The Cabinet at Redmoon

Well, I’m on a learning curve with this. Last week, I said I was going to see a show that weekend, and offered some suggestions and asked for yours. I got a great one from a friend of mine; he suggested I go see Feast by Albany Park Theater Project. I took one look at their website, and was sold. However, by the time I worked out when to go and with who, the weekend was already sold out. So then I thought maybe I’d just wait and see it this week, but dithered long enough that all my options were sold out. Two takeaways:

  1. Pay attention to Albany Park Theater Project! If I snooze, I will lose. So I put my ass on their mailing list.
  2. Plan further ahead. Amy and I have a talent for filling our schedules, to the point of losing control. I have to do a better job carving out time for live performance, both for my three readers, and for myself.

I was determined not to let another weekend slip away! So after a survey of this weekend’s offerings, I learned of one show that I’d missed before, in 2005, and didn’t want to miss again, in the final weekend of its extension at Redmoon Central, The Cabinet.

If you have the slightest inkling toward the macabre, the carnivalesqe grotesque, then get your ticket right now. The Cabinet is only running through Sunday afternoon.

Of course, one expects the show to be good. It was very well-received in 2005 (and perhaps we can thank the current economic climate for the remount), but this is Redmoon we’re talking about! They throw the biggest, coolest outdoor parties in town, and when they aren’t collaborating with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a shadow-puppet-accompanied Swan Lake, they’re performing at the Whitehouse. So yes, you go in expecting something good, probably involving puppets.

But what I didn’t expect was the remarkable subtlety that Redmoon would bring to their steampunky spectacle-driven sensibility. Part of it is, no doubt, the much smaller scale of this production. All action takes place within and around a cabinet of many skewed doors and drawers, about 10 feet wide and 20 feet tall. But part of this subtlety is driven, I think, by the intimacy of the puppeteers with their objects. There are no attempts here to hide the wires, or the puppeteers, or make you wonder how they implemented effect 37a. It is all about the story and the tone thereof.

Further, the design of the puppets is superb. Disturbing, but superb. Such is the sense of command in the cold appraising eyes of Dr. Caligari, that you believe the puppeteers are not controlling him, but rather the other way round. And, though you see them similarly operating the protagonist, somnambulist Cesare, it is clear that they are manhandling him as a forlorn device towards their despicable ends. But the best moment of puppetrized character belongs to the girl who brings Cesare the closest he will ever come to sanity and love. I won’t spoil the moment by describing it, but it is astonishing.

And I certainly did not expect to see such a mirror of the human condition in the voice-over narration of Cesare’s inner experience. As a “somnambulist,” Cesare is never awake, but walks, listens, mourns and acts through his nightmarish, fogged-over lens into the real, waking world.  He is suggestible to evil, and manipulated to commit foul deeds. He mourns this, and longs to wake, but cannot even begin to attempt it. He is like any one of us who has surrendered our capacity for self-determination to affliction or addiction, societal norms, laziness or learned helplessness. Whoever is barely paying attention to the puppeteers pulling his or her own strings is just like Cesare, and just as capable of despair and devolution.

Price: full price is $20, so that is what we paid, per my policy. If I could have gone to the theater in person for my ticket purchase, I could have avoided additional telephone processing charges of $1.50 per ticket. But I couldn’t, so I paid them. It was completely worth it.

This weekend for $20 or less

OK, I have some good options for this weekend’s $20 play. And I don’t know of any conflicts I have that will make me a biased critic. That’s nice for a change, eh? Do you have a better suggestion for me? Tell me in the comments.

XIII Pocket at Steppenwolf Garage Rep, Adore, by Stephen Louis Grush: Steppenwolf’s website is having some kind of problem at the moment, which is a bummer. Sucks to lose a ticket sale because of a broken website. The play is apparently based on the true story of a German cannibal who finds a lover-slash-willing-victim, and it closes soon. Full price for a Garage Rep show is $20.

New Leaf Theatre, Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard: New Leaf wowed me with this eloquent articulation of their new, and clearly well though-out, business plan. If more Chicago storefront theaters could engage in this level of self-awareness and analysis, they’d be in better shape. Full price is $18.

The Hypocrites, Cabaret, music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff: I’m not a huge fan of musicals, having worked on too many in high school, college and summerstock. but The Hypocrites have a reputation for remaking overdone theatrical work into something new and exciting (e.g., Our Town, now in open run in NYC). This production is at the DCA Theater. Full price is $25, but with my student ID, $15.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, with new introductory scenes by Neil LaBute: This only falls into the $20 range due to a special promo for those of us privileged to be under 35 years of age (use the UNDER35 promo code when ordering online). I know this will probably be beautiful to look at, because it’s Chicago Shakes. The Neil LaBute intro scenes are actually the most interesting thing to me about this–that and the fact that I won’t be under 35 forever…  WAIT… nevermind. The UNDER35 promo is not available on Saturday night (which I understand), and I’m busy on Sunday. Maybe I’ll save this one for another week. If you are interested, the promo is currently available for tonight and both Sunday performances.

And speaking of theater this weekend, here is a shameless plug for BackStage Theatre Company. BackStage is celebrating its 10th Anniversary Season with a 10th Birthday Party on Sunday night! We’ve got food, drinks, a raffle with great prizes, song, laughs, a raffle with great prizes, a chance to subscribe early to Season 11, and a raffle with great prizes… I’ll be there, and I hope to see you, too. Reserve your spot here. If you don’t live in Chicagoland, and still want to help a great company make great art, there will be a special raffle drawing for you extra-regionals for a Visa giftcard. $10 bucks and great odds!

Music: The Future Laureates and Todd Kessler & The New Folk at Double Door

FULL DISCLOSURE: My brother-in-law is a member of The Future Laureates. If I write something bad about them, Grandma Helen will kick my ass. I know that too many of my posts are full of disclosed conflicts. I promise we’ll attend something soon where I don’t know anybody in the play or the band or whatever.

As I mention here, our weekly theater allowance is really a live performance allowance. So it encompasses music and whatever other live performance we decide to attend. And on Wednesday, April 28th, we’re going to go see Over The Rhine at Space in Evanston. I’m trying to get Amy to write a guest post on that one… stay tuned.

But as I said, my brother-in-law is in The Future Laureates, and this was their first gig at Double Door. ¿Muy bueno, sí? We were pretty excited to go, and Amy’s parents came into town, too. Most of the bands that were on the bill are members of the Chicago Roots Collective, which is a more diverse group than that name suggests. Todd Kessler & The New Folk played after The Future Laureates. The Shams Band and The Giving Tree Band were also on the bill, but an intersection of other varying priorities prevented us from staying through the end.

We had a great time. The Future Laureates nearly packed the house–quite a feat for an opening act. They’re adapting quite well to a recent line-up change, after losing one of their guitarists. This change appears to have stimulated some healthy pruning and refining of the set list. Some of the sappy love songs written by the former guitarist have been replaced by new, punchier, smarter songs by Danny Surico, Matthew Daigler, James Hyde and Steve Minogue. I hope they keep writing more new songs as good as “Convert Them in Convertibles” and “Nuclear Winter.” I hope their next album is full of songs of this caliber.

I was pretty snarky about Todd Kessler & The New Folk as they were setting up. Kessler has yard-long white boy dreads, and they filled the stage with instrumentalists. I’ve seen other folky bands do this with little positive impact on the music–lap steel guitar as prop rather than valuable musical contribution. But the minute they started playing, my attitude changed. This might be the most orchestral sounding folk music I’ve ever heard; full of rich, vibrant layers of sound, particularly the horns. So, Mr. Kessler, I look forward to hearing you play again.

These bands have their own webpages, their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, albums for sale on iTunes, etc… One easy place to look for all this information is http://www.chicagorootscollective.com/. Something that is hard to find there, unfortunately, is information on upcoming shows. The Future Laureates will be playing at Loyola on April 24th, and at The Bog on April 29th according to their pretty new website. Todd Kessler & The New Folk will be playing at Space in Evanston on May 19th, according to their Facebook page.

Since the theme of this blog is affordable live performance, we paid full price: $10 for each ticket. It was a magnificent bargain, even if the beer is overpriced at Double Door.

Orange Flower Water by BackStage Theatre Company

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m on the Board of BackStage Theatre Company. I’m even the Chair of the Marketing Committee. So you should basically ignore everything I write here, as it is undoubtedly an instance of utterly biased shilling.

OK, so given my involvement, how should I write critically about a BackStage production? My job on the Board is partly to be a cheerleader for the company, after all. I suppose now that the show has closed, I can’t do anything good or bad for this production’s box office or audience reception, but there is always the next show and next season to consider. Maybe the smartest thing to do is simply to keep it honest and brief.

Since I’ve been coming to BackStage productions, I’ve seen two excellent realistic kitchen sink dramas (and zero bad ones). Both were under-appreciated, and both featured Jason Huysman and Tony Bozzuto. The first was On An Average Day, last season at Chemically Imbalanced Theater. Frankly, I can’t think of a better set for that hole-in-the-wall than the disgusting infested kitchen that seemed to grow organically from my friend Heath Hays’ imagination into full realization in every nook and cranny of the Chemically Imbalanced performing space. I really wish more people had seen that show.

For the next one, Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water, Huysman and Bozzuto were joined by the excellent Maggie Kettering and Shelley Nixon. All displayed a level of real courage and intense focus to be so emotionally bare, in such a very small, intimate space. Intimate is certainly the best word to describe this production. Jessica Keuhnau’s and Brandon Wardell’s simple, effective set, beautifully lit by Jared Moore, consisted of a square rotating platform, with a queen size bed on it, set at a 45 degree angle to all four banks of surrounding seats. Wallpapered walls behind the audience put us all in corners of a bedroom, very very close to two disintegrating marriages. And the cast, directed by New Leaf Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jessica Hutchinson, met this intimate audience with a subtlety of craft that drew us in and wouldn’t let us out. After this production, I would never like to see Orange Flower Water produced behind a proscenium. It would be too disappointingly distant.

I do have a complaint about the costume design, by Laura Kollar. I am not sure why these Minnesotans were wearing Bears and Cubs licensed attire. This and other costume choices were sloppy in an otherwise tight production.

BackStage’s website has a new feature. The page for each show has a comments section, where anybody can share their thoughts or reactions. There are some good ones here and here about Orange Flower Water.

Price: Full price to BackStage productions is $20. Amy and I are subscribers, though, so we got 3 tickets for $45, bringing this cost to $15 per ticket. Naturally, I think this is a great value, and think you should subscribe, too, when subscriptions go on sale later this spring. BackStage’s final show of the season is Edward Albee’s Play About the Baby. It opens tonight!

The Building Stage’s The Ring Cycle: Kids, this is what “epic” REALLY means.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the Stage Manager of The Ring Cycle, Lindsey Miller, is an Ensemble Member at BackStage Theatre Company, where I serve on the board.

Now, onto the story at hand…

If you are of a certain recent generation, you might love to throw around the word epic to describe a joke or a pratfall or a night of debauchery. If that sounds familiar, I wish you would have seen The Ring Cycle at The Building Stage. This, my friends, is an epic.

There were heroes, giants, dwarves, a mystical ring, water nymphs, dragons, gods, a magic helmet, Valkyries, love, lust, incest, demigod-on-human action, sacrifice, revenge and loads of ancient Norse mythology. We also had 19th century romanticism, the rise of man and the decay of the gods, tinged with a fair bit of Wagnerian racism… I’ll get to that.

This might have been the quickest 6 hours I’ve spent in a theater. That’s no doubt because The Building Stage condensed 15+ hours of Wagner’s opera into approximately 4 1/2 hours of stage performance. Cutting the orchestra and the singing helps, but still, there is an awful lot of story to get through in one day. Telling the whole thing so expediently requires a brisk pace and a hugely energetic ensemble. Check and check.

Beyond story, The Building Stage also brought circus arts and puppetry. There seemed to be a fair bit of Redmoonian influence at play. As the environment for watery nymph Rhinemaidens and tree-sheltered woodbirds (Sarah Scanlon, Lindsey Dorcus and Lucy Carapetyan), aerial silks were an elegant insinuation of Nature, while a rather odd 3-person puppet of Erda, a Gaia archetype, offered a brambly unkempt counterpoint. I found the battle with the dragon Fafnor exceptionally clever, with the massive head projected in shadow on one full theater wall, and the dragon’s tail as shadow on the opposite.

But the moment I was waiting for, and one that did not disappoint, was the Ride of the Valkyries. I was a little concerned going in that they might not do it justice, since Wagner’s massive orchestra was replaced by a 4-piece rock band, down to 3 musicians during the extension week when I saw it. And yes, as you would expect, the aural punch of this extremely famous leitmotif was… not too punchy. However, the hint of the piece offered by the band underscored some lovely puppetry of the Valkyrie mounts bounding through the sky. The final bit, where the eight ride together onstage in formation, actually invoked a bit of awe–all the more impressive since this really just consisted of eight actors operating rather small horse puppets. But that is a perfect example of how this show worked. The company engaged itself in story-telling, giving us enough skeletal spectacle to ignite our imaginations to complete the special effects. This didn’t stop me from picturing Elmer Fudd in opera drag on a few occasions… “Oh Bwuunhilde, you so wuuuvewy!” But this is hardly their fault.

Thematically, the Ring Cycle emphasizes the rising freedom of humans to oppose the will of the gods. The most interesting character arc, and the only one to traverse all four parts of the cycle, is Wotan’s (Chris Pomeroy) conflicted desire to see his beloved human progeny (like all the classical alpha gods, ladies love cool Wotan) rise and break free from fate and law, which he himself embodies and enforces. However, his inability to tolerate such free will in his best beloved daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde (Darci Nalepa) precipitates his own tragic undoing.

Given this theme of creative rebellion, one wonders why The Building Stage adaptors felt bound to maintain Wagner’s racism. The heroic human sibling-lovers Siegmund (Nick Vidal) & Sieglinde (Daiva Bhandari), and their child Siegfried (Vidal again) romp in ruddy Teutonic beauty. All the humans are, in fact, images of the gods, played by the same actors (Vidal, Bhandari and Pat King).

At the shallow end of the gene pool, the dwarves Alberich (Wm. Bullion) and Mime (Bill O’Connor) are devious, stooped, greedy, hateful, and frequently described as “black.” Of course we are familiar with common references to “black-hearted” or “black-souled” villians, not meaning people of African descent. But it seems strangely naïve to gloss over such a potent word when it is used to make negative judgments on an “inferior” race. Most Wagner critics understand the dwarves to be problematic anti-Semitic portrayals. That is less obvious in this production, but they are still clearly sub-human, here, and without nobility. The giants (played by the same actors as the dwarves) are reliable workers, but stupid, and easily tricked out of their pay by the noble Wotan. Perhaps it would have been an artistic error to change this–much as The Merchant of Venice with a sympathetic Shylock fails to click. But so much else was freely adapted here… it is hard to see what might have been lost to deracination. If he weren’t flaunting his racial superiority over his adoptive father Mime, perhaps Siegfried might have seemed like less of a dick.

Despite this, The Ring Cycle truly excelled as a piece of communal narrative and spectacle. Simply being in one theater for 6 hours encourages a sense of bonding with fellow audience members. But the picnic dinner, on the set with the cast between parts 2 and 3, really invited the whole audience into the work, literally. It was great.

I got my ticket on Hottix for $20 plus service charges. You can read my TwentyDollarPlays price policy here. I really wish, in retrospect, that I’d paid full price, since, really, I saw two long plays or four short ones. And since, really, this was a very rare sort of theater experience that I feel privileged to have shared. Paying full price would have required saving a couple weeks of my budgeted allowance, and I saw it on the very last weekend, so this wasn’t possible. But I do wish I’d planned ahead.

Mea culpa

I have been remiss. I repent that I underestimated how much time it would require to maintain two blogs. I will try to find a balance that gives this blog greater priority.

Further, I was not able to attend a live performance this last week. For Easter weekend, Amy and I traveled to the greater Cleveland area to spend the holiday with family. Amy was raised a papist, so planned to go to Easter Mass with her parents and our precocious niece, Cora Grace. I wanted to go, and consider it the weekend’s live performance. After all, as any intro to theater student can tell you (assuming they didn’t sleep through it), theater has roots in religious ceremony. Unfortunately, I was too debilitated by the common cold to drag myself out of bed for an 8am mass.  I even slept through the egg hunt, I’m sorry to say.

Now I find myself ridiculously behind on this blog, but determined to catch up! My entry on The Building Stage’s The Ring Cycle is coming right up. Yes, I know it closed. That’s going to happen sometimes on this blog. I’m an armchair critic, not a paid hack.

Foreclosure hits Mercury Theatre, Cullen’s

It hasn’t been getting any easier lately to be Michael Cullen. In addition to his health problems, now Ravenswood Bank has filed a foreclosure suit, Crain’s reports.

A benefit for Cullen is scheduled at the Royal George Theatre on April 19th.