Review: “Private Eyes” (Piccolo Theatre)

Kurt Proepper, Megan DeLay, and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

Show: “Private Eyes”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 8

“Lie to everyone but me,” says a husband to his wife.

This line of dialogue from Steven Dietz’s “Private Eyes” has always stood out to me. It has been stuck in my mind since first seeing the play during my undergraduate education, when I could hardly be expected to understand what it meant. But I sensed a delicious irony in the line. In a relationship, truth is often held up as the highest virtue. So what does it mean when your lies are accepted, as long as they belong to others? Piccolo Theatre, dedicated to making audiences laugh, attempts to address such thorny issues of intimacy and illusion in their current production of Dietz’s script. While the end product is tonally inconsistent, the dizziness of Dietz’s script means the characters’ desires and doubts linger.

Matthew (Kurt Proepper) and Lisa (Megan DeLay) are married actors cast in the same play. Adrian (Edward Fraim) is their pompous director. Adrian and Lisa are having an affair that Matthew knows about, though he refuses to confront the pair. That is the play’s predicament in two sentences, and it lacks color when laid out so bluntly. In reality, the audience watches this conflict unfold as a play within a play within a play within Matthew’s mind. Each scene eventually reveals itself to be a performance or possibly a figment of our protagonist’s imagination, where nothing is certain for the characters or the audience.

A large part of why this play can be so thrilling comes from Dietz’s ability to turn one scenario into another with a snap of the fingers or an appearance by the mysterious Frank (David W.M. Kelch). Rehearsals become closed door conversations. Revenge fantasies become mundane lunch hours. The appearance of an actual private eye (Shantelle Szyper) is not even worth batting an eye at; she may have a license to kill, but for Matthew, she only represents the possibility of being wanted by a stranger — the same way his wife is wanted by another.

Shantelle Szyper and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

In order to follow these men and women through all their theatrical twists and turns, you need sharp, bold direction. While Michael D. Graham excels at comedic character bits, such as the anal retentive addition of dressing to a salad, the transition between fiction and reality is so slippery that at times the emotional arcs can become hard to follow. Similarly, I was unsure what to make of the characters’ squared off entrances and exits, mirroring the squares of the set design (by Milo Bue and Lee Moore, based on abstract art). Were they following set patterns, only to bust out of them later? I could not put the pieces together, as I never noticed a change.

While the actors are all solid as people who want more than others can give or communicate, I found myself craving more gravity from the production. There are elements of danger here, and the destructive impulses all four characters share should not be turned into the same type of meta-theatrical joke Dietz favors in the rehearsal scenes. Real relationships are at stake here, and only one of them is feverish and new. The others involve years of knowledge being put in jeopardy, and I never got the sense that all of Matthew and Lisa’s philosophizing grew from feeling stuck in their same routines. Either Graham needed to guide his performers to make broader choices, or subtler ones. They land between wacky and tortured, and at odd times. In order for their discoveries to matter to the audience, the revelations need to be clear to the actors, and as of now, the emotional life is drained for some scenes in the middle of the play.

Dietz has called this work a “comedy of suspicion,” and that is apt. The story is steeped in deceit, and it is impossible to apply logic to Matthew’s unraveling spool of evidence. Truth is impossible, Dietz seems to be telling us, and so our promises to one another should take that into account.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Inconsistent storytelling hamper choosing whether play is fact or fiction.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “Transit of Venus” (Saint Sebastian Players)

Heather Smith and Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams/Photo: Saint Sebastian Players.

Show: “Transit of Venus”

Company: Saint Sebastian Players

Venue: St. Bonaventure (1625 W Diversey Pkwy)

Die Roll: 6

The human heart is as mysterious as the heavens in “Transit of Venus,” a drama that showcases how obsession and ambition can eternally stall one’s life. Based on the true story of Guillaume Le Gentil’s tracking of Venus, Maureen Hunter’s play, currently in production by the Saint Sebastian Players, follows everyday patterns as well as celestial ones. And while this current incarnation of the story showcases one excellent performance and a keen sense of wit, the dividends do not make up for the script’s repeated beats and predictable conclusion.

Le Gentil (Jake Baker) plans to serve God by assisting the French government in measuring the distance from the Earth to the sun. In order to accomplish this, he must chart the transit of the planet Venus, and in the 1760s, one can only do that on a sailing journey. As his assistant Desmarais (Leo LaCamera) packs for the voyage, Le Gentil must say goodbye to his mother (Maggie Speer), break off an affair with housemaid Margot (Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams), and declare his love for her daughter Celeste (Heather Smith). As Celeste predicts, danger arises on his journey, and Le Gentil is kept from home and a promise of marriage repeatedly while tracking Venus.

Hunter’s script runs three acts, and that is too long for pretty much any drama written after 1965. (Her script hails from 1992.) The three most important scenes of the play involve Le Gentil and Celeste, and their ongoing debate about whether his dreams are destructive to their future. One could string those sequences together to build a fine, time-jumping one-act. But I must take the play on its own merits, rather than imposing my structural instincts on the work. That said, I have to admit that where we land at the end of the play is set up so clearly by the end of the first act, there is little dramatic tension in watching events unfold. Hunter gifts her characters fiery spirits and sharp tongues (particularly in the cases of Smith and Speer), but their arguments about who gets to leave the country when struggle to connect to present-day questions of inequality and opportunity. Thus, the play feels older than its 1992 publishing date, and has less to offer the audience than it promises.

Smith as Celeste represents the production’s beating heart. When we first glimpse her, she throws herself about a drawing room, moping in all her teenage glory over her loved one’s departure. As each act progresses, and Celeste ages, so does Smith’s physical and emotional life. By the time we hit act three, she has matured beyond Le Gentil’s understanding, and her command of the same drawing room she flounced about before is telling. Smith knows that Celeste is the one most affected by Le Gentil’s projects, and she embodies the weight of her love well across the play.

Director Kaitlin Taylor is smart to let her actors perform the play in contemporary style. The dialogue is semi-heightened, and the costume and set design could lead to broader presentational performances. Taylor always grounds the actors in the emotional turmoil of each scene, but she diminishes the play’s impact by staging two of its most important scenes far upstage in an observatory setting. Far from the audience, Smith and Baker’s expressions are hard to read, as they wrestle with their relationship to one another. The quiet moments they share are also hard to hear, so it becomes difficult to care about their romance later on.

“Transit of Venus” asks some elementary questions about how we value those we love in relationship to our chosen purpose. Though the play does not surprise, it does embrace the uncertainty of romance, and draw the audience into asking larger questions — even when the answers are not satisfying. That seems somehow appropriate, since Le Gentil and Celeste end up so unsatisfied themselves.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Astronomer seeks uncomplaining wife, but gets an independent woman instead.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Squeeze My Cans” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Cathy Schenkelberg/Photo by: Greenhouse Theater Center.

Show: “Squeeze My Cans”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Roger Ebert once wrote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But that statement applies to any narrative form of storytelling, really. In fact, that quote came instantly to mind while watching “Squeeze My Cans,” a solo piece written and performed by Cathy Schenkelberg. In this one-woman show, Schenkelberg details her journey into and out of Scientology, and if you know even a little bit about the cult’s obsession with aliens and its notorious financial filchings, no new information is provided here. What does enchant is Schenkelberg’s rip-roaring performance, which engages the audience with heart, humor, and a little naiveté. So while the play itself does not break any new ground, its star provides a breath of fresh air concerning an old topic.

Taking us from an idyllic childhood to a teenage loss, and a twenty-something search for meaning, Schenkelberg gives the audience plenty of time to warm to her company. A working voice-over actor, she is recruited into Scientology by an older, successful mentor. Cathy dreams of being as put-together and unshakeable as the glamorous movie stars she meets via the many seminars she attends regarding the cult. While she searches for complete control over the way the world perceives her, she also longs for a deeper spiritual meaning. As her debt racks up, she nears a nervous breakdown, and must decide whether it is better to stay in the cult she has known for twenty years, or escape and rebuild her life in a society she has shunned.

The most engaging element of this performance is Schenkelberg herself. She has mined her life as a Scientologist for hilarity, recounting an audition to date Tom Cruise with the same verve as she describes an awkward interview where she must tell a fifteen year-old fellow member about her sex life. Our heroine throws herself into the performance with gusto, moving from memory to memory — and dead-faced interrogator to dead-faced interrogator — with little room for breath. She simulates her whirlwind romance with Scientology at such a quick pace, the audience understands how she ignored the hundreds of thousands of dollars she gave away without much thought. As she reaches new heights in the organization, she never underplays the ridiculous discoveries she makes at every level. She knows now that she was suckered, and we root for her to find a way off this ridiculous ride.

Though the play is largely built on Schenkelberg’s body, as she ages from being six to middle-aged, some nifty tricks show the passage of time. Her racked up debt is displayed on a projection screen as she rises through the Scientology ranks, and the ever-increasing numbers she ignores almost caused panic in this audience member. Other projections showcase her fondest memory, fishing with her father. These quiet moments are far and few between, so they stand out for the viewer.

One does wish that Schenkelberg had slowed down enough to deliver the more emotionally charged revelations. Her near nervous breakdown, brought on by excruciating self-analysis required by Scientology, is harrowing. But reveals involving the manipulation of her daughter do not land as heavily as they might, given that little in the script involves her family. She does reconnect with her father at one point, and learn a greater lesson about the universe and our purpose within it. But we do not see the journeys to these particular moments. We land at a healthier destination after the umpteenth reenactment of a Scientology seminar, and while those interrogations are chilling, they involve more reaction from her than dramatic tension over her choices. I would love to have spent more time with her decision to leave Scientology, in order to truly understand how painful the process would become.

But it is fortunate that Schenkelberg escaped, and it is fortunate that she found the will and humor to turn her experience into theatre. While no new discoveries will be made about the horrible nature of Scientology within this work, Schenkelberg puts a warm, human face on the difficulty of belief.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Woman rejects Scientology, and she lives to tell the tale.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Scottsboro Boy” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys”/Photo by: Kesley Jorissen.

Show: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

At its most basic level, live performance of any story is a lie. Actors pretend as if they exist in a certain time and place, and expect us to buy in to their perceptions and expectations. Any scripted story is a manipulation; the audience is asked to imagine that the events unfolding before them have never happened before, that the outcome is not already planned, that the themes of the narrative are not super-imposed on us by the playwright.

John Kander and Fred Ebb play with suspension of disbelief in all their musicals, but in “The Scottsboro Boys,” they may have reached the outer limits of performance as a lie. In recounting the tragic history of nine young men falsely accused of rape, the authors ask the audience to endure a minstrel show in order to get at the truth of the story. Which is a misdirection. Because minstrelsy was nothing but a cultural lie, a performance of racist stereotypes and hoary jokes (often completed by white actors in blackface) that extravagantly claimed plantation life was fine and dandy, and that African American men and women did not suffer and likely even enjoyed slavery. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the crucial tension between that myth and what these falsely convicted men endured does not quite reach thematic coherence. But the production does offer excellent performances and several cutting images, alongside a real-life miscarriage of justice that speaks to contemporary problems in the justice system.

Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, and Mark J. Hood/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Of the nine men, Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) receives the most attention from book writer David Thompson. He is arrested with eight other rail-riders, after being accused of molesting two white women, each played by one of the Scottsboro boys. He insists on his innocence, as racist jailers and incompetent lawyers sink their chances at a fair trial. He develops a mentoring relationship with his youngest cellmate Eugene (Cameron Goode), and he encourages his fellow men to stand up for their rights. As the Scottsboro Boys endure appeal after appeal, the Interlocutor (Larry Yando), along with Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood), orchestrate their interactions with the outside world, calling on them to sing and dance to minstrel tunes throughout.

Because the men are telling this story from beyond the grave, they cannot alter its trajectory, particularly under the influence of the white Interlocutor. Kander and Ebb musicals often treat the act of performance as a shambling, dead-eyed, ghoulish affair, and while director Samuel Roberson, Jr. aims to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible with the moments of minstrelsy, the robotic performance of his actors only chills about fifty percent of the time. I am unsure why this is so, as the music commands plastered on smiles and herky-jerky, dehumanizing gestures, all aptly performed by the actors. When it comes down to it, I wonder if the minstrel performances should not have been pushed even farther, into flamboyant grotesquerie, as is often done with the Emcee character in “Cabaret.” If we are physically frightened by the racist caricature, we can better understand how the men are commanded to act in order to make headway in court.

James Earl Jones II/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Jones as Haywood shines as the voice of righteous fury in “The Scottsboro Boys.” His early testimony number, “Nothin’,” provides both the requisite politeness required of him in court, but is performed with enough of a sneer that the audience is in on the injustice. Goode has a clear voice packed with innocence that makes his nightmares about the electric chair all the more horrifying. Tsopang and Hood have thankless roles as the Interlocutor’s collaborators, but neither shies away from their terrible jokes or terrible actions as several side characters. Likewise, Trequon Tate and Jos N. Banks as the lying white women excel at selfish, stardom-seeking behavior.

Andrei Onegin’s scenic design resembles a train car and a gallows, and it serves the small Stage 773 space well. Samantha Jones’ costume design evokes the 1930’s period while also commenting on the sameness of the men’s dress once they are imprisoned. Lighting designer Richard Norwood paints the stage in lurid and stark colors, depending on the monstrosity of the minstrel performance on display. The more horrifying aspects of the play are definitely elevated by the design elements, even if the production as a whole could have gone farther and shown how lies dehumanize and destroy us all.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The Scottsboro Boys speak truth, but show business demands lies.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Wolf at the End of the Block” (Teatro Vista)

Gabe Ruíz and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo by: Joel Maisonet.

Show: “The Wolf at the End of the Block”

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Abe likes to run. He tells us as much when he first appears onstage. It’s difficult to focus on what he’s saying, though, since his lower lip is split open, blood runs down his temple, and his knuckles are purple with bruises. In Teatro Vista’s “The Wolf at the End of the Block,” a world premiere by Ike Holter, what people say and how they look are often at odds.

Abe (Gabe Ruíz) is not a reliable sort. His sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) wishes he paid the rent on time, and his boss cum best friend Nunley (Bear Bellinger) spouts empty threatens about firing him for tardiness and potentially stealing from his store’s safe. But when Abe admits that his pain is the result of a hate crime, both members of his support system motivate him to stand his ground and speak. Nunley interrogates a man (James D. Farrugio) who may or may not know what happened to Abe, while Miranda enlists investigative reporter Frida (Sandra Márquez), a crusading Oprah type who demands Abe be unimpeachable before she report his story and calls for justice. As information from the attack comes to light, however, Abe’s reliability as a storyteller is called into question, and his motives become murky. Is he unimpeachable? Did events unfold as he said they did? Is he ready to stand in as a symbol for all victims, or would he rather run from another fight?

Holter is a powerful writer, and he plays expertly with perception and the parsing of language in this script. He excels at bombing the audience with a discovery mid-scene, altering the trajectory of personal relationships and often entirely changing what an ongoing conversation between characters had previously meant. His Chicagoans speak with verve and poetry, and it is no wonder his plays have been greeted with acclaim both here and in New York City. But because so much of this play’s structure hangs on what happened before the lights rise, characters remain flat for much of the eighty minute runtime. Their perceptions may change, but their points of view alter with insufficient onstage evidence. I speak particularly of Miranda, who claims to love the fuck out of her brother, but is given little direction in investigating his attack. The exploration of Abe’s psyche also suffers, with his revelations about the night in question creating holes in logic that other characters fail to adequately address. Yet when Holter gives a scene more breathing room, decisions build organically, and the sense of danger in the air is palpable once perceptions shift. This is true of the play’s best scene, in which Nunley encounters a stranger, and learns how he’d react in a crisis.

Director Ricardo Gutiérrez is a strong fit for this script. His actors never remain in the same place for long, bounding across the stage, shouting over and sizing up their targets. Each relationship feels lived in, even if the script doesn’t flesh out every motivation. Ruíz and Bellinger tower over one another, depending on who needs validation most. Farrugio moves from being friendly to being menacing with only two steps towards Bellinger. Muñóz is the most nervous of the bunch, hugging corners and observing how her brother’s mental state deteriorates with each interrogation of his actions. Márquez provides a nice contrast as a no-nonsense woman who barely has to wave a finger in order to command others to pay her the proper attention.

But these poses are fronts, and Gutiérrez emphasizes that fact in quieter moments. When his actors are alone, they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves; they fidget, they look around, they crumple in pain. They are freed from performing, but they don’t know how to be comfortable in their own skin. The world gives them little reason to feel easy.

Perhaps that is why Abe enjoys running so much. If he’s running, he has a destination, someplace else to go. But if he stands still, and confronts what’s happened to him, and what he’s done, he feels unsafe. Alone. Disconnected. If he’s always moving, he’ll never have to deal with the consequences. And he can tell us whatever he thinks we want to hear, whatever it takes to keep us from noticing the blood.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: One must choose to fight or run in this thriller.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Weekly Preview: 2/8 – 2/14 (Chart and Musings)

What on Earth?!  We’re finally back with weekly previews?!  Yes.  It is true.  Finally, after a few months away, you can join us in rolling your dice on the chart to determine the show you’re going to attend this weekend.  We’ve got two shows on our docket.  Exciting stuff!  As you look over the chart to the right, you’ll notice a number of terrific pieces opening this weekend, and a few on there that are just in their second week.  Should be a lot of fun!

For Something Completely Different:

If you’re thinking you’d rather not go all random, and put your fate in the luck of a roll.  Then, perhaps you’d prefer to take in a surefire laugher… Here’s a show that isn’t listed on our charts because it doesn’t have quite enough performances to meet our minimums for inclusion, but it’s one that is close to our hearts here at Theatre By Numbers: “Hot Buns & Beefcakes: Linda Belcher’s Love Connection” is playing at The Playground Theater every Saturday in February.  For those familiar with “Bob’s Burgers”, you’ll note that the show is named for one of the TV cartoon’s characters.  For those of you not familiar, well, why aren’t you?!  C’mon!  So, we seldom get to see one of our own on the stage (we’re writers, after all)– but in the instance of this show, Theatre By Numbers regular contributor Maggie Wagner is starring in the production.  Click here for more info, and Click here for tickets.

Do You Have A Critical Eye?

We are looking for at least one critic (most likely, two) to join our ranks here at Theatre By Numbers.  We’re expanding our coverage, but in order to do so, we need another pen or two to join up and help us tell the world about the awesome theatre scene here in Chicago.  If you’re interested, please send a couple of writing samples to cokidder@theatre1234.com along with a blurb about you and why you’d make a good theatre reviewer.  We’d love to read your stuff and help to ensure that other people do, too!

Well… that’s it for this week.  More next week. And a few reviews in the meantime!

Review: “The Tempermentals” (About Face Theatre)

Alex Weisman, Lane Anthony Flores, Kyle Hatley, Rob Lindley, Paul Fagen./Photo: About Face Theatre.

Show: “The Tempermentals”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

Playwright Jon Marans wants to enlighten you about a lost moment in the gay rights’ movement. In “The Tempermentals,” making its Chicago premiere thanks to About Face Theatre, he chronicles the creation and evolution of the Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to defining and defending LBT rights in America. It is a fascinating history, animated by colorful characters and important choices. So it is a shame that Marans’ tendency towards short scenes and assumed knowledge detract from, rather than add to the drama.

Amid fear and suspicion in 1950’s Los Angeles, activist Harry Hay (Kyle Hatley) writes a manifesto calling gay men to publicly organize and fight for their civil rights. Few show any interest in it except his new lover, Rudi Gernreich (Lane Anthony Flores), who announces it is the most dangerous thing he has ever read. Both men are in the closet, and Hay is married, but that does not stop them from gathering associates in order to discuss political action. Joining them are Bob Hull (Alex Weisman), Bob’s longtime lover Chuck (Rob Lindley), and outsider Dale Jennings (Paul Fagen). When Dale is arrested for solicitation, the group decides to make his homosexuality a fact of public record at the trial, using the false charges as a way to declare human dignity for all tempermentals, the era’s slang term for homosexuals.

Marans clearly loves these men. He is particularly drawn to Harry and Rudi’s relationship, and the way their priorities shift as their private lives are held up to the light. He gives each character quirks that both charm and disarm. Rudi has a way of making everything into a fabulous masquerade. Harry shouts whenever he gets excited about anything at all. The audience is rooting for these two, and for Dale, who simply wants to live his life. But Marans is not content with staying small picture. He wants to explore the entire group of men, and their social circles, and the political turmoil of the time period. In dividing his focus equally, he ends up confusing the audience. He favors short bursts of dramatic action, but by so often shifting from scene to scene, and person to person, he loses the humanity and sense of stakes at the heart of the historical moment. I found myself doing research about the Mattachine Society when I got home from the theater, and I learned more about choices characters were making on Wikipedia than from what I saw onstage.

Lane Anthony Flores and Kyle Hatley/Photo: About Face Theatre.

Which is not to say “The Tempermentals” is unworthy of your time. Director Andrew Volkoff and his cast flesh out the play with brilliant bits of character business. Hatley and Flores are standouts as two men never meant to see eye-to-eye, but Weisman gets the lion’s share of laughs and sympathy, as a clown who tells jokes in order to hide how ashamed he is of aging and his own identity. Fagen and Lindley handle the multiple side characters they must embody with smarts, even when the script gives them little to start with. Volkoff uses clean movement and costume suggestion to move the piece from courtroom to lavish Hollywood party, but he most excels at quiet moments, when the characters must choose whether or not it is possible to risk touching before others. He lets these moments last, and they give weight to later debates in the play.

The design elements are stylish and sleek for this production, giving it a “Mad Men” feel. The elegant costumes by Mieka Van Der Ploeg, along with the sultry soft jazz permeating scenes courtesy of Aaron Benham, lull you into a sense of safety that is shattered by the play’s rare moments of urgency. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly provides an unhelpful blank canvas of sliding doors, but lighting designer Becca Jeffords paints the stage with rich colors, bringing depth to scenes that could take place anywhere without additional pizzazz.

Though “The Tempermentals” does not tell the richest possible story about the Mattachine Society, it is clear that a lot of care and work went into About Face’s production. It is definitely worth a viewing, at the very least to get acquainted with forgotten men and fights that continue on to today.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forgotten political rights movement makes history, but little drama

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: Psychonaut Librarians (The New Colony)

Jack McCabe, Christine Mayland Perkins, Matt Farabee/Photo by Evan Hanover

Show: “Psychonaut Librarians”

Company: The New Colony

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Floor)

Die Roll: 7

As a lover of books, I find any play that takes on the topic of librarians as fascinating.  As the child of a children’s librarian myself, I spent many an hour among the shelves and stacks.  Libraries–as well as the books contained therein–can be magical.  From my viewpoint, a play that suggests that what is often a figurative bridge to other worlds might also be a literal one launches itself from a solid base.  However, not every launch is successful.  Many rockets crashed or exploded before we put one into space.  And, though “Psychonaut Librarians” by Sean Kelly doesn’t crash and burn, it fails to get into orbit, or touch the stratosphere.

At its core this play is one in want of development.  There are perfect moments.  Kelly’s script mentions the perfect moments in one’s life when his lead character, Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins), speaks of having just added one to her list of perfect moments.  And, in truth, that moment is exactly what it mentions.  It is one of the few times when the script, the physicality of the actors, the sound design, and the projections all come together to create a well-defined, believable, and embraceable universe.  I wish that more of the show could be like that.

Director Krissy Vanderwarker has put together a cast of varied skill and called upon them to take on widely varied tasks in creating a world that is supernatural and familiar.  Perkins is strong enough to carry much of the show on her own.  Her acting brings you into the action and tempts you to care about what is going on.  Her physical work, along with that of her frequent scene partner, Matt Farabee (in the role of Jane’s love from another world, Dewey), is great.  The two of them share a physical vocabulary that creates some beautifully executed moments.  Yet, no matter how skillfully

David Cerda, Christine Maylan Perkins/Photo by Evan Hanover

employed a technique is, if the moment doesn’t fit in with the adjacent moments, then it is just out of place.  Such is the case with the show’s perfect moment.  The rest of its surroundings don’t jive.

Most of the time, when I see David Cerda’s name on a cast list, I assume that the show is going to be a campy comedy.  That’s because it is what Cerda is best at (as evidenced by the success of his company Hell in a Handbag Productions).  While I’ve seen him do other roles very successfully, I still expect something specific from him as an actor, and this production delivers that.  At least, when Cerda is on stage.  The show’s camp level goes up when Cerda’s librarian character, Hester, is present.  She is melodramatically making her way through a messy divorce, which is why she’s got her daughter with her in the library at the show’s beginning.  In that library we meet the Sandman (stiffly rendered by Jack McCabe) and his minions, Dreams (puppets manipulated by various cast members).  This villain resonates with all the menace of a mid-January mud puddle.  But, as the script informs us, he is pure evil and something to be feared.  Oh, and he apparently nibbles away parts of your soul.

Now, you may have noticed that I mention above that “the script informs us”.  That’s the greatest problem with this show.  In what appears to be an attempt to mimic the narrator’s voice within a story, various actors/characters recite pieces of exposition in the manner of prose from a somewhat poetic novel.  I get why this device is employed, for Jane eventually takes control of and tells her own story.  Nevertheless, the play suffers from an immense amount of telling-rather-than-showing.

And what it tells us isn’t terribly interesting much of the time.  Or, it is just too cluttered and not fleshed out.  Hester’s coworkers eventually join Jane on an adventure across the “anyverse” wherein you can be and do anything. And yet the do not choose to be or do much of anything that creates an interesting tale.  A few fun bits do pop up.  One particularly enjoyable moment is when the characters each have to pop through a tight spot and do so by miraculously shrinking and morphing into puppet form until they are on the other side.  This is a much better employment of puppetry arts than the earlier representation of the Dreams.

Matthew Farabee, Christine Mayland Perkins/Photo by Evan Hanover

But, why go on this adventure?  Why does it matter?  If, as Jane states, this is a love story, why does Jane chase her love all over creation and then some?  This especially confuses me because each time she comes near Dewey, he declares his love or his oneness with her, and then tries to kill her, violently.  Granted, one can say that it’s because he’s being controlled by the Sandman, but one can also discern a pattern in the behavior.  There is room in this tale to show Dewey’s struggle against that control, but it isn’t shown as the play currently exists.  There is room for Dewey’s regret, or Jane’s attempt to reconcile his behavior and his words.  Those things don’t happen here, either.  So, I don’t care if Jane and Dewey ever get together.  Why should they?  And why should any of the others be convinced that they are perfect for each other and worthy of an epic quest?

Too much is left to the audience’s imaginations to supply, which ironically is the beauty of books.  Much of what one can glean from a book is then processed in each reader’s own imagination.  But, the trick in writing a good book, perhaps one that gets published as opposed to a few hundred pages that should remain in someone’s bottom drawer, is knowing that you must provide a complete enough picture that the reader doesn’t have to fill in so much that it is overwhelming.

There is enough fun and laughter throughout to make the show a mostly enjoyable evening, even if it is a bit of a let down overall.  And that’s in and of itself a bit frustrating.  Each time the show leads you to believe it’s getting good, it lapses into disconnected segments surrounding that one perfect moment.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Surreal adventures of librarian’s daughter chasing abusive lover across universe.

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

Review: “The Sundial” (City Lit Theater)

Show: The Sundial

Company: City Lit Theater

Venue:  Edgewater Presbyterian – 2nd Floor (1020 W Bryn Mawr)

As the lights went down on the first act of “The Sundial”, the woman behind me was speaking to whomever came to the show with her.  She said, “I’m really glad I read this book before we came.  I’m not sure I would understand what’s going on if I hadn’t.”  Sadly, I hadn’t read Shirley Jackson’s book prior to attending the performance.  Any adaptation that requires extensive knowledge of the source material to fill in the gaps left in the script is not a good adaptation.  I was a huge fan of director Paul Edwards’ previous adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”.  I cannot say that I am a fan of this current production, however.

What was missing from this production, that permeated the earlier one, is a sense that you can tell what the characters are thinking. Motivation is often lacking in the decisions made by these characters.  At least, it isn’t at all clear.  Much of this presentation seems more like an absurdist play akin to “Ubu Roi”, rather than a suspense-filled thriller that influenced the works of Stephen King, among others.  Events happen in an established order.  That’s the closest this show comes to having an actual plot.

Here’s the nitty-gritty:  Leo has died.  This only matters in the fact that he is in line to inherit the manor house in which the play is set.  We never meet him.  We do, however, meet his widow, his daughter, his mother, his father, and the servants and others who reside in the house.  As the lights rise on the scene, the play initially seems to be about an angry pre-teen (Lauren Mangum) who claims that her grandmother has killed her father.  The grandmother (Sheila Willis) is a youthful and comely woman who takes care of her ailing husband (Kingsley Day) while having a blatantly public affair with Essex (John Blick) who is in residence as the family archivist.  With Leo out of the way, Orianna (the grandmother) has become her husband’s lone heir.  And she’s kicking everyone out of the house who has lived there prior to the funeral, including her man-thing, Essex.

That all sounds like a great set up for a dramatic family intrigue.  Murder, suspense, wickedness and spiteful revenge.  But, that’s not what we get.  Instead, there is suddenly a whole bunch of poorly explained supernatural crap that interrupts what could have been an otherwise intriguing peace.  The issue of whether or not Orianna killed her son to get the house is quickly forgotten and instead we watch a frantically obsessed household prepare for the end of the world by essentially becoming the early-1960s version of preppers.

Why does this happen?  Well, apparently because Aunt Fanny (Morgan McCabe) has seen a vision of her father (who is also the father of Orianna’s terminally ill husband).  Fanny’s vision predicts the end of the world, followed by paradise on earth.  Now, why an entirely large household buys into this vision isn’t very clear.  There are two instances that may serve as arguments for the vision’s validity, but no character is a skeptic, no character explains why they are swayed to believe that what the old lady is saying is true.  Everyone just jumps on the bandwagon and fully embraces a massive lifestyle change that involves never leaving the house and believing that they are the ones chosen to survive the apocalypse.

The previous three paragraphs explaining what was happening are only possible for me to write because I looked up the book’s information and summary on Wikipedia.  In truth, I spent most of the first act horribly thrown off by the disjointed storytelling and the fact that it was difficult to tell who was talking about whom and why.

In the second act some things became more clear, although a small subplot about one of the house’s guests trying to leave muddies things a bit.  Nevertheless, the script improves in the 2nd act.  The characters are also better defined.  The show never rises to the level of brilliant, but it’s easier to follow after the break.

I am frustrated in writing this review, as I wanted to like the show.  I really wanted to like it, largely because of how much I enjoyed the previous effort by the same adapter of the same author’s work.  There were some great performances.  Kingsley Day’s performance as the wheelchair-bound invalid, Richard, was great.  As was his turn as Miss Inverness, a shop keeper from the town nearby.  Each time Day came on stage, the show improved exponentially.  John Blick’s turn as Essex was intriguing.  At moments he was despicable, at others he was the easiest to empathize with.  Blick gave dynamism to what he was able to dig out of the script.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: What’s going on? Why are they doing that? Good Question.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Men on Boats” (American Theater Company)

Kelly O’Sullivan, Kelli Simpkins, and Arti Ishak/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Men on Boats”

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: 1909 W Byron St

Theatre can take you anywhere. Film can plant your field of vision in exotic locales, showing off brilliant sunsets and spotlighting wild rivers cutting through jagged cliffs. But only theatre can transport you into a world entirely of your own creation, where you accept colored gels are the rays of a sunset, and trust that fear in the performers’ eyes reflects an unforgiving canyon rising upwards. Theatre takes you on a journey, and the trip is so delightful because you build its scenes and story arcs with your limitless imagination.

American Theater Company’s “Men on Boats,” a regional premiere by Jaclyn Backhaus, uses little but the human brain to construct its travelogue of, well, men on boats. While the scenic design is sharp and the casting creative, the production provides little in the way of dramatic conflict, and the script’s overreliance on shallow theatricality and repetitive imagery bores after the first thirty minutes.

The plot, such as it is, follows the first-ever government sanctioned expedition to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. Though telling a tale set soon after the Civil War, Backhaus relies on snarky anachronisms to ground the play in contemporary life and attitudes. (When the explorers meet with members of a Native American tribe, the Utes remarks they want to keep everything chill.) Will Davis — as director and in his first turn as ATC’s new artistic leader — has cast a play containing mostly male characters with an entirely genderfluid company, and his sendups of masculine posturing encourage a lot of laughter early on. John Wesley Powell (Kelli Simpkins) leads the adventurous crew, preferring to brave rapids rather than portage boats and cost the explorers time. William Dunn (Kelly O’Sullivan) acts as Powell’s second-in-command, helping the major name natural landmarks, and helping the crew by hunting rabbits. John Colton Sumner (Arti Ishak) knows the wild and the people who live in the West. Bradley (BrittneyLove Smith) has loads of enthusiasm, the Howland brothers (Sarai Rodriguez and Avi Roque) have smarts, Old Shady (Lauren Sivak) is Powell’s mysterious brother, Frank Goodman (Erin Barlow) is British, Hawkins (Stephanie Shum) cooks the food, and Hall (Lawren Carter) keeps the map. These characters do not change over the course of the play’s almost two-hour run time. They do bits, they lose boats; their dynamics strain, but only break once. Dunn believes Powell’s carelessness might get them all killed, but the higher-ups’ continued argument results in little escalation. For a play about losing supplies and facing the elements, danger rarely seems to be a real concern.

Lawren Carter, Stephanie Shu, and Avi Roque/Photo: Michael Browsilow.

This is a problem for a comedy about surviving the length of the Grand Canyon. In order for the audience to believe in the story being told, real risks must be taken in the telling. One could argue that Backhaus has an ambitious theatrical bent; she does not shy away from portraying the crew’s run through raging rapids and waterfalls. Long stretches of the play involve people being thrown from boats and thrashing their way to shore. But Backhaus does not trust the audience in such scenes. When her characters ride the waters, they simply shout which direction they are headed, or they remind us which oars they use to move right or left. This gives those watching little to imagine. What we see is all we get. There are no puzzle pieces to put together, no mess for us to shape up in our minds. Davis is smart to put the crew in tight formations, their movements mimicking the tumult of the waves. But that spectacle is only spectacle. One never wonders whether there is an unexpected turn up ahead.

Kudos should be given to props designer Jamie Karas. Two boards hinged together make up the prow of each expedition boat, and they break up in surprising ways. Similarly, scenic designer William Boles is smart to opt for a simple background; the set’s main wall creates a vanishing point that serves as a cliff or a muddy bank. These utilitarian choices make room for the audience’s imagination, even if the script does not. Likewise, light designer Brandon Wardell paints the set in rich colors to denote every shade of the sky, though the excessive use of stage fog obscures the setting of time and place far too often. Costume designer Melissa Ng gives each character personal flair, whether that be a pair of suspenders or a dead snake wrapped around a cowboy hat; each of the ten crew members leaves a distinct impression, no matter how large or small the role.

Which leads us to the performances, all uniformly good. Sivak stands out for sheer weirdness and her milking of oddly phrased pre-dinner blues tunes. Simpkins dominates her scenes by force of will, and Smith gently reminds everybody that being young and excited is no vice. O’Sullivan has the heaviest lifting to do as the major dissenter, but she manages to rise to Ishak’s goofy level when they debate whether napping has any value. All in all, the ensemble serves the material well. Their work deserved a more daring script.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adventure’s promised; only unimaginative conflict and repetitive imagery is delivered.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”