Posts tagged ‘adaptation’

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.


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.

Mrs. Caliban at Lifeline Theatre

Full disclosure: One of the stars of Mrs. Caliban, Brenda Barrie, and the Lighting Designer, Brandon Wardell, are ensemble members of BackStage Theatre Company. The adapter, Frances Limoncelli, has directed for BackStage.  I’m on the BackStage Board of Directors.

On Sunday, I saw my first show at Lifeline Theatre. I can’t claim difficult geography for keeping me away before. Amy and I lived in Rogers Park before we moved to Oak Park. And before we were married, I lived in Edgewater and frequently passed Lifeline on Glenwood, walking to the Heartland Cafe. So, yes, I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t been there before. The lobby space is quite nice–cozy but not cramped, and the mainstage is just about the perfect size for intimate performances. But, best of all, because Lifeline deals in adaptations, this is a great place to see a play that you haven’t seen before and are not likely to see anywhere else. That is almost reason enough to go. Mrs. Caliban is adapted by Lifeline ensemble member Frances Limoncelli from the novel of the same name by Rachel Ingalls.

Given the comfortable, intimate space, I would have liked to have seen Mrs. Caliban more intimately designed and staged. The best moments were one-on-one scenes between frustrated housewife Dorothy (Brenda Barrie) and her distant husband, Fred (Dan Granata), or her best friend, Estelle (Lifeline ensemble member Jenifer Tyler), or especially a green-skinned amphibious humanoid monster, escaped from the sadistic government scientists who named him Larry (Lifeline ensemble member Peter Greenberg). All could have benefited from a tighter, less bland environment (to be fair, I think bland is what they are going for). At a few points in the first act, the bland overwhelms the tension. But overall, this is an enjoyable show. The intimate scenes between Dorothy and her various foils are often passionate, anxious, and delightful.

But too much of this production deals in cliches. Mrs. Caliban says a lot about our cultural willingness to sell our life experience to the highest infotainment bidder, our obsession with consumer products marketing, our wish to brutally dominate the natural world, and the quiet desperation attendant to apparent middle-class comfort. But none of this is new. There is no fresh take on these topics, no reason to restate what has become obvious. The marketing describes Rachel Ingall’s short novel, the source material, as postmodern. I haven’t read it, but perhaps what was ground-breaking and postmodern 25 years ago is no longer so astonishing.

The play is supposed to be about Dorothy. But Greenberg, as Larry, covered with green body paint, more completely commands our attention. He’s fun to watch, a little unpredictable, with a tinge of menace right on the surface. This is unfortunate, because he is the least complex character–very much an embodiment of the tired, inaccurate, unhelpful noble savage myth. This archetype is what prevents the story of a woman falling in love with a sea creature from being novel. He is there to finally catalyze the chemical reactions between Dorothy, Fred and Estelle that have been long a-brewin. His character development is, frankly, not what the show is about. The humans, however, are changing and developing quite a bit, so we should be more involved with them. You get some of this with Barrie’s Dorothy. It is compelling to watch her work out her love affair with Larry. This is worth the price of admission.

Speaking of which, since the theme of this blog is theater on $20/week, I should tell you that the tickets, on, cost $15 plus $4.50 in fees. Full price is $30. You can check the “about” page to see more about my approach to prices and discounts. Mrs. Caliban was directed by Ann Boyd, and the designers are Josh Horvath (sound), Branimira Ivanova (costumes), Brandon Wardell (lighting), and Chelsea Warren (scenic and properties).  Mrs. Caliban runs through March 28th on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.