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

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

Show: bare: a pop opera

Company: Refuge Theatre Project

Venue:  Epworth United Methodist Church (5253 N Kenmore)

Die Roll: 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

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

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

Show: Apartment 3A

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue:  Windy City Playhouse

Die Roll: 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

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

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Feast” (Red Theater)

1929-300x200Show: The Feast

Company: Red Theater

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

Die Roll: 19

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Naperville” (Theater Wit)

29350749946_3d1c3a7935_kShow: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Sister Cities” (Chimera Ensemble)

sister3Show: “Sister Cities”

Company: Chimera Ensemble

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 1

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d8– “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Amour” (Black Button Eyes Productions)

Show: “Amour”Amour-6

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

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

Die Roll: 15

Roll the premise of  Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Amour” around it your head for a bit,  and it’ll start to sound like a 1940’s French superhero origin story. It’s bestowed with some biting humor and a circus of oddballs, but this musical has some trouble living up to it’s own potential.

“Amour” is a musical based on a 1943 French short story, “Le Passe Muraille”, roughly, the man who could walk through walls. In “Amour” we follow sad-sack office worker Dusoleil (Brian Fimoff) as he avoids his shirking co-workers and pines after beautiful, unhappily married Isabelle (Emily Goldberg), who is held captive in her own home by a jealous husband. In a blackout, Dusoleil discovers he’s developed the ability to walk through walls, which allows him to pilfer from the rich and bestow gifts on downtrodden workers in the Monmartre square he inhabits. His deeds for local artists (Tommy Thurston), news vendors (Scott Gryder) and whores (Missy Wise) earn him a new moniker, Monsieur Passepartout (It’s really fun to say,  and translates roughly to Mr. Master Key). However, he cannot get any closer to Isabelle without provoking her dubious husband (Greg Zawada). The question you’ve probably already guessed the answer to, is if the power of molecular displacement will get Dusoleil the girl and the life he desires.

Brian Fimoff and Emily Goldberg are vocal powerhouses as Dusoleil and Isabelle, doing the heavy emotional lifting as their cast mates flit by with quips and costume changes. It’s especially fun to watch Fimoff transform Dusoleil from lonesome curmudgeon to beaming adventurer, and Goldberg’s rendition of Isabelle’s song “Other People’s Stories” (in which she compares her life to a gossip magazine) gives the character more substance than the authors do. Other wonderful and ridiculous turns come from Missy Wise as a popular Monmartre whore who longs for the war-time appreciation she used to get. Likewise, Scott Gryder turns everyone to putty when he delivers a riotous jolt of energy by turning in his newsboy cap for the powdered wig of novice Barrister. Amour-4

The problem? It isn’t the performers, who treat us to inspired vocal acrobatics and fantastic lyrical nuance. And it isn’t the music by  Didier Van Cauwelaert and Michel Legrand, who boast a song list that is sweet, funny and just the teeniest bit self-aware (during the “Street Vendors’ Waltz” they lament in song about hum-drum choruses they are forced to repeat). The problem comes from “Amour”’s paper-thin premise, and incredibly thinly sketched characters whose development is far less important than the witty lyrics they must be in place to spout. “Amour” is bursting with cleverness, but deep into act two, it sputters into tedium when the story runs out of tension and action to support it.

When a new show based on dated source material emerges, there’s a question every author/adapter should ask: Why is this story relevant now? There’s nothing wrong with endeavoring to rescue a popular public domain story and spruce it up for a new audience. But with “Amour”, the piece seems content to serve up unhealthy gender stereotypes and decrepit story tropes. When female characters sing together, but still can’t pass the Bechtel test, it’s more than a lyrical issue. When your production’s lead female role, Isabelle, takes on such ‘object’ status she may as well be a coveted houseplant, it’s more than a script problem. When her chief characteristic is ‘being lovely’, your words do a disservice to every woman in your audience, especially young women.

What “Amour” has in spades is whimsy and humor, and I don’t doubt it’s that sensibility that won over director Ed Rutherford and the Black Button Eyes production team, but I hope future productions have the substance and relevance that can truly feed a conscientious audience.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Meet France’s most whimsical magic stalker and his dream girl.

DICE RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “THRUST!” (Tapmen Productions)

Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.


Company: Tapmen Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

“THRUST!” is a dance show all about space. Over the course of two hours, performers move around a stage surrounded by seating on three sides. The hope is that each audience member will have a different emotional experience, depending on where they sit in the audience. The members of Tapmen Dance Productions, the Modern Marvels Dance Company, Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms all combine to create an individualized evening of entertainment.

I love watching dance, though admittedly, my education in the art form is limited to taking one ballroom dance class, and picking up a few tap moves from my more choreographically inclined colleagues. So I don’t have much to say about the technical aspects of “THRUST!” as a dance performance. But I do know theatre space, and the experiments with the thrust stage over the course of the evening were interesting to watch, even if the smallness of the Stage 773 space doesn’t lend itself to much creative thinking.

The first half of the evening’s dances were far more politically motivated than the second portion. Tapmen and Marvels performers moved all over the stage and into the audience, often in dramatic fashion. The first dance was particularly unnerving, as it involved performers in masks carrying knives into the audience. These dancers skittered around the space like spiders and mimed slashing the throats of tap dancers that moved on and off the stage. I have no idea whether the dance was meant to make a specific statement about the nature of crime and violence, but it was memorable, to be sure. Certainly, masked performers flashing prop knives only a few feet away from my seat provided effective chills.

Another dance spoke to immigration issues. Three doors were wheeled onstage and three performers attempted to move their way through the entrances, while being blocked and pushed aside by those guarding the doors. Music was integrated into this piece as well, with singers at the back of the stage joining voices to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Close Every Door To Me.” This piece was effective, but also highlights the issues of working in a black box space, like the one at 773. From where I sat, the doors actually impeded my view of the movements onstage, so my individualized experience of the dance was hampered by the fact that it was performed on a thrust stage.

Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.

The second half of the evening was far less political, and far less complex. Whereas the earlier pieces were all choreographed by Kate O’Hanlon and Tristan Bruns, “From the Top” featured dances choreographed by Ian Berg and performed by Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms dancers. The moves executed by the core of performers were impressive, as the energy and rhythm of each phrase sped up over the long form piece. But there were fewer connections to be made to everyday life in these moments, and the experimentation with three sides of a stage was minimal. That said, the most delightful part of “From The Top” involved three tappers moving through a four by four square of light, improvising steps along to Maurice and the Zodiac’s “Stay Just A Little Bit Longer,” increasing in volume and rhythm each time to light square reappeared.

Lighting designer Michael Goebel doesn’t have as much to do in the second half of “THRUST!,” since the dances flow into each other more organically, but the vibrant reds and oranges cut by sudden blackouts in the first half inhibit the movement of one piece to another, in this writer’s humble opinion.

“THRUST!” is an engaging evening of dance. The artistic director of Tapmen encouraged audience members to move from the center seating to the sides in his pre-show announcement, and I will say that I was happy to be viewing the performance from a different angle. Performing dance in a thrust space provides plenty of opportunities to notice small changes in routines or phrases, even when the experimentation does not pay off. But what I most appreciated about viewing the performance from the side were all the moments I spotted of dancers smiling and enjoying the very act of moving itself.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Dancers outshine choreography meant to challenge proscenium seating.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

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”