Review: “Murder On Mount Olympus” (The Public House Theatre)

Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.
Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.

Show: “Murder On Mount Olympus”

Company: The Public House Theatre

Venue: The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 6

It is not easy being a god. Regardless of the pantheon, one might be stereotyped as evil, end up utterly forgotten, or live in constant fear of being torn limb from limb by a fellow jealous immortal. For the gods in “Murder On Mount Olympus,” such everyday problems are the least of their concerns. These gods are stuck in a murder mansion of non-belief, and they are getting picked off one by one.

Lucifer, aka the Prince of Darkness (Alexander Baggett), and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Sarah Lavere), are first to arrive on our plane of existence. They have been trapped in a creepy old house that serves as a performance space for murder mystery style dinner parties. By the time the brotastic Zeus (Mitchell Stone) joins them, they know something is wrong. Too many gods existing in human reality must be a set-up. The spell book nearby and the entrance of gods as varied as Cthulhu (a handy giant tentacle wielded from offstage), Cupid (Whitman Johnson), and Isis (Emily Ember) confirms their suspicions. The butler (Ryan Bennett) has no information to aid them, but plenty to say about their behavior and demands on his time.

Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield
Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield

If it sounds like there is little to this story, you are right! The plot is oblique and events are kept to a minimum, because the Public House Theatre is more in the business of making audiences laugh, rather than making them puzzle through a wild clue hunt. Given the high-stakes nature of his gods, writer/director Byron Hatfield missed the opportunity to flesh out their predicament. Rather than keeping the gods in the dark about whom or what brought them to Earth, Hatfield could have spent time developing relationships between his characters, and complicating their circumstances beyond simply having an elder god show up to wreak havoc. The performance lasts about seventy-five minutes, but there’s really only forty minutes of material here. Thus, the pace is slowed, and some of the jokes don’t land, because the timing is off — I assume, to stretch for precious full-length level minutes.

That said, I did chuckle quite often at “Murder On Mount Olympus,” probably because Hatfield’s snarky characters barely believe the situation they’re in, either. The mystery at the heart of the play is easy to solve, but it’s the down to earth take on the gods that elicits enjoyment of the scenario. Baggett and Lavere have the driest characters, so their job seems easiest. As the eternal bodies pile up, these two display sarcastic human reactions to their imminent death and destruction, and it’s nice to see a catastrophic scene underplayed to that degree. Likewise, Bennett’s stunned reaction to being bathed in blood is worth the price of admission alone.

“Murder On Mount Olympus” will not rattle you to your core, or force you to face spiritual and existential questions. But there is something to be said for a solid troupe of actors doing comedy pretty well. While it may not be easy being a god, it is a lot of fun to watch them operate.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gods get a mystery to solve in entertaining comedy hour.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Thumbelina” (Lifeline Theatre)

Show: Thumbelinathumbelina_01_web

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue:  Lifeline Theatre (6912 N. Glenwood Ave.)

Die Roll: 16

Mothers and fathers, take your kids to see Lifeline Theatre’s “Thumbelina”, and you might notice them acting a bit differently. They may start asking after things like circus arts intensives and performing arts summer camps. They are definitely going to affect new accents and funky new gaits, you’ve been warned. This fairy tale adaptation by Amanda Delheimer Diamond is exactly the gateway drug to thespian-hood your kids will find themselves hooked on, and it will likely charm you, too.

In “Thumbelina”, you may remember our diminutive heroine (Brandi Lee) is born from an errant magical seed, and left in the care of an over-protective mother (Krystal Ortiz) who shelters her from the dangers at the edge of the edge of the world. She escapes her mother’s confines and loses herself for the winter in the woods. She befriends other creatures like field mice (Bryan Bosque), moles (Nate Buursma) and barn swallows (Dominique Watkins), and while I wouldn’t call anyone her enemy, she learns to recognize when others (say a frog, like Antoniao LaVance Bouie Jr.) don’t have her best interests at heart. No one comes to her rescue or doles out any great favors; to get where she’s going, she’s going to have to figure things out, mostly on her own.

thumbelina_04_webOne especially nice aspect of this adaptation are some of the troubling aspects of the original fable the developers have left on the cutting floor. You may remember the Hans Christian Anderson Thumbelina being passively inundated with interspecies marriage proposals and kidnapping attempts. Not so for Brandi Lee’s title character. This ensemble champions problem solving skills and a sense of humor that the 5-7 year old crowd would deem most impressive. This production also posits that belonging hinges less on what your community looks like and more on what they do. It encourages embracing people, even when their lives are vastly different from your own.

It has amazing charm for such a minimal concept, and the ensemble is quick to latch together, building creatures and plant life at speeds that would make Voltron envious.  Director/Adaptor Amanda Delheimer Diamond and choreographer Dan Plehal have boiled their concept down to the barest minimum, and the performers have made fantastic use of the canvas. Actors with the heaviest story lifting are Brandi Lee, Krystal Ortiz, and Bryan Bosque, and they will have you eating out of the palms of their hands before long. “Thumbelina” is a perfect show for audiences in the single digit age range, but maybe not ideal for most tweens.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A surefire gateway drug, hooking kids on the performing arts.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Macbeth” (Theatre Y)

screenshot-2016-10-25-13-26-29Show: Macbeth

Company: Theatre Y

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Die Roll: 2

Macbeth the Scottish and “Macbeth” the Scottish play bear a tricky relationship to one another. Macbeth the king was a historical figure, but Macbeth the lead of Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with far too many witches and witchy prophecies to match the factual record. Throw in the fact that sixteen generations of actors — according to director Georges Bigot — have now played Macbeth, and the truth of his life and death gets even fuzzier.

Which is perhaps the way Theatre Y prefers its Macbeth, in their production currently running in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Anchored by Bigot and an ensemble that rehearsed the play for a year, and only cast roles three-quarters of the way through that process, this “Macbeth” is beautifully painted but still impenetrable. But that is not due to lack of effort and visual panache; it is due to lack of textual dexterity. The ensemble tries to draw parallels between our time and Macbeth’s tale of ambition and existential crises, but the resonance vanishes once it becomes clear some of the actors do not know what they are saying, and that still images and lip-syncing outweighed examination of the text.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing “Macbeth,” here is the basic plot outline: our protagonist is a Scottish thane (Brendan Mulhem) who runs into three witches (Kevlyn Hayes, Jackie Richards, and Laurie Roberts). They tell him he is fated to be king of Scotland, and that his friend Banquo (Cody Beyer) is fated to sire kings. Spurred on by this prophesy, Macbeth and his more opportunistic wife (Katie Stimpson) murder the current king Duncan (Arch Harmon). Heir to the throne Malcolm (Hector Alvarez) flees the country, and only vows to return and regain his crown once the warrior Macduff (Jerome Hicks) stands by his side. Meanwhile, Macbeth arranges the murder of many more people, in order to ensure his new title.

This is a play of immense uncertainty. Why do the witches appear to tell Macbeth about his future? Would he still become king if he didn’t murder his way into the position? Why is Lady Macbeth so steely before their crime, and what makes her unravel entirely after its completion? Can truth ever be discerned, when men are able to smile in spite of their malicious actions? Even the language of the play is confounding: “which is which;” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen;” the Porter’s speech on equivocation doesn’t resolve itself so much as peter out. People hear and see things, but the audience can never be sure if birds are crying, or if the Macbeths are jumping at shadows.

Bigot’s best work as a director comes in moments where characters fight the intangible. He is wise to have Macbeth grasp at a knife that does not exist, and then to have Mulhem whirl around the stage to keep from getting cut by his invisible foe. Likewise, the parade of kings that Macbeth sees under the tutelage of the witches happens in his mind’s eye, which allows the audience to take heed of his growing paranoia and psychosis. Moments such as these make for a hallucinatory experience. The audience is Macbeth’s ally throughout; he speaks to us more than anyone except his wife. But he also sees what we cannot, thus proving there is uncertainty in our relationship. Is Macbeth inspired by false prophecy? Is he mad? Or is he seeing true events that will come to pass? We can never know.

This production falters in its grander visual elements. The witches lipsync a Diamonds’ song early on in the play, and Lady Macbeth drags her fingers across a curtain sinsterly, all before performing a dance of her own and reading about Macbeth’s possible future. At other moments, she and Macbeth smile robotically while entertaining guests. Some of these flourishes underline the false faces of the characters, but more often, the sights and sounds put Macbeth in inverted commas. We are watching a production of “’Macbeth,’” not your run of the mill “Macbeth.” But the spectacle rarely informs the audience. Rather it draws the play out to a two hour forty-five minute run time that taxed my good will as an audience member. I also sense that visuals took precedence over looking at the thesis and antithesis in the verse. Rarely have I understood so little of what actors were saying in a Shakespeare play.

I should single out the performances that imbue the play with high stakes and deep meaning. Beyer as Banquo is recognizably human, and his command of poetry helps the audience see the rock and hard place he is stuck between as Macbeth’s rival. Hayes is remarkable as Lady Macduff late in the play. She does not overplay her grief or underplay the danger she is in; she focuses on her son, and her death sticks with the audience once she is gone. Mulhem has a great voice, but his increasingly erratic Macbeth made it hard to follow his thought patterns, especially in the “sound and fury” soliloquy. Stimpson located an intriguing fear in Lady Macbeth early on that vanished before her death, and I was sad to see her insecurity go unexplored.

Michael Rathbun’s light design gave the performance a lurid sheen. His use of low-placed lights to highlight internal monologue gave the actors a stark look, and his use of reds and purples during the banquet and murder scenes sold the carnage in the Chopin’s intimate space. KG Price’s sound editing provides jaunty themes for the characters, and the peppy music lends a creepy vibe to the whole play. The costumes by Branimira Ivanova set the play in a distinctly Kennedy Camelot-setting once action moved back to Dunsinane, an interesting contrast to the contemporary army fatigues that pepper the battlefield scenes.

This play may not be for everyone. If you are in the mood for a sight-heavy “Macbeth,” this production is your best bet. If you are looking for a clear examination of the play’s dark center, you might be better off reading the text on your own.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spectacle outshines character work and story in a shaky “Macbeth.”

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Resolution” (Pride Films & Plays)

Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

Show: Resolution

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 5

There is something comfortable about a simple, straight-forward morality play.  One can clearly tell who is the villain, who is the hero, where right and wrong reside within the tale.  That is what Nancy Nyman’s and Heather McNama’s “Resolution” does under the direction of Diana Raiselis. The newest offering from Pride Films & Plays unfolds upon the Rivendell stage which has been beautifully transformed into a 1890s home by set designer Milo Bue.

Set in New York City in 1892, this show tells the tale of a happily married couple, Jack (Tiffany Mitchenor) and Hannah (Aneisa Hicks) on the eve of a new year.  They’ve sent their staff home early in order to have a nice quiet evening in.  Their housekeeper and her husband are the last to go, just after getting their end of the year bonus (an important plot point).

At first glance this play is set up for a good deal of inherent complication and complexity.  The rich couple is black, in New York City, at a time when the black population in that metropolitan area was consolidating in Harlem.  The house staff is represented by an Irish woman, Margaret O’Malley (Amber Snyder).  The Irish at that time were often regarded as poorly as blacks by the majority of upper class white society.  So, there is potential for exploring many racial and class issues.  However, with the exception of one line tossed into the middle of a heated argument, racial issues don’t really come up.  A second, earlier, more veiled reference to limited advancement opportunities within Jack’s professional field is also likely a comment on race, but it lands lightly and skitters on by so quickly that it carries little weight.

Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

The real issue of this play is that the loving couple is made up of two women.  One lives publicly as a man, so that they are not discovered and persecuted.  But their world comes crumbling down when Margaret discovers their secret when she returns unannounced to retrieve her bonus envelope, which she mistakenly left behind. The housekeeper is driven by her self-righteousness to ruin the lives of the supposedly sinful people for whom she has cared over the previous three years.  This is another place wherein the script could have explored an interestingly deep topic, that of a crisis of faith.  Instead, this is where the play descends from the realm of drama into that of melodrama.  Despite the determined efforts of Snyder, Margaret is a one-dimensional villain in this piece.  She is filled with stereotypical Catholic beliefs of her day, and she is unchangeable in her stance, unable to even acknowledge or react to anything she hears opposing her own viewpoints.

So, the play throws complexity out the window in favor of making a statement.  That’s fine.  That’s what happens in all morality plays.  But, the groundwork was laid for something far deeper, and it feels a bit of a shame that at least one additional aspect wasn’t explored.

The characters created by Mitchenor and Hicks are far more fully realized, and they are quite fun and enjoyable.  A favorite scene is when they attempt to teach each other how to behave in case they’d ever have to swap their assumed roles.  It is in this scene, and the immediately surrounding ones, that the script does a wonderful job of showing two people who love each other functioning within a fully realized marriage.  It is a 100% “normal” marriage, and as far as slice-of-life scenes go, the action was believable and often humorous in that way that comes from watching common truths and empathizing with them.

Edward Fraim plays the show’s narrator and Margaret’s husband, Harrison.  I’m going to assume that his surname is also O’Malley, seeing as his wife is often referred to as Mrs. O’Malley.  Fraim isn’t on the stage as often as the others, but when he is, his energy imbues the whole performance with added life.  Harrison is dedicated to two people whom he sees as being good, and valuable as people.  He also knew about their secret life long before his wife did.  He is caught in an awkward position between the two camps.  His struggle seems most real of those upon the stage.  His arguments ring most true, as does his defeat due to his sense of marital duty.

Sitting in the house at Rivendell, the play zips by and is enjoyable to take in.  But, I do have to wonder if it is anything more than watching a comfortable, familiar parable.  Not unlike watching a rerun of the 1960s version of Star Trek, we see a brief morality play in which everyone on the good side gets a happy ending, and in one briefly sharp moment of realization, the villain gets what’s coming to her.

It’s a show that feels surprisingly safe in addressing the topic of hatred, because it doesn’t go anywhere complicated or truly ugly.  It stays on the surface and safe.  Now, true, this wouldn’t necessarily be safe if it were put on in front of an audience of right-wing-aligned conservative evangelical Christians or Trump supporters.  Yet, as you may guess, that’s not who attends shows put up by Pride Films & Plays.  I’ll acknowledge that there are still people who could benefit from hearing the simple, didactic message of this show.  They, however, were not sitting in the same theatre as I was on opening night.  So, we all sat and agreed with the comfortable, reaffirming position taken by the work in front of us.

At the same time, the friendly audience wasn’t truly challenged in any way to understand the opposing viewpoint, either.  I think that is where this play fell short.  It isn’t a bad play.  PFP doesn’t do bad plays.  I say that without doubt.  But, the playwrights missed a number of opportunities to make this a multi-layered, complex masterpiece.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Don’t be like this one lady, says preacher to choir.

RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “bare: a pop opera” (Refuge Theatre Project)

The cast of "bare: a pop opera"/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
The cast of “bare: a pop opera”/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

Show: bare: a pop opera

Company: Refuge Theatre Project

Venue:  Epworth United Methodist Church (5253 N Kenmore)

Die Roll: 4

I’ve seen almost every show that Refuge Theatre Project has done since its inception.  I say that as a critic, not at a fan.  That is, until this newest show, which has converted me toward being the latter.  This is a relatively young group what produces theatre aimed at very young people and has historically done so with a glaring lack of experience or practiced skill.  Yet, there has been a major change.  This work, this effort, this piece of theatre is a solid one that elevates Refuge Theatre Project into the artistic neighborhood of other young and really good groups that are also making Edgewater their home. Bravo!  They’ve come into their own, and now it is time for them to shine.

Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

“bare: a pop opera” is just what it claims to be: operatic in structure, but featuring music best suited for the more nasal, throttled boy-band style of singing that permeates both current popular music and more modern Broadway pieces.  It is more a musical without any talking than an opera, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks substance.  It is actually chock full of thoughtful exploration of deep issues that confront the youth of today, and any of us who interact with those youths.

Billed as an exploration of “sexuality, sexual identity, and the role of the church” in their press materials, the show is all of those things.  It also delves into issues of trust, communication, denial, parenting, leadership, drug use, popularity and ostracism.  This is a meaty evening of theatre.

Director Matt Dominguez chose wisely when he opted to present this production within the walls of an actual church.  With very little added effort, the setting is easily taken to be a private Catholic boarding school’s auditorium and dorms.  And, it is a wonderful space for singing.  The architecture allows for a wonderful mix of voices and instrumentation.  Which brings me to one of the things that always pleases me about Refuge Theatre Project’s work.  Their pit orchestra is always phenomenal.  The company’s regular music director, Mike Evans, is clearly their ace in the hole.

To sum up the plot quickly, “bare: a pop opera” is about Jason (Chris Ratliff) a popular boy who all the girls adore, but who is actually in a relationship with his male roommate, Peter (Lewis Rawlinson).  Peter is the primary driving force behind the story as he attempts to get Jason to be more public about their relationship.  The boys both get cast in the school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”:  Jason as Romeo and Peter as Mercutio.  Ivy (Molly Coleman), a young woman who wants to jump Jason’s bones gets cast as Juliet, and an awkward love triangle develops.  Rather, a love trapezoid, for Matt (Ryan Armstrong) is not only the campus stick-in-the-mud, he’s also in love with Ivy.  The kids are advised in their times of need by a Priest (Shaun Baer) and the director of the play, Sister Chantelle (Nikki Greenlee).

Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

As the adults in this show, Baer and Greenlee, bring a sense of calm wisdom to the stage.  Their gravitas provides an anchor to which the passions of the youths can be moored.  Things take a turn for the dark side of life, after many small dark spots have already been revealed.  Life is hard, especially for the young, passionate, and confused.  The show drives relentlessly toward an inevitable and foreseeable end.

While this could easily be a piece in which the characters are paper-thin two-dimensional representations in order to make a point, instead they are well fleshed out and the actors/singers all do a nice job of embracing the many layers that they are given to work with.  Most major characters have an aria/ballad which allows us to see inside their motivations.  My one disappointment is that the Priest did not get a solo piece of his own.  That one character’s inner story is neglected, and would likely inform much of the interaction he has with the others.

In the past, I have seen Refuge Theatre Project as a group that needed some time to mature into something better.  They’ve always had enthusiasm and dedication to their product.  I’d now have to say that they’ve made it through their artistic adolescence, and while they still produce shows about being young, they no longer seem hampered by their own early-career hurdles.  This is a solid piece of work that will serve as a foundation for many great shows to come.  I see it as their coming out party, in as many ways as you’d like to take that phrase.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Coming of age pop opera marks young group’s own maturity.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Apartment 3A” (Windy City Playhouse)

Dan Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo by Michael Brosilow
Daniel Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: Apartment 3A

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue:  Windy City Playhouse

Die Roll: 12

My first career was in broadcasting.  My first post-college full-time job was as a development associate for a public radio station in Iowa.  So, when I see a play about a character who is in charge of the on-air fundraising effort of a Midwestern public television station, I have instant empathy for their plight.  Jeff Daniels’ play  “Apartment 3A” captures the quiet desperation and the emphatic passion of one woman who is charged with raising the funds to keep Big Bird alive while her own life falls apart around her.

Annie (Eleni Pappageorge) starts the play looking for a new home because she’s been cheated upon and summarily dumped.  After giving the titular apartment a rushed, cursory perusal, she agrees to rent what the landlord (Peter Defaria) describes as the best apartment in the building.  We don’t get to see much of that apartment.  What we do get to see is the random visits of an entertaining neighbor named Donald (Daniel Smith) who takes an interest in improving Annie’s life.  Don’t mistake his interest in Annie as romantic.  Donald is more than happily married.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t romance in Annie’s life.  Her co-worker Elliot (José “Tony” García) has held a torch for Annie for years and now that he has the opportunity, he’s making his (rather awkward) move.

This show basically comes down to being a romantic comedy with a bit of magical realism thrown in for good measure.  The script is consistently funny and just quirky enough to keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next.  Some of the scenes are cleverly written to allow for Annie to be in a scene with one character while commenting on the same scene to another character.  It is an interesting convention, and it makes for some fun banter and word play.

Eleni Pappageorge and Jose "Tony" Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow
Eleni Pappageorge and Jose “Tony” Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow

This show succeeds on many levels, but the most successful is director Ron OJ Parson’s casting.  Pappageorge starts out cold and difficult to warm up to.  That may sound like a criticism, but it really isn’t.  That’s the character of Annie in a nutshell.  She’s job focused and puts up walls around her personal life.  Pappageorge captures that wounded yet ambitious personal perfectly.  More impressive is the casting of the men in the piece.  One might assume that the parts were originally written for this ensemble.  Smith, Garcia, and Defaria are all spot on and create characters that are more real than reality, even when they are in unreal situations.  The final cog in this well-oiled machine is Wardell Julius Clark in the role of Tony.  Tony is a technician, most likely a board engineer at the studio where Elliott and Annie work.  Back in the mid-90s I worked with a lot of guys like Tony.  Clark doesn’t have a lot of stage time, but he perfectly captures the vibe that surrounds that person in real life.  Parson’s cast is what makes this play sing to me.  I ache for Elliot as he pursues the woman of his dreams.  I conk my head each time Annie doesn’t see what’s going on directly in front of her.  I nod as I absorb Donald’s wisdom.  And I smile knowingly as Tony attempts to keep the show going amid chaos.

I am once again impressed with the level of creative excellence that crosses the stage at Windy City Playhouse.  I’ve yet to see a show there that doesn’t come up to an elevated level of production quality.  Now, with that being said, this script isn’t a masterpiece.  It is a fun and enjoyable evening that makes it worth getting out there to see a play despite the myriad possible alternatives right now.  While the production isn’t life-altering, it did transport me for a couple of hours filled with laughter and a few tears.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love is the reason public broadcasters do what they do.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

Ira Aldridge was the first man of color to perform Othello on the London stage in 1833. He trod the Covent Garden boards at a compelling moment. As riots surrounding the abolition of slavery raged outside the theatre’s front doors, questions about how best to act classical texts for contemporary audiences stymied traditional actors in the rehearsal room. The Aldridge showcased in Raven Theatre’s “Red Velvet” could be seen as the fiery spark burning down outdated racial and artistic sensibilities, only to usher in the new growth of an open-minded and sensitive performance style. If only the play were actually about Ira Aldridge.

This Midwestern premiere, penned by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarkti, gamely attempts to capture the entirety of the English theatre scene circa the mid-1800’s — introducing issues of race and class, the integration of actresses into Shakespeare’s traditionally gender-bent scripts, and the fevered competition between famously presentational performers like Edmund Kean and the more emotionally truthful Aldridge. That is a lot of subject matter to chew on, and the men and women onstage are sacrificed in the name of maintaining and explaining historical context.

Matthew Klingler, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Tim Martin, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

When Ira Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) arrives for rehearsal at Covent Garden, the white actors in his band of players react with shock. They assumed Aldridge was white, and his taking up the role of Othello represents a vile rejection of tradition for his Iago, Charles Kean (Tyler Rich). Aldridge tries to persuade Kean that he, of all actors, can best embody the doomed war hero, but Kean responds that great theatre is about the magic of transformation and escapism, not about playing what one begrudgingly greets in the real world. Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), Kean’s fiancée and Aldridge’s Desdemona, is willing to work with Aldridge in his more emotional style, even if it means allowing for slips in pronunciation, as well as acknowledging that an African American man must lay his hands on the dainty throat of a white woman before an outraged audience. The two artists develop a bond that could grow to romance, if the play had space for the excesses of the human soul. Alas, stage time that could explore the “make or break” passions surrounding the production is sadly spent delivering lessons on British economics and declaiming over and over again that Aldridge is a game-changer, without clearly demonstrating what made his acting style so magical, or even what he desires to make of his own career.

It is too bad so few scenes are spent rehearsing the tragedy, because the personal story of creation and social justice stashed away in the heart of “Red Velvet” resonates with issues currently facing the Chicago theatre scene. The Porchlight Theater has been roundly criticized for casting a white man as the Latino narrator of the recently opened “In the Heights.” Organizations like the Chicago Inclusion Project have begun working with theatre companies to diversify casting for texts where minority or disabled actors might be ignored. On a national scale, film companies are being asked to reflect the multicultural reality in which we live via campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. The most powerful scenes in “Red Velvet” revolve around the very same concerns and demands.

Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

The actors recognize what is at stake. Greenhouse is an engaging actor, and he does an admirable job distinguishing between his own acting choices and the bombastic style of Aldridge’s day. He packs his lines with conviction and energy, and though he is currently a bit too loud for Raven’s small space, creating echoes that obscure meaning, he leads the play with conviction. White does similarly well by Aldridge’s leading lady, revealing a devilish streak underneath her sense of propriety. Tim Martin is a lot of fun as the abolitionist Henry Forester, who fan-boys over Greenhouse the moment they meet. Meanwhile, Rich and Scott Olson do solid work as the ugly members of the cast who don’t want to act beside a man of color.

Still, the script lacks emotional follow-through, sweeping conflicts under the rug until the final ten minutes of the show, where an undercooked parallel between the false faces in “Othello” and the false faces in the theatre company appears. Director Michael Menendian does what he can to build complex relationships between Greenhouse and the other actors, but the shouting matches that result betray how thin the script is when it comes to flesh and blood choices. Why does theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) not defend his leading man, when London newspapers print racist reviews? What becomes of Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Sophia Menendian), once he is forced to tour on the road again? What is the personal cost of such racism to Aldridge? The playwright cares so much about scope that she loses her sense of scale, and this history play is turned into a dead, rather than a living, thing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Historical drama leans heavily on history and forgets the drama.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Feast” (Red Theater)

1929-300x200Show: The Feast

Company: Red Theater

Venue:  The Den Theatre (1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.)

Die Roll: 19

Red Theatre’s production of Celine Song’s “The Feast” is an interesting choice of play for a company known for producing free theater for all. I can see exactly what makes it so enticing: It’s likely to attract absurd theater enthusiasts, it has the pedigree of being a Chicago premiere, and it shares a communist disdain for the bourgeois. But the show is a slog with very little to reward a hungry audience besides an interesting stage tableau (lots of credit to designer Mike Mroch).

In “The Feast” Wendy Darling (Alejandra Vivanco) is having old friends Sam (Shelby Garrett), Rhett (Carl Wisniewski), and her brother-in-law Xander (Henry Greenberg) over for an opulent dinner. They are waiting on Francis (Ricky Quintana), Wendy’s husband, an incredibly attractive neurosurgeon, who is running late. That said, you’re better off not taking this play or its characters at their word. The reality they occupy is slippery, like a dream, a farce, or a disgruntled toddlers’ game of dress up. I think the minds behind “The Feast” want us to liken it to Brecht or Beckett, but it’s missing a profound notion to keep the engines humming. The only important things to remember are 1) in this world meat is unfit to eat and everyone is a forced vegetarian, and 2) no one wants to lift their forks until delicious, delicious Francis arrives.

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Director Gage Wallace has tasked the actors with discovering and embracing heightened weirdness. They counter storybook whimsy with textbook jargon and whatever meaningless mouth music that fills the space between our ears. I can scarcely imagine what motivates each moment. Maybe questions, like: If your extreme boredom were a song, what would it sound like? Could you fill the void between your massive place settings and have sex on the table without ever touching? As a result no character is particularly compelling, but being compelling is hardly the point. In fact, it’s probably easier for everyone if I award accolades for duties deftly performed. Here they are, in no particular order:

Best human portrayal of a phone, including dialing, ringing, operator, and hold music: Pavi Proczko as the mostly silent Butler.

Best performance of a song consisting of only the word ‘tolerant’: Henry Greenberg as science-minded Xander.

Best application of lipstick to entire face to obtain the youth and vigor of seventeen-year-olds:

Carl Wisniewski and Shelby Garrett as the equally repugnant Rhett and Sam.

Best admission of deep thoughts had while sitting on the toilet: Alejandra Vivanco as our hostess, Wendy.

Best delivery of a line that accidentally describes the experience of watching “The Feast” (“It’s like were not interested in holding it together.”): Ricky Quintana as a quickly devoured Francis.

Brother-in-law Xander assesses “The Feast” with more accuracy than I could possibly drum up when he says, “Calling this a good time would be inaccurate.” He’s right. It’s an endurance test that circles around quite a few potential central ideas. Is this a diatribe against a culture of over consumption? Could be. Is it a mockery of privilege and white fragility? Sure, why not. Is it awarding humanity a failing grade for our deep apathy? Signs point to yes. But, is “The Feast” a recommendable entertainment? It didn’t leave me particularly enriched by the power of good art.  But your response may differ, depending on your affinity for pointedly unhinged and unstructured theater.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Your enjoyment of this dinner party’ll depend on your taste.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Naperville” (Theater Wit)

29350749946_3d1c3a7935_kShow: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Every major metropolitan area has a suburb where the nouveau riche congregate.  That suburb’s name is often then embraced as a code word for self-important, ostentatious, absurdly materialistic, terrible people.  Making fun of the people from such a place is a safe bet in comedy, especially within the borders of their proximate urban center. Really, it’s comedic low-hanging fruit. So, it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that I was surprised that isn’t the tack taken by Mat Smart’s “Naperville”, currently playing at Theater Wit.

This is a play about people in a Caribou Coffee shop (remarkably well rendered by Joe Schermoly).  It is a play about new beginnings in a place where one normally has to be established to fit in.  But, where one man long ago decided to try for a new beginning of his own.  For anyone who has spent any time in the Naperville area, the name of Joseph Naper is a familiar one.  After all, the town is named for him.  And his new beginning—shifting from life as a shipwright to that of a farmer, townsman—is held as an allegory for her own life by one of the show’s primary characters, Anne (Abby Pierce).

29385040455_2351eeb03c_kThe play kicks off when Anne, a recently divorced woman recording a podcast, meets TC (Andrew Jessop) who is the new manager of the Caribou.  TC is desperate to not lose this newly acquired job.  Going through his day from one nervous twitch to the next, TC encounters Candice (Laura T. Fisher) and her son Howard (Mike Tepeli) who are dealing with the fact that Candice is newly blind and stubbornly refusing her son’s assistance.  Charlie Strater plays the last of the five characters to enter the scene: an evangelical Christian named Roy whose life isn’t necessarily in a new place on his own, but who is newly a part of each of the lives of the others.

28761036724_8a71ad5a9e_kDirector Jeremy Wechsler’s approach to the script is one that makes a light slice-of-life comedy one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.  It is simple, direct, and completely truthful to the situation.  The characters talk directly to one another, so the actors do just that.  These are the people you would meet in a suburban coffee chain store.  They aren’t on epic journeys.  They are each dealing with the little troubles that life throws their way, or that they have brought upon themselves.  Wechsler’s cast is extreme adept at capturing the quiet desperation in which they are all living.

I find it intriguing and worthwhile that Smart’s characters are all likeable, but only up to a point.  His writing makes me care about Anne and Howard.  But he strategically places some of their most glaring flaws out in the open as well.  It is easily seen that they are not good people.  None of the folks in this show are.  Even Roy, who goes through most of the show as an inexplicably good version of a born-again Christian (lacking any of the hypocrisy that is often associated with those who adopt that label), eventually fails us as he is part of the force that ruins TC’s day/life with very little concern for the barista’s well being.

This is a play that creates hope in the heart of the viewer, only to dash it and then build it up into something better.  That’s the way one begins anew.  That is what this play is about.  And the audience gets to go on that journey over and over again with this crew of five on a voyage of discovery into what makes real life so inherently dramatic.  I cannot recommend this show enough.  It is well-crafted in every aspect.  The writing is really good.  The design work is amazing.  The directing and acting are the real deal.  All the way around it’s tremendous.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Sister Cities” (Chimera Ensemble)

sister3Show: “Sister Cities”

Company: Chimera Ensemble

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 1

At first glance, Colette Freedman’s play “Sister Cities” seems to be the perfect offering from a company such as Chimera Ensemble which is “dedicated to being storytellers that explore human behavior” (according to the About Chimera Ensemble section of their press kit).  This play is a close look at the interactions of five women, four of whom are sisters–the remaining woman, their mother.  Mary (the mother, played by Chimera’s artistic director Rainee Denham) is dying or is dead, depending on which part of the play is being witnessed at the time.  Her daughters have assembled in the aftermath of Mary’s death to hold a wake of sorts and to deal with the details that surround the apparent suicide of a family member.

sister2Accusations, love, hate, and grief all fly about the scene as one might expect, especially once it is made clear that Austin (Nicole Fabbri) has assisted in Mary’s suicide.  Austin is the second oldest daughter, and the one who came back home to be with her mother during her struggle with ALS.  This play is full of potentially heavy and intense topics and moments.  With the right nuances it can be very powerful.  Sadly, director Ashley Neal’s cast often missed the nuances that would have made this play a brilliant study of human behavior.  In attempting to delve deeply into the behaviors and relationships of women in a time of family crisis, the production has only succeeded in showing a surface level awkwardness that is present in most real-life interactions.  You know, the ones you would never consider putting on stage because they are just real enough to be painful to watch.

I really want to like this play.  It’s an attempt to explore some heavy issues and topics: assisted suicide, hereditary illnesses, nature v. nurture, birth order politics, the importance of chosen family, the affects of ALS on a person and their kin, the differences between legality and morality, and how we deal with grief.  The problem is that by listing them out just as I did, I came close to how effectively the play touches on each as well.  We receive a cursory glossing of the issues at hand, but never a real exploration of any of them.  Freedman’s script takes a buckshot approach to hitting as many of the targets as possible.  She doesn’t make a direct hit on any of them.  What I find missing is the answer to the question, what is at stake here?  It seems to me that what is at stake is Austin’s need to be understood and forgiven by her siblings for having guided her mother’s hands in slitting her wrists.  However, if that is the case, then the show could have been directed differently to focus on that through-line.  If that isn’t crux of the play, then it really is unclear what it could otherwise be.  Perhaps that has to be found between the lines.  If so, then the playwright has placed an unfair burden upon the producing company to improve her work to a level that it shines.

No matter wherein lies the flaw, the play suffers from a disconnect between the seriousness of its myriad topics and the intensity of focus laid upon them.  I came away from the play thinking about the issues within the play, but still somehow not having any emotional investment in what I’d just seen.  I hunger for an empathetic link to the material that brings me into closer contact with moments of intense human behavior.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Did these four sisters grow up together? Doesn’t seem so.

DICE RATING: d8– “Not Bad, Not Great”