Review: “The Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre)

Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Show: “The Good Person of Szechwan”

Company: COR Theatre

Venue: A Red Orchid Theatre

Die Roll: 4

Some plays reflect the time in which they are written.  With translated plays, they will often reflect the original time and culture, as well as the culture of the translator and the time at which the work was translated.  So, this version of “The Good Person of Szechwan” by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Tony Kushner is a work that crosses times and cultures to address the question of what is it that makes a person good.

Director Ernie Nolan takes the act of translation a step further and crosses gender lines in his casting.  From the moment lights come up it is clear that this production is both a reflection of our world and a altered version of it.  Wang the Waterseller (Dawn Bless) takes the stage to tell us what life is like in this part of Szechwan.  Wang is a street savvy huckster with a good heart, but isn’t the titular good person.  No, that’s Shen Te (Will Von Vogt), the town’s notorious lady of the evening.  When three gods come to town, she is the only one to take them in and give them a place to stay.

Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

If one watches this play looking for answers as to what makes a good person, the answers found aren’t easy.  Is it what is in your heart that makes you a good person?  Somewhat.  Are your deeds what make you good?  Somewhat.  But, throughout the story, neither option is really the end-all/be-all.

What does become apparent is how someone who is trying to be good can easily be taken advantage of.  When the gods give Shen Te some funding as compensation for their lodging, she is able to buy herself a business and also provide charity to those in need.

This production is a thinker and a feeler.  Days later I am still pondering everything I saw, and in the moments of the show I was hit with waves of empathy for Shen Te’s plight, as well as anger toward those who would disabuse her and the a sense of victory when her plans went well.  The lighting and soundscape were integral parts of an immersive experience that dragged me into the world of the show despite some very Brechtian moments that pointed out that I was watching a play.  Kudos to Claire Chrzan and Matt Reich for their respective designs.

The show has a large supporting cast, and across the board they were stellar.  Most played multiple roles and every one was well defined and contributed strongly to the overall picture created by the tale.

I was solidly impressed by this work.  It is what theatre ought to be: a piece that calls upon us to look at ourselves and the world around us; a piece that challenges us to be better; a piece that looks at the very essence of what it would mean to be better, in the first place.  Well done, COR Theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Beaten down by the world, the good can rise again.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Now. Here. This.” (Brown Paper Box Co.)

NHTPosterShow: Now. Here. This.

Company: Brown Paper Box Co.

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 11

No matter how objective a critic tries to be, one does have one’s favorites.  A little theatre company called Brown Paper Box Co. is one of mine.  They consistently produce shows that are sharply directed, with solid production values despite their obviously smaller budgets.  They get good people to work with them, and they are committed to putting up worthwhile theatre. I like them.  Last year, Brown Paper Box Co. was responsible for one of my top 5 shows of the year.

So, when I saw that I would be taking in their newest production, that said production would include 3 of the 4 cast members of last year’s “[title of show]”, and that it would be a show by the same creative team as that stellar work from the year before, I was excited.

Now, it seems somewhat unfair to compare one production directly to another, for they are separate pieces of art.  And, there is nowhere within the script or the publicity materials that the two plays should be seen as being directly related.  But, the four characters are the same.  They are clearly the same autobiographical representations of the four people who originated “[title of show]”.  In fact, unlike that first piece, one of the women is even credited as one of the writers of “Now. Here. This.”

I’ll do my best from here on out to write only about the show that I saw this go-’round.  But, know in advance that I will fail at that endeavor.  That is largely because this play is essentially a prequel/sequel of sorts.  This play is the answer to the unasked question of ‘How did the characters in “[title of show]” become who they are?’

The conceit of this show is that Jeff–I’m sorry… Man 1–has gathered his friends to go to the Museum of Natural History with him.  Several vignettes are seen within the confines of the hallowed halls of the museum, which then trigger flashbacks or philosophical examinations of self.  Each of these is accomplished in song.  If I break it down to its most simple, this isn’t a play (as it lacks plot).  It is a song cycle with a relatively flimsy framing device.

Had I never seen last year’s show, I would have been basically just unimpressed with the tale and wondered why I should care about these people in a situation that has nothing at stake.  Instead, because I’d met these characters before and I fell in love with them the first time, I was all the more disappointed.  Clearly, I am meant to care about these people, and I do, but only because I’ve met them in a previous work.  But I care about them in the way that a parent still cares for a child with whom they’ve recently become very disappointed.  I still love them, but I’m not terribly proud of their recent actions.

Now, I must take a moment to point out that I’m talking about the characters within the play in the paragraph above.  The actors did a phenomenal job with the material they were given.

Susan (I’m sorry… Woman 1), played by Neala Barron, has the best scenes and carries the show.  Her contributions to the work are clearly the strongest.  And Barron continues to be one of my favorite voices on the Chicago stage over the past two years.  Matt Frye (Hunter…I mean Man 2) does an admirable turn as the more random of the two men who write musicals together.  And Anna Schutz (Woman 2, who will otherwise be known as Heidi) brings a fun energy to the character of a successful NYC actress.

And director M. William Panek clearly made the most out of what was on the page.  But, the script itself gave no reason to embrace these people in this time and space.  The group putting on the show do a great deal of good work.  They are merely hampered by a script that doesn’t have a driving through line.  They are held back by songs that don’t stick in the memory once the final notes ring out, let alone after you’ve left the building.  Their wings are clipped by a concept that never fully develops.

Sometimes, after a really good story, the reader (or the audience) asks about what happens next.  And sometimes a sequel is written to tell the further tale.  And sometimes the end is left as the end, wherein the reader has to imagine the future for themselves.  Almost universally, when a good story is told, there is no one asking to be told the particulars of what had gone before.

In the final scene, a philosophic pondering results in our receiving the wisdom contained within the title, and we wonder if we had to sit through the rest in order to reach this pearl of existential thought, and if so, why?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This is a prequel nobody ever asked for or wanted.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Promise of a Rose Garden” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Promise_BWBTC_9470-cropShow: The Promise of a Rose Garden

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  City Lit Theater (1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.)

Die Roll: 20

At the outset of Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of Dustin Spence’s “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, a foursome of new recruits stand, ready to be tried by the military’s most notoriously difficult proving ground. Their commanding officers offer little solace, but assure, “The fact that you don’t have a dick between your legs makes you more aerodynamic.” With this, Babes With Blades offers up one of the most unique and thrilling productions I’ve seen in recent years.

In “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, Captain Josephine Rockford (Maureen Yasko) is training a squad of four officers on passing the notoriously brutal US Marine Infantry Officer course. It’s such an unforgiving course that only three women have ever passed it, Rockford herself, her commanding officer, Selmy (Kathrynne Wolf) and a third female officer, whose death casts a long shadow that still divides the two officers. The rookies, however, are indignant at any underestimating party who insinuates that they’d do anything less than pass the course with flying colors. Lieutenant “Sunny” Sharif (Arti Ishak) has defied her Muslim family’s wishes to be there, pragmatic Ruiz (Izis Mollinedo) is hoping to spin her success into a book deal, and whatever you do, don’t cross Nichols (Charlie Baker) a laid-back Southerner who will cold-cock you for looking the wrong way at her candy stash. Newest grunt Ferguson (Sam Long) may be the most gifted Marine among them, but must swear, spit and scrap for her honor from the bottom up.

What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion. Reminders of Captain Rockford’s past failures are so potent to her, they appear as Deciding Angels (Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim) who taunt her from her bleak subconscious and threaten to expose her mania.

Promise_BWBTC_8707The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful; take the Deciding Angels, played nimbly by Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim, who twist themselves into unsettling shapes that add to their nightmarish air. In amazingly rough-hewn turns, Sam Long, Izis Mollinedo and Charlie Baker breathe brute force and sweat into Ferguson, Ruiz and Nichols. The true stand outs of this production, however, are Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.

The air is always alive and tense with radio chatter, bullets, Marine chants or the whispers of the Deciding Angels. Director Elyse Dawson and violence designer Rachel Flesher bring together an artful staging, cobbled from a bullet riddled blast zone, and paint stage images that are beautiful and ambiguous. It’s an incredible gift when you as an audience member are entrusted with puzzle pieces of a scene or a relationship unfolding in front of you, and all the more rewarding when those pieces begin to come together.

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Female, armed and dangerous: Drop and give them 20, maggots.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Weekly Preview: August 10 – August 16 (Chart & Brief Thoughts)

Grab your dice and roll!  Go see a show!!!
Grab your dice and roll! Go see a show!!!

We’re still a couple of weeks away from the really big opening weekends that come with the fall theatre season.  Nevertheless, the chart is full and there are some great shows to see.  The ladies have the week off, so I’m the only one reviewing this week.  It’s clearly still summer vacation.  We’ve got big things coming up, though.

I normally avoid talking about my own projects in depth on this site, but I do want to tease something coming up in just over a month.  The Illinois Theatre Association’s Awards Gala and Membership Meeting on September 17 & 18.  I’m going to periodically post what’s going on with regards to that as it approaches.

That’s pretty much it for this week.  I’ve been (and am still) sick, so I really don’t have the energy to write more right now.

Review: “Newsies” (Broadway in Chicago)

newsies imageShow: Newsies

Company: Broadway in Chicago

Venue:  Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W Randolph St.)

Die Roll: 18

There is a certain chunk of the population that is really into the early 90s Disney movie “Newsies”.  If you were in your formative (read: tween/teen) years during the Clinton administration, you may have a fond spot for this musical.  My wife is part of that generational subset.  I am not.  Nevertheless, though nostalgia isn’t the driving force behind my view of the stage version of “Newsies”, I do find it to be a well-rendered show with high production values.

Most of this show follows the plot of the movie, but if you are unfamiliar with it, I’ll break it down for you quickly.  A greedy businessman charges kids money to sell his papers.  He then raises the amount he charges them to sell his papers.  The kids get angry, get together, and form an impromptu union and go on strike.  They get some press and then they get beat up.  They lose their faith, get it back.  Take bigger action, publish their own paper, and make friends with Teddy Roosevelt.  In the movie, all but one of the significant characters was played by a man or boy.  In the play, two significant characters aren’t male.

The tale is that of charming rapscallion and newspaper vendor, Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) who longs for a better life than being a street urchin.  He’s the leader of the lower Manhattan newsies.  That’s not any sort of official group, the other kids just look up to him.  Most of the boys are down on their luck, and so they sell papers to get survival cash.  When Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (a 10 year-old character played on alternating nights by Turner Birthisel and Ethan Steiner) join the ranks of the paper sellers, the seeds are sown for a mini street rebellion.  But their noble struggle against the capitalist baddies couldn’t be anything of any regard without the interference of an ambitious young reporter (Morgan Keene playing the gender-swapped Bill Pullman role from the film).  The fact that their reporter/savior is a pretty, young woman helps move a second plot along… enter the love story.  Jack falls for Keene’s character Katherine, who just happens to also be the daughter of the man whose paper he’s striking against.  Hilarity ensues.

Well, really, it doesn’t.

The show, while an energetic musical, doesn’t pretend to be a raucous comedy.  Sure, there are points of levity, but also some major tear-jerking moments.  The cast is pretty solid, and the performances carry a serious tone that makes it clear that this is a piece with something to say.  So, what is it trying to say?

As I watched this show, I was never really sucked into it.  A really successful show will make me forget that I’m there to critique the performance.  Instead, I found my mind wandering to the elements that I was seeing on stage.  This play is about the value of unionization.  It’s “The Cradle Will Rock” for the younger set.   It is a piece that points to the ills of a broken system of business and society, that mirrors our own.  And yet, it is a show that is produced by one of the largest corporations in our country.  This is a show that flies in the face of most current theatrical trends.  The cast is huge, even with plentiful doubling of the smaller roles.  There are almost no women in the show, and (relevant to current conversations in the Chicago market) has very few minority cast members. The product is a white bread sausage-fest that still attempts to appeal to the classic liberal underdog mentality of a need for social justice.  Would I have noticed this if the show was more engaging?  Probably, but I also would’ve made a couple of snarky comments about it and addressed the thoughts more privately.  Instead, the inconsistencies within the show itself allowed me to ponder the ones that are there within the production as well.

Basically, this is a cultural anomaly that I can’t really wrap my head around.  It’s a well produced show, but not really a great show.  The dancing is generally good, although not all of the dancers have the skills to pull of the choreography.  The two black members of the cast are two of the most memorable: Aisha De Haas makes the stage her own as Medda Larkin, and every dance number in the show seems to be a showcase for Jordan Samuels’ gymnastics abilities.

I really wanted this to be a stellar show.  The movie came out during my Freshman year in college.  It never really resonated with me, but I was thrilled that someone had made a movie musical at the time.  Sadly, this isn’t the musical that I was looking for then.  It still isn’t.  In the day and age of “Hamilton”, this isn’t rising to a higher level.  And in a market currently dealing with all sorts of internal conflict over race and gender in casting, this isn’t a play for the people within the theatre community itself.  In truth it is for the suburban 30-somethings who are now raising children of their own and who would like to capture a little of the magic of their own young adulthood.  There were some teens and a few 30-somethings in what amounted to “Newsies” cosplay in the audience on opening night.

I guess, my main hope is that the audience may have gleaned a bit of the progressive (if anachronistic) message of the tale.  Sometimes disguising an important message in a remarkably safe package can plant seeds for later growth.  Perhaps this play will get some safely comfortable consumers of nostalgia to look at the issues the play brings up.  But, I doubt it will come to that.  In the meantime, the lines are really long for the CDs and souvenir ornaments in the lobby.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Perfect for its target audience. 90s kids should be pleased.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Weekly Preview: August 3 – August 9, 2016

Twenty shows that are listed in no particular order and numbered 1 - 20!
Twenty shows that are listed in no particular order and numbered 1 – 20!

You may have noticed that is has been many weeks since we have had a preview article here on “Theatre By Numbers”.  That’s largely because I (Chris) took most o the summer off.  My daughter was in town, and that prompted me to take in minor league baseball games rather than plays.  So, most of the summer’s writing has been done by Maggie and Sarah.  Anyway… you’ll see some changes happening over the next few weeks on this site.  The first few take effect today.  We’re back to doing a weekly preview article.  It will still include the week’s chart so you can roll along at home and see some wonderfully random theatre.

It will also be written by all of us.  Not all at once, mind you.  We’ll take turns shedding light on upcoming theatre projects that have captured our interest and our imaginations.  So, this week you get my thoughts, next week you’ll hear from someone else, or perhaps multiple folks.  We might tag-team.  You never know.

Also, we’ll be overhauling the site.  I noticed a while ago that all the side articles and explanations are now out of date.  So, watch to see the new look and new verbiage in the near future.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the two projects that I want to preview this week:

Zealous Whig (Pursuit Productions & Fratellanza Theater Company):  8/5 – 8/7

for_colin_unedited-100 (1)A couple of weeks ago, people sat in line for hours upon hours to get tickets to a huge Broadway production about some of our country’s founding fathers.  Here’s your chance to see an intimate production about one of the lesser known, but nevertheless important political players of the day.

You may remember that the French had their hand in the war between the Colonies and England.  You may also remember that the Hessian troops that fought on the side of the Redcoats were from Germany.  What you probably don’t remember is the name of a guy who was besties with Thomas Jefferson, and who provided much of the firepower that made the armed part of the Colonies’ armed insurrection possible.  That man was Filippo Mazzei, an Italian doctor who had a passion for gardening and politics.

Paul Manganello writes and performs the energetic one-man show that focuses on the “black-sheep founding father”.  Not unlike Jefferson’s own attempts to be a remarkably well-rounded Renaissance man, this promises to be “funny, poetic, kinetic, subversive, fictional, and completely true”.

The show can only be seen this weekend.  There are four performances at Collaboraction (1579 N Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Floor).  Check out www.pursuitchicago.com for more information.

A Fun Night of Dance (Off the Ground Dance Studio & StarKid Producitons): 8/5

funnightofdanceA few weeks ago I reviewed “Firebringer” by StarKid Productions.  That show wraps up this weekend, so if you want to catch it, you should swing by Stage 773 and try to get one of their very scarce tickets.  And, if you go on the 5th, you should then loiter about a bit and hang around to take in part of StarKid’s Summer Season Late-Nights.  Really, what could be more fun than “A Fun Night of Dance”?  I mean, it’s right there in the title of the event.  It’s going to be fun!  And… it’s one more way to see the ladies of StarKid in action again.  The show is at 10:30 p.m.  And when it comes down to it, anything produced and endorsed by the folks at StarKid gets my vote, too.  Check it out!

Review: “DOUGLASS” (the american vicarious)

De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Show: “DOUGLASS”

Company: the american vicarious

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

Early on in the american vicarious’ “DOUGLASS,” one white abolitionist admonishes another: fine speeches about the illogical nature of slavery are well and good, but what about the lack of sentiment involved in such diatribes? More citizens would be won over to the anti-slavery movement if their hearts were engaged, as well as their heads. Has her friend, by chance, read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” He dismisses the popular novel (and eventual stage play) as melodramatic claptrap, but agrees that a man of color must speak to the experience of slavery, in order to horrify audiences into action. That man is Frederick Douglass.

Now revered for his amazing mind and oratorical skill, world premiere “DOUGLASS” focuses on Frederick (an excellent De’Lon Grant) at the start of his journey in the 1840’s. After reading William Lloyd Garrison’s (Mark Ulrich) uncompromising anti-slavery words in The Liberator, Douglass becomes convinced that he, too, can help the cause, by starting and sustaining the first newspaper run by an African American man in Boston. But wealthy abolitionist Miss West (Carrie Lee Patterson) and Garrison hold back financing for Douglass’ paper in order to motivate him to speak about his experiences as a former slave. The more time Douglass spends making speeches on behalf of others, the more he begins to wonder if he is merely a puppet for the abolitionist movement, rather than one of its leaders. As Douglass’ views on compromise and the Constitution change, Garrison’s become more unyielding, and the two men head towards an ideological conflict.

Mark Ulrich and De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
Mark Ulrich and De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Which sounds like dry viewing, I am sure, given that oratory and publishing are the major dramatic concerns here. But playwright Thomas Klingenstein never misses an opportunity to highlight how Douglass’ development is hindered by the society he lives in. This is the story of a man hampered by the large ideals and small crimes of others. We watch Douglass as he builds support and debates whether or not he is too ambitious or too compromising for white abolitionists. The debates between Douglass and Garrison touch on matters as continually contemporary as the perception of black skin and the organization and silencing of black voices. And the differences cut to the bone, as Garrison uses increasingly personal attacks to win Douglass back to his way of thinking.

Director Christopher McElroen stages a spare production, with the actors shaping the action and time on set designer William Boles’ splintering wooden platform. Grant is an imposing figure, always in charge of any room he enters, and his command breaks only in his speeches about the slave experience. Ulrich ping-pongs around the stage, his fiery demands gathering strength with each affront (though he seemed to struggle with his lines at moments in the first act). Patterson represents a calming influence, as does the unpretentious Kristin Ellis, who plays Anna, Douglass’ wife. Ellis has the difficult job of acting as a naysayer to her husband, and while the script does not flesh out the dynamics of their marriage, Ellis makes them clear simply in the way she moves around her home. Likewise, Kenn E. Head as Delany, a Back-to-Africa proponent, provides a sounding board for Douglass when he is surrounded by white voices, and his sardonic nature suits the character.

De'Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.

“DOUGLASS” is touted as a multimedia production by the american vicarious. Projection designer Liviu Pasare paints the back wall of the space with portraits of Douglass and Garrison, as each addresses the public. In the second act, their faces are covered with hashtags and at signs, possibly calling to mind the Black Lives Matter movement and its Twitter presence. The flourishes are distracting, as the script easily connects Douglass’ concerns about power and justice to those we harbor today. More off-putting is Sarah Espinoza’s sound design. The transition music between scenes is well-chosen, ranging from hip-hop to hymnals, but the sound levels were ear-splitting in the production’s intimate Theater Wit space. The music took me out of the performance, rather than drawing me deeper in.

Early in the play, Douglass abandons discussion of his life as a slave for philosophical statements about whether African American men and women can be considered full citizens of the United States. Garrison finds his switch as distasteful as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The irony, of course, is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was melodrama meant to enlighten white audiences, just as Douglass’ tortured descriptions were. “DOUGLASS” posits that Frederick’s power to disrupt and compromise came from his insistence on speaking to men and women of color, as well as whites. Thus, the real engagement comes not from sentiment, but from speaking one’s truth, especially if those around you are not ready.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: History comes alive in well-written debate over slavery.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Eclipse Theatre Company)

Our-Lady-12Show: Our Lady of 121st Street

Company: Eclipse Theatre Company

Venue:  Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N. Southport Ave.)

Die Roll: 2

 

Open the chapel doors on Eclipse Theatre’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2003 play “Our Lady of 121st Street”, and you’ll encounter all the makings of a curbside memorial for an icon: saint candles, photos, toys and trinkets stuffed into every crevice. Director Sarah Moeller has created a gorgeous landscape and assembled a winning cast that fill in nearly all the blanks left by the author in this love story to Catholic Harlem.

A funeral is taking place for Sister Rose, once a mainstay in the lives of a generation of Catholic schoolchildren, now missing from her casket. Balthasar (Todd Garcia), a cop and former student, leads the investigation into the missing body as far-flung and close-knit mourners reunite. Flip (Gregory Geffrard), living a new life with Gail (Matt Thinnes), has his feet planted firmly in the closet, and insists on masculine bravado with his old friends, despite Gail and others providing him room to be open about his sexuality. Edwin (Anthony Apodaca) struggles alone to care for his mentally disabled younger brother Pinky (Rudy Galvan), that is until her meets Marcia (Kristen Johnson), who could be a kindred spirit or a another unstable dependent. Inez (Celeste M. Cooper) and Norca (Paloma Nozicka) are gorgeous women, aging out of sexpot status, and determining how much they really want to cling to pride and vindictiveness for indiscretions they’ve visited upon each other. Rooftop (Bernard Gilbert) is the neighborhood success story, but wracked with guilt for the trouble he’s caused and the people he’s wronged. He seeks absolution form Father Lux (Gary Simmers), a war veteran priest whose own faith has dwindled to nothing.

Our-Lady-13If that sounds like a lot of characters to follow, it is. If it also sounds like a lot of stories to resolve in a little more than 2 hours, it is, but author Stephen Adly Guirgis isn’t too concerned with how everyone makes it out of this Harlem funeral. Some exchanges feel like social experiments (“I wonder what a well-to-do white woman, working class Latino man and a gay Wisconsin actor would say to each other if they had to share a restaurant table?”), other exchanges can feel like thin platforms for characters with pent up emotions, in need of a monologue audience, I mean, uh… confessional booth. But despite some problems with the framework, these are important stories and viewpoints with a ridiculously talented cast to deliver them.

Among the characters we get to see go through turmoil and change, Bernard Gilbert stands out as Rooftop, a sweet-talking braggart who can talk circles around the heart of a problem before being forced into a landing pattern. Gary Simmers is his perfect counterpart as Father Lux, who is thwarted at every turn from getting Rooftop’s confession, but develops an obsession that triggers his log dormant compassion. Celeste M. Cooper as Inez and Gregory Geffrard as Flip are fantastic as two people who rarely intersect, but who are both greatly invested in keeping others in the dark about their deep wells of pain and fear. Finally, as Balthasar, Todd Garcia serves not only as a solid cable between intertwined stories, but as a reluctant authority and weary expert in the horrors that Harlem can visit upon unsuspecting people. He is both the reminder and relief from the cold fact that somewhere, something nefarious is happening to what remains of Sister Rose.

Director Sarah Moeller has assembled a powerhouse cast and design team for a beautifully gritty rendition of “Our Lady of 121st Street”.  Scenic Designer Kevin Hagen is particular has created a truly original space that encompasses run down churches, dingy dive bars, and graffiti covered back alleys in a single amorphous spot. A pair of red sneakers you might find slung on telephone wire are dangled instead from church rafters. It is disturbing, it is unsavory, but it is also holy, and for nearly everyone onstage, it is home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: There’s holiness in Harlem, but also large quantities of exposition.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Dating & Dragons” (The Factory Theater)

Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.

Show: “Dating & Dragons”

Company: The Factory Theater

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard)

Die Roll: 16

Games, whether you’re talking about Monopoly, Risk, Magic, or Dungeons & Dragons, are governed by rules. Players can make prescribed choices at specific junctures while playing. Despite the comfort such routine may bring, games are also governed by chance. More often than not, a player rolls a many-sided die to determine his or her fate. And they have no control over what which way the roll lands.

This is a truth that Jack (Nick Freed) struggles with in The Factory Theater’s “Dating & Dragons,” currently running at the company’s new Howard space. Jack is a dungeon master for his group of friends; he controls the high fantasy adventures and card games they play multiple times a week. Gus (Josh Zagoren) takes the rules and routines of each game most seriously, clearly finding real life a boring slog. Paige (Savanna Rae) enjoys the multitude of choices that come along after she rolls the die. But Jack’s best friend Sean (Joe Faifer) is happy to interrupt their gaming sessions to discuss the girl Jack has been flirting with at work. Her name is Diane (Rebecca Wolfe), and Jack’s evolving relationship with her sparks what little conflict exists in “Dating & Dragons.” Jack thinks he can see where the romance is headed, but sadly, people are not predicated by game dice.

Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.
Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.

Playwright Mike Ooi pays a lot of lip service to the idea of rules throughout his script. However, Jack’s dedication to consistent game play is not what gets in the way of his connection with Diane. So the many sequences in which Jack or various other characters explain the games they are playing — often named by generic terms as an in-joke for the characters and as a safety measure for Factory itself — waste valuable stage time that could be spent developing dramatic stakes for Jack and Diane. The audience does not need to know how to play the games these characters enjoy, unless those rules impact the real world they live in, and much to Gus’ pleasure, they really don’t. Some characters voice concern that Jack will be taken away from their meetings by his new-found love, but we never see the consequence of lost gaming time. Ooi’s enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and video games is baked into the quips the group trades in each playing scene. But there isn’t a shred of connection between Jack’s love life and his friendships or their recreational pursuits, so I’m hard-pressed to call “Dating & Dragons” a play, when there’s little story to involve myself in.

Diane is another conundrum in the script. Wolfe gives her a lot of charm, but we learn little about her wants and needs, given how solely we live in Jack’s world. The most we see in her is what Jack sees: that Diane is pretty, is willing to hang with his nerdy friends, and wants to sleep with him. Ooi brings up the fact that Diane has her own wants and needs a few times, but by the time we find out what she desires, she’s too much of a cypher to invest in Jack’s heartbreak. For a play that is attempting not judge nerdier activities, Ooi inadvertently creates a world where women have little say, and are around mostly to be saved by the hero — Jack, in this case.

Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.

Director Scott Oken keeps things lively by having separate actors act as avatars embodying the games the group plays. And while the actors are having a blast mimicking the self-serious tropes of “Game of Thrones,” as well as the halting mechanics of video game graphics, the theatrical device grows stale over time. Do we really need avatars showing the audience giant cards that Jack and his friends are throwing? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch the game and imagine the adventure in one’s head? A late attempt by an avatar to take on Jack’s role broke the formula, but I remain unsure what purpose this moment served in the story.

Kaitlyn Grissom’s set admirably captures Jack’s toy-filled apartment and workplace, though the transitions between the two eat up stage time that could be used by the avatars or the gamers themselves. Sarah Espinosa’s sound design, especially the pre-show, captures the feeling of a good mix tape, with some Nintendo soundtracks thrown in. While costume designer Gary Nocco doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, he makes do with clever nods to each game played, making for enjoyable visuals.

Chance is a part of love, as much as it’s a part of any game (whether or not the players realize it). While the creators of “Dating & Dragons” clearly love their games and all forms of gaming, injecting a bit more chance into their plot may have given this play a greater sense of risk, and helped me fall in love with the production.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A story about gamers is less story and more games.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions)

Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

Show: Firebringer

Company: StarKid Productions

Venue: Stage 773

Die Roll: 4

The experience of a StarKid show starts in the lobby.  The place isn’t decorated, or thematically connected to the show.  It’s not immersive in that way.  However, because of the energy that permeates the place from about an hour prior to curtain, it’s worth showing up a bit early.  My daughter and I arrived for the show 50 minutes prior to curtain and there was already a line fifteen to twenty people deep.  That line wasn’t at the theatre door.  These were folks who already had their tickets and who were now eagerly, if not aggressively waiting to purchase tank tops and other swag from the StarKid productions kiosk in the lobby of Stage 773.  Now in their 7th successful year of combining live theatre with YouTube stardom, the company has throngs of fans between the ages of 15 and 25.  When I told my daughter (who usually resides in Minnesota) which show we would be attending this week, she filled me in on the history of the company and made me watch a few segments of their first Harry Potter-themed hit online.  So, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the audience is young and excited.  And, while youth can never really be recaptured, their exuberance was easily caught.

So it was that I went into the Proscenium stage ready for something big.  And, what I expected, I received.  “Firebringer” is a rock musical about a tribe of cave people comprised largely of individuals who seem most likely to be left far behind in the race for survival.  None of them seem to be the “fittest”, to be sure.  But all that changes when one of their own discovers fire and rocks the then-known world to its core.

Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The show is narrated by a past leader of the tribe, Molag (Lauren Walker), a staff-toting combination of Rafiki (“The Lion King”) and Slappy the Squirrel (“Animaniacs”).  It is her snarky wisecracks and blunt insults which set the tone for the show.  Walker’s energy and comedic chops help create the world of the play instantly.  Her self-aware presentation allows for a brilliant combination of story-telling and social commentary.  From her first time addressing the audience as “privileged fucks”, you know she’s not going to pull any punches.

Molag’s replacement as leader of the cave people is Jemilla (played by the charismatic Meredith Stepien, who also co-wrote the show’s music). Jemilla is known as “The Peacemaker” and rules an orderly society.  Not everyone is happy, though.  Zazzalil (Lauren Lopez) strives to do more in order to do less.  She is motivated to accomplish big things so that eventually all people can be lazy.  She somehow lucks into finding fire, and defeating a prehistoric monster, which leads to her assent to the role of chief in the tribe.

All of that happens before the intermission.  It’s a fast-moving, tightly scripted piece, and the energy is electric.  The script itself is a bit campy and far too dependent on the shock humor of hearing people say “fuck” a lot.  But, the production quality is really high.  And the dancing and singing are top notch for a storefront production.  Only one song has the familiar sound of a piece searching for the right notes like so many local (and mostly improvised) musicals do.  The rest have solid melodies, harmonies, and even clever rhyme schemes.  The set was simple, but effective.  The band was great, if a little too loud at times.  Russ Walko’s puppets are impressive works of art, and Yonit Olshan’s shadow puppets create a suspenseful sequence in the middle of the show.

Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, and it has a lot of parts.  The action flits around from scene to scene, and yet the audience follows along well.  It all seems geared for the quick edit style of those raised on modern television.  One scene takes place in the wilderness, the next at an impromptu open mic night, then it’s back to the cave for a duck-worshiping ceremony.  It’s all a bit ridiculous, which makes it all the more fun.

For a group that normally lampoons major works of pop culture, it is cool to see them do something wholly original.  The cast gets it completely right, and the audience leaves one hundred percent enamored with the show.  The high energy that entered the theater two hours earlier, leaves still energized and positive.  And still wanting more of the company’s swag.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Smart snark and pop rock sent from the stone age.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”