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aroundRecommended ★★★
Review by Al Bresloff

Everyone has (or should have seen) Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”. The play is 70 years old and probably  every high school and community theater in the country has produced a version of this warm story of a small town back in the early 1900’s. Wilder created a simple show with no sets and for the most part ,little in the way of  props. I have seen this show on large stages and small, but to be honest, never in a “storefront”, in particular, one as small a space as Redtwist Theatre, the most intimate of spaces in the Edgewater Community.

Director James Fleming, making his directorial debut with “Our Town” has opted to take the show to a little different place. In Wilder’s play, our small town must deal with social issues, such as addiction, choices in life and a lot of why’s and who’s. In this production, Fleming has opted to cast females in what would be classic male roles and vice-versa. Besides the gender-bending casting, there are also many racially mixed roles. As long as you know up-front that there are differences, the beauty of the play is not affected by this nuance. In fact, after the first glance of his using this technique, it never crossed my mind again.

The story is told by a Narrator who is called The Stage Manager (while I liked Richard Costes in this role, and his amazing ability to “sign” his dialogue, I found him to be more of an outsider than he should have been). From time to time, he becomes other characters that inhabit the Town of Grovers Corners. Each of the main families is introduced to us and in this tiny little “black box” theater, the actors are in our reach for all three acts. Oh, yes, they are presenting the show in three segments dealing with a sort of “birth”, “marriage” and “death”- there are two intermissions of 10 minutes each and a total running time of 2 hours 20 minutes.

The story is about youth, finding love and also deals with death. This is probably the largest cast ever in this theater and possibly violates all the fire laws for allowed people in a property. I won’t tell, if you won’t!  Fleming has also opted to not use period costuming in order to allow the story to be of greater importance than “stuff”. There are some great technical aspects considering the size of this company: lighting (Daniel Friedman), sound (Connor Wang), props (Shea Messinger) and while this show does not need a major set, Lizzie Bracken designed a very usable one considering the venue itself. Instead of the “ladder” for George (Jaq Seifert) and Emily (Elena Victoria Feliz), we have windows above the audience bringing the audience “into” the romance between these two. By the way, they were an amazing couple and we can see the chemistry brewing within and what follows later is absolutely amazing. In case, you have never seen this play, before, I will not spoil it by saying more.

The cast, as I said is larger than normal in this theater, and very talented as well. George’s family, The Gibbs is composed of father, Doc (the always reliable Brian Parry), Mrs. (deftly handled by Jacqueline Grandt) and little sister, Rebecca (the adorable Ada Grey). The Webb family is composed of little brother Wally (Chinguun Sergelen), father (Ben Veatch) and the powerful Nicole Michelle Haskins as Mrs. Webb. These are the two families that compose the make-up for “Our Town” and its story, but the ensemble of players are also very integral in making it all clear. They are: Adam Bitterman as Joe Stoddard (the undertaker), Hunter Bryant (Si Crowell), Rebecca Flores (several roles but her “bit” is that as a professor), Johnny Garcia (as the Constable), Jared David Michael Grant (what a powerhouse in his gender-bending role as Mrs. Soames- during the wedding scene he was hysterical bringing the audience into the show (He drew Denise Marie, an audience member, into becoming a guest instead of an audience member), Tom Jansson (as Simon Stimson, the town addict), Ramona Kywe, Brian McKnight, Sara Jane Patin, Joel Rodriguez (Howie Newsome, the milkman), and London Shannon as Joe Crowell. Splendid work by these performers!

While I enjoyed the production and the skilled performances, and adored the use of sound effects to signify things that were happening (coffee being poured into cups that did not exist, yet we heard hit the table), I found myself feeling cramped in trying to view some of the action, which on two occasions ended up almost on my lap. I adore Redtwist and the work they do and had no problem dealing with the gender bending. In fact, Seifert, who is referred to as “they, might rank up there with some of the best Georges I have seen. The world of theater is changing, and we must do so accordingly.

http://www.aroundthetownchicago.com/theatre-reviews/our-town/

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readerRecommended

Redtwist Theatre integrates Our Town . But Thornton Wilder's classic play taps into the greatest equalizer of them all.
Review by Tony Adler

Every classic play comes with its own set of commonplaces—those little hooks we pick up in school, giving us the shorthand we need so we can appear at least halfway educated. Long Day's Journey Into Night is autobiographical. The girl in The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams's sister. Picnic is by a closeted gay guy. Nothing happens in Waiting for Godot, but nothing is the point because it's absurd. Shakespearean English isn’t so hard to understand once you get the hang of it. That sort of thing.

So what are the commonplaces for Our Town, the undeniably classic 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner by Thornton Wilder, getting a solid, intriguingly revisionist revival now from Redtwist Theatre? Well, we can say it's elegiac (excellent word for a commonplace). We might add that it's a tender look back at small-town New England, where life was allegedly homey, kindly, quiet, stoic, certain, mostly Protestant, and entirely white.

And we'd be right, up to a point. Set in tiny, mythical Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, during the first two decades of the 20th century, Wilder's masterpiece feels like a requiem for an America that few even among its original audience might've experienced but were happy enough to believe in when what waited for them outside the theater was a world already deep in the Great Depression and on its way to war.

The play's narrator, known as the Stage Manager, maps things out for us: "Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station... Polish Town's across the tracks, and some Canuck families." The rest divides up according to Christian denominations: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians close in, Baptists "down in the holla' by the river," and a Catholic church for the Poles and Canadians. The Baptists of the flood plain may be black, but, if so, no further hint is given. Jews, Muslims, Latinos, and such just plain don’t figure.

The town's two leading families as far as we’re concerned are the Gibbses and the Webbs, each moderately prosperous, with its weary patriarch (Dr. Gibbs, the general practitioner, and Mr. Webb, who publishes the biweekly local paper), its no-nonsense matriarch (who addresses her husband by his honorific rather than his first name), and its pair of children (one male, one female). The elder Gibbs child, George, is Biff Loman without the Oedipal issues: a big-hearted high school sports star who struggles with math but loves the outdoor life and has a plan in place to buy a farm. He's sweet on the elder Webb child, Emily, who excels in school but has no plans other than George. He declares his affection for her by carrying her books and buying her an ice cream soda (as distinguished from a phosphate, which costs less.) We'll see their wedding in the second of the play's three acts.

Given all the sexism, white privilege, you-name-it oozing from a mere overview of Our Town, it's not surprising that Redtwist chose to open its production to all the people apparently excluded from Wilder's script. Under director James Fleming, the cast features a black artist, Nicole Michelle Haskins, as Mrs. Webb; a gender-fluid artist, Jaq Seifert, as George; and several artists with Latinx surnames in various roles—among them the sweetly self-possessed Elena Victoria Feliz as Emily. It doesn't stop there, either: hearing-impaired Richard Costes plays the Stage Manager, using his own voice and stylized gestures that amount to a kind of ASL lite. Joel Rodriguez performs the role of the milkman, Howie Newsome, from a motorized wheelchair.

Under the circumstances, it actually comes across as odd that Doc and Mrs. Gibbs are embodied by white actors (Brian Parry and Jacqueline Grandt, both engagingly folksy). What's odder still, though, is that Fleming's casting does next to nothing to transform, much less subvert, the play. Certainly, seeing such variety onstage heightens our awareness of the many constituencies Wilder didn't contemplate referencing back in 1938—the people who couldn't have a home in Grover's Corners. Yet his writing manages to accommodate them all just the same, for two reasons. The first is purely mechanical: by using a narrator, dispensing with realistic scenery, and explicitly acknowledging the cast members as actors, Wilder obviated the need for verisimilitude, ethnic or otherwise. The second is just this: that the ultimate subject of Our Town is life and death and the fact that latter comes inevitably to anyone who gets to experience the former. Nobody gets excluded from that.

https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/redtwist-theatre-our-town-thornton-wilder-james-fleming/Content?oid=30484730

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picRecommended
Redtwist Theatre presents OUR TOWN Review—Reimagining of Their Town as Ours
Reviewed by Jacob Davis

Redtwist Recruits a Huge Cast of Fine Actors
Introducing us to life in Grover’s Corners in spoken English and ASL is the Stage Manager, played by Richard Costes, who maintains a dry edge while making his somewhat distanced observations. Veteran Redtwist ensemble members Brian Parry and Jacqueline Grandt play the emotionally restrained Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, while Jaq Seifert plays their baseball-enthused son, George. Seifert’s performance is cute and cocky. Despite Emily Webb (Elena Victoria Feliz) complaining that he is self-centered as a teenager, it’s cathartic to watch him ignore the ice cream soda guy’s endless babble and tussle with his annoying little sister (Ada Grey). Feliz’s Emily is likewise appealing and we get a very clear sense of the loving bond between her and her mother (Nicole Michelle Haskins) from the way they talk about each other and their brief, ordinary interactions.

Times Do, in Fact, Change
The intimacy of Redtwist’s space, especially with such a massive cast, puts us, the audience, into the community. The actors sit among us and this, along with the cast’s reading of the text, made the darker aspects of Grovers Corners readily apparent as well. Alcoholic choirmaster Simon Stimson (Tom Jansson) opines that life is mostly people stepping on each other, and that observation hits home when you’ve had the actors looming over you and in your space for two and a half hours. The town does feel claustrophobic and isolated.

One of the first things we see in the play is a boy in sneakers and an Old Navy shirt complain that teachers shouldn’t be married, and a hundred other similarly jarring things happen immediately afterward.  For this writer and likely many others, it seems a major misstep to have the actors in modern dress. Rather than make them blend in with us, it just made every single line of dialogue in the first act absurd. And, it similarly seems to especially undermine the theme of women’s domestic drudgery being underappreciated, since being the stay-at-home wife of a doctor or professor and mother of two school-aged children indicates something completely different in 2017 than in 1904.

The first act of Our Town is about daily life in Grover’s Corners, while the second and third are about more universal themes and land more effectively. It helps a lot that wedding and funeral attire haven’t changed as much and that sound designer Connor Wang and lighting designer Daniel Friedman have found ways of making Lizzie Bracken’s set so surreal. The wedding scene is strongly affecting as well as quite funny and the third act is contemplative and vaguely unsettling. Despite aforementioned issues with the first act, the cast all understand their characters very well, this production provides the emotional and intellectual payoff people want from this show.

http://www.picturethispost.com/redtwist-theatre-presents-our-town-review/

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newcityRECOMMENDED
Review by Danielle Levsky

Saints and Poets: A Review of Our Town at Redtwist Theatre
 
In his director’s note, James Fleming writes that “Our Town” playwright Thornton “Wilder was wrestling with many of the same issues in this country that we are today…[he] invites us to remember… remembering how far we’ve come as a society and how far we’ve still to go in addressing these inequities in our communities.” In a play that is traditionally set in a small, fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913, Redtwist diversifies the cast and yet, makes no change in the script. It is a keen and interesting perspective on what life might look like if diverse communities were the norm.

In Redtwist’s intimate space, the audience feels at once included and witness to all that was happening in Grover’s Corners. And yet, the intimacy was perhaps too strong when it came to set itself. Wilder once said that “our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in ‘scenery.’” The attention to detail on the set by scenic designer Lizzie Bracken and props designer Shea Messinger was exquisite and in the case of many other plays would have lent a marvelous insight into the lives of characters. However, the small details in the set, as well as the choice to develop the set before the audience’s eyes before the wedding takes place, made the experience sentimental. An intimate setting with minimal surroundings around the characters may have helped to create the simplicity and dryness that the play’s text tries to convey.

In the first two acts, Richard Costes was an incredibly engaging Stage Manager. His emphatic delivery created expectation and hope in this world. The audience continuously waited for something exciting to happen, instead of experiencing what would be the mundane moments of Grover’s Corners by just going through the motions with each character.

Perhaps this is why when Emily Webb (Elena Victoria Feliz) returns in the third act from the painful memory of her twelfth birthday and asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it and he responds no, it is hard to believe. The performances given by this illustrious cast lend an incredible amount of meaning to every action, every line and every cause for celebration or pain. Sentimentality is key here; no character seems to fall into the trap of cynicism or monotony. Exceptionally sincere performances are captured by Nicole Michelle Haskins (Mrs. Webb), Brian Parry (Doc Gibbs), Jacqueline Grandt (Mrs. Gibbs) and Ben Veatch (Mr. Webb).

It’s a cast comprised of “saints and poets,” as the Stage Manager laments to Emily in the end, which lends an entirely new tone to the iconic metatheatrical show.

https://www.newcitystage.com/2017/09/14/saints-and-poets-a-review-of-our-town-at-redtwist-theatre/

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cta‘Our Town’ our life
RECOMMENDED

Reviewed by Reno Lovison

Thornton Wilder’s classic ‘Our Town,’ now at Redtwist Theatre, is a slice-of-life drama that asks us to ponder our place in the universe while pausing to appreciate the seemingly mundane interactions and events that comprise the bulk of our days and which ultimately define our existence.

Divided into three acts with two ten minute intermissions, act one presents the town and the characters with an emphasis on birth and youth. Act two deals with love and marriage. The last act addresses the inevitable experience of death.

The story line is facilitated by a character known as the “Stage Manager” (Richard Costes) who introduces each of the other players. He fills us in on the physical attributes of the fictional Grover’s Corners, NH that is supposed to remind us of our own town.

Written in 1938. The time frame is identified as roughly 1901 to 1913 but it can really be anyplace anywhere in America at any time.

The pre-WWI period harkens back to a simpler pre-industrial agrarian era that serves to remind us of the essence of living when days were marked by the rising and setting of the sun and the meals in between.

Mr. Costes is the first of the play’s trifecta of winning performers. The other two are Emily Webb (Elena Victoria Feliz) and George Gibbs (Jaq Seifert) who each turned in remarkable performances.

On some level the success of “Our Town” traditionally hinges on the actors in these three major roles. But in the Redtwist production the entire cast offered tight performances. A few honorable mentions to Rebecca Gibbs (Ada Grey), Professor Willard (Rebecca Flores), Mrs. Soames (Jared Michael David Grant) and Mrs. Gibbs (played by understudy Jeanne Scurek)  who each stood out in some way.

This is the directorial debut of the company’s Associate Artistic Director, James Fleming, who with Scenic Designer Lizzie Bracken managed an innovative visual presentation in a somewhat awkward space.

The Redtwist is a storefront theatre meaning that the dimensions are long and narrow leaving little room for a traditional proscenium stage other than a small roughly ten foot by ten foot riser at one end of the room.  The company overcomes this by creating three or four loosely defined minimalist scenic areas throughout the room.

The roughly 35 seat audience is then snuggled along the perimeter, in between, and around these spaces. This leaves the center open for the main action. So it’s like a performance in-the-round with the audience on stage. The important thing is that it works.

“Color blind” casting is no longer unusual but Fleming has elevated the concept in this production by extending it to include gender neutral roles and actors with limited physical abilities.

For instance the part of milkman Howie Newsome is played by Joel Rodriguez who happens to be confined to a motorized wheelchair. Joel uses his chair brilliantly to infer the presence of his horse and milk wagon. It’s not necessary nor is it overt but it works because he is simply incorporating who he is as a person into his role as an actor.

“Stage Manager” (Richard Costes) happens to be hearing impaired. But this is incidental to his performance which would be excellent under any circumstances.

He periodically uses his skill at sign language to provide us with a visual enhancement of the point he is making or a town attribute he is describing. (Note: he is not signing his entire performance but occasionally enhances the depth of his communication.)

The character of Mrs. Soames (Jared Michael David Grant) is perhaps the most gender bending role. Mr. Grant plays the part of a female character but not in drag. He wears a simple man’s suit and looks perfectly male.

Though admittedly a bit confusing at first, I came to believe that Fleming wants us to put aside our role bias and expectations and simply enjoy the performance. In other words, be color blind, be gender blind, be ability blind and simply accept what each actor has to offer and accept that they are the characters they say they are.

As was pointed out by someone after the performance, “This cast represents our town.”

http://chicagotheaterandarts.com/2017/09/30/our-town-our-life/#sthash.XK4nWHaC.dpbs


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Reviewed by Kris Vire ★★★

The intimate Redtwist Theatre mounts a revival of Thornton Wilder’s gimlet-eyed portrait of life and death in Grover’s Corners.

It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Thornton Wilder’s portrait of life in Grover’s Corners was in 1938. The metatheatrics Wilder employed, both here and in other plays like The Skin of Our Teeth, have become so woven into the fabric of American drama as to seem unremarkable today. But such self-referential touches as having a stage manager as a character, directing the residents of this small New Hampshire town through three acts depicting youth, marriage and death, were once shockingly fresh, and Wilder’s structure and plotting are in fact so confident and tight that Our Town can offer up something new in every production, no matter how many perfunctory high-school stagings you may have previously seen.

Redtwist’s current iteration, directed by James Fleming, bears this out: With thoughtfully inclusive casting that makes way for actors of varying ethnicities and gender identities and performers with disabilities, all dressed in modern clothing, Fleming’s charming (if necessarily somewhat cramped) staging makes the case that Wilder’s enduring themes apply to a far broader swath of humanity than you would have seen performing it 80 years ago, even if the particular concerns of our lives aren’t quite the same as those in Grover’s Corners a century ago.

Redtwist’s production also proves that Our Town’s presentational trappings help it stand up to uneven performing styles. While some of the cast (including some Redtwist regulars) put things across a bit broadly, there are standouts: Nicole Michelle Haskins (who recently wowed in The Wiz at Kokandy Productions) makes a disarming Mrs. Webb, while Richard Costes is particularly effective as the Stage Manager, using American Sign Language to add emphasis to his spoken narration. Newcomer Elena Victoria Feliz makes an equally strong impression as Emily Webb; watch her warm, nuanced take on the soda-shop scene opposite Jaq Seifert’s George Gibbs, followed by her raw emotion in Act III, and you’ll be wanting to keep an eye on her next moves, too.

https://www.timeout.com/chicago/theater/our-town

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