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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Quickie Capsules — Exit Strategy (PTC) and Twelfth Night (Annenberg)

Some of these shows will receive more detailed reviews. Others are about to close and rate mention, this early 2016 being an odd with several interesting failures in which an astute production helped to mask a weak play — Exit Strategy, for example — or smaller companies offered fresh looks at classic, such as Mauckingbird’s The Sisterhood” and Curio’s “Death of a Salesman.” Then, there’s that sweet spot where a decent play meets a perceptive production, as with Hedgerow’s “Or,” and Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s “The Government Inspector.”

 

exit -- interiorEXIT STRATEGY, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre through Sunday, February 28 — Loudness and passion may create intensity and provide meat for actors to gnaw on with gusto, but they cannot cover the convenient and simplistic ideas put forward by Ike Holter’s lively but empty play, or its naivety. Holter may touch nerves with the issue he addresses, current education and the closing or merging of schools, particularly in cash-strapped cities, but he does so with broad, splashy strokes that can play dramatically but reveal second-rate thinking. If that much. “Exit Strategy” asks you to put logic aside to accept Holter’s kneejerk view of a critical national situation. The playwright posits a solution, in the form of committed public action, to budgetary cuts that will cause not just the shutting but the demolition of a long-time Chicago high school that has tradition and is the last bulwark of intellectual refuge in its depressed, primarily black neighborhood. Holter’s premise is if the faculty, students, and residents of the affected area arise in protest, garner sympathetic publicity, and march on government centers, they can effectively fight City Hall and win. It’s a pretty premise, a hopeful premise. It represents a call of power to the people and an exercise in resistance as opposed to blind, sheeplike acceptance. As a concept, it has value dramatically, but it lacks literary maturity and comes shy of astute acquaintance with reality, although Holter at least has the intuition to take the save-the-school movement to its sad and likely conclusion. The playwright raises good issues and shows honest emotions along the way. The problem is all he plots and presents is unrelentingly superficial. Holter and his characters seem to believe their idea of how they’re going to use public opinion and outcry to reverse a municipal decision, most likely made without passion, is a sound one and will work. There’s the rub. The idea is stupid, a playwright’s fantasy that shows imagination about what might be done but little familiarity  with the way the world or the media, including social media, works. At every turn, even when you are admiring some strong acting or hoping for a semblance of substance that will really tackle the issues Holter raises, your mind defaults to “Oh, brother” and you realize Holter’s Stürm und Drang is all smoke and mirrors while his actual content, and the thought behind them, are piffle. It might be different if “Exit Strategy” showed signs of being a parody that, however gently, mocks the confidence of the do-gooder that is so sincere and optimistic, he or she doesn’t see the clear folly of his or her scheme. Assessment might be more charitable if Holter was writing about well-intentioned but naïve people riding for a fall they are too hopeful to acknowledge and inexperienced to comprehend. But Holter isn’t making fun and doesn’t indicate in any he’s depicting people diving in beyond their depths. ‘Exit Strategy” is not insightful, incisive, or even adept at bringing a contemporary community issue to light. “Exit Strategy” is all display. Kip Fagan’s direction is good. Its acting from Michael Cullen, Brandon Pierce, and Deirdre Madigan is top-notch, but the play is politics by the numbers, emotional outbursts, and verbal pyrotechnics. It seeks to be popular by being populist. Examined carefully, it’s Gertrude Stein’s Oakland. There’s no there there. Only sound and fury signifying less than nothing. Holter broaches a big issue, but he doesn’t have the talent to grapple with it head-on and expose its details completely or clearly. All he does is put the fact there is a controversy, and possibly a thoughtless plot that undermines education and community cohesion on the table. Or to the stage, as the case may be. Individual lines may have zing. Holter can craft a sentence, create explosive moments, construct dialogue, and build a comic tirade. Fagan keeps all moving energetically, so “Exit Strategy” never bores and, in fact, entertains on the basic level of mounting a watchable show. Acting is more than fine, but you wonder why some characters even exist. They tend to be sounding boards and reactors more than people who can contribute to a situation or the forward motion of “Exit Strategy.” Holter likes the big effect. His play starts with a bang, but even the first dramatic scene is filled with extra high dudgeon that concentrates more on exit strategy -- interior 2Mametesque pauses, sputters, and repetition, and big, surprising finish, than it does on substance. Both the textbook managerial delicacy a vice principal of a high school takes to tell a teacher the institution she taught at for almost 30 years is closing, and the teacher’s outsized  angry reaction are exaggerated, overwritten, and unconvincing as anything that could happen. Holter aims for flair and shock, and achieves  them but in exchange for something we can accept as honest and logical. He is self-consciously, perhaps ostentatiously, smug and mischievous as he pulls off a grand effect that is jolting but unbelievable. Plays don’t have to be real, but Holter’s purports to shed light on an intense issue. His overdone, overwrought comedy sketch may have worked if the rest of “Exit Strategy” had followed suit and been ironic, but it doesn’t. We are looking at effect for effect’s sake, the grand dramatic construction that is all noise and no matter. That first scene shows you the trickery and flamboyance Holter employs in lieu of substance. Only so much can be done in comedy’s name, and Holter goes too far. You like that his characters don’t want to accept a fait d’accompli (even when you don’t, or can’t,  buy that they will be out of jobs instead of moved to other schools, especially the teachers and administrators with tenure, or that the city laying some off will not, by labor law, provide compensation for those unlucky enough to be situationally unemployed). The far-fetched, shallowly conceived plan for how what the activists are  going to do, even if Holter later hints it was posited cynically by the vice principal that suggested it, keeps all from making sense. You know from the start it will never work, that it’s a like a Bernie Sanders idea, lovely to consider, delightful if achievable, but impractical and doomed to failure. It’s more rhetorical and theoretical than doable. Holter wants to get us riled up about the school’s closing, but except for the final moment of the play, and that thanks to the consistently remarkable Mr. Brandon Pierce, he only makes an emotional case. Activism, yeah!, instead of doing the hard work of coming up with an idea that might be plausible and that we can hope succeeds. Instead of depending on the likely liberalism of the audience to just see the Chicago officials as villains and never taking the time to present what might be their point of view, even to refute or counter it! Holter doesn’t even persuade that Chicago is wrong in abandoning the dilapidating, redundant high school. He centers more on a property’s existence for its own sake rather than delving into the current state of education or the destruction of community, in terms of infrastructure and pride, when an important institution is scheduled to be bulldozed. His play is kneejerk so he weites to the audience whose response will be kneejerk. Fagan’s production is good, and his actors, when given characters with dimension, as Aimé Donna Kelly and Christina Nieves are not, are entertaining to watch, especially Pierce and Michael Cullen as a crusty old-school union guy who is the one person who challenges the vice principal’s scheme. Pierce plays a student, a chronic disciplinary problem who is adept at social media and, for all his disdainfully rebellious ways, has some stake in his high school remaining where and as it is. As usual, Pierce is complete and convincing in drawing his multi-faceted character. He lets you see brains and heart a lesser actor might depend on Holter’s script to establish rather making them clear by his deep performance. Cullen comes from the same core of reality. He represents the status quo as much as Holter deigns to give it a voice. Fiercely union, and fiercely loyal to a colleague the new of the school’s closing affects in a disastrous, Cullen’s character is too wise to think a protest will be of use. He represents the old school and shows the old school might have more merit than the new and highly motivated. Deirdre Madigan certainly dominates the few scenes in which she appears. Her character is a device that, in the long run, makes no sense, but Madigan, a master at line delivery, makes her an entertaining whirlwind you’d like to have around more often. Ryan Spahn is an appropriate blend of Lewis’s Babbitt and Dickens’s Uriah Heep as the cagily, manipulative vice principal. Rey Lucas is engaging as a teacher who, unlike Kelly and Nieves’s character, has a real reason for being in “Exit Strategy.” As for Kelly and Nieves, these two generally capable do as well as they can with sketchily drawn roles. Kelly may try too hard to infuse her “I’m-not-taking-anyone’s-crap” teacher with a big personality. C-

 

filter twelfthTWELFTH NIGHT, Filter Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Harold Prince Theatre in The Annenberg Center through Sunday, February 14 — Creativity, even zany, exuberant creativity does not always yield great entertainment. The Filter Theatre, doing Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” has many good ideas, but only a handful are amusing. Some even backfire because you want fewer antics and more substance. Filter loves using the technical, but even when its players hit on something witty, such as taking a microphone and putting it next to a character’s forehead, allegedly to hear brain waves, and having Toby Belch’s blood slosh and Andrew Aguecheek’s emit no sound at all,. This is funny, but it is performed self-consciously, instead of being neatly integrated into the production. It’s a bit that interrupts and disrupts, so for all of its quality as a comic concept, it’s a theatrical dud. You want to acknowledge its surface cleverness and go past it. Quickly. A sequence in which Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and others are singing late into evening, arousing the wrath of Olivia and the haughtiness of Malvolio, is just plain deadly. Any comic value disappears because the troupe carouses with the same four lines that include “present mirth hath present laughter” for at least five minutes. The bit becomes as boring as the Jellicle Ball number in “Cats” and is not structurally dissimilar. The shame is the Filter ensemble speaks lines with meaning and immediacy. Amy Marchant lets you see and hear the heart of Viola/Cesario at all instances, as she makes her male costume from a jacket and woolen hat borrowed from members of the audience (a bit that works once you realize Marchant is serious when she requests them). Sandy Foster is wonderful as Maria. She is one of the few who hold attention even when she clowns. Harry Jardine shows vocal dexterity as Orsino and can be quite funny when he lets Shakespeare’s lines and small gestures do the work as Aguecheek. Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio and Dan Poole’s Sir Toby are well-drawn but go too much into joking to work thoroughly. Ronke Adekoluejo seems content for some reason to play Olivia straight and blissfully refrains from antics. The forced merriment of this “Twelfth Night” mars it. Comedy is plotted for its goofiness and not its relation to Shakespeare and his text. For every idea that works, nineteen don’t. Editing can be praised. Filter does “Twelfth Night” in about 100 minutes. The essence of the story, and its themes, come through. A pity that such a portion of that 100 minutes was spent on the “present mirth” (because the pizza that becomes integral to the scene was delivered late and the cast had to vamp?), and that misses outnumbered hits among the gags. “Twelfth Night’s” text comes out fine. D+

 

 

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