Storytelling Review: You’re Being Ridiculous, February 3, Steppenwolf Theatre

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So, as I age (or, as I prefer to call it: “ripen” or “mature”) I have found myself widening my cultural interests from music to theater and, most recently, storytelling. Why? I hear you ask. Thanks for asking! Let me tell you: So, two main things I love about going to music shows are:

1) Lyrics. Clever, eye-opening lyrics can open minds and eyes and make you question your conception of narrative and connotation. One of the frustrating things about songs is the inability to ask the singer what a specific lyric means or how the song-writer came up with it.
2) The freedom the audience has to react however they want. When you go to a show, you have people singing along, clapping, closing their eyes, laughing, crying – you name it and there’s one in the crowd. I love this variety of reaction – so unlike something like a stand-up show where there is one acceptable reaction: laughter. And if that doesn’t happen, everyone feels uncomfortable.

Two main things I don’t love about going to music shows are:
1) People on their phones. I HATE realizing I’m looking at the stage through someone’s iPhone who’s recording it as opposed to actually watching the show.
2) Standing.

Enter… storytelling! This amazing artistic exercise combines all my favorite things: clever wordplay that is then elaborated upon and explained in great and gripping detail; audiences who snap, close their eyes, “mmhmmmm,” laugh out loud, cry, wave their hands, etc; MCs who forbid phone usage and mean it, and comfortable seats! I highly recommend it.

If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend it at Steppenwolf. This amazingly curated venue is intimate, creative, perfect for a first date, offers beautiful cocktails, a full coffee and pastry bar, and sparking water on tap (!). The staff are impeccable, the stage set up is welcoming, and the audiences are diverse and friendly. I really can’t praise this place highly enough.

I found this amazing venue through its “You’re Being Ridiculous” storytelling performance as part of its LookOut Series. The show Saturday night included 9 talented storytellers who regaled the audience with short but super memorable stories ranging from tear-jerkers to laugh-out-loud tales. Topics included:

1) Procrastination as denial of fear – and a way to push yourself to try new, unexpected things
2) An ode to breasts
3) Suicide and the power of family and laughter to bring survivors through it together
4) The terror of substitute teaching 4th graders
5) A husband-wife rendition of how they met (very different interpretations!)
6) Tales of life-changing surgery
7) The highs and lows of gay Jews vacationing in Boca Raton, FL
8) My favorite: a tear-jerker on the power of letting go.

The stories made me laugh, cry, learn, question, and start conversations I otherwise would never have dreamed of having. And the small venue allowed us to walk right up to the talented narrators and hug, high-five and praise however we wanted to. It really was an incredibly powerful night and I’m so glad I was there.

My storytelling pales in comparison to what you’ll see when you try this out – so go! Please! Whether a narrator or a listener, you’ll come away richer.

SummerWorks Play Review: Hannah’s Turn, August 9

Posted on by Brian in Reviews, Summerworks, Theatre | Leave a comment

Toronto – If you were to make a list of great love affairs of the 20th century, you might not put Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger near the top. But Heidegger, a German philosopher who rather controversially joined and endorsed the Nazi Party in 1933, and Arendt, a Jewish thinker and student of Heidegger’s, had a torrid love affair when both were at the University of Freiburg. We know this in part because they wrote a stack of love letters to one another, which were published in English in 2004 in a book containing their correspondence from 1925 all the way to 1975.

It’s a fascinating story if you like history. Heidegger, one of the greats of 20th century existential and postmodern thought, and Arendt, his student and later a very well known political theorist herself: lovers against the backdrop of the early rise of National Socialism, a movement Heidegger joined, supposedly to try and sway it in scientific and humanitarian ways, and one which eventually forced Jews like Arendt to flee or be killed.

The play takes place both during the early days of their affair at Freiburg and much later, after Arendt moved to America and became a teacher in her own right. A Jewish student working for the University newspaper comes to her to get clarification on some comments she made about Heidegger, primarily her assertion that getting caught up in the Nazi Party was just a mistake, or an “escapade,” as she later calls it. Her defense of a man who seemed like such a strident party member, particularly when he joined, was made rector of the university, and proceeded to talk and write a great deal about Germany’s future under the führer mystifies this student, whose father was in a concentration camp. Arendt tries to show her that things just aren’t that simple, that her ideas of good and evil are just too naive, but never really changes her mind.

Richard Clarkin portrays Heidegger very well, from professor to seducer to party apologist to foregiveness seeker, and Leora Morris is adequately innocent and earnest as the student, Eva. The star is Severn Thompson as Arendt, however, who has no trouble taking her character from ingenue to worldly professor and back again, with numerous stops in between. It’s an intelligent show with a great cast, and one of the best I’ve seen at SummerWorks.

Hannah’s Turn runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.

SummerWorks Play Review: Eurydice, August 8

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Toronto – Is it weird that there seems to be great interest in ancient plays and myths in SummerWorks? Two years ago it was Gilgamesh, last year it was Iphigenia at Aulis, and this year there’s not one, but three: there’s Hero & Leander (which I haven’t seen but have heard good things about), there’s ONE, and there’s this show, which, like ONE, revisits the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Rather than being a total re-interpretation, Eurydice tells the story from the point of view of the title character; of course, Eurydice’s most notable feature in this myth is that she’s dead.

She doesn’t start off dead, though, so there’s a handful of scenes at the start of Eurydice about her and Orpheus’s love. Caitlin Driscoll and Justin Rutledge have a nice chemistry as the titular pair, and they certainly seem like a sweet couple. There’s an interesting monologue just before the two are married from Eurydice’s father (Hardee Lineham), who does start off the show dead, and pens some marriage advice, then tries to figure out how to get it to his daughter from down below.

It’s the father-daughter relationship that makes up a lot of the meat of the play, particularly after Eurydice dies, and much of it is very sweet. Through some quirk of fate, Eurydice’s father is the only one in hell who can read and write, and one of the few who remembers much about his life on the surface. Eurydice doesn’t recognize him at first, but eventually his words get through to her. Meanwhile, Orpheus is writing his own letters, and finding ways to get them to his beloved (“I’ll give this letter to a worm. I hope he finds you”).

Like all tellings of Orpheus and Eurydice, it doesn’t end particularly happily. There are some nice touches that make it seem like a hopeful story, though, and the attention to some of the details of the original myth make me smile. Most notable among these is Orpheus as the finest musician in the land, which makes the casting of local Toronto musician Rutledge particularly enjoyable. He favours the audience with a couple of songs, which are some of the highlights of the show.

Even the minor characters, the Lord of the Underworld (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) and the “three stones” (Elliott Loran, Moira Dunphy and Elley-Ray Hennessy) do a nice job with limited stage time. It’s a very well put together show and thoroughly enjoyable.

Eurydice runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.

SummerWorks Play Review: Third Floor, August 9

Posted on by Brian in Reviews, Summerworks, Theatre | Leave a comment

Toronto – I suspect that most people who’ve lived in a condo or apartment building or similar shared space have had a neighbour they don’t really know who does something that bugs them. I actually don’t so much at the building I’m in now, except for the old couple next door who scream at each other in Greek most evenings.

In Third Floor, the problem for the unnamed residents of condo 11 (Kristian Bruun) and condo 12 (Kaitlyn Riordan), respectively, is that the unseen woman who lives in 10 keeps leaving her trash bags out into the hallway. This leads to a series of sitcom-ish interactions between 11 and 12 for the first half of the show as they get to know each other better every time they bump into each other in the hall and debate what to do about the lady and her trash. What to do outside of knocking on the door and talking to her about it, of course, because that would be too easy, and would mean scary direct confrontation.

The two do a bit of bonding watching Alfred Hitchcock movies together, which I suppose is foreshadowing for the Hitchcock-type turn the plot takes in the second half. 11 goes more than a little crazy, 12 gets caught up in it, they end up in a bit of a conspiracy thing together, and no one ends up very happy.

It’s not bad, mostly because Bruun and Riordan do quite well in their respective roles. Director Ashlie Corcoran and playwright Jason Hall would really like the show to be a lot like Rear Window, particularly in the way it shows the passage of time, but there’s just not enough going on here to justify that kind of pacing. Rear Window keeps you guessing and in every scene, even the briefest ones, something happens that makes you wonder “did he do it?” Here, all that happens in the briefest scenes is the lady in condo 10 throws out another bag of trash. The juxtaposition of the quirky, light first half with the tense intrigue of the second works well, but the first half shares the same problem: there’s a lot of scenes with cute Friends-like dialogue, but there’s just not enough going on here to justify all these scenes taking up that much time. Add some kind of subplot or three or delete about a half hour from the show’s 75 minutes run time and this likely becomes a much better show.

Third Floor runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.