“Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” (Black Ensemble Theater + Steppenwolf Theatre)

Show: Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s

Company: Black Ensemble Theater & Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.

Backed by Black Ensemble company members and a small but mighty house band, our host for the evening, Black Ensemble Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor, invited Chicagoans of all stripes onto her own sacred ground to do some healing. Crafted by a growing collection of theater companies that are owned and operated by women and people of color, “Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” came to life, and went immediately to battle against always present enemies: a tradition of exclusion, and a culture of silence.

The evening of theater and performance brought together voices from Teatro Vista, About Face Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, Her Story Theatre, Firebrand Theatre, A-Squared Theatre, and several speakers from a very short list of black corporate executives. Just as much as this was an evening of underrepresented stories taking focus, it was a primer for a large audience of white supporters on the myriad ways we can show more support and be more aware of our own biases.

Black Ensemble company members regaled the collected crowd with original songs like “Four Hundred and Sixty Five Years” and “I Can’t Give Up Now”, that highlighted healing racial divides. Her Story Theatre implored us to start seeing the signs of sex trafficking and modern day slavery with “Money Make‘m $mile”, and Firebrand Theatre (a company devoted to musicals penned by women) shamed golden era musicals with “The Sexist Medley”.  About Face Theatre threw the glammest dance party ever to combat homophobia and gender/binary exclusion with their piece “Looking Out, Looking In”. And the sharpest skewers were saved for A-Squared Theatre and Teatro Vista, each of whom took great umbrage with normalized racial insensitivity for Asian and Latin cultures by lambasting micro-aggressions in sketches.

The most interesting viewpoints for me were from Angelique Powers , the Co-Founder of Enrich, and President of the Field Foundation, and Tyronne Stoudemire, Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion for the Hyatt Corporation. Powers spoke about the pitfalls and importance of arranging events targeted at addressing workplace racism, even though we all are ill-equipped to hold a healthy discussion on race. Stoudemire reminded us of some of the fallacies that prevent diversity efforts from taking hold, and the stigma that accompanies his work (“want to put your staffers to sleep? Invite them to a diversity seminar”). Inclusion at all levels, listening,  and understanding are the only way to let others into primarily white male institutions. This process takes constant work, and there is no easy resolution or quota to achieve,  but the result can mean that stories that may have once been dismissed will be heralded on the stage and everywhere else.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Putting the work of artists of color and women first. 

Review: “A View From the Bridge” (Goodman Theatre)

Ian Bedford, Catherine Combs, and Andrus Nichols/Photo: Liz Lauren.

Show: “A View From the Bridge”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre (170 N Dearborn)

The smell of sea salt is referenced multiple times in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” part and parcel of the story’s connection to ancient grudges growing from family obligations stretching back to Sicily. But in the play’s startling Ivo van Hove production, recently on Broadway and now remounted at the Goodman, I kept anticipating the smell of blood. I waited for it be spilled on the pristine white set, as anxious and unsettled as the characters headed for oblivion onstage. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop its arrival; I simply had to pay attention, and heed the lesson at the heart of this penetrating and powerful production.

Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford) lives his life by a simple code: do right by your family, and protect them at all costs. He is particularly preoccupied with looking after his niece Catherine (Catherine Combs), a woman on the verge of her twenties who has lived with Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) for her entire childhood, and continues to do so in her emerging adulthood. Eddie and Catherine have settled into an uncomfortably flirtatious rhythm in recent years. Every day when he arrives home from the docks, she leaps into his arms, and wraps her legs around his waist. When he sits next to her, he absent-mindedly runs his hand up and down the length of her bare leg. Beatrice notes these gestures, but holds her tongue for the sake of peace in the household. Matters escalate with the arrival of Beatrice’s cousins from Italy; Marco (Brandon Espinoza) and Rodolpho (Daniel Abeles) enter the country illegally by ship, and work on the docks with Eddie in order to raise funds for family members back home. Eddie is happy to help out kin, but Rodolpho and Catherine take an instant interest in one another, and our protagonist’s disapproval eventually veers into obsession and results in violence.

Daniel Abeles, Brandon Espinoza, and Ian Bedford/Photo: Liz Larson.

Miller’s focus on the inevitability of tragedy is never stronger than in “View,” and van Hove’s stripped down presentation allows the script’s dread and anger to dominate the proceedings. By slicing away the realism centered in the home-set scenes, van Hove leaves only the actors to tell the story. Their bodies communicate fracturing and complicated bonds; their voices strain to reach scene partners across the wide white floor; the rhythm of their work prepares the audience for an awful outcome. Miller embraced Greek tragedy traditions up to a certain point, but stayed loyal to presenting the illusion of everyday life in his work. Ivo van Hove detaches the play entirely from reality, generating a sense that nothing in the world matters but Eddie’s desire. The result is a claustrophobic stage experience. The characters receive no relief; they cannot hide from one another, and you cannot look away from them. Serving as witness to this story carries its own weight and responsibility. When the show’s narrator, a lawyer named Alfieri (Ezra Knight), calls us to judge whether it is better to act in the community’s interest, rather than anguish in the purity of one’s own convictions, we are left to make the choice on our way out of the theater.

Bedford is a massive actor, and his frame sweeps across the space easily and with a sense of destiny. He plays Eddie as a man only half-aware of what he really wants; his fear always tips over into lashing out against and controlling the ones he loves. It is a tough performance, both sympathetic and frightening. Combs must be equally innocent of her affections, and only emerges as an independent adult slowly, with each passing scene, her inquiring mind driving her choices. Nichols could simply play a badgering wife, but she gives Beatrice’s needs complexity and dimension; the muting of her wants ends in her delivery of the play’s seminal line. Espinoza is appropriately intimidating in his solid quietness, and Abeles gives Rodolpho a sweetness and charm that proves in and of itself how wrong Eddie is about the boy’s masculinity and intentions towards Catherine.

The lights and sets by Jan Versweyveld are stark and square, a decision that often leaves the stage illuminated but the actors in shadow. As Combs and Bedford struggle with their desires, they sit in darkness, their voices alone carrying their questions to the audience. Costume designer An D’Huys lets Beatrice and Marco blend into the background with greys, while tracking Catherine’s changing feelings with blouses that first pop crayon colors, and eventually dim to black. Such design elements work in concert to reveal what the characters cannot.

When the blood finally arrives in “A View From the Bridge,” it provides no catharsis. As the actors stumble about the stage, splashed with color, there is no sense of relief, no discconection from pain and yearning. There is only the image, frozen in time, of men and women clutching at one another, always wanting more, but needing to settle for less.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Brilliant staging of an American classic examines desire and choice.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “A New Brain” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Show: A New Brain

Company: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Venue:  The No Exit Cafe (6970 N. Glenwood Ave.)

There is a metronome working overtime deep in the heart of Theo Ubique’s “A New Brain”, that keeps things so precise and expert, it’s almost like were in a operating theater, being tutored by a flock of luminaries. Playing space be damned, the cast and creative team bring this performance close enough to incorporate the whole audience into it. The players are bounding up and down your aisles, directing their lyrics sometimes solely to you, if you’re in the right place and the mood strikes them. Hell, if you ordered a beer, look again; the man who brought you your pint and glass a moment ago has now hoisted a small canvas sail, and sings aloofly to his one true love, a sailboat. The confidence and dexterity of a cast has never come together so well, and it’s worth more than all the spectacular effects money could buy.

In William Finn and James Lapine’s “A New Brain”, Gordon (Chase Heinemann) a children’s television show composer collapses during a lunch date with agent and friend, Rhoda (Tyler Symone). He discovers he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, and no choice but to undergo a life-threatening surgery to correct it. Gordon has a lot to sort out before he goes under the knife; his rocky relationship with sailing-obsessed Roger (Colin Schreier), the overprotectiveness of his mother, Mimi (Liz Norton),  his own doubts, brought to life by amphibian children’s show personality Mr. Bungee (Andy Brown), even a tenacious homeless woman looking for change (Veronica Garza). Last but not least, there’s the team of doctors and nurses who treat him (Kyle Ryan, Tommy Bullington, Holly Atwood and Danny Dwaine Wells II), bringing levity, cheer and vocal power during ensemble numbers.

The music reflects the crisis and return of Gordon’s particularly stream-of-consciousness brain. His messy life and lyrics are less disjointed when stung together with music director Jeremy Ramey’s gorgeous musical accompaniment. Likewise, choreographer Cameron Turner can turn a somber room into a mad-cap explosion of synapses firing. There’s just enough space to play tug-of-war with a Gertrude Stein book, or a rousing game of spin-the-gurney, so of course, we must. 

Director Fred Anzevino has assembled a collection of dynamic performers with astounding voices. Liz Norton stands out as Mimi, wringing the pathos out of her imagined 11 o’clock soliloquy, “The Music Still Plays On”, and Veronica Garza spares us no contempt with Lisa the Homeless Lady’s bitter plea for “Change”. Chase Heinemann may shoulder the heaviest load as as Gordon, but is so nimble in every number, he makes it look easy. And while every performer is fantastic on their own, the ensemble is an unstoppable force. Numbers like ‘Heart & Music’ and  reprise ‘Time & Music’ are so layered and enveloping you’ll find yourself floating above the rafters if you let go of the ride handrails. Don’t waste any energy fretting over how much you’ll enjoy the style or the subject matter or of this incredibly smart production, just go and experience this masterpiece first hand.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A musical whirlwind bursting out of its intimate venue seams

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “Alias Grace” (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

Ashley Neal and Steve Haggard/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Alias Grace”

Company: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (5779 N Ridge Ave)

Memory is unreliable, yet the lives of women and men often depend on certain events being recounted in a certain way. This is true for Grace Marks, the 1800s historical figure and convicted mudereress now sweeping across the Rivendell stage in Jen Blackmer’s adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel “Alias Grace.” Grace is a meek and mousy woman, so it is hard for most to believe she is guilty of killing her former employer and his housemaid. The dissonance between the cruelty of her crime and her behavior in prison provides a couple hours’ pondering, though the audience ends up as clueless at the end of the play as they were at the start.

Dr. Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard) plans to use the study of psychology to enter into Grace’s mind, and reveal her innermost truth. He is an ambitious young doctor, and largely wins a daily appointment to speak with the imprisoned Grace (Ashley Neal) because Rachel (Jane Baxter Miller), the warden’s wife, is fascinated by his work, while also harboring an attraction to him. Grace has been in jail for sixteen years, and now claims to have amnesia. Through her conversations with Jordan, she reveals the secrets of her employer Kinnear (Drew Vidal) and his housemaid-turned-mistress Nancy (Maura Kidwell). Aligning herself with hotheaded stablehand James (David Raymond), Grace never forgets the lesson she learned from a fellow maid and friend, Mary Whitney (Ayssette Muñoz): as servants, they know their superiors, from how they like their food cooked, to how they sleep at night; but the superiors will never know the servants, and that gives them power.

Blackmer is a gifted writer. She makes good use of Atwood’s quilting metaphor throughout her script, paralleling Grace’s story with the construction of a quilt. The playwright is especially fond of slipping in and out of memories, even granting flights of imagination to Jordan, as his dreams blur with the real world, once he comes to develop romantic and possessive feelings towards Grace. I am not sure that these dreamscapes are particularly dramatically thrilling, as they never last long enough for the viewer to question reality. But the confusion still does its work, highlighting that the doctor himself is not well, and just as calculating and controlling as any other person seeking Grace’s confession.

Director Karen Kessler pays special attention to how the women interact with one another physically in this production. From Kidwell to  Muñoz to Miller, the women are all much more at ease with one another than with any man. Nancy displays full-fledged drunkeness in front of Grace without fearing judgment. Mary depends on Grace’s strength to protect her from bodily harm. And Rachel dotes on Grace as a mother might her child. It is only in front of men that secrecy shrouds language, and what is being communicated comes out only through subtext. Grace must be careful, for she doesn’t always understand the game she is playing in her household.

Neal is particularly fine switching between the present, beaten down Grace, and the Grace of her teenage years, who enjoys living and working in Kinnear’s household. She sets the audience off-balance as she tells her tale, always indicating there is more to the tale than what she reveals to Dr. Jordan. Haggard comes apart at the seams as the play continues, and while I wondered if his harried demeanor may shut him off from fully hearing Grace’s story, his intensity helps communicate his downfall.  Muñoz is a breath of fresh air as the fiery-spirited Mary, and Kidwell does a lot with a look as the officious but concealing Nancy.

Quilts and paintings dominate Elvia Moreno’s set, and Michael Mahlum’s lighting help distinguish memory from dreams, while confounding expectations mid-scene sometimes. Janice Pytel’s costumes are simple yet elegant, highlighting the 1859 setting without making the world appear fusty or formal. And LJ Luthringer makes use of strings and standards to pull us back to the past while planting ominous religious overtones throughout the production.

If memory is unreliable, as Atwood and Blackmer remind us in “Alias Grace,” then what can we learn from an unveiled recollection? Do we know Grace any better once she has told her physician everything, or are we left still in the dark, understanding only how little we understand about how the human mind justifies its own actions?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A woman commits murder, only gains freedom once she remembers.

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “1984” (AstonRep Theatre)

Show: “1984”

(front, L to R) Tim Larson, Alexandra Bennett, and Ray Kasper. (back, L to R) Rory Jobst, and Lauren Demerath

Company: AstonRep Theatre

Venue: The Raven Theatre

In America’s current political climate, it’s not unusual to hear reference to doubletalk and newspeak and Big Brother, some people seem to think that 1984’s Oceania is more future than fiction—those people are wrong: Oceania is here, or at least it’s at The Raven Theatre in Edgewater where AstonRep’s production of 1984 is being staged, directed by Robert Tobin and adapted for the state by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr, and William A. Miles.

Before you step into Raven Theatre’s West Stage, Jeremiah Barr’s fearsome scenic design lets you know Big Brother is watching. Propaganda posters featuring “the party’s” slogans line the entryway and are bordered by the same redacted newspapers that paper the stage scrawled with phrases like “Thoughtcrime”, and “DuckSpeak”, and the particularly resonant “Fake News”. All of this resides under the watchful eyes of Big Brother and his security camera pupils with their tell tale red recording light blinking in the relative darkness of the house lights.

When the play does start, it grabs your attention with klaxons blaring the call to watch the morning news loudly enough that I wondered if I should have brought ear plugs. It was not the last time that I would wish for ear protection while watching the play.

Despite my aching ears, Tim Larson as Syme and Alexandra Bennet as Parsons grasped my attention with their one-eyed salute and the dichotomy between Larson’s precise movements and Bennet’s choppy ones which when paired together spoke of group dynamics and group anxiety that I was excited to watch. They and the in group dynamics of a totalitarian regime was at times unsettling to watch with how it mirrored modern day, American Extremism (especially the amount of vitriol spewed at the character Emmanuel Goldstein, including comparing him to a reptile).

Ray Kasper’s introduction as the weary Winston did nothing to quell the mix of disquiet and excitement the beginning of the show wrought in me, and the way he navigated the world of Oceania and the party was fascinating to watch.

My excitement did wane however with the introduction of Sarah Lo as the juvenile and impetuous Julia. To be fair, Lo did not have much to work with, the Julia of Owens et al.’s adaptation like the Julia of the original work is more of an idea or fantasy than a fully formed character. She is the beautiful young girl who falls for a man, many years her senior, and rushes into a romance and rebellion with little thought. It is played this way despite her implied stalking of Winston, but the audience never sees the Julia who followed the object of her affection to restaurants or loitered outside his apartment, weeks before ever actually meeting him. The only version of an in love Julia the audience sees, is a saccharinely sweet young girl who would rather focus on small happinesses than great injustices.

(left to right) Sarah Lo and Ray Kasper

The one note portrayal falls flat, and undermines the rest of the show.

The adaptation as whole fails in respect to Julia, in part because of its poor pacing. Instead of letting the audience see a relationship build on stage, the play jumps from their meeting to their decision to marry, leaving the audience no time to invest in their relationship.

That time is given instead to Winston’s torture, which takes up most of the second act, and since his relationship with Julia doesn’t feel like much, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s fighting for, and after five minutes of Winston’s screams I just felt fatigued, despite the excellent performance of Amy Kasper as O’Brien. She delivered iconic lines like gut punches, and her instant chemistry with Ray Kasper as Winston made Winston’s relationship with Julia pale even further in comparison. Amy Kasper ‘s O’Brien gloried marvelously in the pain she caused Winston, but the eventual outcome still fell flat because what Winston was fighting for in the end wasn’t valued by the script and that textual decision was supported by the directing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: “Julia doesn’t pass the sexy lamp test, sorry lit nerds.”

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Lawrence Grimm and the cast/Photo by: Evan Hanover.

Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.

Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.

Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.

Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.

Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.

Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.

“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

 

Review: “United Flight 232” (The House Theatre)

Show: United Flight 232

Company: The House Theatre

Venue:  The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Almost three decades after departure, The House Theatre gives us a glimpse into “United Flight 232”; it’s more than a factual account, more than a documentary, it’s a moment in the beating heart of a disaster in progress. We’re there to peer through the fuselage that still unravels for the few lucky men and women who walked out their flight’s burning wreckage alive and into a sunny Iowa cornfield one devastating day in the summer of 1989.

We follow head Flight Attendant Jan Murray (Brenda Barrie) Captain Al Hanes (Abu Ansari) and the hundreds of crew members, passengers, and hands on the ground that prevented doomed flight 232 from becoming the encompassing tragedy it surely would have been if luck had not intervened. When an explosion rips apart one engine on their passenger craft, the pilots (Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena) think they may be able to manage to O’Hare airport with just their remaining engines. They soon find they are stranded in the air with no ability to bank, turn or pull up. The enormous plane must be coasted to an unpopulated crash landing zone in Sioux City, Iowa.  One pilot likens the experience to “surfing a 500 ton whale”.

When the extent of the damage becomes clear, the crew members (Jessica Dean Turner, Alice Da Cunha) are made aware of the shrinking likelihood that any of them will emerge from the aircraft (as the captain codes it) “standing up”. They have no choice to devote all their energy to staving panic among the passengers (Elana Elyse, Dan Lin, Carlos Alameda) by treating this as normal air trouble, and going about flight routines.

As this plane lumbers through the air to what will be a bloody, ruinous mess of seats, metal and fire, we get a moment with everyone. Unaccompanied minors, businesspeople, mechanics and air traffic controllers all cycle through their regrets and mistakes before they make touchdown. But there is no panic and very little hesitation among a crowd of hundreds solidified enough by their better instincts to blink the terror away and care for each other. There are those who perish, those who flee when they find their feet, and those who glimpse the safety of the corn, just off the tarmac, but go back in to help, because they can. 

Director and adapter Vanessa Stalling filters author Laurence Gonzales’ account of the crash (“Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival”) by borrowing some very effective storytelling from documentary features. The actors step into the footsteps of dozens of survivors, asked to retrace their steps and remember the minute details burned into the backs of their eyes over time. The trembling hands collecting scattered miniature vodka bottles. The infant without  a seat being held between her mother’s feet. Stalling has crafted a story far more powerful than a theatrical fictionalization when she allows her subject’s remembered experiences to take focus.

The cast does a great deal of the heavy lifting in this minimalist production. Statements have been gathered from hundreds of survivors, and with he flip of an internal switch, actors must go from retiree to frightened teenager as the tension ratchets up. Elana Elyse is a joy to watch as she volleys between regretful mom Martha Conant and rookie in the control tower, Kevin Bachman. Likewise, Abu Ansari is fantastic both as Captain Al Hanes and as the airport chaplain who meets passengers departing from he wreckage.

As Jan Brown, Brenda Barrie is at the center of everything, one hand in the engine, one hand on your tray tables. It’s no accident that we have her guidance, her clockwork memory as our default authority,  this is the very person you’d want managing your crisis, no matter what. Barrie builds an unbreakable veneer, just to allow us peeks through the cracks. In wonderful counterpoint, Jessica Dean Turner allows us behind the curtain of her fears as coach flight attendant Susan White, who’s sole focus is to see her family once more. And for a beam of weird and wonderful optimism, look no further than Dan Lin as coach passenger John Xiu who managed to rescue a number of passengers with purely accidental good instincts.

So, without delay, I can advise stowing any reservations you may have about crashing planes under your seat, and make plans to move about this cabin. Fair warning: you will need copious tissues where you’re going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The human mechanics behind what goes wrong in the air.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)

Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.

After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.

This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.

Margaux Fournier and Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.

Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.

Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.

Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.

Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Red Theater Chicago)

Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Show: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Every professional wrestler has a signature finishing move. Chad Deity’s is called the power bomb, and it involves lifting his opponent into the air and then slamming them hard onto the mat, back first. In Red Theater’s energetic production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” what makes this move stand out is not its sheer power, but the wrestler’s showmanship. Before hoisting his fellow wrestler high over his head, Chad gyrates his hips and moves his hands around in a preemptive celebration, almost surigical in its precision. Without that bit, the move would simply be fight choreography. With it, Chad displays why he’s the best loved champion in wrestling. He has charisma. By contrast, the man lying on the mat lacks panache.

More often than not, that man is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a career underdog and true believer in the art form of professional wrestling. Chad (Semaj Miller) is the face of a wrestling company referred to only as “the wrestling,” though one can discern enough details in playwright Krisoffer Diaz’s script to peg the organization as the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Mace sees himself as a storyteller, since his primary job in each match is to make poorer wrestlers look like winners, a service he provides for Chad Deity often. But he longs for more space to tell his own stories. He wants an opportunity to win. Once he meets the motormouthed VP (a role usually performed by Priyank Thakkar, though I saw a performance with gifted understudy Harsh Gagoomal), he sees a chance to train a partner, someone to pump up the crowd before an entrance, someone who will support him to victory. But EKO (Mickey O’Sullivan), owner and operator of “the wrestling,” has other plans for the pair; they are to become villains, opposed to Chad Deity and all things American, and they will be billed as racist stereotypes.

Will Snyder, Dave Honigman, and Mickey O’Sullivan/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Diaz’s script is a wonder of craftsmanship. I can understand the impulse to revive the play in Chicago so soon after its original celebrated run at Victory Gardens in 2009. The playwright knows wrestling inside and out, and understands how the drama and showmanship of a great match is not too far from the dynamic work at play in the best theatrical performances. He uses wrestling as a metaphor for art and achieving the American Dream, and then complicates the entire scenario by highlighting how society regularly asks people of color to undermine their own identities in order to get ahead in their chosen fields. The fact that Mace addresses his tale of woe directly to the audience only makes its impact hit harder, as we become his fans, and watch while he struggles to reconcile new-found success with lost integrity.

Director Jeremy Aluma emphasizes the performance aspects of wrestling in hilarious bits. Each actor has a pratfall or excessive use of finger guns to mark their appearance. The referee (Dave Honigman) has as much of a stake in winning audience applause as anyone else, flinging himself onto the stage with a rolling sommersault. Aluma’s attention to detail places us in a world where what’s real and what’s fake blur, and what can be considered a drama or a fight can be debated. Fight choreographer Kyle Encinas adds to this with brutal and punishing bouts that make the small theatre space ring with bodies hitting the mat.

Such a landscape creates real problems for VP and Mace, who pretend to be stereotypes, only to question whether they are becoming stereotypes as they add more and more detail to each performance. The only area where I found Aluma’s work with the actors to be lacking was in the descriptions of Chad and VP’s elaborate entrances. The actors painted the imagery well, but I never got the sense of scope and bombast that Aluma and Encinas brought out in the performers physically at other moments. Of course, Michael Lewis’ wrestling ring set and Brian Lawrie’s projection work to flesh out those entrances, and costume designer Hailey Rakowieki’s wrestling outfits highlight the exaggerated nature of the profession.

Tey connects with the audience on an open-hearted and sincere level, an important accomplishment, given that the world around him relies on showing off first, and emotion second. He walks you through the industry he props up, and prepares you for the most shattering moments in the play. He is a great companion for the journey. Miller is tons of fun as Deity, helping you understand why his bravado works so well on others. Gagoomal is smooth and honest as an operator with a soul. And Will Snyder as numerous Bad Guy characters highlights how ridiculous wrestling characters can become.

In this production, whether or not Chad Deity should be the champ is rarely in question. He dominates any scene he is in, using flare and machismo to charm the audience; the true question is not whether Chad Deity will win using his signature finishing move, but what will happen to the guy hurled to mat after the final bell is sounded.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An energetic tale of charisma and hard choices about art.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: Sister Africa (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Melissa Nelson (left) as Miriam and Takesha Kizart (right) as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman

Show: Sister Africa

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

“Sister Africa” written by Stephanie Liss and directed by Elayne LeTraunik is a play advertised as being about efforts to aid the women and children victimized during the Congo’s ongoing civil war by the Jewish World Watch. It’s a description that brings up mental images of the white savior narrative. The white savior narrative is a narrative in which an outsider, usually white, travels to a place, usually full of black or brown people, and rescues them from the horrors of their existence. It’s a prevalent narrative, that puts the lived experiences of the people being ‘saviored’ on the back burner often with a side helping of criticizing them for the savagery of their lives. The set, dominated by a pristine desk on one side, and a straw hut with a tin roof on the other does little to wash away those images. However, audience members who stick it out will learn the play is more of a loosely connected series of monologues framed by one woman’s journey to collect the stories of people surviving in the midst of a war’s horrors so she can share their stories with the larger world. The lived experiences of the Congolese are front and center.

Or more accurately, centered. The first third of the play is a series of monologues by Miriam (Melissa Nelson) the aid worker who conducts the interviews, based on both the author Stephanie Liss and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamener Reznik and by Rabbi (Jimmy Binns), Miriam’s Rabbi. They give the audience background into Miriam’s life as the child of two Holocaust survivors and into the Jewish World Watch and it’s mission to stop genocide worldwide to ground the play’s narrative in a Jewish tradition of justice work and what it means for a Jewish person to refuse to be complicit in mass atrocities, even when that complicity is only silence and consumption. The monologues would have been more effective if Nelson and Binns did not hold the emotional history at arm’s length. Nelson, in particular, was disappointingly disconnected from the text, which made her appear as a high schooler in a recitation contest and a trauma tourist by turns.

Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman.

The disconnect was made startlingly apparent when the first of the actor’s playing one of the Congolese characters arrived on stage, Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette, the sole survivor of her family after a night raid, a woman carrying the title “Mama” even after witnessing her children’s slaughter. Kizart, the true star of “Sister Africa”, breathed fresh life into a performance that already had the audience growing restless. She managed to capture the audience’s attention with the tilt of her chin and kept it for the rest of the play with her vast emotional range and stamina.

The other Congolese characters were played by Ahmed Brooks as Amani, the teacher running a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, and by Chris McClellan as Cesar, the pain-ridden child soldier. Ahmed tackled the job of giving both the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgian colony to now, while also managing to be a fully realized character with aplomb. While, McClellan as Cesar completely changed the feeling in the theater when he stepped on stage. A much quieter presence than either Kizart or Brooks, McClellan can gave a full monologue with the tug of his shirt and Cesar’s sorrow was immediately visible and undercut with a seething anger that made it clear: to watch him, is to watch a bomb waiting to explode.

Jimmy Binns as The Rabbi. Photo by Ron Goldman.

As these characters, Mama Jette, Amani, and Cesar, tell their stories, questions are asked: What does it mean to be a responsible global citizen? How do women become worth so little to a group of people that rape becomes “big business”? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Congolese man, when every Congolese man featured carries a gun?

They are questions that need to be asked, and different characters offer varying levels of nuance that range from rhetorical condemnation to childish desperation, but at the end the questions are still left unanswered, leaving the audience to carry the questions home, along with a mother’s grief.

Ten Word Summary: Hundreds of hours of interviews about atrocities in one play.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”