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Theater Review: Maria/Stuart


Playwright: Jason Grote
Director: Marti Lyons
Scenic Design: Nick Sieben
Costume Design: Kristin DeiTos
Lighting Design: Mac Vaughey
Sound Design: Christopher Kriz
Featuring: Nate Whelden (Stuart), Scottie Caldwell (Hannah), Mary Ann Bowman (Lizzie), Ann James (Aunt Sylvia), Susan Monts-Bologna (Ruthie) and Jennifer Joan Taylor (Marnie).

Jason Grote’s play Maria/Stuart focuses on an unhappy family as they struggle with their collective past. Ruthie, the matriarchal grandmother of the family, has a day pass from the nursing home to join the family in a celebration of her birthday. Along with Ruthie, the family includes the rival sisters, Marnie and Lizzie, nutty Aunt Sylvia and cousins Hannah and Stuart. Just as Stuart approaches his big break as a comic book artist, a German-babbling, soda-guzzling shapeshifter appears to unlock his family’s skeletons. Three generations of fierce women surround Stuart and attempt to drive back the past, but these sisters and cousins seem destined to destroy each other. Eccentrically comic and eerily haunting, this Friedrich Schiller-inspired tale with a supernatural twist shows just how far a family will go to keep the past dead and buried.

The current Chicago production of Maria/Stuart opens on a split centered set displaying both aspects of light and dark, and like its intimate surroundings being mounted by Sideshow Theatre Company, the audience is given two sides to every story. Truth is at the heart of Mary/Stuart along with the ways that people mask their realities and principles in order to cope. The surprising steps which Grote has taken in creating a thoughtful and unveiling script is in the relevance that when hard truths are seen and communally shared within tight-knit groups or families, where norms of social acceptance are contradicted, ignorance is then proven blissful at the sake of self preservation. Grote has written a wickedly funny script that induces as much laughter as it does gasps from audiences, and I would love to write more on the topic but in doing so would ruin the intricacies of the story.

Overall the production of Maria/Stuart is engrossing and hilariously entertaining. The delivery & timing from many of the actors is spot-on and just far enough to the left that audiences will still leave the theater grasping the ideas presented in the show but have plenty to think on once far away from Theatre Wit’s performance space. Scenic design has been fully realized in both form and function by Nick Sieben, who’s intimate set does well to give specifics for each locale in the show while also giving enough lee-way to allow a singularly staged room to expand into a larger playing space as if it were an extension of character emotions. Lighting and sound design respectfully plotted by Mac Vaughey and Christopher Kriz add both subtle nuances to each house while also adding a right touch to set any audience member directly in the middle of action taking place on stage. Additionally, scenes involving the overriding changeling convention do well by taking heed to play up the fantastical element of surrealism which in-turn pays off in realism to the overall dramatic arc and believability to Maria’s story.

Photo 2Beyond all technical aspects the performances given in this show pay off. Nate Whelden’s Stuart is played just below the radar enough that at times audiences may question whether Wheldon is just being himself or really embodying Stuart fully. Wheldon gives audiences a performance that is a bit uneven but fully engaging that, if embraced early enough, pays off big in the end. Mary Anne Bowman’s Lizzie is militant and controlling as they come with a salty-taste that will last through the Spring; if someone has to pick up the battalion once Ruthie is, no one is more capable than Bowman. Ann James as the prosthetically-clad, halfway house resident of the family is one of the more outrageous characters you will see this entire year, but justifiably played to the hilt. James has created a character with wonderful ticks normally irritatingly-overdone but in Maria/Stuart, given personal empowerment, confidence and compassion – James’ comic timing is a step away from being another Melissa McCarthy, which isn’t bad company. Finally, Susan Monts-Bologna’s  Ruthie is a huge reason to not miss this show. The veteran Actress brings a great depth of nuances to both the truth of character as well as a person experiencing dementia and the drawbacks that come with that. Bologna’s timing is on the head and captures a well-rounded ring leader for the family at large by keeping her daughters at bay. For the rest of the cast, while the performances are a little broad and stiff the overall ensemble creates a well-rounded, dysfunctional family.

So, should you catch Maria/Stuart? Absolutely. The script is well-rounded, in-depth with enough comedy to even out some of the more horrifying aspects of how family members can treat each other. While overall this isn’t going to be an August: Osage County type of show, you will get fine performances from many of the cast members and more substance than the average Chicago storefront run-of-the-mill production. Marti Lyons has directed a well conceived show that is both dark and farcical that lands somewhere between humorous and absurdist, but proves that if balanced well enough, anything is believable.

Performance Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago
Performance Dates: Friday, April 5 – Sunday, May 5, 2013
Curtain Times: Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm
Tickets: $20-25; $15 student, senior and industry tickets available for select Thursday and Sunday performances.
Tickets are available at www.sideshowtheatre.org or by calling the Theater Wit box office at (773) 975-8150.

~ Matt Miles, 24/7 Contributor
Producer of Fresh Roasted Films 

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