Identity, Heritage, and Growing up in ‘Muthaland’

Muthaland at 16th Street Theater is a one woman show written and performed by the talented Minita Gandhi. It’s a showcase for her dexterity and ability to create and inhabit characters we love, and characters who make our skin crawl, as she goes on a journey to her parents homeland. In 16th Street’s bare black box theatre, there is only one practical light onstage, and the rest of the show travels on in the darkness with Minita herself. She walks down the staircase through the audience carrying her suitcases to the practical standing lamp on stage. Little did we know she was carrying the world of the play in her arms.

The opening of Minita Gandhi’s Muthaland is an energy-packed celebration of femininity and personality. She animatedly tells us about her life, her hopes for love and her family drama, which includes the upcoming wedding of her dear brother Milin. Minita separates herself as narrator by giving herself the affectionate nickname of Minu when she’s playing in a scene from history.

Minu is an independent woman, the daughter of two Indian immigrants who are audience favorites for Minita to affectionately and sometimes comedically interpret onstage. She is 35 years old, and has been getting her groove back by listening to Pink and Fiona Apple, reading The Power of Now and taking a Pranayama breathing class. After a visit to a gynecologist, Minu learns she only has two years to get a husband and have babies before she has to be concerned about freezing her eggs, and this is a terrifying enough thought that she returns to her prayer cabinet. Minu is a practicing Jain, which at more 85,000 years old is the one of the world’s oldest religions. She recites the Namokar mantra, one of the most fundamental and spiritually significant prayers in Jainism. This moment of gravitas is our first insight into bubbly actress Minu’s depth of intention and spiritual practice.

Though dramatically this is very clever, sometimes Minita playing an earlier, more innocent Minu is hard to buy. At the end of the production, when a you see a grown Minita in her mature fury and might, you understand why this character, that is so very personal and so profoundly changed in real life, might be harder for Minita to access than the multitude of personalities she brings to life onstage. These other characters are defined very specifically through gesture and voice, and it is clear who is speaking at any given time.

Minita the writer gives us access to the finer points in her life and family’s traditional customs in a delicate way that allows us to laugh at Minu’s reactions without laughing at cultural differences – which can often happen if an audience doesn’t understand something outright. Milin for example is in an arranged marriage, something Minu has a really hard time understanding at first, but once she sees how happy he is the audience is happy for him too. So, Minu is off to India, in one of the most fantastic visual moments of the play. Contained in her tiny suitcase is truly the entire world, as she pulls out costumes and scatters the stage with color as the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) flood the world with a pink and orange hue, transforming the black walls. You can feel the heat and the dust as Minu describes it to us thanks to the vivid text and suggestive design visuals. The sound also helps us understand our cultural context, as a variety of American and Bollywood love songs are played throughout the piece.

Muthaland is based off of Minita’s true experiences during her travels to India, and I do not want to spoil the surprise that is the crux of the drama in this play. I will speak to her magnificent performance of these gravity-filled moments. During a scene I will refer to as “The Interrogation” she masterfully plays a council of older Indian men who are questioning her honesty with a misogyny that will make your toes curl. Legs spread wide in a single spotlight, Minita easily embodies the threat and danger of these men as a steady heart-beat like pulse (sound by Barry Bennett) underscores their words. It conjures visceral memories of femmes being accused of lying when under threat from men, and is very hard to watch though artfully portrayed. The experience is so awful, that when it is over, it prompts Minu to tell her parents she hates India – thankfully only a temporary conclusion.

Muthaland is about the forcible growth of an already strong young woman, who was forced to undergo an emotionally and physically violent experience yet still reconcile her identity. In a spectacular final ten minutes of the play, Gandhi goes on an emotional journey from absolute devastation to a realistic healing process, perhaps even slightly optimistic about what is in her future. I commend Minita for her stamina in performing in this fabulous 90-minute production of her own work, and I can’t wait to see what productions lie in its future.

BIAS ALERT: Minita Gandhi is a friend.

Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
August 31-October 7, 2017
Directed by Heidi Stillman
Photos by Anthony Aicardi

Assistant Director – Maeli Goren
Dramaturg – Lavina Jadhwani
Voice and Movement – Lanise Antoine Shelley
Scenic Properties – Jesse Gaffney
Lighting Design – Cat Wilson
Sound Design – Barry Bennett

A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

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!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
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

The Neo-Futurists ‘The Food Show’ Nourishes the Soul

By Abhi Shrestha

Everything I’ve seen by the Neo-Futurists has always had an inherent sense of vulnerability and a fearless raw honesty which always allows me leave the show knowing the performers intimately. Their new venture, boldly titled The Food Show and created by Dan Kerr-Hobert, is no different . Performed in Metropolitan Brewing’s warehouse in Avondale, the Neos have transformed the warehouse into a badass kitchen stocked with all of the things you might need and have created an a night of adventure structured around a menu. When the audience enters the space, the writer-performers come up and ask everyone about their food allergies, because no one is trying to die tonight. Though unfortunately not everyone gets to eat throughout the night, everyone does get a complimentary beer (which if you’re lucky enough to get an orange slice during the night, I recommend putting it in the beer for a lovely, refreshing summer drink) .

In classic Neo fashion, they strike up friendly conversation with the audience before the performance begins. This simple act of making conversation does a lovely job in building a performer/ audience relationship that allows both sides to feel more comfortable and able to be vulnerable. The performers take us through a culinary journey, cooking up stories of their past to present to us on a plate. They demonstrate various cooking techniques, and explore different culinary philosophies before focusing on a story by one of the performers. Like being in the kitchen of a friend or family, the performers tell stories while cutting onions, making pasta, poaching an egg, or making a roux. The themes of the stories run the gamut of emotions, whether it’s about the healing powers of food and cooking, the frustrating chore it is to eat for some folx and the privilege it is to be a picky eater, or about how food has the ability to bring people closer together or drive kids at the lunch table apart. One story that stood out for me was Tif Harrisons story about the food as therapy, something that can dig you out of a place that feels so dark, to one that has some light. The ensemble is really tight, and though the energy of the piece could use a kick or two throughout the night, there is a simple beauty in watching people listen to each other.

Listening doesn’t just mean being quiet, it means being present, and the presence is felt from everyone in the room. This sense of presence is also amplified by the various design elements. With a giant mirror that hovers about the countertop the audience is invited to a closer view of the action that is happening on the table, which allows us to closely follow along with each step of the recipe. The lighting design is a feat in this non-traditional venue that is not inherently equipped with the tools and architecture that can be found in a conventional theatre. The lighting does a fantastic job helping the audience focus in on the action in front of us, and works harmoniously with the music to create an atmosphere that feels curated for each story. The music composed by Ronnie Kuller and performed by Spencer Meeks stands out as they either play piano, sing, or make sounds with a singing bowl, that allows the transitions into various stories feel seamless, and helps with the pacing of the night.

The Food Show is an examination of the role food and cooking has had on every one of us. I felt invited to have different opinions without feeling like I was in a battle or being left out of a conversation. Food means so much to so many people, as someone who immigrated to America when I was three, cooking home recipes and eating my mother’s cooking was how I hold on to my culture. Food is how I get to know people, I can tell a lot about someone by what they cook, and what they eat, and I felt that I came out of The Food Show really knowing these humans. There were pieces of myself that I found in so many of the stories I heard that night, whether it was the difficulty of cutting meat out of my diet for ethical reasons, or how often we don’t realize how our eating habits tell us so much about ourselves. Leaving the theatre I was reminded of a quote by Krista Tippet from her book Speaking about Faith, “You can disagree with another person’s opinions. You can disagree with their doctrines. You can’t disagree with their experience.” At the end of the night I left the show hungry for some salmon, but satisfied knowing that I wasn’t alone.

Photo Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

The Food Show runs through Sept. 2nd at Metropolitan Brewing, 3031 N. Rockwell.

The Comrades ‘In The Wake’ Examines Liberal Blind Spots Post 9/11

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.

The play centers around a twenty-something woman, Ellen (Rose Sengenberger), a liberal New Yorker distraught about the 2000 election. The play is populated by Ellen’s boyfriend Danny (Mike Newquist), his sister Laurie (Erin O’Brien), Laurie’s wife, Kayla (Adrienne Matzen) and their friend Judi (Kelli Walker). Ellen divides her time between non-profit work and traveling around the country making speeches about the unintended consequences of public policy. At an engagement at Harvard she reconnects with a childhood friend, Amy (Alison Plot), and they begin an affair.

Unwilling to leave her current relationship, Ellen asks Danny to accept her involvement with Amy, and perhaps in the wake of some guilt about his own long since confessed infidelity, he resigns himself to the fact his girlfriend is in a second relationship. Meanwhile Amy falls madly in love with Ellen and begs her to leave Danny. But Ellen is in denial about how much emotional damage she is inflicting on both her lovers. Meanwhile, Laurie and Kayla strongly disapprove and their relationship with Ellen is badly strained.

The best moments zeroed in on Ellen’s relationships. Alison Plot’s performance as Amy was a highlight. Plot does a nice job of portraying the agonizing experience of loving someone who is emotionally unavailable. The brief but touching love scene between Ellen and Amy is one of the most engaging moments of the play. And when Ellen makes things worse with empty platitudes about holding Amy in her heart, Amy’s pain feels very real. Kelli Walker’s performance as the world-weary Judi is also notable. Judi brings perspective about growing up poor in a small conservative town and then spending her career abroad working in refugee camps. Walker’s deadpan delivery also brings some much needed humor into an otherwise very serious play.

Ellen’s character mainly talks at her friends and family, this is by design. The point of the play is that Ellen sincerely believes if other people just had the same information they would always agree. Rose Sengenberger plays Ellen as passionate and earnest so we understand it is not malice on her part but rather an astounding lack of self awareness, which Kron uses to make a point about the way liberals have contributed to the bitter partisanship that is dividing our country.

Unfortunately Ellen’s long speeches have the impact of slowing down the pace. To compound this the action is broken up by news clips and direct address monologues giving this two hour and twenty minute show a choppy stop-and-start effect. The play relies heavily on historical footage to establish what’s happening in the outside world. But news clips alone, though they might have an emotional impact, are not inherently dramatic. Unfortunately, the current events in the play often feel like a backdrop, rarely integrated into the story in a way that impacts the lives of the individual characters.

What I was really missing from the play ultimately was a connection between the personal and the political. There are two plots but they don’t intersect or illuminate each other in more than an abstract way except for a very brief conversation about 911. For instance, in a surprising omission, although the play is set pre-marriage equality, little is said about the fact the fact Laurie and Kayla’s marriage isn’t legally recognized. The practical and emotional hardships this situation created go unmentioned. This is one example of a place where the play could’ve connected the dots between its character’s hopes and dreams and the political landscape of the country at that time.

In spite of these structural and story challenges, the cast brings a lot of heart to their performances and the play makes an important point. That Americans of all political persuasions could do better job of listening to opposing viewpoints.

About Face Youth Ensemble’s ‘Brave Like Them’: Explosive, Feminist, and Unapologetically Queer

By Regina Victor

About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s Brave Like Them is an exciting and dynamic exploration of cultural movements and gender expression infused with feminist punk. The show is entirely devised and performed by the members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and co-directed by About Face’s Education and Outreach Director Ali Hoefnagel and Education Coordinator Kieran Kredell. The script was well-written, and memorable, especially impressive because the age range for the ensemble that devised it is 13-23 years old. The play takes place in the Riot Grrl movement of the 1990s, an underground punk feminist movement that originated Washington state, credited with being the beginning of third wave feminism. Famous bands that came out of that era include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney. Brave Like Them takes us to Washington state in that era, and investigates both the successes of the movement but also the racial and class discrepancies – most of the voices of this movement were middle class, white cisgender women.

The set (designed by Scott Penner) is papered with posters from iconic punk acts like Joan Jett, and the young people roam the space at the top of the show, cleverly setting our place and time. A couple of the ensemble members were talking to an audience member, and pretended to be mystified and confused by his cell phone flashlight, much to everyone’s amusement. Complete with twinkling bulb lights and alley seating, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a real punk show when the actors break into their energetic opening dance highlighted by multicolored club lights (lighting by Kaili Story).

Danni (Kyla Norton) and their best friend Jamie (Sandy Nguyen) are old friends reunited after Danni lived in racist Tacoma for six years. As they try to find their place in the punk movement, Danni wonders why more of their favorite punk bands don’t look like them. Danni’s old crush Sam (a charismatic and stylish Ophelia Ashley Murillo) conveniently comes waltzing back into Danni’s life, asking if they would like to hang out at a venue called The Crocodile. There, they meet femme superstar Hannah (Lilian McGrady)  who chants her feminist manifesto “Girls to the front!” over a thrumming bass to an adoring crowd. Danni’s friend Jamie gets all up in this movement and finds her sense of self, immediately changing her aesthetic to match what a Riot Grrl is “supposed” to look like, complete with leather jacket, red lips and fishnets, Nguyen does a wonderful job portraying both Jamie’s bravado and her emotional complexity as she struggles balance her new Riot Grrl friends with Danni.  The costume design by Jeanine Fry informs us where each character is in their lives and gender expressions effortlessly. Danni, still trying to find their identity, is in their school uniform for most of the play.

While Jamie is off with the Riot Grrls, Danni meets some new friends in the form of an energetic ensemble that hangs out and plays punk music in the school gym. Noa (Jude Gordon), Coe (Jimbo Pestano) and Chris (Ben Flores), are all punk rockers who used to roll with Hannah until her movement got too exclusionary. We see this demonstrated very clearly when one of Hannah’s shows includes the words “no dudes no dykes no douchebags.” Coe uses they/them pronouns, Noa ze/sir, and Chris he/him. Chris points out that he is often excluded from feminist dialogue like Hannah’s because of his male presentation, but that erases the portion of his life where he was perceived as female, and his ability to talk about those injustices. Chris poses an interesting question: how can he possibly convince other people his masculinity isn’t a threat? It’s a really interesting argument that I’ve heard socially but was refreshing to see onstage, and Ben Flores’ thoughtful portrayal of this character really shines.

Coe and Noa were equally amazing ensemble members, with Noa’s dry wit cutting across the dialogue and generating big laughs from the audience. Noa refers to Jamie as the girl who “suddenly has all the buttons.” As someone who’s worked in community organizing, I found this particularly hilarious – there is always one eager person who shows up with 80 buttons on their jacket even though they’ve been to two rallies. In order to describe Jimbo Pestano’s portrayal of Coe, I have to be colloquial: Coe was serving band frontperson intersectional realness in a crop top and a flannel blazer with shoulder pads and skinny jeans. Serving. All. Day. One particularly fantastic lyric voiced by Coe and Danni I will be singing to all of my cisgender friends was “Nice gender, did your mommy pick it out?!”

The entire ensemble was strong, but there were many other notable performances, including the hilariously spacey record store clerk (Sharon Pasia), who encourages Danni to be a part of the movement, and not a part of the crowd. Danni’s mother, played by Mia Vivens, gives an endearing performance as a mother who has to navigate a new relationship with her child. Fresh from a divorce and struggling financially, she is often anxious and sometimes angry (but only, as she rightfully points out, because she’s black and had to sell her business and live in Tacoma at her husband’s behest for six years – I feel you sis), but never gives up on loving her family fiercely.

Brave Like Them is about the power of friendship, the discovery of personal identity, and the multifaceted aspects a movement needs to have so that it can succeed. It examines our fear of breaking apart systems and movements when we have nothing to replace them with, even if the movement is imperfect. A movement needs to encompass all people, or it inevitably dies. However, Brave Like Them does not condemn these movements, but examines how even when they are fleeting, even when we find ourselves in opposition to them, they can help us find the most important parts of ourselves.

Brave Like Them closes August 6th: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Directors: Ali Hoefnagel & Kieran Kredell
Assistant Dir: Donny Acosta
Devised by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

FEATURING
Ophelia Ashley Murillo
Charlie Blackburn
Melody Derogatis
Ben Flores
Jude Gordon
Liv Haman
Elliot Hobaugh
Lillian McGrady
Sandy Nguyen
Kyla Norton
Sharon Pasia
Jimbo Pestano
Jae Taylor

PRODUCTION
Production Manager: Melissa Hubbert
Music Director: Nicholas Davio
Choreographer: Erin Kilmurray
Asst. Choreographer: Gabrielle Wilson
Lighting Designer: Kaili Story
Sound Designer: Brandon Reed
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Set Design: Scott Penner
Prop Design: Meghan Erxleben
Stage Manager: Kasey Trouba
Asst. Stage Manager: Serena Dully

Photo Credit: (left to right) Jude Gordon, Ben Flores, Kyla Norton and Jimbo Pestano in About Face Youth Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Brave Like Them, co-directed by Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

BIAS ALERT: I directed for the About Face Out Front 2017 Series, and identify as genderqueer.

Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’

By Hallie Palladino

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.

This sixteen actor ensemble piece, skillfully directed by Jill Oliver, is set in a dystopian 2077. The world order has collapsed. Yet in spite of the elimination of guns, society is violent and lawless. Women are an all powerful majority. Men are disenfranchised and organize for equal rights. The protagonist, Barb Davies (Jennifer Betancourt) is a skilled fighter with the Central City Police Department’s elite all-female fighting force, the ironically named Peace Keepers. Her fellow wisecracking PK compatriots are played with sharp-tongued swagger by Meredith Rae Lyons (White), Almanya Narula (Avory) and Ashley Yates (Argent). Together they fight criminals while delivering witty one liners.

A defining attribute of standard cops-versus-criminals action stories is an exaggerated performance of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Seeing a cast of women embody this style draws attention to it’s absurdity. Fight City humorously explores the performance of gender in a way similar to that of ATC’s production of Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats, directed by Will Davis earlier this season. That show examined a spectrum of masculinities by casting an all female-identifying ensemble to play a variety of male archetypes. In different ways both plays explore how rituals of masculinity function to reinforce codes of behavior within male spaces.

OKen gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this gender role reversal. He has invented a parallel vocabulary of slang to fit the female-centric culture. Crude references to both male and female anatomy illuminates the role language plays in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Narula, as Barb’s salty partner, Avory, gleefully makes dirty jokes while slapping men’s behinds. Lt. Quaife (Jen Bosworth) rags on her husband. In some of the play’s best topical humor, Richards (Grace Odumosu), cheers on her activist boyfriend but still can’t help (wo)man spreading across an entire bench, and (wo)man-splaining to the guys about how oppressed they are, all while congratulating herself on being super woke.

In addition to the silliness, OKen offers up a scathing critique of the action genre’s normalization of rape culture. Showing men being treated the way women are typically treated in action plots reveals how reliant the genre is on jokes made at the expense of women, as well as how much of the drama in this genre is generated by women’s victimization and abuse. For instance in one scene, Erica (Kim Boler), in a sinister send-up of a stock bloodthirsty-villain, gets jacked-up on crack whiffits, kills people for fun, then celebrates by raping a man she’s lured into her hideaway. Later she callously brags about it.

The male characters in Fight City employ the usual range of strategies to cope with discrimination, harassment and abuse. Some of them try to brush it off and rise above, some employ subversive humor, others organize and fight back. Weatherfoot (Harrison Weger), the first male PK, patiently puts up with sexist jeers until he gets a chance to prove his moxie, following a classic arc usually assigned to female characters. Eric Frederkison’s performance as Verne, victim turned reluctant activist, reminds us of the serious stakes for men trapped in this system. And Relf, the much abused CCPD secretary, played sensitively by Josh Zagoren, highlights how debasing harassment is for those on the receiving end. It is also Relf, seeking relief from this abuse, and perhaps revenge, that leads him to turn informant for Erica who later rapes him. Oliver appropriately presents this as a frightening and serious moment.

As one might expect, the main attraction of Fight City is its stellar fight choreography. Fight Directors Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith offer up stage combat that’s intense, realistic and bloody. (If you sit in the front you may get splattered.) The fighting style unique to the PKs is also nicely integrated into the plot in a way that both forwards the story and enhances character development. The spectacle of all female fight sequences has potential to be overly sexualized, but Oliver steers clear of this. Her focus is showcasing what women’s bodies are capable of, presenting her characters as subject, not object. Carla McDowell’s costume design well-supports this choice managing to be tastefully futuristic without being fetishistic.

In a season of Chicago theater where the subject of police violence has taken center stage, it’s impossible not to register that, in spite of it’s escapist fun, Fight City is inescapably a play about a bunch of exceedingly violent cops. And while the play doesn’t get too philosophical about the problem of police brutality, it’s at least self-conscious of this fact. When Barb’s mother Margret Davies (Mandy Walsh), legendary for her fighting skills, drops by the department she asks, “Any good kills lately?” Under Margret’s tenure suspects were routinely taken “out back” to have their necks broken. Barb retorts, “We don’t have to do that anymore.” And, although Barb does a lot of head-bashing herself, the play hints she just might be able to restore at least a bit of due process to the system.

Fight City is an entertaining summer show with a strong feminist message and loads of exhilarating fight scenes!

Photos: Michael Courier

Directed by: Jill Oliver
Written by: Scott OKen
Runs from July 21st to August 26th
Fridays/Saturdays 8pm
Sundays 3pm

CAST

Barb Davies – Jennifer Betancourt
Margaret Davies – Mandy Walsh*
Avory – Almanya Narula
Weatherfoot – Harrison Weger
Argent – Ashley Yates
White – Meredith Rae Lyons
Lt. Quaife/Noone – Jen Bosworth
Erica Burdon – Kim Boler*
Valentine – Susan Wingerter
Chandler/Thug – Brittany Ellis
Price/Thug – Megan Schemmel
Verne/Steele – Eric Frederickson
Leo – Jae K. Renfrow
Terry – Linsey Falls*
Relf – Josh Zagoren
Richards – Grace Odumosu
Understudy (Leo/Terry/Verne) – Colin Milroy*
Understudy (Weatherfoot/Relf) – Josh Greiveldinger
Understudy (Steele) – Dan Krall
Understudy (Davies/Avory) – Kim Fukawa
Understudy (Argent/White/Richards) – Josephine Longo
Understudy (Margaret/Valentine) – Elizabeth MacDougald
Understudy (Erica/Lt. Quaife/Noone) – Sara Robinson
Understudy (Chandler/Price/Thugs 1 & 2)– Cory Griffith

CREW

Playwright – Scott OKen*
Director – Jill Oliver*
Assistant Director – Kevin Alves*
Stage Manager – Phil Claudnic*
Assistant Stage Manager – Jermaine Edward Thomas*
Production Manager – Manny Tamayo*
Assistant Production Manager – Greg Caldwell*
Fight Director – Maureen Yasko
Fight Director – Chris Smith
Set Design – Sarah Lewis
Technical Director – Amie Zimmerman
Lighting Design – Emma Deane
Master Electrician – C.W. Van Baale*
Sound Design – Ben Zeman
Costume Design – Carla McDowell
Props Design – Albert Gogetem
Graphic Design – Jason Moody*
Fight Captain  –Mandy Walsh*
Fight Captain – Meredith Rae Lyons
Consultant – Maggie Scrantom
All staged intimacy was professionally designed

*Factory Ensemble Member

BIAS ALERT: Both Brittany Ellis and Ashley Yates have acted in my work in the past and I think they’re both brilliant.

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

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Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe

‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Haven Theatre Electrifies Audiences

(Photo Credit: Austin D. Oie)

By Regina Victor

Before I embark on writing the review for We’re Gonna Die, written by Young Jean Lee and directed by Josh Sobel for Haven Theatre company, I have to explain the circumstances under which I am seeing and writing about this show. I am writing this review on the way home from my grandfather’s funeral. A few hours before opening curtain for We’re Gonna Die on May 7th, 2017, my grandfather died. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the show that evening.

I am so glad I got there.

When you first walk into the Den and take a left into the Bookspan Theatre occupied by Haven and named after Artistic Director Josh Sobel’s aunt, Janet Bookspan, you are greeted with the sweet scent of a smoky haze machine. The entry to the space is plastered with pop and punk posters, and as I left the antique stylings of the Den lobby I felt like I’d walked into an independent rock show. The audience has the option of sitting at low, cabaret-style tables and being right up on the action (as I chose to do), or sitting in the more traditional bleacher-style seating. No matter where you sit, you can see the faces of everyone watching the show with you, which seems like an intentional effort to support the intimacy of this play.

We’re Gonna Die is an ode to living and dying, guided by the Singer, Isa Arciniegas, whose alto voice is versatile enough to go from sweet ballad to angsty rock song. Isa captured the crowd with her stamina and ability within the first ten minutes, as she effortlessly got the audience on board for the cabaret-style of the show. She never lost confidence or momentum and moved deftly through the witty and emotional text, trusting that the audience was smart enough to keep up with her. It’s a crucial first ten minutes in a compact play, running under an hour and a half with no intermission.

The design world of We’re Gonna Die fused effortlessly with the text. The simple stage (set design by Mike Mroch) ) and punky costumes (Izuma Inaba) were effective, I couldn’t help but think of Rosie The Riveter when looking at the red bandanna and brunette ponytail on “lady-drummer Sarah [Giovanetti]” as Isa affectionately called her during the opening performance. The play’s title We’re Gonna Die is cleverly turned into a band logo (WGD) that is stitched into Isa’s jacket and displayed in neon lights behind them.  But the most notable aspect of the design was the lighting crafted by Claire Chrzan, who hung a multitude of household lamps  above our heads mixed in amongst stage lights, making  the lights themselves just as intriguing to look at as the stage they were lighting. The play consists of various stories from people’s lives, and I couldn’t help wondering if these lamps had sat in their living rooms and now lived again as homage to them and part of this show. I could have spent the show watching the lamps dim in and out, but the ensemble is too ferociously entertaining to allow it.

As a performer and musician myself, I know one of the hardest things in the world is to act and be in a band at the same time. In such intimate proximity to the audience, I was probably five feet away from the nearest musician, all the band members are closely watched and can’t fudge any notes or lose their cool. I have never been so impressed. Elle Walker’s poise while playing the keys and confident tosses of her long brunette hair during an exuberant and carefree dance solo ensure she grabs the spotlight at choice moments in the show. Jordan Harris possesses a beautiful singing voice, their solo moment is only one line but I was struck by the melodic tendencies of their voice. Last but certainly not least is Spencer Meeks’ beautifully messy eyeliner, and funky scene-stealing guitar solos. On the night I saw it, they also had a standout improvised moment about how their Green Goddess veggie drink was not the best choice for hydrating during a rock concert. I can happily report that hydrated or not, Spencer’s vocal talent as they harmonized on various songs was still excellent . Every person in the ensemble not only had great stand-out moments, they were serving every second of the show!

The twists and turns of Young Jean Lee’s emotional journey are best left unsaid so that you can be as delighted and devastated by them as I was. The show is compiled of true stories collected through interviews, and through their specificity they give the audience a place in each anecdote. One sentiment that I feel was perfectly captured here was the (dare I say the word?) millennial sense of being special, and deserving of immunity from tragedy, while also being perfectly aware of one’s imminent mortality. It is a reality in this new world that each of us is more empowered than we’ve ever been and simultaneously just as helpless to our mortality as ever.

Despite this feeling of millennial immortality, as the play says if you are a person there will be a day when you die. When your time comes, that is your time. Instead of being a depressing realization I found it galvanizing. My grandfather has 12 grandchildren while being an aeroengineer as a black man in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As sure as we are of death, we can also be sure that our full lives will affect those we leave behind, and that our stories will be told. I came to this show with the rawest open heart, and I left with a sense of how important life is, and how important it is to record the history of those lives and immortalize ourselves through art.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at We’re Gonna Die, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a fun punk show about living and dying. The remarkable direction of Josh Sobel, artistic director of Haven Theatre, moves easily from deep tragedy to big joy (remember – I said dance sequence!!). Lucky for you, it’s been extended to June 10th, so be sure to get your tickets ASAP if you’re interested in this fun rock production!

http://haventheatrechicago.com/were-gonna-die/

Isa Arciniegas – SINGER

Spencer Meeks – GUITAR / BASS

Sarah Giovannetti – DRUMS

Jordan Harris – KEYBOARD

Elle Walker – KEYBOARD

Kamille Dawkins – SINGER u/s

 

PRODUCTION

Playwright – Young Jean Lee

Director – Josh Sobel

Music Director – Spencer Meeks

Scenic Design – Mike Mroch

Costume Design – Claire Chrzan

Sound Engineer – Archer Curry

Choreography – Jon Martinez

Production Management – Krista Mickelson

Stage Management – Julia Leghorn

Assistant Director – Abhi Shrestha

Assistant Production Manager – Corbin Paulino

Master Electrician – Cedar Larson

Technical Direction – Alan Weusthoff

Graphic Design – Jenifer Dorman

 

Production photos by Austin D. Oie