Sunday, June 21, 2015

'A Work of Art' Paints Picture of War, Death and a Sister's Anguish a Bit Too Abstractly -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Work of Art
a world premiere play by Elaine Romero
directed by Henry Godinez
Russ Tutterow Theatre, Chicago Dramatists
Thru July 19

There certainly is something quite compelling at the heart of Elaine Romero's A Work of Art, world premiering at Chicago Dramatists after years of development there and initially at Goodman Theatre, which serves as an associate producer.

Exploring the devastating emotional toll on a woman who lost her brother in Vietnam, leaving her struggling to develop and maintain substantive relationships--romantic and otherwise--a decade hence, has an innate power and poignancy, not to mention an all-too-everlasting relevancy.

Jennifer Coombs--stellar here as she was earlier this year in Goodman's Rapture, Blister, Burn--stars as Sabrina, whose difficulties coping in the present tense (circa 1978) are most acutely and effectively felt in scenes with a colleague/suitor named Emiliano, whose empathetic yet resolute pursuit is adroitly embodied by Mario Moreno.

Sabrina and Emiliano's friendship and evolving-though-halting relationship, as she acutely misses and is haunted by memories of brother Kirk (Vic Kuligoski), theoretically offers enough dramatic enticement to drive an emotionally complex character study, but the storytelling feels too diffuse as the bulk of stage time is focused elsewhere.

Photo credit on all: John Sisson Photography
While appreciating Romero's rejoinder within the play itself that "linear thinking is for the unimaginative," Sabrina's interactions mixing real-time, hallucinations, memories and flashbacks--not only with Kirk but with their stepmother Carmen (Charin Alvarez), her best friend/his domestic lover and his Vietnamese wife (both played by Stephenie Soohyun Park), as well as real or imagined children, possible Viet Cong attackers and a libidinous hitchhiker--muddles both the narrative's momentum and emotional heft.

And though Regina Garcia's undefined set design--presumably born in part from spatial and budgetary considerations--well-serves the largely ethereal drama under the direction of Goodman Artistic Associate Henry Godinez, it didn't allay my confusion or abet the play's inability to really grab me from the get-go.

I have vast appreciation for the Chicago Dramatists' efforts in developing playwrights and other theatrical talents, loved their last production of Rohina Malik's The Mecca Tales, share the CD community's sorrow over the recent passing of longtime Artistic Director Russ Tutterow--for whom the training facility's theater is now named--and have estimable regard for the effort it took just for Romero's structurally ambitious play to reach a presentable form.

As someone who doubts I would demonstrate much aptitude in even the most introductory of Chicago Dramatists' playwriting classes, it is certainly with several grains of salt that Romero, Godinez or anyone else should take my suggestion that A Work of Art just has too much going on to be as cohesive, cogent and compelling as I wanted it to be.

I sense there is something really powerful to be explored, if perhaps a bit more simply and conventionally, and even the play's title, A Work of Art, may be unnecessarily obtuse versus one that more directly references Vietnam, war, the loss of a sibling, etc.

Similarly, while I enjoyed the use of Rolling Stones and Doors songs emblematic of the Vietnam era, I can't deny they drew my mind to Apocalypse Now and other examinations of a controversial war, rather than earmarking a new work with the potential to survey the casualties and repercussions with a fresh voice.

As it stands, this world premiere production frames some powerful concerns, and the performances--especially by Coombs and Moreno--are strong enough to merit attention.

But my impression is that this is A Work of Art that could benefit from more acute realism and less abstract expressionism in painting an engagingly empathetic picture of loss, longing, life and love.

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