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.

‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ is no mystery

 

Left to right, Elaine Carlson, Tracey Greenwood in Mrs. Warren's Profession. (Photo by Tom McGrath)
Left to right, Elaine Carlson, Tracey Greenwood in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. (Photo by Tom McGrath)

3 stars

It is late summer 1905 and Mrs. Kitty Warren (Elaine Carlson), a seemingly wealthy woman with no known extended family, finally reveals to her curious adult daughter how she is able to support their comfortable lifestyle.

Continue reading “‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ is no mystery”

Good insight into teenage challenges

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”

(L to R) Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller (Olga) at Steppenwolf. (photo by Michael Brosilow)
(L to R) Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller (Olga) at Steppenwolf. (photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

Julia may or may not be the perfect Mexican daughter but Karen Rodriguez may be the perfect person to play her. Rodriguez commanded the Steppenwolf stage from the moment the lights came up and did not let go for the next 90 minutes.

Continue reading “Good insight into teenage challenges”

‘Mlima’s Tale’

Mlima's Tale at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Mlima’s Tale at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

“Mlima’s Tale,” a Midwest Premiere by Griffin Theatre, is a sensitive and heartrending depiction of greed, and specifically, the corruption associated with the illegal sale of elephant ivory that results in the daily  slaughter of approximately 100 of these endangered animals.

The production follows the life and death of Mlima, a roughly 45-year-old male African elephant. Described as a “big tusker,” he is killed by poachers while living in a protected refuge in Kenya.

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‘Hit Her With The Skates’ at Royal George

 

Hit Her With The skates (Press conference photo)
Hit Her With The skates (Press conference photo)

 

We were invited to attend a kick-off event and sneak preview for “Hit Her WithThe Skates” a new regionally inspired musical that will have its world premiere March 18, 2020, at the Royal George Theatre on North Halsted Street in Chicago.

The show is produced by Mary Beidler Gearen with book and lyrics by Lansing native and co-producer Christine Rea. The two met while working with the Bailiwick Repertory Company where Gearen earned five Jeff nominations. Continue reading “‘Hit Her With The Skates’ at Royal George”

‘Almost Heaven’ in Munster

 

"Almost Heaven: John Denver's America" at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN. ( Photo by Guy Rhodes0
“Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America” at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN. ( Photo by Guy Rhodes0

3  stars

Seeing “Almost Heaven,” will bring recollections of John Denver’s backstory.

Denver’s music was considered to be more or less middle-of-the-road if not downright conservative in the wake of rising stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

This issue is confronted early in the latest jukebox boomer music revival, “Almost Heaven-John Denver’s America,” at The Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN..

The popular singer/songwriter eventually emerged as the nascent voice of the environmental movement with songs like “Calypso” that championed the work of Jacques Cousteau, as well as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Wild Montana Skies” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” They unabashedly and exuberantly celebrated the magnificence and simple beauty of nature.

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A cautionary island tale

 

Cassondra James as 'Erzulie' Tamyra Gray as 'Papa Ge' (Photo by Joan Marcus
Cassondra James as ‘Erzulie’ Tamyra Gray as ‘Papa Ge’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Once on This Island’

4 Stars 

Walking in from the chilly lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theatre and getting my first glimpse of the stage on opening night made me immediately think that they were woefully behind getting the stage ready for the performance.

Strewn with an odd piece of corrugated metal, a shipping container, bits of lumber, a fifty gallon petroleum drum, some milk crates and what appeared to be a downed telephone pole all being adjusted and repositioned by people in a colorful array of mismatched clothing, I soon to realize that we were entering into a world created by set designer Dane Laffrey and costume designer Clint Ramos. They were depicting the everyday life of a small, remote village on an island in the French Antilles.

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‘Whisper House’ needs to kick-up the volume.

Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)
Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)

2 1/2 stars

After his fighter pilot father is killed during WWII and his emotionally despondent mother is deemed incompetent, young Christopher (Leo Spiegel) is sent to live with his Aunt Lily (Kate Nawrocki), a lamp tender in a haunted lighthouse in Maine.

Since before the war, Aunt Lily has employed Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo), a Japanese-American, as a kind of helper and all-around handyman. It becomes clear that over three years together the two have formed a bond that transcends their working relationship.

Continue reading “‘Whisper House’ needs to kick-up the volume.”

Joseph struts his dreamcoat at Cahn Auditorium

 

Joseph at Music Theater Works. (Brett Beiner photo)

3 stars

“Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the 2019 holiday fashion choice for Music Theater Works in Evanston and swan song of retiring stage director Rudy Hogenmiller.

The upbeat Vegas style variety show extravaganza commonly known as “Joseph” is – and in my mind – the least refined of the blockbuster musicals of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

None-the-less, it enjoys wide acclaim and provides an evening’s worth of solid cheerful entertainment.

Continue reading “Joseph struts his dreamcoat at Cahn Auditorium”