Rivendell presents a vivid drama about DIY abortion, female friendship and chlorine-green hair, and we hail the arrival of the new generation of brilliant actresses. Plus, we critique the Tony Award nominations and tease out the Chicago connections therein.
Plus, K. picks MadKap Productions’ Next to Normal at the Skokie Theatre, and Guardians at Mary-Arrchie, while J. picks The Producers at Knight Blue Performing Arts Company.
Chicago’s permanent avant-garde theatre troupe celebrates 25 years with a world premiere chamber opera by Matt Test.
Kelly and Jonathan wring each other’s neck over Rung, a world premiere opera at Curious Theatre Branch, and Kelly recommends Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.
Katherine Keberlein and Anne Joy in Hallie Gordon’s production of Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. (Photo: Joe Mazza)
Eat Your Heart Out by Courtney Baron, now receiving its Midwest premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, tracks the intersecting paths of half a dozen characters, all making semi-futile efforts to defeat loneliness and four of them concerned with the motherhood variation on this theme. Divorced social worker Nance (Katherine Keberlein) and her teenaged daughter Evie (Anne Joy) fight about Evie’s excess weight, making it a surrogate for every one of their disappointments and resentments and losses. Nance meanwhile is charged with evaluating the suitability of Alice (Mary Cross) and Gabe (Michael Szeles) to be adoptive parents, in a home visit which moves precipitously from awkward to disappointing to resentful to explosively hostile—and, ultimately, lost. As these events unfold, Nance’s blind date (Charlie Strater) and Evie’s wished-for boyfriend (Andrew Goetten) get hit with the shrapnel.
The subject matter is powerful to begin with, and Baron’s ear for contemporary speech and director Hallie Gordon’s seamless integration of multiple stories combine to make this production of Eat . . . into an experience best described as “Tear Your Heart Out.” While these characters are all privileged and would be easy to dismiss as suffering from “First World Problems,” they are so fully embodied by their actors that we don’t even think about that til the piece—running at a breakneck 95 intermission-free minutes—is over.
First among equals in the cast is Keberlein, who uses her icy blonde beauty to convey Nance’s hard exterior while face, voice and carriage reveal her vulnerability. Joy could not look less like her—which is the whole point—but renders pitch-perfectly Evie’s adolescent version of the same mix of emotions. By the time the evening ended with Evie’s repeating over and over, “I just really need my mom,” I felt exactly the same way.
The production’s only weakness is its set design, which uses several door frames to delineate four playing areas on the tiny Rivendell stage. The audience is obliged to crane necks around these obstacles, and though I understand the idea—life is full of barriers to seeing one another clearly—it’s one that isn’t particularly well-served by preventing the audience from seeing these exceptionally fine performers.
Eat Your Heart Out runs through the end of June at Rivendell, on Ridge Avenue just north of Hollywood in Edgewater.
Mary Beth Fisher in Luna Gale at the Goodman Theatre.
J. and K. reflect on the Goodman’s new Rebecca Gilman play, Jonathan mentions Chicago Theatre Week and Kelly recommends Rasheeda Speaking at Rivendell.
About new plays at Profiles, Rivendell, Steep and Trap Door, K. sez:
There’s some vibe in the air about injury to children. Not only is it the subject of the Goodman’s Luna Gale (of which more in our duel on Friday), but both Profiles and Steep have chosen to do new plays on the subject. Query whether we’ve projected onto children our fears that society is out of control and we’re being damaged by it; but for whatever reason, this is the topic du jour.
Gidion’s Knot at Profiles is the Midwest Premiere of Johnna Adams’s poorly-named but sharply-drawn play about a confrontation between a parent and a teacher over the death of a child. As directed by Joe Jahraus (who last year directed another play about a teacher with a dead student), the play rings every conceivable change on the, yes, knot of emotions accompanying such a death, including—especially!—guilt, even when it’s not clear what there is to be guilty for. Laura Hooper as the terrified young teacher and Amy J. Carle as her nemesis are so genuine in their clashes that you expect the classroom (perfectly designed by Katie-Bell Springman down to the sayings on the wall) to catch fire at any moment. A sobering but worthwhile look at the unknowability of other people in general and children in particular as they navigate a threatening world by becoming threats themselves.
Steep Theatre presents strangers, babies, also a Midwest premiere and the Chicago debut for Scottish playwright Linda McLean. This episodic account of the life of May (the appealing Sasha Gioppo), a young wife so tender she tries to save a baby bird, gradually reveals a past stained by uncontrollable rage and a present distorted by unsalveable guilt. Director Brad Akin wrings out every bit of subtext the play offers and the actors can convey, but McLean’s loose ends still show, such that the final line of the play didn’t seem like a final line at all. No pat conclusion is required but when the point of a play is to follow a character’s arc it’s best if that arc reaches its destination, rather than disappearing into the mist like Finian’s Rainbow. strangers, babies is utterly absorbing for its 90-minute length, but it leaves you wanting some resolution.
Rasheeda Speaking at Rivendell addresses more directly the notion that society is out of whack and individuals out of control. This world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson is oddly reminiscent of Volpone, the classic account of the trickster tricked, as it follows the interactions of two physician’s assistants who fool and betray each other even as they profess their friendship. The fact that one (Tara Mallen) is white and the other (Ora Jones) is black means that Rasheeda Speaking is a play about racism, but the plot takes several turns which up-end or refute expectations about who’s doing what to whom. Johnson’s nuanced work is directed by Sandy Shinner with perfect pitch for both its comedy and its drama, and the result is so thought-provoking that my companion walked three extra blocks in the polar vortex so we could continue to discuss exactly what happened and why. Ably acted by all involved, the play really rests on Jones’s quicksilver changes of mood and/or personality. She’s perfectly upsetting on a subject about which we could all use a little upset. And, in addition to being a show about racism, it’s a show about performance—oh, wait, those are the same thing. Not to be missed.
In a quite different vein from this realistic trio is Trap Door Theatre’s production of Judith, an adaptation of the Biblical story of the widow who secured the Israelites’ victory in battle by seducing and then beheading Assyrian General Holofernes. This version of the story is subtitled “A Parting from the Body,” and emphasizes the parallels between sex and death, or at least the ways in which the ecstasies of one can be substituted for the contemplation of the other. Director Zeljko Djukic’s production is very physical and sensual, and Kevin Cox and Nicole Wiesner are well-matched as the antagonists; but the text sounds like a conversation in a college dorm room: “I am obsessed with death.”–“Then let’s have sex.” That analysis obviously does an injustice to the complexity of playwright Howard Barker’s meditation on loyalty and betrayal, love and hostility, and any number of other paired concerns; but the stentorian pronouncements make it nearly impossible to take those concerns seriously. Ordinarily Trap Door’s productions are able to bridge cultural gaps: the company’s specialty is translation in the broadest sense of the term, including not only language but assumptions and style. Here, though, it is confronted with an English playwright who writes English-language dialogue as though it were badly rendered from the original Hindustani, and this creates a barrier too great to overcome even for a troupe as talented and thoughtful as Trap Door.