The Cenci; Medley | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Cenci; Medley 

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THE CENCI

Cherry St. Theatre

MEDLEY

City Lit Theater Company

Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival

at the Theatre Building

The Cenci, Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetic drama, as filtered through the hallucinatory, imagistic style of Antonin Artaud, has been adapted here by Megan Peterson into an expressionistically fragmented one-act, almost a ritual of pure good versus pure evil. Pure evil is represented by Count Cenci, a depraved old man who has dedicated his life to flaunting his contempt for human weakness and hypocrisy; pure good is his daughter Beatrice, an innocent virgin who clings to the hope that her love and Christian faith will redeem her father -- until he shatters her hope by raping her (having already murdered his son).

Cenci is accustomed to buying protection from punishment for his crimes by paying off the pope -- the authority figure who embodies the hypocrisy Cenci despises; so when Beatrice and her mother and little brother apply to the pope for shelter from Cenci, their petition is refused. Beatrice's only choice is to murder her father -- an act you might think would trouble her after all the praying and Bible-kissing she's been doing. But rather than rebel against religion, Beatrice views herself as an innocent in the sight of God and her action as a holy one -- a view she maintains even when she is executed for patricide.

It's hard to figure out whether adapter-director Peterson agrees with Beatrice, since Larry Neumann Jr., as Cenci, is so compelling in his ironic cruelty, while Laurie Galluccio as Beatrice is so preachy and unconvincing (at least in the underrehearsed circumstances of the Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival). A similar weakness afflicts the actors playing Beatrice's mother, suitor, and prosecutor; only Jeremy Sisto, as the younger brother, begins to match Neumann's vitality. Since the last image shows the boy cradling his dead sister Pieta-style, we must assume Beatrice is a martyr, but to what? The injustice of the system -- the very injustice that Cenci's defiant deviance has exposed? Is Cenci, too, then a martyr? Certainly his presence pervades the play, ambiguously repellent and attractive, even after his death -- especially since Peterson chooses to have Neumann also assume the role of the judge who sentences Beatrice.

If Peterson intends to refine this ambitious and unusual project further, she needs to come to grips with Cenci as a charismatic figure, and to develop Beatrice into a character more her father's equal; cutting back on the declamatory dialogue and building on the mysterious, nightmarish visual aspects of the work would help. In any case, The Cenci is well worth seeing for Neumann's chilling performance, effectively complemented by Thom Miller's lighting and Adam Gorgoni's electric guitar and synthesizer sound track.

Toni Cade Bambara is a novelist and short-story writer who has had several works dramatized by City Lit Theater, a company specializing in adapting literary works for the stage. In Medley, Bambara offers a rambling, salty reminiscence by a middle-aged black manicurist, Sweet Pea; the point of the story, it turns out, is how Sweet Pea's affair with Larry, a bartender, went flat. Bambara shows a knack for entertaining and believably spoken detail as Sweet Pea regales us with stories about the men in her life -- Larry, who couldn't play bass very well but made great music with Sweet Pea in the shower, and Moody, a slick cardsharp whose appreciation of Sweet Pea's manicuring talent stirs Larry's jealousy.

Bambara is less strong in her sense of dramatic development; though Sweet Pea's story is meant to be stream of consciousness, it falls prey to tediousness. More dialogue exchanges between Sweet Pea and her men would help considerably; as it is, Raun Ruffin and Little Tom Jackson spend too much of their time sitting on stools (the piece, directed by Arnold Aprill, is presented in reader's theater format), waiting for Eunita Rushing as Sweet Pea to stop talking about them and start talking to them. Rushing, meanwhile, needs to explore a wider range of dynamics in her narration, in order to sharpen the script's ingratiating and quirky humor.

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