THE BIRTHDAY PARTY / THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH / Everything's Ducky
Playwright: Jamie Pachino
At: Naked Eye Theatre Company at the Steppenwolf Studio, 1650 N. Halsted
Runs through: Jan. 6
by Mary Shen Barnidge
He was an alpine mountaineer, she was a Soho-circuit sculptor. They met on Mount Everest at 1200 feet, where she dazzled him with a candor intensified by the oxygen-thin air. And they could have continued that way forever, she crafting magnificent statuary modeled on his athletic physique and he catching her when the thrill makes her swoon. But with a baby come changes. The free-spirited artist can no longer accompany her swain on what is now work undertaken to support a family. Seventeen years later, when her hero dies horribly in an accidental fall into a frozen crevasse...his young daughter witnessing his dying words from his icy prison by satellite-phone...the two estranged women must deal with their grief.
Jamie Pachino has fashioned a sensitively crafted exploration of filial tensions further complicated by the duties exacted of artists...chief among which are an independence bordering on egotism, embraced in the service of their muse. Mired down in guilt, Amanda refuses its call...even as her studio's leaking roof mandates an income. Meanwhile, young Lily binge-photographs, ritualistically hoarding moments in her camera. They have their comforters...Perry, the motherly gallery-owner, and Boggy, himself an orphan of Vie De Bohème. But while these mentors may warn against mistakes being repeated, the healing must come from within.
This parable of loss and resurrection is sumptuously mounted by Naked Eye Productions, in conjunction with the Steppenwolf Studio. Richard and Jacqueline Penrod's characteristically epic-sized set, with its towering skylight ( down which rain cascades in torrents ) suggests the craggy landscape on which the late Jonathan Blue met his doom...his ghost, played by Plasticene's Brian Shaw, scaling the attic loft's ladders as nimbly as a spider. And Julia Neary's childlike exuberance in the flashback sequences renders her bereaved widow's gloomy torpor all the more poignant.
At the center of the action, however, is the adolescent Lily...a phenomenal performance by the amazing Liesel Matthews, an actress barely older than her role. Providing support are raisonneurs James McKay and Alexandra Billings, the latter of whom illuminates every word she utters. Under the razor-keen direction of Jeremy B. Cohen, Waving Goodbye emerges as a small, but significant, step in a career well on its ascent.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Playwright: Harold Pinter
At: Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Place, Highland Park
Runs through: Jan. 6
by Rick Reed
In a letter, Harold Pinter, playwright responsible for the dizzying and confounding Birthday Party now being celebrated in a careful, mesmerizing production at Highland Park's Apple Tree Theater, says "Meaning begins in the words, in action, continues in your head and ends nowhere." The statement might be small comfort to those who would seek to interpret Pinter's confounding vision and come up empty-handed. But then, perhaps, what Pinter was presenting here was humanity, in all its enigmatic, indefinable, and elusive glory. Perhaps the real puzzle here is that there's no puzzle at all, or perhaps, that the play is open to any interpretation; audiences can take away what they think Pinter meant, when perhaps he meant nothing at all, except maybe to say that people are shifting beings and their actions, thoughts, hopes, and desires cannot be easily pinned down.
My friend, Mary, with whom I saw the play and whose shrewd critical mind I admire, said, "I think they were death," referring to the two sinister men who create an aura of indefinable menace with their arrival early on in the play. Mary's interpretation has validity, considering Pinter's simple ( but never simplistic ) plotting. Stanley ( in yet another on-the-money quirky performance by Larry Neumann, Jr. who is making a career out of playing weirdos ) , our main character and anti-hero, seems to have turned away from life. We get hints that he may have had some sort of fast life, one far more glamorous than his current one, which is existing as a border with the taciturn Petey ( Neil Crane ) and his loopy wife, Meg ( inspired comic work by Maureen Gallagher ) . Stanley has become little more than a vegetable in this run-down, lonely place and one can see how he's ripe for the picking for death's dark hand. And we can also see how the arrival of Goldberg ( Larry Yando, whose boisterous, smiling performance is chillingly sinister ) and his henchman, the barely repressed enraged McCann ( Shawn Douglass ) could be perceived as minions from the other side, ready to spirit the hapless Stanley off to the land of the dead. Indeed, there's an odd, frightening moment when Goldberg commands McCann to give him a "blow." And McCann complies, blowing his own life force into the mouth of his master. Death itself might take delight in stealing the breath from the living.
The titular birthday party here is one full of dark revelry and inexplicable dread. Stanley knows that something bad is about to befall him, and Pinter makes clear his helpless desire to flee, even while the clueless Meg tries to make the best of the gathering. Cornered, Stanley displays his claws as any trapped animal would, by striking out against those nearest to him. When he realizes there's no escape from his imminent doom, he lets loose with a maniacal giggle that's anything but amusing.
Those looking for a denouement in The Birthday Party, where everything is neatly wrapped up and tied with a bow, need to look elsewhere. Pinter leaves this shindig with a capricious grin, exhorting us to make up our own minds.
THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH
Playwright: Lanford Wilson
At: The Athenaeum Theater ( 3rd floor studio ) , 2936 N. Southport
Runs through: Jan. 13
by Rick Reed
Small town voices and small town secrets. Death, deception, and despair at the core of an unnervingly unraveling mystery. Oddball characters. Economic death. These elements and more are served up by the Terrapin Theater Company in their production of Lanford Wilson's poetic depiction of a West Virginia coal-mining town, all but deserted, and the murder at its heart. The who and why of the murder that tie the denizens of the small town of Eldritch together ( Eldritch means "eerie," or "uncanny" ) take a back seat to presenting the people that make up the town: their stories, prejudices, and dreams. The Rimers of Eldritch, in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, Spoon River Anthology, or Our Town, seeks to paint a broad canvas of what is essentially a ghost town, using a shockingly climactic event to demonstrate its residents' foibles and, to a much lesser extent, strengths.
Terrapin's Production, under the direction of Scott Letscher, is a mixed bag. While there are some solid performances ( most notable among them: Steve Emily, as the woebegone focus of the town's rage and fear ) , most of the cast rises to the level of competent community theater. This ensemble piece, with its large cast of 16, is almost bound to attract a wide variety of thespian ability in a production of this size, and the overall effect is one of mediocrity. Letscher's direction is unable to pull the cast together into an even whole. The direction here is also very static, with the entire cast on the stage for the course of the play. Many of them often have nothing to do, and Robert G. Smith's attempts at singling them out with lighting is a good try, but falls short.
Wilson's play, based on his earlier one-act, "This is the Rill Speaking," also has problems. As a playwright, Wilson is often aligned with the term, "poet" and The Rimers of Eldritch seems to be more of a brilliant poem, encapsulating many voices, and creating a vortex as it swirls down to its inevitable, tragic climax, than a play. I suspect the piece works much better read on the page, alone with one's own thoughts and interpretations. As a staged piece, the conversations that reveal the town's denizen's shortcomings and needs, become tedious after a while. One wishes some of them would just shut up.
Playwrights: Bill Russell, Jeffrey Hatcher and Henry Krieger At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie Tickets: $32 - $45
Runs through: Jan. 6
by Gregg Shapiro
Everything's Sucky would be a more appropriate title for this bird-brained musical with music by Henry ( Dreamgirls ) Krieger and lyrics by Bill ( Sideshow ) Russell, who also co-wrote the book. The concept, combining the fairy tales of The Ugly Duckling and Cinderella ( with references galore to other fairy tale characters and pop culture icons ) , never takes flight because the song lyrics are lazy, not one song has memorable music, and the puns and double entendres wear as thin as molting feathers.
The play begins in the barnyard, just down the long and winding road from the castle. There's been a wolf sighting, but the critters are preoccupied with a singing contest, the winner of which will get a date with queer duck Prince Drake ( Sam Samuelson ) . Ugly duckling Serena ( Jennifer Powers ) is intent on entering the competition, and shares her plan with her "imaginary" diva Leda ( Tari Kelly ) . Scorned by her family and neighbors, Serena rescues the smooth-talking Wolf ( Sean Allan Krill ) , who convinces her to move to New Duck City to pursue her singing career. Serena's transformation into beautiful swan is overshadowed by scandal, and the Wolf, as it turns out, has other plans for her.
With the exception of Ms. Rockwell, all the other actors played two or more characters, a device that runs out of steam by the end of the show. Mr. Krill's Wolf was the best beast in the production. As flaming and feathered choreographer Giorgio Grouse, George Keating was beak and shoulders above the others in the second act.
Beaver Bauer's costume designs, which began with the inspired Mrs. Bovine ( Sean Blake ) in the barnyard, with pink baby bottles strapped to her mid-section for udders, quickly lost their flash. Marc Robin's direction and choreography, which nearly always soars, was grounded this time around.