Posts Tagged ‘Polarity Ensemble Theatre’


Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

by Richard Engling

We had a great opening weekend for MIRACLES IN THE FALL. What fun to see all of you who joined us for the celebration! And now the first reviews are rolling in. There will be more to come, but here are highlights from the first reviews and photos from the production. If you haven’t seen the show yet, please join us soon!

"there are able performances all around." -Time Out Chicago

“there are able performances all around.”
-Time Out Chicago

Chuck O’Connor’s new drama about a torn Catholic family struggling to make amends takes a page from the familiar Eugene O’Neill playbook of dysfunction and disillusionment around the dinner table. You’ve got your hardened Irish blue-collar father, long given up on forgiving his late wife for an unnamed sin; your prodigal son, fallen from grace and trying to turn back the clock and win dad’s acceptance; and most aptly, a liquor cabinet full of whiskey to drown a generation’s worth of sorrows and secrets before setting them all aflame.

–Time Out Chicago

"By the time we get to the titular fall, O'Connor's real statement comes to light, and it's a moving one. " -Time Out Chicago

“By the time we get to the titular fall, O’Connor’s real statement comes to light, and it’s a moving one. ” -Time Out Chicago

O’Connor’s story of alcoholism, self-destruction and self-preservation, faith and family secrets, all set against the backdrop of a world turning itself upside down, is familiar. Nonetheless, the characters are compelling, and the world being what it is, it’s a story that certainly bears telling and retelling.

O’Connor developed the work in 2013 as part of PET’s festival of new plays. The setting is Detroit in 1968, a year out from the city’s Twelfth Street Riots, and for the Connelly family, a year out from the death of a mother and wife who commanded a complicated, painful blend of love, hate, respect and contempt from her husband, Jimmy, and her children, Clare and Charlie.

Clare, who entered the convent — at her mother’s insistence — at age thirteen, struggles with her own embrace of post-Vatican II, social justice-focused theology and the attraction of submission to a simpler call to obedience and duty. As she grapples with anger at her father’s alcoholism and his attacks on both aspects of her faith, her estranged brother returns home, post-Vietnam, looking for reconciliation with their father.

"Laura Berner Taylor (Clare) and Rian Jairell (Father Lentine) open the play with a particularly well-executed scene " -Edge Chicago

“Laura Berner Taylor (Clare) and Rian Jairell (Father Lentine) open the play with a particularly well-executed scene “
-Edge Chicago

Clare’s life is further complicated by the departure of the authoritarian Monsignor who hands down penance and “charges” her with caring for her father, and his replacement by Father Lentine, a young priest whose uncertainties about faith and duty and meaning run parallel to her own.

Both the intimate setting of the Connellys’ living room and the backdrop of a still-smoldering Detroit, cautiously rallying around the “miracle” of the American League Champion Detroit Tigers, remain painfully resonant, as Ferguson, Missouri, fades from national attention and rare positive press for Chicago’s South Side in the wake of Jackie Robinson West’s ascension to Little League World Series glory gives way, once again to crime statistics….

It is to the playwright’s credit and the company’s that the work is likely to stand up to time and repeat viewings.

"All four actors are talented and the performances are very good overall" -Edge Chicago

“All four actors are talented and the performances are very good overall”
-Edge Chicago

Charles C. Palia, Jr.’s scenic design is excellent for the space and for the piece. With almost no set redressing, the action moves from living room to classroom to a prayer sanctuary nestled in the corner of a graveyard. In conjunction with Benjamin L. White’s lighting and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design, the spatial logic of scenes is always clear, maintaining the important distinction between private and public life as well as that between individual conscience and societal responsibility.

–EDGE Chicago

The story focuses on the eldest daughter of the family, Clare Connelly. Clare is a nun, but not in the sweet Sally Field style, but rather more like an angry, lost character that could have escaped right out of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Laura Berner Taylor throws herself entirely into bringing Clare to life. She completely commands every scene she’s in and gives a powerhouse performance…The more we learn about Clare and the more Berner Taylor has to draw on the more riveting she becomes.

"Wellisch really sinks his teeth...played to perfection" -Chicago Stage Standard

“Wellisch really sinks his teeth…played to perfection” -Chicago Stage Standard

[Fred A.] Wellicsh really sinks his teeth into playing his character’s alcoholism and Parkinson’s, both difficult tasks for sure…his outbursts are theatrical and played to perfection….

Rian Jairell (Fr. Lentine) and Mickey O’Sullivan (Charlie Connely) both bring as much to their roles as possible early in the proceedings and truly shine later as their characters become more developed….

Charles C. Palia’s set worked nicely in a small space considering the number of locations that were needed…Benjamin L. White’s lighting design and Jessica Smith’s Costumes and Props were spot on and added to the feel of the piece and the period.

–Chicago Stage Standard

It’s hard to imagine a richer setting for an American problem play than the home of a working-class Irish-American family in Detroit in the autumn of 1968—all those complicated Irish-Catholic personal problems (alcoholism, sexual repression, hair-trigger tempers, free-floating anger) and heady issues of the day (race riots, Vatican II, Vietnam, intergenerational strife, not to mention the 1968 World Series) almost literally at the doorstep….

–Chicago Reader

"The angst and noise that’s generated in the first act is performed with fearless commitment and energy by the cast under Richard Shavzin’s direction" -Chicago Theatre Beat

“The angst and noise that’s generated in the first act is performed with fearless commitment and energy by the cast under Richard Shavzin’s direction” -Chicago Theatre Beat

O’Connor has a good ear for dialogue, though, and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design incorporating audio of Tigers’ broadcasts and jingles provides a sense of period authenticity. There’s something appealing about a play that brings the traditions of Irish family drama to a Midwestern setting and an era many in the audience will remember.

–Chicago Theatre Beat

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The Curse on MACBETH

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

by Rachel Ramirez

PHOTO:What, us worry?

What, us worry?

There is a reason that you will frequently hear William Shakespeare’s Macbeth referred to as “The Scottish Play.” One of the most popular theatrical superstitions states that this Shakespearean tragedy can bring about bad luck—even by simply stating the name of the title character. These claims are not entirely unfounded as many well-known actors (including Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston) have all suffered some disaster either during or just after a production. While not all theatre artists and audience members agree that there is truth in this curse, there is always a respect for those that believe in that superstition. Even those believe any theatrical misfortunes to be mere coincidence will refer to the main characters indirectly as The Scottish King and Lady M.

PHOTO:Did Shakespeare steal from scary witches?

Did Shakespeare steal from scary witches?

The superstition surrounding Macbeth is a twofold. Firstly, according to theatrical superstition, speaking the name Macbeth aloud in a theater will invariably bring disaster upon the production. The second is that the entire production, as a whole, is cursed. There are some opinions as to the origin of this curse. If legends are to be believed, Shakespeare stole witches chants from an actual coven to be used in the play and, as retribution, the witches cursed the play, condemning it for all eternity.

Fear of the Macbeth curse is alive and thriving even today. One of the more recent productions of this play was Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, which ran on Broadway in the spring of 2013. Its star announced his dismissal of any superstition, stating, “I am going to say Macbeth everywhere, even in the theatre. None of this Scottish Play stuff for me.” However, the show’s producers had other ideas and placed signs about the Ethel Barrymore Theater, asking patrons to refrain from mentioning the title while within the venue. That being said, despite Alan Cummings’ flouting of the curse, he appears to be doing just fine today.

Those who follow theatrical superstition are not completely unarmed against this curse. There are certain cleansing rituals said to ward off the evil spirits brought on by speaking the name aloud. The rituals include turning three times, swearing, spitting over one’s left shoulder, or reciting a line from a different Shakespeare play (such as “If we shadows have offended” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The offender may also be asked to leave the theater and not be able to reenter until he is invited to do so.

Of course, there are certainly rational explanations for the troubles that frequently seem to haunt productions. Although Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, it is also one of the most violent. There are many fight scenes throughout the play. Most of those scenes take place at night or in dim lighting, thus increasing the chances for accidents.

PHOTO:In a production like MACBETH, accidents can happen.

In a production like MACBETH, accidents can happen.

Another arguably accurate cause of the Macbeth curse is self-fulfilling prophecy. Misfortunes plague nearly every single production that is put on a stage—that is just the nature of show business. Live theatre is unpredictable and accidents happen. But when a cast and crew are watching carefully for any signs of misfortune, any and all mishaps are sure to be remembered. And so the curse lives on from generation to generation, essentially feeding upon itself.

PHOTO:Lady Macbeth speaks some powerful incantations

Lady Macbeth speaks some powerful incantations.

When we questioned Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling, who is directing the production, he said: “I don’t believe saying the name Macbeth anywhere does anything. I do believe, however, that there can be power in prayers and incantations, and the script has some dangerous ones. Probably most dangerous of all is the speech in which Lady Macbeth calls down the demons upon herself.”

Come you spirits,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood,
Stop up the access, and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and hit. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold, hold.

Perhaps an actual Macbeth curse can never be proven, but we have now reached the point where it is so ingrained in our theatrical culture that the myth will never entirely be dispelled. What we can be certain of is that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing tragedies with compelling characters, surrounded by supernatural elements—and the idea of a curse is merely another layer to that mystery and intrigue.

Please join Polarity Ensemble Theatre for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, running January 30-March 2 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. (Free parking one block north). Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at or by calling 773-404-7336. Or click here for more information on the show. And to read about our new residency at the Greenhouse Theater Center, click here. Macbeth as part of Chicago Theatre Week, February 13 – 16.

Pictured above: Jovan King and Lana Smithner; Emily Nichelson, Krystal Mosley and Kate Smith; Emily Nichelson and Jovan King; Lana Smithner. Photos by Richard Engling

The Family that Plays Together

Monday, November 29th, 2010
The Tyrones

The Tyrones

The Tyrones. They could be any family. But they’re not. They’re the family at the heart of Eugene O’Neill’s classic stage play Long Day’s Journey into Night. Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production has been called “startlingly compassionate… beautifully realized” (Four Stars – Time Out Chicago), it’s Reader Recommended and Jeff Recommended.

Caroline Latta as Mary

Caroline Latta as Mary

It’s a substantial piece of theatre – a little over three hours of stage time – and a challenging show, full of squabbles and conflict and a family held together by their shared ruin – as well as their sadly weathered but very real love. How does the cast of four principles remain at the top of form, putting all they have into O’Neill’s charges and retreats? “Well it’s a bit like running a marathon,” admits veteran actor Caroline Latta (Mary Tyrone). “You have to pace yourself. When the performance works you are completely drained!”

This is the second time around for Latta in the role. She also played Mary Tyrone as a college student decades ago. “It’s such an amazing gift to be able to return to this play after all these years. It gives me a perspective on the play I don’t think I would have found otherwise.”

Kevin Kenneally as James

Kevin Kenneally as James

It’s a first time experience for Kevin Kenneally (James Tyrone, Sr.). In playing the epic role of the family patriarch, he focuses on the all-important passion of desire: “I keep focused on what I want from the other characters. I have to respond to the effects of what they want from me. That’s what the rehearsal process is about: digging through your relationship to others and their thought/feelings/actions towards you.”

Bryan Breau (Edmund Tyrone) concurs, “All I can really do is try to stay focused and in the right mindset. Don’t get distracted, don’t goof around…much. But you have to keep your sense of humor and even with a play this serious; you have to find the fun.” He and Eric Damon Smith (Jamie Tyrone) do manage to mine the script for more laughs than one would expect in a play of this depth.

However, the physical demands of his uncanny portrayal a man diagnosed with consumption does drain Breau. He sputters his lines between coughing and appears at times on the verge of collapse. “Most of the time (an actor’s work) tends to be outside various comfort zones,” he admits. Ironically, appearing sickly on stage demands much of Breau’s physical athleticism.

Eric Damon Smith as Jamie

Eric Damon Smith as Jamie

Eric Damon Smith plays the role of the older, aimless drunkard brother Jamie Tyrone. After intermission Smith spends over an hour off-stage only to return with an energetic ferocity in a grueling and devastating scene admitting his character’s vehemence towards his brother. The time off-stage presents certain challenges emotionally and physically. “Being off-stage for such a long period of time it’s difficult to maintain Jamie’s arc. Stepping out of the character is essential for an actor’s sanity but finding a way to engage back into the play after such a long break is difficult. With the fight choreography it’s important to stretch before and after the show. Honestly, it’s hard and I’m still working on it,” Smith says.

Much of rehearsal was done in large chunks, so the actors always had an idea of the play as a whole. Breau admits to an inherent frustration with any classic play but Smith offers: “I actually do a lot of classical theatre and feel really comfortable in it. I do however feel that you can’t let your reverence for a piece stifle finding a way to make it urgent. Frankly it’s a desperate and daunting script, but once you come to grips with it you can finally truly work on it. It’s what O’Neill wanted. We see it as a great piece of drama, but for O’Neill it was an exorcism of his demons. If we approach seminal pieces of drama as ‘scripture’ we can’t breathe new life into them.”

Bryan Breau as Edmund

Bryan Breau as Edmund

Although the story follows four volatile characters on a painful day, the goal of the script is to illuminate and to entertain. Even fifty years after its Pulitzer-winning debut, the play still has the power to seduce. As Latta says, “Life itself has shown me, over the past forty years, how dreams can sometimes be shattered, but there is always hope for change.”

Despite the grief the characters experience, the cast unanimously agrees that this is a special experience – for them and the audience. The storefront size of Polarity’s theatre, where viewers are placed inside the front room of the Tyrone’s summer home is, literally, like watching a tornado from the eye of the storm. Susan Padveen’s staging allows for the play to be intimately effecting, as can be noted by the rapt attention of the audience shown night after night.

* * *

Long Day’s Journey into Night is directed by Susan Padveen and features Caroline Latta, Kevin Kenneally, Bryan Breau, Eric Damon Smith and Anne Sears.  The final three performances take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell, Chicago, IL, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm, December 3 – 5. (Please note the time change for the final Sunday). $19 general admission. Tickets can be purchased in online through Brown Paper Tickets by calling 1-800-838-3006.