Archive for December, 2011

Holy Shit! It’s the Troll King!

Monday, December 12th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Clay Sanderson

Clay Sanderson thinking trollish thoughts.

Clay Sanderson makes his Polarity debut with Peer Gynt. Recent credits include Jeff in Brigadoon with Light Opera Works, Officer Lockstock in Urinetown at Circle Theatre, and Frederick in Noises Off at Theatre at the Center. He has also appeared in productions with Oak Park Festival Theatre, City Lit, Bailiwick Repertory, Festival 56, and Wagon Wheel. He can next be seen in The Light in the Piazza at Theo Ubique. He holds an MFA in Acting from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

But – this is the real question – has he ever played a frickin’ troll?

“Well, I’m always looking for my next show, and I saw the audition notice on the League of Chicago Theatres website. I had heard of the play and knew it was a classic, and Polarity is a good company so I signed up for a slot. I got called back for The Troll King and managed to not screw it up, and here I am!” he declares.

I had to ask if, when he was a small child, did he ever dream of playing a troll?

“Can’t say I did,” he replies. “However, I did play ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ at a piano recital once.”

Ah, dreams, so easily fretted away. So how did he build a character based on mythology – did he focus on the troll or the human characteristics?

“I was originally under the impression that the trolls were going to be green creature-type things, but at the first read-through (director) Jeremy Wechsler told us we were to be ‘humanoid’ — not human, but like, perhaps mutant humans. An inbred mining community.”



I asked if he had ever seen C.H.U.D. He had not.

“At first I wasn’t sure what to do, because for months I had been thinking I was going to be playing more of a monster — a kingly monster — and was going to use the same voice I had come up with for the callback. So I had to revamp my entire approach. But with the help of Jeremy’s direction and an idea brought up by Meg Elliott, who plays my daughter, to use Southern accents (since we’re making the setting America by way of Norway), I was able to come up with what I hope is a pretty interesting character.”

Bryson Engelen and Meg Elliott

Bryson Engelen as Young Peer and Meg Elliott as the daughter of the Troll King

So, now I’m super excited to see this troll costume – I picture fangs, maybe a crazy nose, something to make Rick Baker proud – you know, the works.

“Our special effects are our acting!”


Well, I’m sure it’ll still rock it. I don’t think there’s been a troll on stage in Chicago in at least, what, three seasons? I’m not counting critics. Wait, did I say that? So, Clay, any particular thoughts about the effect this wacky Ibsen will have on an audience?

“I think that anyone who is familiar with Peer Gynt will agree that it is a challenging play. It is epic in its scope and theatricality, and is like a big Thanksgiving feast with many different courses. Some sections of the feast might be hard to swallow, but I think we can guarantee that you will leave the theater feeling full and satisfied.”

Let’s eat!

Production Details

Peer Gynt ran at the DCA Theater’s Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., in the heart of Chicago’s downtown theater district, from November 15 through December 18, 2011.

The Musical Stylings of Peer Gynt

Monday, December 12th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Christopher Gagnon, Paul Gilvary and Teddy Stuebi

Christopher Gagnon, Paul Gilvary and Teddy Stuebi

Paul Gilvary, composer and musical director for Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production of Peer Gynt, had a significant challenge – how best to realize Director Jeremy Wechsler’s vision for the Americana influences while staying true to the Norwegian mythology of Ibsen’s rarely done classic. The solution: folk music.

Folk music, a 19th century English phrase, has been characterized by the late 20th century Woody Guthries and Bob Dylans, and parodied in films such as Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. But, at its core, folk music is about the roots of a culture, the smaller experiences of common men and women in the context of nothing but their own lives and fortunes. This fits perfectly with the aesthetic of Peer Gynt, a play based on various blends of Norwegian style, story, and absurdism. “I was playing this type of music when I was a teenager in the 70s,” remarks Gilvary.

Aided by two stellar musicians, Christopher Gagnon on violin and Teddy Stuebi on guitar and banjo, Gilvary, on bass, blends acoustic instruments, percussion, and leads the cast in several rousing numbers. Some of the music is traditional, while other songs are original compositions by Gilvary. “The songs, original and otherwise, pass through the director’s filter,” says Gilvary. “Jeremy also selected the song we play going into intermission.” Don’t That Road is a traditional song that closes the first act in rousing chorus of the full cast and effectively passes the baton from Bryson Englelen’s “Young Peer Gynt” to Richard Engling’s second act “Old Peer Gynt.”

Regarding the director’s influence on the music of the production, Gagnon adds, “Paul received some input from Jeremy. But from my perspective, as is often the case in theatre, the director has an idea for what he wants, but it’s up to the musical director to try to interpret that and translate it into something that makes musical sense. Artistic directors don’t always speak the same language as musicians — and vice-versa — it’s one of the things that makes doing music in theatre both challenging and rewarding: coming to understand how the music and the artistic vision for the play can meet in the middle and result in something that lifts the production without drawing focus from it.”

Two other indelible numbers are placed within the production. Sung by Erica Bittner playing “Young Solveig” is an original composition that sweetly moves the story forward while highlighting the band and Bittner’s striking voice. And, towards a lamentable rough spot of Peer’s life, a promenade of singers belt out a Gospel song, Glory to Thee, while moving across twenty-foot-high risers above the audience.

Regarding the band’s history, Gilvary tells it like this: “Chris and I played together for a production at Strawdog Theater. Teddy and I worked for a show for Silent Theater. With Chris, we played in a band for the play Old Town. Teddy and I were part of a jazz trio for The Set Up where we performed original music. I hand-picked both of these guys because they have talent and are both pleasant to work with.”

With 40 minutes of pre-show music, the three musicians have the opportunity to connect as a band playing a set, and not exclusively as the background for the dramatic action of the play. Before needed at cast rehearsals, the band had opportunities to work out stuff in Gilvary’s studio. “Once we joined the cast, the time to rehearse is scarce. This is always the case when you make music for plays.”

“I’m very happy with how it gelled,” adds Gagnon. “We had good chemistry right from the first rehearsal, and our various talents seem to complement one other nicely.” In fact, the band’s considering continuing to play together even after the close of Peer Gynt. But, strike while the iron (and the band) are hot and see Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production of Peer Gynt.

Production Details

Peer Gynt ran at the DCA Theater’s Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., in the heart of Chicago’s downtown theater district, from November 15 through December 18, 2011.

Worst Movie! Best Movie!

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Okay. You got me. I’m obsessed. I love trolls. There, I said it. Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production of Peer Gynt has trolls. Gots ‘em in spades. I’m thinking: I need more trolls. Troll Hunter kept me going for a little bit in my post-Peer buzz. Then came Troll – the Michael Moriarty schlockfest from the mid-1980s. So I moved on to Troll 2, which I heard was bad, knew was bad, and delivered in bad, bad, bad spades. Alas, the joke is on me….Though called Troll 2, they’re actually Goblins. Son of a…


How to redeem oneself after watching Troll 2? I mean jeepers. That’s a bad movie.

Best Worst MovieBy watching “Best Worst Movie,” of course!

BWM is an excellent 2009 documentary following up with the cast and crew of 1990’s Troll 2. For many years, Troll 2 held the lowest rating in the IMDB database – zero stars. But slowly, over the last decade, it has eeked out a more respectable 2.3 stars (out of 10), based solely on the rediscovery by fans as one of the most satisfying terrible movies ever made.

Directed by Michael Stephenson, who played the little boy “Joshua” in Troll 2, BWM starts out as lighthearted self-effacement, but evolves into an affecting portrait of Hollywood dreams destroyed.

The focus is on George Hardy, who played the strapping hero in Troll 2. In many ways, he’s the real-life doppleganger of Eugene Levy’s fictional dentist-turned-actor from Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest’s funny mockumentary about small-town stagecraft from 1996.) Safe and respected as a dentist, the filming of the documentary brings out Hardy’s hubris – big time. At first amused by the cult stardom, then bragging about it, Hardy soon becomes addicted to, and ultimately disillusioned by his limited fame.

A star of a bad movie is still a star and, at first, the film’s fans greet Hardy with overwhelming respect. As he moves across country from horrorfest to horrorfest, the invited guest at fan screenings of Troll 2, he repeats his character’s signature lines ad nauseum.

It’s interesting to see the story of a man with only one success. The director, some of the other stars – they moved on, either to TV or plays or bit parts in movies, or they’ve moved on to greener pastures and look back on the filming of Troll 2 as a strange confluence in their lives. But Hardy, clearly a good man and probably an excellent dentist, seems to have a hole in his life that remains unfilled.

It’s easy for a documentary to pick a story, follow it, perhaps groom it. Was Hardy ripe for this and Stephenson saw a narrative opportunity, stoking the fire? Or are some trips down memory lane a bad idea? You judge for yourself.

At least I got my fill of Trolls for the week. Won’t last, though. I can tell. I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more troll. If you’ve got the same itch, definitely check out Peer Gynt!

For more on “Best Worse Movie,” visit:

P.S. As I write this, I’m also watching 1977’s “The Car,” a movie that was given a Golden Rasberry for one of the worst, yet entertaining movies ever made. And, guess what’s playin’ the soundtrack? A song from the opera of Peer Gynt. See, everything is connected. I feel very Zen about this troll thing.

Production Details

Peer Gynt ran at the DCA Theater’s Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., in the heart of Chicago’s downtown theater district, from November 15 through December 18, 2011.

Old Peer Vs. Young Peer – The Smackdown!

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

by Darren Callahan. Photos by John W. Sisson. Jr.

Having two actors inhabit a single character is not a new phenomenon.  Having two actors who play the same role and actually like and respect each other, now that’s news!

Richard Engling as Old Peer

Richard Engling as Old Peer

When Richard Engling, who portrays “Old Peer Gynt” in the current Polarity Ensemble production of the Ibsen classic at the DCA Storefront Theatre, was asked if he was jealous of Byron Engelen, who plays “Young Peer Gynt,” he just laughs.  “He’s really a splendid, charismatic actor. Very talented. Very good-looking!”

Of course, the resemblance is striking, but it’s the unified performance that makes a complete Peer Gynt.  Engelen, who appears in the first half of the play, passes the baton to Engling, who plays Peer later in life.  “I think Richard has sportingly taken upon himself the burden of mimicking some of my mannerisms and tone,” says Engelen.

“But Old Peer has been built more onto Young Peer than anything else, which I think is the most logical approach.  And easiest for me, too, because I am inherently lazy.”

As Polarity’s Artistic Director, Engling has only acted occasionally in the ensemble’s productions.  It begs the question, what led him to this role?  “I begin Peer at the height of his powers. He’s extremely wealthy. He’s an international player. He wants to be the Emperor of the world, and it almost seems he has the possibility of doing that — at least in his own mind.  Then a series of disasters befall him.  It’s quite a wild ride. As an actor it really intrigued me.”

Meg Elliott as the Green Woman and Bryson Engelen as Young Peer

Meg Elliott as the Green Woman and Bryson Engelen as Young Peer

For Engelen, the greatest challenge was being so present in the first act and not at all in the second.  “It’s a little harder to understand the character’s journey and how you are setting up the journey for the second actor when you aren’t really involved in the rehearsal process for the entire second half of the play.  I just had to trust Richard would tie the two together, which he’s done really well.”

With a large ensemble and much collaboration, the process of piecing together Peer Gynt has been energizing for the entire cast.  Says Engling, “The rise and fall of Peer Gynt is very much like the arc of America’s fortunes. America rose from a scrappy trickster to an imperial power and now things are looking pretty shaky.  We are wondering what’s next.  There is a certain way in which Peer Gynt holds up a mirror to the American psyche. Particularly the American male psyche.   So it that way the production has some intellectual depth.”

Engelen agrees: “People play off each other’s energies and ideas, and in a play with such epic situations and tones, it’s really good to have a large cast to help paint that picture.  We also were very open to having fun with the scenes, and (director) Jeremy Wechsler is great in not only giving you free range to play, but also in giving you excellent suggestions to bring more fun to the scene.”

As the two went into opening night, they considered what they would hope to be the audience’s experience.  Engelen sums it up best.  “I’d really like for them embrace the spirit of fun and the larger than life aspects of the play, as well as the honesty and gravity of some of the more serious scenes.  If we’re doing our job, this should be a journey with really high highs and some deep lows.  They should feel free to laugh at Peer and also pity him, to be impressed by his imagination and appalled by his denial of reality and truth.”

Engling revealed another personal source for his characterization. “In the end Peer has to face up to what his life has been. I thought a lot about what my father experienced at the end of his life for some of those scenes. After the show, opening night, my brother Jim told me:  ‘Some times when the light hit your face, I didn’t know if I was looking at you or at Dad.’ So I guess that part of it worked.”

Peer Gynt performed at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., in the heart of Chicago’s downtown theater district, from
November 15 through December 18, 2011. Performances were Thursdays -Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.

Troll Attack!

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

by Darren Callahan

“Multiple troll-courtiers, troll-maidens, and troll-urchins.” This is a real description from the cast of characters of Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, translated by Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Bly. I’d talk about Polarity’s awesome production at the DCA Storefront in the downtown theatre district, playing through December 18. Or maybe spill some details about award-winning director Jeremy Wechsler’s long obsession to bring the rare Ibsen play to the Chicago stage. But what I really want to talk about…


Troll Hunter

Troll Hunter

Have you seen it? TROLL HUNTER? It’s a movie from earlier this year. Played the Music Box for a couple weeks. I missed it then, but just caught it on television recently. Spoiler alert: title says it all. It’s about a guy who hunts trolls. For the Norwegian government. In secret. People think he’s hunting bears, but then a curious crew of documentarians stumble upon the hunter’s true mission.

What the hell is Norway’s obsession with trolls?



Trolls. Freakin’ trolls. Big trolls, big as houses. Small ones under a bridge. Ones that can smell a Christian. Ones that hate sunlight. Ones that attack your car and ones that eat your first cameraman. Wait, I’ve said too much.

Though TROLL HUNTER — the first film ever paid for by the Norwegian tourist bureau (I assume because they hate tourists) — is not a great film, it’s still a hoot. I actually much preferred last year’s MONSTERS, which had a similar vibe, but more human roots (ironic, I know, for a film called MONSTERS; but I suppose a film called HUMANS would probably do less box office.)

Andre Overdal, the film’s writer and director, is a first-timer who has clearly seen a Jurassic Park or two. From swiping car attacks to forest chases, this thing is certain to be remade in a Hollywood mold. But would it be trolls, I ask? Trolls do seem so very Scandinavian. Somehow the image of Bigfoot chasing you seems a little silly. But, then again, I bet a Troll chase scene probably looked pretty odd on paper, too. As a matter of fact, much about the film will look déjà vu to anyone who’s seen a monster movie in the last fifty years.

But you can’t deny the awesomeness so seeing that first troll, which doesn’t hit for thirty minutes and then arrives in spectacular three-headed style. It makes me wonder what the Troll King will look like in Polarity’s Peer Gynt. I mean, DCA is a big space, but not TEN STORIES big. But, as the troll hunter himself puts it, “Every one of them is different.”


Peer Gynt performed at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., in the heart of Chicago’s downtown theater district, from
November 15 through December 18, 2011.