Review: “Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Show: Machinal

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Die Roll: 10

My favorite sequence in Greenhouse Theater’s 1928 “Machinal” is at an unnamed bar at the site of just about everyone’s clandestine encounters. In one corner, a woman helps a friend in the family way (they arrange an abortion), near them is a man inviting another man to have a look at his Poe collection (join him for sex), all as our protagonist pairs off for an extra-marital affair. Each of them is allowing their impossible fantasy to play out, knowing that time spent away from the grooves they occupy in the great machine is fleeting, at best. They will have to let a few of their unproductive traits wither and die if they wish to keep surviving in relative comfort.

It is in that fleeting space, we keep meeting our protagonist, Helen or maybe Ms. A (Heather Chrisler); don’t worry, names don’t mean much in this dreamy, expressionist landscape. She’s employed as a stenographer, and unfortunately/incredibly for her, the boss (Sean Gallagher) develops a crush on her dainty hands. The problem? Helen recoils at his every touch. Still, when he proposes, she’s simply not in any position to turn him down, no matter how disgusted she is. In what seems like seconds, she’s married, and after a few more seconds, she’s the mother of a newborn girl. She’s always enveloped in the anxious call of eerie strings, until she meets a free-spirited lover (Cody Proctor), who, of course, cannot stay. He gives her a moment’s happiness, a potted plant, and a terrific idea for how to kill her unwanted husband. There’s always the pestering clack of typewriter keys to follow her, however, and train cars full of anonymous bodies too close for her to breathe free.

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 script is almost like watching what would happen in a person’s subconscious mind. Our protagonist only remembers her darkest and most exhilarating moments, burned into her memory with the intensity of regret and longing. What comes between those moments is the most beautiful nothing and strangeness that director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius can conjure with just light, eerie music and their actor’s bodies.

The performances from start to finish are what keep things tense, sometimes frighteningly so. Heather Chrisler at the center of it all, is quite amazing to take in as Helen. She has nothing to sell us, no persona to hide under, and no want for anything more than just an inch or two more of her own breathing space away from everyone. Her asthmatic physical constriction at her own confinement is downright compelling. She volleys between jovial husband extraordinaire, Sean Gallagher, who is carefree in the way only successful white men are allowed to be, and Cody Proctor, who unwittingly attracts where he means to repel women like Helen, as her lover.

There are no slouches in the show’s ensemble either; notably, Sarah Rachel Schol is a ferocious office efficiency tyrant, Jonah Winston is barely containable as both a judge and an excitable restaurant diner, and Scott Shimizu is a whirlwind both as a doctor and a philandering husband.

Despite its advanced age, “Machinal” still has a lot to say to us in our new century, and mines a very cut and dried true historic event for all the deep lonesomeness and fear that the courtroom stenographers tend to leave out.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Going to battle against the patriarchy? I hear ya, sister.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

(left to right) Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Show: Shockheaded Peter

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Imagine Brecht meets a roving band of insouciant faeries and you have Shockheaded Peter. Directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by T.J. Anderson, Shockheaded Peter is Black Button Eyes Productions’s delightfully macabre cabaret of cautionary tales about the naughtiest of children and adults. Adapted for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with music by The Tiger Lillies, the play is based on the German Children’s Book The Struwwelpter, and weaves the fates of misbehaving children in between chapters of the tale of Shockheaded Peter’s misbehaving parents.  In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect a musical based on a German children’s book to be.

The audience is led through this cheerfully grim collection by the Master of Ceremonies, a self-important showman who takes joy in the little things, like child pyromaniacs, played with wonderful affectation by Kevin Webb. Webb’s performance, which incorporated just the right amount of physical theater to make the sinister Master of Ceremonies an impish, Puck figure, kept the audience laughing and ready for the next twisted tale.

(front, l to r) Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon

Webb’s playful narcissism and booming voice, would have completely stolen the show, if it weren’t for the ensembles’ skill at clowning. Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre might have burst if they added more of the contortion, stilt work, and puppetry that made the show. Without the work of contortionist Genevieve Lerner and the stilt walking Ellen DeSitter Shockheaded Peter would have been a lesser production. As a whole, the ensemble fully committed to the physical comedy of Shockheaded Peter, with enough vibrancy and life that there was rarely a dull space on stage.

The show was supported by Jeremiah Barr’s puppets which kept the production walking the thin line between bleak and whimsical that is the space where Shockheaded Peter lives. It is worth noting, that Shockheaded Peter is a musical, full of the discordant, minor key tones that bring Kurt Weill to mind or the circus from a horror movie; however, it doesn’t stop them from jaunting from merrily irrelevant tunes to beautiful and haunting numbers and back again, under the musical direction of T.J. Anderson. One of the show’s standout voices is ensemble member Kat Evans, who manages to sound beautiful as both a cat and a storm. Not all of Shockheaded Peter’s soloists are as strong, but their harmonies bring to mind sirens and other auditorily pleasing harbingers of doom.

(front, l to r) Ellen DeSitter and Genevieve Lerner with (back, l to r) Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen Tulin in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Shockheaded Peter isn’t a world changing show—it is fun and full of the sort of darkness that you won’t see on the evening news. It is a sixty-six minute respite from the heavy world shifting events that hit when you turn your phone back on after the show.

Ten Word Summary: Brecht and Weill and faeries attempt a musical for children.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre)

Show: “Triassic Parq”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

If someone had walked up to me and told me there was a show out there that re-imagined “Jurassic Park” from the perspective of the dinosaurs, there is no way that I would have guessed it to have been anything like what the folks at Circle Theatre have put up at the Heartland Studio.  On the surface the play is a parody that places its footing firmly upon the “Life will find a way” statement from the 1992 movie that explains a hatched brood of dino eggs from a supposedly all-female population of prehistoric creatures.  Had the show stopped right there conceptually, added a handful of songs about eating goats and humans, and the like, and this would have been a fun, light romp.  But the script by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo is far more sophisticated than that, and the audience is treated to a thoroughly enjoyable romp that is still quite fun, but not always so light.

Each time I enter the tiny Heartland Studio, I instantly look to see how the producing theatre company chose to deal with the remarkably restrictive confines.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some abysmal wastes of space, and a few reasonably successful and creative ways of making the space work.  But, I have never been as impressed previously as I am with Jimmy Jagos’s set.  The design extends into the lobby, as well as up the walls into the audience.  And the mobile set pieces that first confront the audience hearken directly back to the sense of awe one feels upon the first viewing of the gates into Jurassic Park.

With the mood set, there’s a bit of time for some absurd fun prior to the more serious content of the show, as so we meet our narrator, a woman (Caitlin Boho) who claims to be Morgan Freeman.  In that character, the tone of the evening is set.  The fourth wall is broken, the cabaret nature of the show is established, and the premise of the show is explained.  Life must find a way, despite the fact that all the dinos are females.  Now, it might be noted here that not all of the actors are female.  This helps a bit with the harmonies of the songs, but it also makes for a fluid gender-scape from the get-go.  When, partway through the play, a T-Rex suddenly sprouts a penis, it naturally does so on an actress-portrayed dinosaur.  Of note, the two dinosaurs who morph into male specimens are both played by women.  The female dinosaurs played by men remain female.  Some of the humor grows out of the sexual and romantic relationships that grow out of the gender changes, and some of it is pretty low-brow, but it is skillfully offset by other bits of commentary-based comedy that takes a hard look at the battle between science and religion.

These dinosaurs aren’t just ravaging reptilian monsters.  They are members of a well defined, if somewhat naive, society with a church-like organization at its core.  And the religion seems to have grown out of the population’s circumstances in an understandable manner.  We witness crises of faith, confrontations with new information, and the struggles of leaders and followers in their dynamic relationships.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Jacob Richard Axelson) drives much of the action of the show through her struggle to maintain control of a world that she recognizes less and less of.  The Velociraptor of Innocence (Parker Guidry) is her foil and the main character for much of the rest of the show.  It is her struggle to discover herself and her meaning that leads to the conflict between the old and new realities for the dinos.

Co-Directors Tommy Bullington and Nicholas Reinhart have put together a tremendous show.  The cast takes what could be just a campy bit of fun and creates something at least two notches of quality above that.  It is an evening of song and dance, and inventive drag costumes, and while it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, “Triassic Parq” is indeed more than what one expects, and is better for it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Blue and Yellow make Green. See the show. You’ll understand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Metropolis Performing Arts Center)

Show:  Peter and the Starcatcher

Company: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

Venue: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

I discovered the novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson back in 2011 at a Half Price Bookstore.  It was an impulse buy.  I loved it, and I subsequently plowed through the rest of the series that serves as a set of prequels to the story of Peter Pan as we all know it.  So, when given the chance to review the musical (or, rather “play with music”) based on the novel, I was excited to say the least.  After seeing the production currently running at Metropolis Performing Arts Center, I am less excited; mostly disappointed.

For any fan of a piece of literature there is an inherent risk in attending an adaptation of that piece, whether film or play, television program or comic book.  The act of adaptation is an act of creation, and that means that there resulting piece is a completely separate work than the original.  And, yet, it is difficult to separate the parts in one’s mind, and emotional reactions to the newer work are often based upon one’s impressions from the first work.

I don’t really want to discuss the merits or techniques of adapting a work to the stage, but I mention the above thoughts because while I love the original book (and the following books in the series), I will try to evaluate this show on its own merits.  Were I to merely compare one side-by-side, I would find Rick Elice’s script lacking, and a bit of an affront to the source material.  Jokes incorporated into the script are anachronistic to the play’s Victorian Era setting. And to a large degree the show seems to be written around a list of terrible jokes rather than telling a story from whence humor emerges.  Parts of the later books were incorporated into this show, which didn’t really add anything positive to the product.  But, what’s it like without taking into account the relation to the source book?

Well, this is a clunky script that depends far too heavily on direct address of the audience as the actors often take turns in the narrator’s voice expressing their own actions in third person.  Despite having a constant tone of there being too much exposition, things often happen with little or no explanation (although, fans of the books will be able to decipher some of the goings-on).  There is a feeling of spoof or parody that runs throughout the show, that cheapens its own delivery.  And then there are some songs.  Make no mistake, this is not a musical.  One cannot call a show that has almost no songs in it a musical.  There are a couple of musical numbers incorporated into the play; and stating that they are incorporated may be a bit far to go. More to the point, they are slapped on and adhered badly.

Now, while I think the script is terrible, and the play itself a mistake, I cannot say that about the production.  Director Lili-Anne Brown puts together a well-rendered version of the show.  Her cast is uniformly strong and they pour more energy into the performance than I’ve seen done in some while.  The live Foley sound effects provided by the pit orchestra add a lot to the show, as does the cleverly realized costume design that allows for a lot of role-doubling.  The scenic design of Ashley Woods impresses upon first sight, and captures the spirit of the scenes both on-board ships and on Mollusk Island.

But, when it comes down to it, no matter how good the performances of the actors, or the beauty of the set, the show barely rises to the level of entertainment that can be had by lounging on the couch at home on standard network TV.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  An assemblage of weak, dated one-liners fails to impress.

RATING: d6  – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Fair Maid of the West” (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Show: “The Fair of the West”

Company: Oak Park Festival Theatre

Venue: Austin Gardens (167 Forest Ave Oak Park, IL)

“May that man die derided and accursed that will not follow where a woman leads.” So says a soldier of fortune in thrall to the fair maid of the west, known in taverns and back alleys simply as Bess, though her theatrical adventures grant her a swashbuckling reputation and the admiration of any she meets. The Oak Park Festival Theatre audience at “The Fair Maid of the West” certainly hooted in agreement on the night I attended. Brought to glorious life by Amanda Forman and a cast of hilarious and game fighters, this sixteenth century drama is a rollicking good time, a treasure that has been luckily saved from the history bin by director and adapter Kevin Theis.

Bess Bridges is a simple tavern wench who finds herself swept up in international intrigue when Spencer (Zach Livingston), a nobleman and the love of her life, is banished from England for murdering a man in self-defense. His man Friday, a captain by the name of Goodlack (Debo Balogun), alternately betrays and assists his friend, and a braggart by the name of Roughman (Aaron Christensen) pledges fidelity to Bess after she tricks him into admitting his cowardice outside the tavern. When the two lovers are separated, Bess chooses to pursue her partner across oceans — war with Spain and encounters with indecent sailors be damned.

Theis has crafted a sprightly script to suit his strong actors. His take on Thomas Heywood’s swashbuckler is fresh and immediate, with actors using asides to wink at the audience with contemporary flourishes. As the action moves from England to the sea to Fez, Theis keeps the shenanigans moving at a quick pace, and embraces all the devices of Shakespeare’s day, up to quick-turn redemptions, and even including the infamous “bed trick.”

Forman and the ensemble are clearly having a hell of a time onstage. She imbues her heroine with a confident center and a surprising sense of humor. Livingston is a great match for Forman, and his true blue love for her shines through, even when he is choosing honor above his personal attachments. Christensen steals the show in the coward soldier role, flexing his muscles and passionately screaming to the heavens once his plans go awry. Clem (Bobby Bowman), Bess’ assistant, gamely plays the clown, spouting truths to the audience that his fellow adventurers will not hear.

Fight choreographer Geoff Coates take special care with each sword fight, creating dramatic storylines to each battle. Spencer’s final attempts to reach Bess was particularly impressive, as it involved the entire cast attacking, twice. Also fun were the localized bouts between ensemble members. Each fight made a statement about the characters, their skills, and where they were at emotionally within the performance. It is not easy to tell a story through violence, but Coates makes it spectacular and important to the audience.

Michael Lasswell’s set design encompasses a ship, several taverns, and one royal palace, with rooms popping up out of nowhere — proving that the humblest of settings can still birth great things. Julie Mack’s light design highlights the romantic moments onstage, and the rousing music provided by Christopher Kriz set the epic tone needed for the play.

“The Fair Maid of the West” should entertain and delight audiences throughout the Chicago area. Its every detail is full of joy and innovation. Look no further for a lovely summer treat.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A rollicking adventure awaits the audience, along with killer fights.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “Luzia” (Cirque Du Soleil)

Show: Luzia

Company: Cirque Du Soleil

Venue:  The Grand Chapiteau, United Center (1901 W. Madison St.)

In the midst of a torrential Chicago downpour, Cirque Du Soleil’s newest ethereal circus production “Luzia” put down stakes and gave nature’s majesty a run for it’s money. Billed as a waking dream of Mexico, “Luzia” is the mash up of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia) and is quite literally a celebration of bright, steaming sun showers and and their aftermath. All elements obey the gravitational pull of the encompassing shard-mirror disk hovering there like an open compact.  It beams solar rays, lunar beams and rotates like the flipping of a coin to release and swallow circus acts.

A clown tourist (Eric Fool Koller) sets the dream in motion by touching down in a field of Marigolds and turning an oversized wind-up toy crank, which bring all the stage mechanics (like rotating platforms and conveyor belts) to life. A giant-winged monarch (Shelli Epstein) is chased by a silver horse down her migratory path, flipping and spinning in the wind. A flock of deft red hummingbirds (Stephane Beauregard, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Marta Henderson, Michael Hottier, Maya Kesselman, and Ian Vazquez) run and dive through progressively smaller and more abundant emerald hoops. A trio of strapping male dancers (Anton Glazkov, Krzystof Holowenko, and Grzegorz Piotr Ros) dressed in their dance hall finest spin their female counterpart (Kelly MacDonald) so forcibly in their human centrifuges, you wonder how she’s able to walk in a straight line. And then comes the rain; a deluge pours from the grid above as Trapeze artist Enya White and Cyr wheel artist Angelica Bongiovanni weave in and out of the showers. 

But that’s not even the half: there’s also luchadores swinging in centrifuges (Krzystof Holowenko), impossibly synchronized footballers (Laura Biondo and Abou Traore), high-speed jugglers (Rudolph Janecek), contortionists (Aleksei Goloborodko), and a hair-flipping rain demigod (Benjamin Courtenay) climbing aerial straps in a dark Mayan sinkhole.

The soundscape is just as deft and changing as the circus artistry, and transforms a traditional Mariachi troupe into the perfect genre for each feat of agility. Jazzy noir elements creep in as the contortionist folds his spine in half. Opera notes lure a behemoth jaguar out into the open to drink from pristine green waters. They even dabble in electronica, helping the the high-speed juggler keep his speed up (you haven’t heard the bass drop until you’ve heard it dropped by a thundering tuba).

“Luzia” may not always paint a cohesive picture, but co-writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca and co-writer Julie Hamelin Finzi and the entire creative team have ensured each act can be boiled down to an orbit. The gentle circle of the Cyr wheel, spinning a soccer ball on an outstretched finger,  airborne somersaults arcing high with a pendulum’s swing, or the swift vault through the impossible circumference of hoop. Everything rotates, whirs to life with clockwork energy, and looks good from a hundred angles. It’s beautiful, right down to the giant red Papal Picado curtain, meant to emulate bright crepe paper party banners, and indicate something amazing is on the way.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Arid plains. Sweltering marshlands, Welcome to Mexico, pack your umbrella 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Hir” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Amy Morton and Em Grosland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: “Hir”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Main Stage

I have recently seen the play “Hir” by Taylor Mac twice: just this past weekend at Steppenwolf, and previously at a small storefront-sized theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.  Before I review Steppenwolf’s production of the show, I have a couple of declarations to make that should clarify the following review.

First, I contend the profundity of a profound work can suffer upon a second viewing because the significant effects of a first impression cannot be duplicated.  Additionally, the first viewing cannot help but inform the evaluation of the second.  So, the fact that I saw StageWest’s production prior to Steppenwolf’s does affect how I perceive the latter’s work.

My second point, before I sally forth into the depths of this review, is that I truly believe that “Hir” by Taylor Mac is one of the most brilliantly penned pieces of dramatic literature in recent times; its complexity and nuance, structure and pacing—everything about it makes it one of the more perfect plays of the last half century.

Francis Guinan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

When I first saw the play two months ago, it was a deeply disturbing, highly impactful, engaging and meaningful piece of work.  The title of the play leads toward thinking that this is a play about gender identity.  And it is, to some degree, but truly at its heart, this is a play about a family unit who are all survivors of an abusive relationship.  The plot really revolves around how each of the three former victims relate to each other and their former abuser.  It is true that one character, Max (Em Grosland), is transitioning from female to male, and that the gender pronoun that character has chosen for hirself is “hir”.  But, that isn’t what drives the plot forward.  And, in the act of making Max’s gender a topic of discussion, rather than the actual conflict of the show, Taylor Mac (whose own chosen pronoun is “judy”) has reached towards brilliance and genius.  If the intent is to become a society where all genders along the overall spectrum are seen as equal, then the characters that represent trans and non-binary people must be able to be perceived as just as normal as everyone else.  Because the conflict of the play revolves around something else, Max’s discussions with hir mother and hir brother are effective conversations that flesh out the characters.  We as audience members are able to listen and comprehend better the points being made because we are not taking sides in these chats.  They aren’t a point of conflict.  They are informative and mostly civil explanations.

This is a dark, dark comedy about a woman attempting to free herself from the physically and psychologically abusive relationship with her husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan).  Paige (the woman, played by Amy Morton) has taken advantage of her husband’s stroke a year prior to the play’s beginning  to medicate him heavily and alter everything about the life of the family; where once there was order there is now chaos, where once there was unrestrained masculinity there is now strictly controlled femininity.

Under the direction of Hallie Gordon, this production seems to have been treated more as a light comedy about a dark topic than a dark comedy that plumbs the nadir of human cruelty (how I perceive the intention of the script itself).  The staging seems to have been perfectly gauged to keep Steppenwolf’s specific audience laughing all the way through to the end.  Morton’s Paige is never fully realized as the revenge-seeking former beta dog who has now taken control and is doling out punishment to those who’ve done her wrong.  In this production she is more a still-afraid, still-abused woman who is lashing out.  This distinction in how Paige is played (I assume there are a number of other ways she can be approached as well) alters just about everything in the play.  And it is indicative of how the directorial choices were made so as to keep this play from going to the darker places that the script fully supports.

The concept of Chekhov’s Gun comes into play here.  The script contains a number of moments that work as necessary foreshadowing.  The concept of Chekhov’s gun is that if you show a gun on stage early in the play, it must be used/shot off by the end.  While viewing this production, I was led to ask myself, what happens if the gun never gets set on the stage when it is supposed to be there?  There is a sequence early on that hints at Paige’s capacity for cruelty: she discovers that the sound of her blender triggers her son (Ty Olwin) Isaac’s PTSD.  She then proceeds to torture him with short burst of the blender’s whirring which causes him to repeatedly toss his cookies in the sink.  Morton’s portrayal hovers around a point of curious exploration of the situation, rather than the necessary schaudenfruede that indicates where the character is ultimately headed.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Another example is smaller, but indicative of the missed opportunities in this production: Periodically, Paige sprays Arnold with a water bottle as punishment for bad behavior.  If you think that sounds like disciplining a cat, you’ve got the idea.  One of the first times she does so, she tells him to stop touching his penis.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t notice that he’d been touching his penis prior to that moment.  However, in the script Paige tells Arnold to “grab the knob”.  Had he followed the euphemistic instructions on that line, it would have set up the pattern of behavior a few lines later.  Instead, the moment is missed and the humor of a later line (“My penis is my best friend”) loses the momentum of the effective set-up provided by the playwright.

Gordon’s direction often leads to awkward stage pictures, clunky movement, and a lot of cheating-out akin to what one instructs beginning actors to do when on a proscenium stage.  There is one time that this is used to comedic effect: Arnold sneaks across the stage in full view of everyone, mugging to the audience the entire way.  And with that one interlude the legitimacy of the play’s world is shot to Hell.  Is it funny?  Sure.  Does it suddenly take a big budget play and put it on the level of community theatre? You bet.  It’s unfortunate, and it adds nothing to the play itself.

There are a huge number of small issues throughout the production that make me wonder if a work of this magnitude was just slightly out of Gordon’s scope.  And, I hate feeling that way.  I wanted everyone in that audience to walk away as disturbed and altered as I was when I first saw the play.  I wanted people to be afraid to laugh during the descent into the horrible aspects of the second act.  That wasn’t present in this production.  The play still stands up.  The play itself is still brilliant.  It just isn’t as good as it could be.  I wasn’t enrapt.  That’s partly because I had seen it before.  But then again, I’ve seen “Hamlet” innumerable times, and when well done it is as brilliant as the first time, if not better.

With this production I found myself wondering:  Why didn’t Isaac carry himself like a Marine? Why didn’t Isaac’s duffle bag have any weight to it?  Was it filled with blocks of Styrofoam?  Why were the parents of a 21 year-old and a 16 year-old cast with actors who are significantly older? Exactly how did Arnold punch holes in the wall well above his own shoulder/head height?  Why wasn’t the house truly a garbage house, rather than an orderly version of untidy? Why wasn’t the ugliness of every character explored more fully?  With a work such as this play, I should not have been so easily and constantly distracted.

Any audience that leaves a production of “Hir” ought to be exhausted and spent.  It shouldn’t be possible for them to bounce up into a standing ovation and then laugh their way out the door.  It’s still worth seeing.  It’s still a good play.  Yet, so much potential…

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  One of my favorite plays.  I wish it were better.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Nance” (Pride Films and Plays)

Show: The Nance

Company: Pride Films and Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (The Broadway), 4139 N. Broadway

Some theater is so compelling, timely and complicated, you can’t wait to dissect it like the frog in your AP biology examination tray. After seeing Pride Films and Play’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance”, the story of a performer both embracing and at odds with his stage persona, I wanted a deep look into this frog’s digestive tract- I mean, into the history of New York burlesque theater, and the titular stage ‘Nance’. For as much scrutiny as “The Nance” characters face at the famed Irving Place burlesque theater, the stereotypical effeminate gay character has had a long tenure in films, plays and television; but the question that author Beane poses is, what if a burlesque ‘Nance’ was portrayed not by a straight stage comic, but a gay performer, as a means of placing a toe juuuust outside the closet in the repressive 1930’s?

At the onset of “The Nance”, Chauncey Miles (played with fantastic world-weariness by Vince Kracht) is at the apex of popularity on the 1930’s burlesque circuit for his extremely effeminate comedy stylings. The cost of doing this kind of show business as morals-and-ethics Czar Paul Moss begins cracking down on deviance onstage is utter secrecy and caution. However, when Chauncy meets Ned (Royen Kent), his private world begins to open up. The two men embark on a relationship when all they can usually expect is to meet lovers quickly under the watchful gaze of policemen at the Automat. They find legitimacy denied them at every turn, and while Chauncy has come to expect this on a personal level, he cannot stomach to see his act suppressed one bit. He and his onstage cohorts (Patrick Rybarczyk, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Steph Vondell, and Melissa Young) feel the sting of closing avenues for their racy exploits. What will survive the crack-down is only what is nimble and can change with the times. And that’s the question: will Chauncy survive?

Director John Nasca and music director Robert Ollis have their work cut out for them in this fantastically compelling piece of theater, but have spared no expense in putting us at a 1930’s burlesque review, complete with exposed bulb footlights and a tiny but boisterous house band. The costumes are big, gaudy and faces are covered in bright greasepaint. This is one production I hope audiences feel enough at home to get into the burlesque hooting and hollering.

The show really rests in the capable hands of Vince Kracht, the simultaneously winning and conflicted Chauncy. His self destruction comes from his propensity to side with those government entities that have labeled his act stage deviance and jailed him. Unlike communist leaning Sylvie (Melissa Young) or naive Ned, Chauncy is inclined to agree that he is a social menace, only that he ought be recognized as a talented one. He holds to his belief that nothing he does will alter public opinion of him, and his brand of maligned comedy will come back with time. Though anger and sadness fuel Chauncy, Vince Kracht maintains a mad-cap glee throughout. Even as he chooses passivity, inaction, and says to the man he loves, “I want to be used and discarded because I like it. It’s what I deserve.”

You hope for Chauncy what you would hope for anyone that has placed themselves beyond rescue’s reach; that the pleas of the activists and bleeding hearts in his wake do something to turn his tides.

“The Nance” is mirth and heartbreak. It’s the last laugh you will have before your world falls apart. It’s a quick and dirty vaudeville revue wrapped in a crisp, tailored jacket. You will love it, and it will hurt you.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: When it’s not the act that’s too risqué, it’s you.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “London Assurance” (City Lit Theatre)

Kraig Kelsey, Kat Evans/Photo: Ally Neutze

Show: “London Assurance”

Company: City Lit Theatre

Venue: City Lit Theatre (1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave)

If you follow the Chicago theatre market at all, you have probably noticed that the air is full of tension these days.  Even before the most recent controversy over the writings of another critic in town, theatre practitioners have been highly energized over the last few months, largely because of the political climate of the country.  There have been calls from artists to their peers that ask us all to focus exclusively on making our works political in nature.  The quote that “All art is political” can be attributed to many, many people over the years, but one of my favorite renditions of the maxim comes from Ingmar Bergman: “Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.”  A constant barrage of pieces of angry, politically charged theatre have come to Chicago’s stages since November (and before).  They are welcome and they are needed, but sometimes audiences and artists need reprieve from the repetition of comment on the political climate.  So, it is that a comedy of manners from 1841 is a welcome addition to the theatrical scene.  It is a beautiful bit of comedic relief from a world that grates daily upon the spirit.  And yet, any comedy of manners revolves around ethics, and so Mr. Bergman remains correct.

“London Assurance” covers familiar territory for British farces of the early 1800s.  An old man is engaged to a nubile youth of 18 years.  The geezer’s son meets the young lady and falls in love.  She, too, has feelings for the younger guy.  Additional characters get involved, muddle the plot, and everything works out in the end.  It’s fun, funny, and mostly predictable.  And, that’s okay.  In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

Kingsley Day/Photo: Ally Neutze

Supposedly an influence on Oscar Wilde’s writing, this is witty show about the upper crust behaving badly.  At first light, Edward Kuffert takes the stage as the clever and droll butler, Cool.  His opening moments addressing the audience directly set a tone for the entire play, which does depend heavily on asides to comment on the action and provide a good deal of the humor.  A moment later, rapscallions Richard Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) and Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) take the stage.  The latter of the two is the son, mentioned above, who will come to fall in love with his father’s betrothed.  The former is a scheming trouble-maker whose machinations don’t carry direct malice of mischievousness, but rather the overall goal of providing himself an easy life.  And yet, it is those self same plots and actions which lead to much of the show’s complications.  Eisloeffel plays the part with easy charm and a puckish grin.

The other unintentional trouble-maker of the show is Squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling).  He is charmed by Richard Dazzle, and starts the chain of invitations that leads to Charles Courtly’s wooing of Grace Harkaway (Kat Evans), who just so happens be to both Max Harkaway’s niece, and Charles’s father’s fiance.  Sparling’s confident and engaging presence allows the boisterous role of Max to take firm hold of the show and carry it upon his shoulders.  Each time he takes the stage, things get more interesting.

Director Terry McCabe has done a tremendous job of casting the show exactly as needed.  Each actor seems fits their character so well, I can’t imagine another in their part. And the staging flows naturally, in a play that has a number of far-from-natural contrivances that make the whole thing work.  I mentioned the asides earlier.  Often times, I find such theatrical conventions annoying thanks to poor staging.  They can kill an otherwise sharp production.  McCabe’s cast executes the clever side comments in a way that makes you look forward to the next one.

There was one character that I could do without, Mark Meddle (Joe Feliciano).  At the time of its writing, perhaps the self-serving, maleficent lawyer may have lampooned some specific current opinion of attorneys.  In fact, it still may.  But as scripted, the overly-litigious, money-grubbing lawyer could be edited out of the script and it would remove needless distraction from what is an otherwise tight script.  Feliciano does all he can with the role.  What is lacking here is a fault of the playwright, not the actor.

A quick call-out to the scenic designer, Ray Toler, whose  rotating walls allowed City Lit’s uniquely shaped stage to become two large British estates.  And Tom Kieffer’s costumes were exactly what it took to place this show in its time and place, the attention to detail in the dresses was marvelous.

Finally, I cannot truly review this show without mention of Kingsley Day’s performance as Sir Harcourt Courtly.  The elder lover in this play is an absurd role, and this is just the sort of thing at which Day excels.  I’ve worked with Kingsley on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and this role has a bit of the flavor of many of the characters he’s embodied over the years.  I thoroughly enjoy watching an actor shine in a role that seems to have been written for him.  Not once do you hope that Sir Harcourt will get the girl, and it is easy to revel in his self-inflicted mishaps.  And yet, the character is hard not to love.  Day gives him that little something special that wriggles the aging fop into one’s heart.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” (Velvet Fox Productions)

Jessica Sherr/Photo Courtesy of Velvet Fox Productions.

Show: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sisses”

Company: Velvet Fox Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Bette Davis has a lot to say in “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies.” About love, about Hollywood, about acting, about her mother. And Jessica Sherr’s winning performances carries the audience along smoothly, story by story. But the odd thing about one-person shows is the storytelling itself. Often, the propulsive need to go over the speaker’s history is not grounded in clear dramatic stakes. Such is the case with “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” a romp through Davis’ life that never really pays off with much onstage drama, though Sherr manages to make an entertaining raconteur.

The premise for the evening is sound. Bette Davis has escaped to her home from the 1939 Oscar ceremony because the press has leaked the winners early, and she knows she will lose to Vivien Leigh. “Dark Victory” is no match for “Gone With the Wind.” Tethered by turns to her two already-won Oscars and the incessant ringing of the telephone, Davis uses her free evening to reflect on the choices she’s made as a Hollywood actress, examining who Bette Davis really is, outside of the perceptions and accolades of Hollywood.

Dealing with disappointment provides a nice frame for Sherr’s stories, but little in what Bette shares has weight to it. Her romantic entanglement with Howard Hughes, for example, doesn’t necessarily relate to her crushing professional disappointments. The strongest material at play involves Bette’s disputes with various movie studios, who want to paint her as a musical ingénue, when she knows that she belongs in stronger dramatic roles. Had the play centered more around her defiance of Hollywood norms, the stakes to her loss would have been starker, and her journey towards self-acceptance over her loss would have been clearer to the audience.

Sherr does make a delightful companion for the seventy-five minute run time. Her work with voice and diction coach Robert Perillo pays off, as the mid-Atlantic accent of the era rings strong and true throughout the evening. Sherr’s energy is infectious, and while her transition from phone call to memory isn’t always clearly lit, the force of her performance draws you into the next scenario clearly and cleanly. It is a shame that her script does not drive the action forward as well as it could; she could do so much with more dramatically grounded material.

The costume design by Isabelle Color is lovely. Bette’s Oscar gown is eye-catching, and Sherr’s moving from that dress to more comfortable evening wear helps the audience understand the play’s transition through time. While the script is not up to the level of Sherr’s performance, there are eye-catching moments, and there is a lot to enjoy in this evening of theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forceful performance drives script about Bette Davis’ Hollywood woes.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”