantly, with the best sound system you have available. Both of these factors are likely to enhance your enjoyment especially if you are viewing it with other people.

I briefly previewed the performance on my desktop with a 19” monitor and some decent speakers but watched the entire production via Roku using the Stellar app on a 32” TV (sitting pretty close) with headphones that provided exceptional sound. This proved to be quite an effective experience.

If you have a large screen TV 50” or more with a good sound-bar or speakers I think you will be quite pleased when viewing this via the Stellar app with multiple people.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier runs 1 hour with no intermission through December 27, 2020 online. The production will stream through Stellar which manages ticket validation and program delivery. Tickets and information is available at lookingglasstheatre.org

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reviewer Reno Lovison is maintaining social distance and enjoying the intersection of theater and technology.