Archive for April, 2010

Death & Devils

Friday, April 30th, 2010
Darren Callahan

Darren Callahan

Darren Callahan, director and playwright, filed this report from the front lines of the 2010 Dionysos Cup festival, coming this May 13th through May 23rd from Polarity Ensemble Theatre.

Death! Devils! No, this is not a posting about one of the horror plays that I’ve sorta-kinda gotten known for in the Chicago theatre scene (such as Horror Academy or The White Airplane.) In fact, this isn’t one of my plays at all – I’m just the lowly director. But, don’t worry, as P.T. Anderson once famously declared: There Will Be Blood.

G. Riley Mills, Justin Cagney and Zach Uttich

G. Riley Mills, Justin Cagney and Zach Uttich

Death & Devils is G. Riley Mills’ exceptional true-life drama about early 20th century charlatan John R. Brinkley. Settling in Kansas with his wife Minnie and his faithful shill Dwight Osborne, Brinkley made millions during the Great Depression. He sold snake oil, built a hospital, published, traveled, ran for Governor, and, not to be overlooked, became known for a suspect medical procedure that cured nearly every ill, a procedure that was particularly known as a cure for male impotence. It’s an absolutely terrific fall-from-grace story in the big tradition of Citizen Kane or All The King’s Men.

As the Dionysos Cup has many dozens of scripts submitted, I was lucky enough to read Death & Devils early in the process and nominate it up. I was absolutely thrilled to snag it when it made the final four. Old fashioned, muscular drama was always something I favored, and I couldn’t ask for a more dynamic and professional script to helped develop.

And the cast. Oh, I got lucky here, too.

Kevin Stark plays the charismatic Brinkley. I saw him in How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found and was blown away. He was one of those actors you can’t stop watching, and you miss when he’s not onstage. I had hoped for a chance to work with him and I’m just glad it came about so soon.

Then there’s Kaela Altman, playing Brinkley’s wife, Minnie. Kaela was in Horror Academy and literally kicked ass. She shot someone with a pistol with her hand stuck in a desk. She shot through a desk, my God! Through a desk! While crying! (Very believably, I should add.)

G. Riley Mills and Turk Miller

G. Riley Mills and Turk Miller

Ryan Ben as Dwight Osborne is the perfect mix of everyman appeal and dark humor. He was in my slasher film, Spikes, and is very adept at scaring the crapola out of people, should it come to that.

Turk Muller and Justin Cagney play the dueling lawyers who handle the climactic courtroom showdown with the same intense magic as Inherit the Wind, or Anatomy of a Murder. I love a play that ends in a courtroom – did I mention that? (I even enjoy Bob Clark’s late 80s film From The Hip, with Judd Nelson, for that very reason. So sue me.)

Charley Jordan, longtime Polarity Ensemble Member and Polonius in their acclaimed revival of Hamlet, rocks as pig farmer Bill Stittsworth, Brinkley’s first patient.  I basically needed someone who looks like he could intimidate Kevin Stark, and I think I found ‘em.

Alex Meyerchin and his banjo

Alex Meyerchin and his banjo

Zach Uttich is new to Chicago and hasn’t stopped working. That dude is cast in everything. That should tell you something. He plays a multitude of roles here. Lauren Fisher was in acclaimed The Hopper Project for WNEP. And Alex Meyerchin plays one hell of a singing cowboy.

Now, onward!

The Actors Speak about The Good Harvest

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010
John Walski as Davis; Mary Nigohosian as Joan

John Walski as Davis and Mary Nigohosian as Joan

Playwright Darren Callahan conducted interviews and filed this report:

What is it like to act in a stage production that centers around a tough topic, yet present that topic with enough shades that an audience will respond, not just to the central theme, but to each character’s point-of-view? For Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s World Premiere production of Lisa Rosenthal’s original work The Good Harvest, the cast doesn’t aim for a bulls-eye – it’s more of an explosion that scatters in unexpected directions.

In a pre-show chat with actors Mary Nigohosian (“Joan”) and John Walski (“Davis”) both were candid how the material has played with audiences in the show’s early performances.

“There’s so much drama in the script,” says Ms. Nigohosian, “if the crowd is quiet, you know they’re engaged. There’s not a lot of shuffling in seats. They’re trying to figure out these people.” In a play that, in summary, sounds like a very simple story (woman tries to carry a successful pregnancy after her ideal adoption candidate is killed), there is an immensely complex set of relationships between Joan, Davis, and their triplets.

Continues Mr. Walski, “Davis’s relationship with the triplets is more a part of the story than fertility, or selective reduction, or any of the other controversial topics. Just as with the characters, five different perspectives can bring out five different connections with the audience. One audience member would pick up on a line or an emotion and think, rightly so, that this was the meaning of the scene, whereas for someone who identifies with another perspective would see the outcome completely differently. Lisa’s script is rare in that way.”

When asked about choosing a point of view, an important part of the actor constructing the character, Ms. Nigohosian adds, “Marriage, abandonment, birth – these concepts are so different for people, all depending on where they’re coming from. Our experience has to be the experience of our character. What people have told me about the show, or written about the show, can be very striking, very insightful. But it’s also just as surprising, because sometimes it reflects more of their worldview than the worldview of my character.”

Mr. Walski adds, “Even the funny moments – and there are many good ones – get a different reaction every night. Each audience has its own experience, but what’s important is that they’re paying attention to all the information in the play.”

“There’s no roadmap in the program,” says Ms. Nigohosian. “They have to figure out the story’s backward and forward in time, the ‘who is who’ of it, and it’s our job, along with Richard and Lisa’s, to keep things in place.”

When director Richard Engling’s name is raised, it gives the two actors a chance to comment on his style. “He’s very different from other directors – very positive, but always pushing,” observes Ms. Nigohosian. “He’s made a safe place for us to open our hearts, be vulnerable.” Mr. Walski agrees, “He’s firm with his own choices. He’s known from Day One how to tell this story. It’s the most ‘framed’ script I’ve ever worked with. Lisa’s been working alongside us the entire eight weeks of rehearsals. That’s a testimony to how well this cast and crew works together.”

Performances of The Good Harvest take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in Wicker Park at the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago, through May 2, 2010. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Regular performances: $19. $15 seniors over 65. $10 students with ID. All tickets are general admission. Tickets may be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or visiting BrownPaperTickets.com.

What Makes an Audience Exciting?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010
The Good Harvest Team

The Good Harvest team prepares for an audience event

Playwright Darren Callahan conducted interviews and contributed to this report:

“We have the most exciting audience in town,” says Richard Engling, Artistic Director for Chicago’s Polarity Ensemble Theatre. “That’s why we’re able to do the things we do. There is a risk in bringing new works to the stage. But our audience embraces the adventure of it. They believe that there’s no place like Chicago for theatre. They want to take part in the latest work from our local writers produced by an exciting ensemble of artists who take the time and the care to perfect the vision. That’s why right now is such an exciting time at Polarity. We are in the final weeks of Lisa Rosenthal’s deeply emotional new play The Good Harvest. We are rehearsing the four amazing new plays of the Dionysos Cup, which will open two weeks after The Good Harvest closes. And we are casting Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the great American classic in which our distinguished guest director Susan Padveen will breathe new life.”

When asked what makes an audience exciting, Engling says: “It’s about the connection they make. It’s a network. They find us because they want to be part of this dialogue. They take part in this ensemble ideal we have that means creating and keeping connections among an ever-widening group of actors, writers, designers, directors and audience. They become an integral part of creating this art. Audience members participated a number of times along the way in shaping The Good Harvest, for instance. And that makes it yet more important to them to see the results. And we continue the dialogue. This Friday (April 23) I’ll host a talk-back event after the performance with playwright Lisa Rosenthal and others. We’ll discuss The Good Harvest and the process of writing and mounting a new play. We’re even going to a Cubs game with our audience.”

What made him interested in this particular play? From Mr. Engling’s perspective, the playwright can sometimes come before the play. “I love the connection Lisa has with us as much as I love the play.” Impressed by Chicago playwright Ms. Rosenthal as a person, as a force, and as a writer, he became committed to developing a partnership that would result in a world premiere.

In 2006, Polarity began its Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, a series of staged readings where four plays from Chicago playwrights receive development and two performances each—one of the events in which the audience has a profound and direct influence on the work of the ensemble. Ms. Rosenthal’s Retreat was one of the hits of the festival. This started talk from Polarity about a possible collaboration.

Polarity continued to produce works, such as new takes on Hamlet, Othello in mask, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and also original works, such as the surreal mystery The White Airplane and the genuinely creepy Ghost Watch.

When the 2008 Dionysos Cup rolled around, Ms. Rosenthal’s The Good Harvest made an even more favorable impression with the company. “The play itself is a wonderful portrait of relationships,” says Engling. “But it also has the added drama of obsession that disturbs the characters in the play at the point where it twists all their lives.”

A story of artificial insemination, multiples, and the lost child of Joan, a dead woman who appears in flashbacks, The Good Harvest uniquely refines the family drama to the sharpest point.

“Chicago Dramatists Resident Playwright Lisa Rosenthal’s wonderful new play The Good Harvest paints a compelling and highly original family portrait,” adds Russ Tutterow, Artistic Director of Chicago Dramatists and another champion of Ms. Rosenthal. “She is a ferocious worker who always has more new projects in the works than you would think would be humanly possible – and she somehow manages all of them with great care and detailed attention.”

For instance, Ms. Rosenthal is founder of the international grassroots organization, the Vet Art Project (vetartproject.com). She was inspired by hearing a radio interview with Edward Tick, Ph.D. author of War and the Soul speak about the healing power of storytelling for veterans beyond the peer group and counseling setting. This initiative offers creative arts opportunities for veterans and their family members to learn techniques from artists to explore their stories of war and service, sometimes for public performance. Since beginning this project Rosenthal refers to herself more as a social artist because she says “she can only make art that makes a difference.”

When asked if The Good Harvest, a play that was written before the creation of the Vet Art Project, is still representative of her changing worldview, she thinks for a long moment. “My playwriting is now more connected to war and service, it’s true. But this play speaks to the journey that many experience involving childbirth and again helps us realize there is a community of others who travel our path with us.” The play has undergone quite a few changes since the Dionysos Cup: new scenes and changed order and I’ve eliminated quite a bit of extraneous text. Richard has been a great resource in this refining process, too.” She remains excited by the story and feels that Mr. Engling, who also directed the production, really understood what’s required. Rosenthal also mentions her gratitude to Laura Sturm who directed the reading of this play for the Dionysos Cup and Ann Keen for her helpful feedback, too. Says Rosenthal, “Polarity is a great company of diverse artists and I feel that Richard really is a great collaborator.”

Engling is asked if the play might have a life beyond this production, maybe even a life as long as some of the classics Polarity has taken on. “When we do a new play, we really like to take the playwright’s intention as far as it will go, so it becomes, as much as possible, the definitive version. We go into it with great hope and with great engagement with our audience. There’s not much we can do for Shakespeare that hasn’t been done, but we have a lot of fun doing him. But when we take a new play, we have to give it its absolute best shot at a life beyond that first production.”

Performances of The Good Harvest take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in Wicker Park at the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago, through May 2, 2010. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Regular performances: $19. $15 seniors over 65. $10 students with ID. All tickets are general admission. Tickets may be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or visiting BrownPaperTickets.com.

Hot Young Designers Make Magic for The Good Harvest

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Ashley Ann Woods and Stephanette Smith

Ashley Ann Woods and Stephanette Smith

Ashley Ann Woods and Stephanette Smith are two designers in hot demand. Playwright Darren Callahan interviewed them and filed this report:

“The best lighting in the world is the kind you never hear about in reviews,” laughs Stephanette Smith, “but it takes a lot of time and collaboration to make that sort of hypnosis happen.” Smith is the lighting designer for The Good Harvest. Smith, in partnership with Ashley Ann Woods, scenic designer, collaborate again after their phenomenal work on Polarity’s Fall 2009 production, an acclaimed revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.

“If the lighting and the set don’t work together,” says Woods, “a whole layer of the performance will be at risk.” Beginning the process with a groundplan, sketches, and a white model, the two have devised a set of great depth for multiple changeovers—moving between harsh reality of the present, to the murky remembrances of character’s pasts, to even dreams. To achieve this effect, the set is being built as a series of scrim-like walls whose translucent quality allows light to reveal new worlds behind them.

“(Main Character) Joan had this whole life before she had triplets. She puts on a front that masks everything. When designing the set, I wanted the true essence of her character is visible behind these walls,” says Woods. Smith echoes this approach: “The realistic scenes are more ‘opaque.’ We’re using practical lights such as lamps to give concrete reference points to past versus present. The dream scenes are abstract, but behind the scrim.”

Ashley Ann Woods

Woods prepares with drawings and 3D model

When starting the process, both took a look at what kind of a world this fictional family inhabits – what kind of house, what kind of environment did Joan and her triplets grow up in? Concrete concepts are done first, then secondary ones with more abstract approaches. This allowed for the manipulations of the perception of things and is “a journey and a definition of what’s possible,” remarks Woods.

What’s possible was often restricted by the space that currently serves as home for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. The Good Harvest is their fourth full production in the Josephinum Academy, a comfortable storefront space with much to offer, but not without limitations.

“I knew when I started work in that space that there were basic things to consider, like limits on electricity,” says Smith on creating her lighting schema, “a lot of the more robust equipment we don’t have there. We were limited to clip lights and I would have to consider, instead of one light or two lights, we need six clips in one area and 6 colors in another.” Smith, who has an MFA from Illinois State’s technical theatre program, has even done lighting for productions as broad as 300-seat houses with swimming pools onstage, 400 lights in the air and disco balls. Woods has a BFA in Scenic and Costume Design herself and is used to more available resources. “Considering the space,” she says, “it’s a healthy budget for set construction and painting the set.”

“It’s a challenge,” concludes Smith, “but not impossible. We feel we have and can again create a remarkable, pro set, and light it well, even within the parameters.”

Woods and Smith proved to be a potent combination on Streetcar—the set prompted “wows” from the audience. The lighting, too, heightened the emotions of Tennessee Willliams’ sexually charged Southern melodrama.

For The Good Harvest, the women raised the bar with a simple, yet evocative set that perfectly matches Rosenthal’s potent story. “I do two kinds of research,” says Woods. “First comes practical research to time and place, second comes metaphysical research to present a response from the audience with color and form.” Smith compliments this approach by saying, “I’m not a very technical designer, I think more in terms of color and movement – I say, this scene looks very blue to me as I structure the cue.”

“We definitely had the potential to make this as or more spectacular than Streetcar, concludes Smith. “This is not straightforward realism. This is something that takes all of our imaginations.”

Performances of The Good Harvest take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in Wicker Park at the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago, through May 2, 2010. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets may be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/98824

Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Breathing New Life into a Classic

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

by Richard Engling

Alice in Wonderland

Mia Wasikowska as Alice and Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter

I finally got to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. (Directing a show like The Good Harvest means your free time is at a premium until it opens). By the time I saw it, all the critics had had their crack at it. One of the major complaints was that this classic story had been put in service of a conventional feminist be-all-that-you-can-be theme. The movie begins and ends with scenes in the “real” world. Alice is a young woman who is expected to accept the marriage proposal of an unattractive young Lord. Before her return to Wonderland, she is ill-equipped to face her challenges. Afterwards, she can. To focus on the wrapper, however, is to miss what’s been added to the delicious inside.

Much is made of Alice’s identity when she arrives in Wonderland (called Underland in this sequel). She is mistaken at first for the “wrong” Alice, but as the story progresses, we find that she is not the wrong Alice, but an Alice who has lost a great deal of herself. She cannot remember her earlier visit when she was a child, when she mistakenly called the world Wonderland. She has been daunted by the death of her father, a man of epic imagination, as well as a loving father. She has been overwhelmed by her place in the world and the expectation that she marry the young Lordling, who clearly has no appreciation of Alice.

The Mad Hatter tells her: “You used to be much muchier before. Yes, you were much more Alice the last time we met. You have lost your muchness.” Parts of her bravery has died. The story of this Alice sequel is the story of Alice regaining her muchness. Here the filmmakers touch on a truly universal theme. Who among us has not been diminished by life? From the minor assaults of criticisms, insults, difficult co-workers or bosses, to major family troubles, rejections, loved ones’ deaths, career failures and failed marriages, we get worn down. Parts of us die, and we become diminished.

In the Underworld, Alice wakes up to this diminishment of herself for the first time in her young life and musters the will to restore herself. She takes it as a challenge to overcome. “Lost my muchness, have I?” she says in a wonderful scene in which she uses the severed heads in the Red Queen’s moat as stepping stones to attempt to save The Mad Hatter. The heads are a perfect representation of the personal deaths she must overcome in order to become fully alive once again.

From that moment on, the adventure tale is laden with the story of the girl restoring herself. Part of that is finding the ability to slay the Jabberwocky. Convinced that she is incapable of slaying anything, Alice only finds the strength to face her fate when she has a final encounter with the caterpillar.

What allows her to see past her fear is the caterpillar’s acceptance of the end of one life leading into a transformation to the next. He must allow his caterpillar self to die for the butterfly to live. Alice has been busy reviving dead parts of herself, but the last transformation is to let go the part of herself that cannot possibly slay the Jabberwocky. Her passive self must die—and symbolically (and actually) she must kill the Jabberwocky to progress. Only when she cuts off the Jabberwocky’s head and drinks its blood can she return to her own world transformed and ready for the challenges she faces.

As the critics have said, the challenges she returns to do seem like familiar stuff in contemporary juvenile fiction, but that’s okay. Her journey through Underland touches on a universal story of soul transformation—and that makes it a worthy reimagining of a classic tale.

Maria A. Montalvo, Ph.D. says:

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

March 31, 2010 at 8:18 am
Dear Richard and Lisa,
Thank you for The Good Harvest. We only saw it a few days ago and while watching, I was overwhelmed by the fact that my partner, Jim, and I had gone to see a play directed my by old college buddy, Rich Engling, instead, I found myself webbed and reliving a painful experience of the late 80’s. I too have gone through fertility treatments: the expense, the monthly disappointments that ate away at my husband’s and my emotional and financial resources. Preparing for the in vitro implantations, taking the toxic medicines that ravaged my body, only made my commitment to motherhood stronger. Too many parallels. We decided to stop that course and instead decided to adopt. We have a beautiful child from a Guatemalan orphanage. I was deeply touched by the truth the actors conveyed. Thank you again and congratulations. M. Montalvo, Ph.D.