Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand opens with a disarming juxtaposition. Nick (Joel Reitsma), an American banker, is being held for ransom under grim conditions in a cell somewhere in Pakistan. Surveying the scene, we brace for the worst, but instead we are party to an unexpectedly friendly conversation between Nick and Dar (Anand Bhatt), the guard charged with watching him. Nick has been trading his professional expertise for better treatment. Moments later, Dar’s superior, Bashir (Owais Ahmed) bursts in abruptly upending the power dynamic, setting the tone for a play full of danger and disquieting reversals.
Continue reading “Money and the Power It Wields Guide the Riveting ‘Invisible Hand’”
In a gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Henry (Francis Guinan) guards Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. If it really depicts Aristotle at all. Henry is partial to the argument Rembrandt may have substituted the Greek painter Apelles in the philosopher’s place as an affront to the wealthy Italian who commissioned it. Were artists the true philosophers in Rembrandt’s opinion? For Henry, a scholarly man who has spent his life studying paintings and loving a poet, this seems about right. So begins Jessica Dickey’s funny and touching play, The Rembrandt, now enjoying its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in an elegantly designed production directed by Hallie Gordon.
When Barbara Lhota learned of Russell Stamm’s 1940s comic strip, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, she felt compelled to revive the title character. The comic, which ran for sixteen years in the now defunct Chicago Times, featured one of the first female superheroes, predating Wonder Woman by a year. It struck the playwright as both appropriate and ironic that Scarlet’s superpower is invisibility. In a way familiar to many women, Scarlet leverages the advantage of being unseen. Under the cloak of her invisibility, she aids the vulnerable, while in her professional life as a reporter she fights alongside her compatriots for visibility and recognition. Lhota’s stage version is a perfect fit for Babes with Blades, a company devoted to using stage combat to tell women’s stories. The show, currently running at The Factory Theater, is fun and fresh while invoking the spirit of the period. Continue reading ““The Invisible Scarlet O’Neill” is a Fun, Feminist Revival of a Classic Comic Book Heroine”
(Featured image: Obsessive Eye Photography)
Walkabout Theater just finished a tour of their their newest devised piece, A Persephone Pageant. My children and I caught the recent Chicago performance on the grassy lawn behind The University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The family friendly pageant, co-directed by Jessica Thebus and Thom Pasculli, incorporates original text by Sarah Ruhl and Morgan McNaught and features choreography by Kristina Isabelle, music by Mark Messing and puppets by K.T. Sivak and Jackie Valdez. The play updates the Demeter myth imagining Persephone as Water and Hades as Greed, remaking the story into a contemporary parable about climate change. Continue reading “Walkabout Theater’s ‘A Persephone Pageant’ Reimagines the Demeter Myth as a Parable About Climate Change”
Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.
I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.
I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.
Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.
The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.
I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.
BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.
Extended through September 16th!
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*
*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate
Lisa Kron’s 2010 play In the Wake, produced by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater, revisits the political events of 2000-2005 beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. In the Wake is concerned with the ways American liberals, especially privileged white coastal liberals, develop blind spots that prevent them from fully understanding the life circumstances that might cause a person to cultivate a conservative viewpoint. This is a timely subject in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, although the play predates it. The play makes important points about the state of American political discourse though it is somewhat weighted down by an unwieldy structure.
In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre. Continue reading “Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’”