IVONA, PRINCESS OF BURGUNDIA and SHOCKHEADED PETER
Playwright: Witold Gombrowicz
Sheís drooling, cotton-candy haired, nearly mute, ugly and uncoordinated. Sheís Ivona. And sheís got the royal family in the fictional kingdom of Burgundia in an uproar. Prince Phillip ( Michael Dobbs ) wants to marry her, mainly to annoy the royal family, who want to be rid of her. The royal court waits for the princeís punchline: surely heís joking. When he can have his choice of all the comely lasses in the kingdom, why would he select this enigmatic creature, whom the prince himself describes as a ìuniversal irritant?î Such is the cartoonish, surreal world playwright Witold Gombrowicz has thrust us into with his 1938 absurdist play. Gombrowicz, who is seldom produced here, is understandably well known in Eastern Europe, where he is revered as a master of the medium. This reverence is understandable, because Ivona, Princess of Burgundia has a lot going for it, even if it is, at its core, intellectual and requires some thought on the audienceís part. But this play is genuinely funny and its message is accessible. Part of the credit for the scriptís success lies with director Kirsten Kelly, who manages to hit all the right notes, creating a world thatís off kilter, and bringing a talented ensemble to its thespian best: theyíre all grotesque and over-the-top, but Kelly is wise enough to make her world recognizable and endows its people with universal traits.
One of the principal questions, for audiences and characters alike, in Ivona is this: why does Prince Phillip want to marry her? Ivona ( played with astonishing creativity and credibility by Stacy Parker ) is hideous, awkward, strange, and totally immune to the social norms of the world around her. Part of the answer lies in the princeís boredom. At one point, he explains, ìI am not taking her because I have too little. Iím taking her because I have too much.î The prince, with his mercurial moods and his arrogance, predictably enough soon grows bored with the novelty of Ivona and wants to move on. But she has fallen in love with him. And Ivona, strange as she is, is strangely resolute.
The story works as an indictment of the bourgeoisie. The playwright made Ivona so bizarre not to laugh at her, but to point out how everyone around her, really, is even more bizarre. And even though sheís silent, Ivonaís influence shows as her presence causes the royal hegemony to crumble, her peculiarity bringing out past secrets and the worst in everyone. By the end, even though she succumbs to the murderous machinations of those around her, Ivona has literally and figuratively brought the entire cast of characters to their knees.
Straw Dog has scored a triumph with this one. Ivona is intelligent, wickedly funny and features an assemblage of gifted actors, most prominently Jennifer Engstrom as the Queen, Tim Curtis as Lord Chamberlain, and Kyle Hamman as Simon. Lindsay Jonesí sound work adds to director Kellyís off-kilter universe, and Michelle Caplanís set design pulls the double punch of being economical and evocative at the same time.
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, is the kind of work we need to see more of in Chicago. Intelligent, entertaining, thought provoking, and funny: what more could one ask for?
Playwright: Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock At: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Tickets: $27-$50 Phone: 312-902-1500 ( Ticketmaster ) or at box office Runs through: Oct. 14
by Jonathan Abarbanel
In keeping with its Victorian sensibilities, this 1997 British cult hit is like terribly rich treacle: temptingly sweet and tasty, but unwholesome at its core. No, it‚s not the superior production, which is a great gift of imagination splendidly performed. It‚s the subject matter itself: tales of children who end up drowned, burned, bleeding, shot, slashed, starved and otherwise dead not so much from disobedience as from their own innate perversities.
For Shockheaded Peter ( Der Struwwelpeter in the original German ) is a faithful rendering of the horrifying yet fascinating 1844 cautionary tales for children by Heinrich Hoffman involving thumb-sucking Conrad and the Great Long-Legged Scissors Man, Dreadful Harriet who played with matches, the soupless Augustus, Fidgety Phil, Cruel Frederick, a trio of Bully Boys and others. This is Tim Burton terrain a century earlier; a nightmarish and very dark comedy world of things lurking in shadows.
The production pays homage to a large grab bag of 19th Century theatrical and visual styles and is a marvelous valentine to the lost era of music halls, footlights, Punch and Judy, British pantomimes, traveling medicine shows, mechanical toys, pop-up books, spectacle theater, sonorous declamatory acting and more. The five creators of the show, plus directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and designers Crouch and Graeme Gilmour turn the stage into a magical and colorful shadowbox of optical illusions, secret doors, hidden treasures and lurking menace.
Shockheaded Peter is brilliantly performed by five Brits who are masters of their physical plastique. Now dance-like, now mime-like, they are in control of every facial expression, each gesture and line of their bodies. First among equals is Julian Bleach, the sinewy, comic and devilishly graceful MC of the evening. The live music ( 11 songs ) is provided by the cult trio Tiger Lillies, headlined by the extraordinary countertenor, Martyn Jacques ( who also plays accordion ) . The songs, too, draw on traditional styles ( with occasional whiffs of jazz ) --what we used to call "barrelhouse tunes"˜and are both lilting and intentionally hypnotic. It‚s not easy to catch all the lyrics as Jacques sings them, but you‚ll catch enough.
Some will find Shockheaded Peter distasteful; after all, it has at its heart a collection of extremely unpleasant and gruesome stories. But Chicago fans of Red Moon Theatre, or the highly visual work of Mary Zimmerman, or well-crafted trickster theater in general, will be quite taken by a show that‚s filled with color and hue, and tempered by laughter and rue. --