Review: “Musical Therapy” (Death & Pretzels)

Show: “Musical Therapy”

Company: Death & Pretzels

Venue: Gorilla Tango (1919 N. Milwaukee)

Die Roll: 19

There are certain things that one looks for in a major Broadway musical or a show at the Goodman that one doesn’t expect from a small theatre in a tiny black box setting.  In fact, the storefront theatre scene creates a very different hunk of art than does the loop theatre district.  This isn’t really a headline of any sort.  Anyone who has taken in a show or two in Chicago knows how it is.  But, if you don’t take in storefront musicals often, perhaps you’ll allow me to take a moment to contemplate what makes the perfect storefront musical experience…

For me, a perfect storefront musical must begin with an admission to oneself that expectations are not high.  I see 10 to 20 new musicals a year and most of them are in tiny venues by people who are earnest, but not experienced makers of musical art.  And, because of this, I know that in most instances I’m going to leave in what amounts to a listener’s walk of shame, head slung low wondering how I’ll forget what just came to pass (and normally, once I’ve written my review of said show, it does leave my brain quickly).  However, there are a few shows that were so remarkably bad that the damage sticks with me years later.  So, when the music starts and the first number gets rolling, there has to be that moment when a singer hits a sour note, or an errant step makes the choreography look wrong.  That single moment is the set-up for the perfect storefront musical.  That flaw allows the reviewer/audience to think that they are once again in for a stinker, only to then have the whole ship righted and the production to rise well above their anticipated quality.

In “Musical Therapy”, Death & Pretzels presents an evening that isn’t perfect, but which does offer up the perfect storefront musical theatre experience.  The harmonies in composer Joey Katsiroubas’s first number are a little roughly rendered by the five actors who first grace the stage.  Dan Hass’s book staggers into the first spoken scene like a timid and gawky teen.  Awkwardness abounds.  Then, after about five minutes, the show hits its stride and its comfort zone, and it never looks back.  Hass’s script is funny, and intelligent.  Karsiroubas’s songs are memorable to the point that I’ve currently got one of them stuck in my head as I write this.  The show’s structure is familiar, but quirky in a way that both reinforces what we want in a musical, but also pokes fun at what can be a a too tired trope at times.  It is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek while simultaneously honest and true to itself.

At the heart of this production is a tale about a couples therapist, Theresa (Haley Mozer), who is unlucky in love herself.  She is in lust with the guy (Ethan Peterson) who’s just moved into the office next door to hers.  And she longs to get with him. Most of the show takes place in Theresa’s therapy sessions with two couples.  Ryder (Matt Lamson) and Liz (Emma Palizza) suffer from a lack of sexual chemistry (largely because she’s secretly a lesbian). Timothy (Sean Cameron) and Darcie (Erika Hakmiller) are addressing some control issues (hers over him). Each session contains a catchy number in which the relationship is explained, and then a time buzzes and the session is over.  Theresa discovers that Will (Peterson) has a girlfriend, and she schemes to use her practice to tear them apart, while also reshuffling the romantic deck for all of her clients.  Hilarity ensues.

Director Madison Smith guides the cast through what could be cliche situations with a deft sense of comedy, elevating the show’s potentially silly moments to something better.  Smith’s efforts are helped along by the choreography of Brian Boller.  None of the dancing is too technically demanding, but it fits the mood of the piece perfectly, and establishes that the show’s laughs will come from physical sources as well as script-based chuckles.

My one gripe with the show is that there is only a 5-minute intermission.  In this day and age of short shows with no intermission, I wouldn’t have minded if the break were outright eliminated, but if it is necessary, a slightly longer lull in the action would be good so that drinks may be procured and bathrooms visited.  I understand that Gorilla Tango runs a tight ship when it comes to scheduling multiple shows on the same stage each night, but the 5-minute interlude doesn’t serve a positive purpose for anyone.

Gorilla Tango can be a very limiting space in which to put up a production, and it’s probably the last place I would think to put up a musical, but I can safely say that “Musical Therapy” is worth casting aside any trepidation or otherwise negative expectations regarding the venue and/or storefront musicals in general.  It is a good evening well spent, a fun time, and a show that fits its environs perfectly, treating its topic both viciously and lovingly.  Death & Pretzels has created a show that succeeds at being exactly what is and what it should be.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sock puppets and sex and singing and dancing and wow.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas” (Subtext Theater Company)

Hilary Hensler and David M. Hartley/Photo: John Oster.

Show: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas”

Company: Subtext Theater Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

Die Roll: 2

I am unsure where to begin. “A Prayer for the Sandinistas,” as an exploration of faith and family loyalty, is generally fine, if too gentle in its challenges to the status quo. The production is well-acted, and seems suited to the Prop black box space. But there are some dramatic choices that gnaw at my mind when thinking about the performance I saw this week, so I find myself unsure how best to give readers a fair impression of the production.

Let’s start light and easy with a taste of the story. Johnny (played as a child by Jack Edwards, and as an adult by David M. Hartley) lives in 1979 Chicago, a place the Pope is about to visit. His devout mother Kassia (warmly brought to life by Hilary Hensler) has spent months preparing the local parish for the event, and during this time, she opens her home to her arriving sisters, nuns Eva (Julie Schlesinger) and Anna (Laura Brennan). The women have been serving at an orphanage in Nicuragua, where Johnny sent money and letters to the orphaned Maria (Gloria Alvarez) as a child. Maria has come with the sisters, bringing along her boyfriend Carlos (Victor Maraña), a Sandinista with whom Johnny, his cop uncle Stanley (Phil Troyk), and everyone else clashes.

The play involves debates between atheists and Catholics, questions of social justice and family responsibility. But there are two elements of the script that deserve addressing outside of those thematic concerns. First, Johnny was born with a sizeable port wine stain birthmark on his face; playwright Leigh Johnson makes it a focus of the story, serving as a reminder of guilt to Johnny’s mother, and acting as an obstacle for Johnny’s advancement at work. Johnson expends a lot of energy and dialogue in regards to what is essentially a make-up choice. Though he is willing to attach the birthmark to Kassia’s complicated psychology, he offers little follow-through in regards to how Johnny’s feelings about it change, marking the “othered” party as less important than his more typically beautiful mother. This would be of little note, if not for the play’s presentation of Anna, the second concerning element of the play for me.

Victor Maraña and Gloria Alvarez/Photo: John Oster.

Anna has some sort of developmental disability. She is viewed simply as “slow” or a handful by those around her. She is childlike and innocent, and Brennan works overtime to display a curiosity and understanding in Anna’s eyes that the script does not support. Johnson never gives his nun the definition necessary to draw a conclusion about her condition. Because his work is set in 1979, the attitudes of characters in his world would not reflect how we address identity labels now, possibly. But Anna is constantly referred to as the “heart of the family,” and it is her lack of understanding and individuality that makes her an asset and a burden to everyone onstage. So she becomes a caricature and stereotype played by a neurotypical actress, who does her best not to look down on the character.

By play’s end, I wondered why exactly Johnson has included Anna and Johnny with his birthmark. The same story about faith could have functioned without unsurprising pronouncements that trumpet acceptance but do not give characters their full voices or humanity. Add to that an outdated discussion about how the Catholic church influences and traumatizes its parishioners, and the script becomes so old-fashioned, it is difficult to connect its 1970’s concerns to the contemporary world.

Director Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch allows for some quiet character work, but he also gives so much breadth to awkward pauses that the play shuts down throughout much of the first act. The design work by Subtext Theater Company members is minimal and adequate, while Hartley and Hensler build a warm relationship over the run time. This production might best be viewed as a museum piece, a portrait of a different time, in which principles about faith can be resolved within a week.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Troubling portraits of two “othered” characters muddy a domestic drama.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “The Radiant” (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Debbie Ruzicka and James McGuire/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Show: “The Radiant”

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Scientific discovery should provide a wealth of material for theatrical exploration. Nothing is more engaging than human curiosity and effort. However, STEM-based plays often fall into traps of plot contrivance or confusing jargon, for fear of misleading or boring the audience. Such is the case with the Chicago premiere of “The Radiant,” an exploration of Marie Curie that is less interested in her achievements, and more invested in how romance sets her on a path to melodrama and potential ruin.

Marie Curie was a total boss, known for the discovery of polonium and radium, as well as her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was also the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes. As portrayed by Debbie Ruzicka in Genesis Theatrical’s production, she is shy and overwhelmed after her husband Pierre’s death. She does not fight for his teaching position at the University of Paris, and only weakly steps into his lectureship after receiving encouragement from his former assistant, Paul Langevin (James McGuire). She fears entering Pierre’s lab due to the memories it will dredge up. And once she develops romantic feelings for Paul, any dramatic focus on her research goes out the window, even as she fights (mostly) offstage to isolate radium and defend her work as a chemist. Her niece Katarina (Chloe Dzielak) acts as her confidant and caretaker to the Curie children, while Michael Lomenick takes on the roles of every man who tries to undermine Curie’s work.

Michael Lomenick/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Playwright Shirley Lauro clearly understands the gender double standard that Curie experienced in academia; her secret relationship with Langevin caused a scandal that threatened her second Nobel Prize. But the author is unwilling to push Curie into high-stakes decisions. Her affair randomly begins at her husband’s graveside, only moments after she laments how much she misses him. Her scientific work is referenced often, but the isolation of radium is never given context. There is little to root for in this biographical piece, when the audience is whisked from scene to scene and year to year with little information given about what Marie outside, outside of time with her boyfriend. Ultimately, the science feels lost, Curie’s goal is unknown, and the relationship at the center of the play ends by giving gratitude and power to Paul. I doubt that was Lauro’s intention, but the affair storyline carries little weight, while the effect of an affair on a prominent woman’s work could have unleashed a longer, more nuanced dramatic exploration.

Ruzicka is dutiful to the script, emphasizing Curie’s insecurity about her appearance, as well as her melancholy. It doesn’t make the scientist easy to root for, but she is recognizably human amid time jumps and announcements regarding her affair. McGuire is less able to flesh out Paul, whose inner life is left mostly a blank; why he loves Marie remains a mystery by play’s end. Dzielak starts the play using broad humor, which is jarring, but settles in to a more subtle, serious vein by her final scene. Director Kaitlin Taylor tries to pull the threads of romance and science together, but she has the actors speak at such a slow pace, it’s hard to find momentum or conflict in their love and work.

I am not sure why set designer Harrison Ornelas chose to use movable pillars as a marker for different spaces in a black box theatre. Eric J. Vigo’s lights could have delineated offices and living rooms from the outdoors well enough. Continual movement of the pillars added time that the play did not need, and actually hemmed the actors in, creating a couple of unnecessary blind spots from where I was sitting.

Across her career, Marie Curie dealt with xenophobia, gender discrimination, and loss. “The Radiant” skims across these issues, and minimizes her work onstage. A better portrait would develop her steely resolve, and display how she chose to move past these obstacles into exciting new discoveries.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Marie Curie was a badass; she deserves a stronger play.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre)

Daniel Kyri/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Objects in the Mirror”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

Die Roll: 11

Let me begin by saying that this show is the best production that I’ve seen so far in 2017.  It’s scope and scale are epic, and though Charles Smith’s “Objects in the Mirror” addresses the struggles of one family unit, the story told is so much bigger than that of just a handful of people.  This production, directed by Chuck Smith (not the same guy as the aforementioned Charles, nor of any relation), only has five actors who often seem dwarfed by the massive, yet simple scenery (designed by Riccardo Hernandez).  As I continue to digest what I saw on the Goodman’s stage, I keep returning to the set and how it informed the action of the play.  The set itself was simple in that it included very few elements and there were no raised platforms or intricately built pieces, or ornate decorations.  Yet, every piece was immense.  A large and imposing ceiling/roof loom large over segments of the play that take place in the present (much of the show is in flashback).  A massive, retractable rear wall facilitates projections, as well as a border that rises up from ground level to the infinite heavens.  Often a bare stage creates a sense of vastness that is difficult to overcome because a lone actor in that gaping space seems ever so small; a tiny force against insurmountable odds.

Breon Arzell, Daniel Kyri, Allen Gilmore/Photo: Liz Lauren

Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri) is the individual most often confronted by the outward forces in this story.  After all, he is the tale’s protagonist.  We meet him as a survivor of a decade-long struggle to be free of the violence and oppression that has torn many western African nations apart.  He now resides in Australia.  He is on a search for meaning in his life and for who he really is.  As part of that, he revisits his life story up to that point.  In flashback we meet his crafty trickster uncle (Allen Gilmore), his mother (Lily Mojekwu), and his cousin (Breon Arzell).  These are the people who share Shedrick’s world.  And they are the ones who make it possible for him to escape the dangers of a country that kills off its young men by fighting civil wars with child armies.

Charles Smith has written a piece that makes the reality of war ever-present and imposing.  Shedrick is never sure of who he can trust, and in all likelihood, his uncle’s advice to trust no one is best applied.  And yet, one wants to trust the people nearest to them.  And the internal struggle of who to trust and how much is at the heart of this play.  The narrative struggle of the journey toward freedom is matched in intensity by the personal journey taken by Shedrick as he struggles with self-identity and conscience.  Can Shedrick trust his uncle?  Can he trust his own mother?  Can he trust himself?  For that matter, can anyone trust anyone else ever?

Chuck Smith’s powerfully simple staging gives the more dynamic and complex moments of the play a gigantic blank canvas upon which to create an overall picture that is both brilliant and dark.  The cast rises to the task of telling a gripping and meaningful tale, always surrounded by the spirit that they are just a small part of something so much larger, but never being defeated by the overall massiveness of their troubles.  This is a piece that must be seen.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Trust in this one thing: You should see this play.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Time Stands Still” (AstonRep Theatre Company)

Robert Tobin and Sara Pavlak McGuire/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Show: “Time Stands Still”

Company: AstonRep Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 10

Early in the second act of “Time Stands Still,” a journalist lashes out at theatrical attempts to capture the experience of Iraqi war refugees. He has covered atrocities and combat incursions across the globe, and he knows better than some playwright who the victims are; how dare authors try to exoticize other people’s pain for the enlightenment of an audience! Much better, it seems, to focus on crumbling romantic relationships and domestic dramas.

Or so seems to be the message of playwright Donald Marguiles, who examines violence and its effects on a couple in AstonRep’s “Time Stands Still.” Unfortunately, hanging a lampshade on topics he is unwilling or unable to handle doesn’t immediately make the bourgeois concerns of his Western characters more compelling. His askance references to the Iraq War and its cost to investigative and photojournalists actually weaken the conflict between his characters, and while director Georgette Verdin does her level best to create unspoken trauma between her actors, little can be done to connect war crimes and one individual relationship.

We meet Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire) and James (Robert Tobin) at a turning point in their lives. Sarah has just returned from Iraq, where she worked as a photojournalist, and where she was injured in a roadside bomb blast. Her partner James, a writer, left the country months before, but welcomes her home to heal. He is reluctant to return to the field, while Sarah plans to power through physical therapy and fly back to Iraq in a matter of months. Richard (Rob Frankel), her editor, protests this plan, just as much as Sarah protests his relationship with a much younger and seemingly callow woman, Mandy (Kirra Silver). Over the course of several months, the audience watches the characters spar over how to best provide service to the world, and the conclusions they reach have seismic repercussions for their personal relationships.

Robert Tobin, Rob Frankel, Kirra Silver, and Sarah Pavlak McGuire/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Marguiles is at his best when he allows the characters to debate the purpose of their work. Sarah’s photography can be viewed as voyeuristic or informative, based on one’s baggage about responsible reporting. James’ growing concerns about being desensitized to violence provide shading to his character; he is clearly working through his own post-traumatic stress by endlessly watching and analyzing horror films. The trouble lies in Marguiles’ inability to connect such work concerns to Sarah and James’ romance. When Sarah chastises herself for not helping a dying mother and child late in the play, she is referring to her own failures as a partner, as much as she is criticizing the passive nature of her job. But Marguiles gives her so few opportunities to suggest this, the audience ends the play feeling cheated out of a larger emotional conversation.

Verdin works hard to create a fraying tether between Pavlak McGuire and Tobin, using dimming light and turned away faces to highlight the distance between her leads. But she can only rely on hardworking actors so much, when the script doesn’t give them space to organically inject their pain into conversations that seem — on the surface — not to be about pain. Subjects change and arguments resolve without the consequences being clear to the audience, and while Pavlak McGuire and Tobin build fine individual portraits of suffering, the weight of their pain doesn’t impact one another the way it should, nor does it account for the play’s later explosive scenes.

Jeremiah Barr’s city apartment feels just full enough to suggest people living there two months out of the year. Arielle Valene’s costumes reflect a comfortable couple, and Samantha Barr’s lights zero in on faces at their most revealing. The design elements reflect a thought out and lived in world, even if the script doesn’t allow the characters space to articulate their deepest feelings.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spotty script keeps debate about romance and war from sticking.

RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “We’re Gonna Die” (Haven Theatre)

Isa Arciniegas/ Photo: Austin D Oie

Show: “We’re Gonna Die”

Company: Haven Theatre Company

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 4

On the surface, I really like the idea of a show that is made up of a rock singer and a backing band.  In fact, I was really excited going into this show, especially since Haven Theatre Company has a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in its not-to-distant past.  So, if anyone can tackle what could be described quickly as a female approach to the same idea, it should be them.  And, in all regards, the production managed to do a reasonable job of putting forth a one-woman show about confronting her own mortality.  The backing band was solid (more on that shortly).  The lead singer (Isa Aciniegas) was well matched to the songs, her vocals being both impassioned and frenzied, while capturing a soulful resonance at the right times.

So, wherein is my problem with this show?  First, the execution of the basic concept.  Normally a statement like that would put the blame on the director, but the failing here is not on Josh Sobel.  It is on playwright Young Jean Lee.  While speaking at the top of the show, Singer (Aciniegas) says that she is going to share thoughts with us that she’s been having that have to do with the darker times and her intention in doing so is to give us positive things to reflect on when we hit those more difficult moments (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s a quick summation of her opening monologue).  She then spends the first half hour relating tales and singing songs that do not work toward that stated purpose, but which seem to have been written as exposition for some play that might have a plot, and may happen in the future, but not tonight.  Luckily the second half of the piece gets on track, and not only targets the stated goal of the show, but makes it quite enjoyable.

The show itself is brief (barely over an hour and perhaps a quarter more).  And it is loud.  The company kindly provides earplugs.  The show can easily be heard through them clearly, and wearing them prevents tinnitus, so I recommend them heartily.  The band is backed up against a brick wall and no matter where you sit in the tiny Janet Bookspan Theatre (one of the ground floor spaces at The Den), you’re never more than 16 feet from an amplifier.

Sarah Giovannetti, Spencer Meeks, Jordan Harris, Isa Arciniegas/Photo by Austin D. Oie

So, the songs that make up the better part of the show are really well written.  And the band rocks them hard.  Spencer Meeks is a tremendous guitarist and has an enviable stack of effects pedals which color the moods of the world we’re visiting in this show.  Drummer Sarah Giovannetti sets the beat and drives her way through some impressive solos, and Jordan Harris and Elle Walker (both on keys and backing vocals) blend really well and create a great overall sound.  As a concert, I was both impressed by this show, and I enjoyed it.

Then there were the stories/monologues/whatevers.  None of them were badly scripted.  Young Jean Lee is a skillful writer.  But, the words didn’t necessarily ring true.  Part of that is due to the presentational structure of a concert setting.  Singer’s direct interaction with the audience at what should be moments of connection are inhibited by a microphone planted against her lips.  Touching moments feel more like stand-up comedy than instances of emotional vulnerability.  Also, there seems to be a casting issue here.  I’m not besmirching Arciniegas, nor her talent.  She’s good.  But, she’s not in her 40’s.  She’s not old enough to be the contemporary of her friend who she is talking about in one scene, a friend who was 40-something long enough ago that the two have now lost touch and she can speak about it casually as having taken place a few years ago.  Another scene talks about Singer confronting her own realization of mortality when she gets her first gray hair. As an early middle-aged individual, plucking that first gray hair could definitely cause one to realize that youth has come to a close.  Once again, though, the script puts that occurrence in Singer’s past, and in her early- to mid-20’s, it is highly unlikely that she’s sensing that her youth has now flown.

I found myself constantly struggling with a disconnected feeling from the material.  I see what Sobel and his cast are attempting to do, but never was I drawn into what could have been an empowering, or at least entertaining evening about life, death, and everything else.  So it is that I merely got to hear some well-executed music, and some sub-par storytelling.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Monologue masquerades as rock concert. Trying hard to be profound.

DICE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad.  Not Great.”

Review: “Queen” (Victory Gardens)

Stephen Spencer, Priya Mohanty, Darci Nalepa/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Queen”

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 3

For the last ten years or so, there has been a spotlight on the mysterious disappearance of honey bees in America, and across the planet.  So, it isn’t at all surprising that plays have now been written about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  I’ve reviewed one other play about the topic a couple of years ago.  This second go-’round with the topic is similar to my last, in that both works are less about the bees than about the relationships of the humans on the stage.  Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen” looks at the interactions between two women who are researching the issue of CCD.  Shekar doesn’t try to draw comparisons between the lives of the bees and the humans investigating them.  That’s a relief.  When it comes down to it, the social structures forced upon those who live within academia are nothing like the shared communal intellect of a beehive.  Shekar’s characters are solid representations of scientists in the high-pressure final stage of getting a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) are two PhD candidates at a school that is part of the University of California system (in real life, UC-Davis is one of the leading sites of research into CCD).  The ladies are good friends, in addition to being partners on a study that is set to be published in the journal “Nature”.  They are simply one batch of data away from making their careers go gangbusters.  A problem arises when the newest data doesn’t match their earlier projections, and the validity of their whole study is called into question.

The women are pressured by their advising professor (played by the dynamic Stephen Spencer) into fudging the numbers so that publication can go forward.  And, Sanam encounters a potential love interest whose opposing views on most of her beliefs shakes the foundations upon which her work rests.  Adam Poss’s turn as Arvind Patel, the suave, over-sexed, greed-driven match found for Sanam by her parents, is one of the most entertaining parts of the show.  Arvind is not a terribly redeemable character, but he is strangely likable to both the audience and Sanam.

In most moments of this play, there is an intimacy and an urgency that can draw in people who know nothing about science generally, or the bee problem specifically.  One need not know anything about science and how it is pursued in order to identify with the two women who are struggling within their own lives with the day-to-day stressors that make all of our lives complicated.  I think this is wherein Shekar’s script most succeeds.  Friends support each other, until the crucial moment when they don’t.  Fights get personal, and healing is difficult.  This is the messiness of being human told in a tale of people who are often seen as distant and clinical in their interactions with others.

Director Joanie Schultz brings out both the common preconception of scientists (socially awkward, logical rather than emotional beings) and the truly passionate side of real life scientists who truly believe in what they are doing and the people whom they are doing them with.  I struggled with the first scene of the play as it is seen at Victory Gardens because Nalepa and Mohanty stand awkwardly together and have what is essentially a very awkward presentational chat which serves as the play’s exposition.  They have this chat with beers in hand, so we’re supposed to see them as friendly to each other and having a casual chat at a conference.  It is a scene that doesn’t immediately draw you into liking the characters, nor understanding that they are close friends and have been for years.  But, as was recently explained to me by my wife (who is a scientist–a chemist, to be precise), that’s basically what socializing at a conference is like.  So, now after the fact, I give the first scene a bit of a pass, though while watching the show, I was relieved that the production improved greatly after a rough start.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Watching their dreams collapse causes friends to take a stand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Stop Kiss” (The Cuckoo’s Theater Project)

Show: Stop Kiss

Company: The Cuckoo’s Theater Project

Venue:  1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Die Roll: 7

Cuckoo’s Theater Project and director Angela Forshee have taken great effort to transport us to 1998 with their current production of Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss”. They play a killer list of late 90’s acoustic songs, and  deck characters out in fuzzy and midriff-baring threads (the work of sound designer Gail Gallagher and costume designer Asha McAllister). But aside from a few references to Giuliani and the steady ‘brrring’ of a landline phone, Diana Son’s modern romance still feels as modern as it was meant to feel more than seventeen years ago.

In “Stop Kiss”, Callie (Winter Sherrod), a seasoned New Yorker, who hates her job as a traffic reporter, and is mostly ambivalent about her friends, takes a recent transplant Sara (Jackie Seijo) under her wing, in an uncharacteristic move. Over time, the two very different women develop an appreciation for each other that defies explanation. They need each other more than their sorta-exes, George (David Towne) and Peter (Nathan Wainwright), that’s certain. And there’s no one that either of them can turn to that cares for them half as much. But just as these two straight women venture to ask if they’re in love, their lives are put on brutal pause when Sara becomes the victim of homophobic violence. All of a sudden, the prying eyes of the authorities and extended families are scrutinizing their every move. If Callie wants Sara to remain in her life, she’ll have to fight for it.

Jackie Seijo is warm, decisive and blunt as Sara, who has sunk her teeth into a brand new city, new life and new friends, hoping to forget everything she left behind. The energy that Seijo brings to Sara after she’s been incapacitated is just as potent; the self assured woman is still there, even when she can’t open her mouth to speak.  Conversely, Winter Sherrod is a fantastic mess as Callie, who regards every phone call and door buzz as open blinds shedding light on a life she’s not particularly proud of. Even after Sara is the victim of violence, Callie struggles to own herself in the face of a deluge of strange new faces, all judging her harshly, she assumes.

With this rendition of “Stop Kiss”, Angela Forshee  and the folks at Cuckoo’s Theater Project have brought a thoughtful, relevant production onto the Chicago theater landscape. If you enjoy seeing more work from artists of color, artists on the LGBTQ spectrum and feminist artists, you can show your support for them all by catching “Stop Kiss”.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Tragedy strikes a new love before it can take form. 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Mother of Smoke” (Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company)

Kelsey Shipley, McCambridge Dowd-Whipple, Emma Ladji and Stephanie Shum/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Mother of Smoke”

Company: Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway St)

Die Roll: 2

At the beginning of “Mother of Smoke,” a performer informs the audience that we exist in an in-between space. We are living outside time and experience, so we are safe in the theater. Yet we are not at home. We are constantly in transit. This is a fitting introduction, given that home and safety form the twin concerns of the experimental performance, and the script itself is a mash-up of “The Trojan Women,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and monologues about the crumbling of the American Dream. The destruction of Troy occurs simultaneously with the ruling class’ loss of their orchard property, and in the middle of all this, food deserts in Inglewood are discussed. It is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, and while the cast valiantly brings life to each set-piece, the end result feels disjointed and taxing, no matter how much the safety of drama is heralded.

Co-created by Thom Pasculli, and the Walkabout Theater and Red Tape Theatre ensembles, the production includes writing from Charles Mee, Ellen McLaughlin, Anton Chekhov, Euripides, and company writers Emma Stanton, Morgan McNaught, Lucas Baisch, and Lucia Thomas. If that seems like too many cooks in the kitchen, your instinct is correct. While the acting ensembles generate affecting visuals and excel at the contemporary material in “Mother of Smoke,” the older texts create contrasts that blur the performance’s overall context. While it is an interesting academic exercise to ponder how the loss of the Russian nobility’s cherry orchard matches up with the ravages of war experienced by the women of Troy, the script cannot link the two directly enough to generate dramatic friction or worthwhile meaning. Loss of home can be much more viscerally felt when it comes to military refugees. How that trauma connects to gentrification in Chicago is anyone’s guess, because we hear so few speeches about it. I appreciate that the writers left the audience to their own conclusions, but a stronger spine, or clearer deconstructions of each text, would have provided us more entertainment and a clearer set of tools to work with as fellow collaborators.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Mazzini particularly stands out in her performance as Helen of Troy. She moves from sardonic wit about her plight to a fevered shout about how her beauty and the war are meaningless. Kelsey Shipley as Lyubov in “The Cherry Orchard” single-handedly holds that storyline together, simply by providing a grounded presence for the other actors around her. Alex Rodriguez as Lyubov’s lost tutor, and as Aeneus in the play’s final section, brings a raw emotional quality to haunted speeches. And Emma Ladji as Dido proves a wise teacher in a world born after war.

Movement collaborator Carrie Drapac provides the most memorable moments of the production, using each actor as a piece of the storytelling. Women wave their hands frantically while men roll around on the floor, desperate for connection and clinging to one another. The strongest parts of the play involve silence and movement, rather than worked-over monologues. The times I felt most affected by the colliding scenes all arrived during dances or scenic transitions.

When we enter a theatrical performance, we implicitly agree to live in an in-between space for a few hours. We do this because we hope to learn something about the world, something about ourselves. By listening to others’ stories, we become more human, and hopefully, find some semblance of safety and community during that reinforcement. “Mother of Smoke” wants to unsettle in order to educate, but its stitched together parts form a patchy whole, and leave us wanting clarity.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Uneven script hampers strong emotional and physical acting from cast.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Sycamore” (Raven Theatre Company)

Show: Sycamore

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 11

The Raven has turned out a miniature work of art in the new world premiere of Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore”. Despite the need for a few touch-ups, it’s a lovely introduction to a hyper-modern theatrical family that bears the mark of a generation not hampered by the name hang-ups you’d expect from say, William Inge or Paula Vogel. The households in “Sycamore” accept their children, even if they don’t understand their sexual preferences or can’t step in when they make a poor decision. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to keep these parents and children at odds.

In “Sycamore”, two affluent, suburban families find themselves becoming too close to expect neighborly privacy, or to properly hide secrets that loom too close to the surface. John (Johnathan Nieves) and his mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) struggle under the weight of their novelty as former artists, city dwellers, and accidental bohemians. Meanwhile, the teen siblings next door, Celia (Selina Fillinger) and Henry Jacobs (Julian Larach) tread very carefully around their well-meaning parents Louise and David (Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey), but mostly around one another. A recent traumatic event keeps them on their best behavior, until John appears and both Celia and Henry become a little infatuated.

But, order must be kept and everyone on stage feels obligated to cling to their own status quo, rather than embrace the growing desires that hide just under the surface. Celia tries to squash her growing interest in John out of respect for her brother, who she blames herself for hurting and sending into a tailspin. At the same time, Henry, well aware that there’s a romantic spark that is not focused on him, tries to escape the despair that almost succeeded in engulfing him once. Parents Jocelyn, Louise and David aren’t immune to the turmoil, either, and fester unhappily with their children in the same uneasiness. They mull returning to unsatisfying jobs, and loneliness despite being surrounded by their children and spouses. There’s an undercurrent of envy that crackles like a bolt of lightning seeking out a ground current. Something has to snap soon.

“Sycamore’s” strengths and emotional depths are solidified by a cast of ridiculously talented young actors.  Julian Larach gives Henry the apprehensive energy of a deer leaving the safety of the woods; he fears his own strong feelings more than anything. Johnathan Nieves is both sides of a free-spirited coin as John, at home in an emotional minefield, but vastly unprepared for the fallout. And Selina Fillinger is the real ticking time bomb of “Sycamore”. As Celia she puts herself under so much duress to be a rock for her brother that we can see the cracks forming as soon as we meet her.

On paper, “Sycamore” has a problem with homogeny. Characters speak in the same white, affluent cadence and struggle with very elite circumstances. Director Devon De Mayo combats this with a superb color-conscious cast, and allowing the actors help us find ourselves onstage. You’ll experience fantastic moments of authentic awkwardness, compelling performers sweating out modern dissatisfaction, and a visually stunning stage to house them all out in the open.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: For this patched-up family, returning to normal won’t do.

DICE RATINGd10- Worth Going To