Review: “The Sundial” (City Lit Theater)

Show: The Sundial

Company: City Lit Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

Every year is unique when you work in the theatre world.  For me, 2016 was a bittersweet year.  I saw fewer shows in the past 365 days than I have in any year since 2011.  I was only in the audience for 50 performances this year.  That’s down from 3 times that last year.  However, that was the result of working on more shows myself, and that’s a good thing.  My own theatre company is one of the many that closed up shop this year.  So, it’s on to new things with the new year.  But first, let’s take time to reflect, and celebrate the five best shows that I saw in 2016!

#1

Show: “Byhalia, Mississippi”

Company: The New Colony and Definition Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: How, when, and why do you choose to forgive someone?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

My first top-rated show of 2016 never fell out of the top spot.  No matter what other crap went down in 2016, the year started out really strong and with a lot of promise.  I don’t have much new to say about this piece that I didn’t already say in my original review, so I’ll just quote a bit of that piece here: “Back when I was in grad school for playwriting, one of my professors maintained that no matter what else was true about your script, none of it mattered without the characters.  Well drawn characters can tell just about any story and make it moving.  Addressing issues makes something a platform, creating characters makes it a play.  Linder would have aced that professor’s class.  His characters are real people.  They have real problems.  They have real feelings.  They speak in very real cadences that bring the viewer into the world of the play.  This is a really well-crafted work.”  With this play, The New Colony and Definition Theatre tackled many of the issues that came to the fore in the political landscape of our presidential election.  He wrote a play about working class whites, upwardly mobile blacks, the tensions between races and classes, and how all societally held beliefs and attitudes are built and defined (and hopefully changed) at a personal level.  When we eventually look back on the career of Evan Linder, this play will be studied as his masterwork.

#2

Show: [Trans]formation”

Company: Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studio

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I can safely say that not enough people saw this show.  Even had they sold out every night, that statement would still be true.  Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas put six completely naked transgendered and/or non-binary actors on stage and through powerfully emotional monologues, thoughtful songs, and intellectually challenging concept pieces, they led the audience to more or less ignore the genitalia bared in front of them.  The characters, the tales, the vibrantly colored projections all came together to create an evening of perception-altering art that changed those who saw it.  I came away enriched, informed, entertained, and fundamentally changed.  I can pin-point about five plays in my life that have shaken-up what I consider theatre to be.  Director Gaby Labotka has grabbed hold of my preconceptions and given them a good rattling.

#3

Show: “The Misanthrope”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Piccolo Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A Moliere translation for a new generation. This play matters.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

If one had to pick a French playwright to be declared that language’s equivalent to Shakespeare, one would have to say Moliere.  And yet, in translation, his pieces often feel dated and less universal than the works of the Bard.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by Piccolo’s new translation of “The Misanthrope”.  This was an artfully executed piece that was updated to a modern setting.  The manners of the French court were swapped out for the proclivities of modern show business.  But, the essence of what was being said remained the same.  The script even remained in verse.  It was perfect for this time and place.  We all identified with the characters in a way that just isn’t possible to do when seeing an older translation still set in the 1600s.  One of my first professional jobs 20 years ago was on a production of “The Misanthrope”.  It wasn’t until Piccolo’s production of Martin Crimp’s literal and cultural translation that I truly felt I understood the work at its more basic level.  Ben Muller’s portrayal of Alceste was dynamic and director Michael D. Graham’s overall approach to the work focused on every single detail.  Each movement, each light or sound cue, every item placed on the set was important.  One strategically placed bowl of Skittles still makes me want to go to the lobby to buy a box right now.

#4

Show: “The Drawer Boy”

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: We each live in a myth of memory.  But whose?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I’m pretty sure I could watch Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry act together all year long and be happy.  To see those two bring to life the older gentleman farmers in “The Drawer Boy” was a special treat.  Now, this play isn’t new, and it is a solid part of the contemporary canon, but I’d never seen the play prior to this production.  It is a touching piece that delves into the issues of creating memories, about what is truth, and what damage we do to ourselves and others.  It pack an emotional wallop.  But, it clearly only rises to the level of brilliant when treated appropriately.  Redtwist could not have treated this script better.  The play wasn’t something to be viewed, but experienced.  The total incorporation of all the design elements and a clear directorial vision brought everything together in a way that immersed the audience in a theatrical event, not a play.  There is no way I could have spent an hour and a half on a Canadian farm a year prior to my birth, but earlier this year I did just that.  I’m glad that I did.

#5

Show: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit

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

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I spent my formative years in an exceptionally affluent suburb of the Twin Cities.  Naperville (the city) has much in common with my childhood stomping grounds.  So it was that I attended this show expecting something that lampooned the nonsense of a society that places far too much value upon material wealth and the attitudes of entitlement that accompany evident affluenza.  Mat Smart’s script is one part character study, one part slice-of-life comedy, mixed with a dash of philosophic nostalgia.  That’s a recipe that results in a play that touches on the pride of those who come from a certain place, but also the doubt that comes from feeling out of place in one’s own community.  At its core, the play doesn’t make fun of anyone.  The humor comes from the very real situations and the human need for identity and companionship in both good times and bad.  Joe Schermoly’s set still amazes me in its complexity, utility, and beauty: not something I’d expect to say about what is really a realistic interior.  With this work, Abby Pierce reinforced her place at the top of my list of my favorite actors in town.  She didn’t carry this show, because she didn’t have to.  The whole cast was stellar.  But, she did bring unexpected depth to a character that had to be done just right in order to make this play work.  All in all, this play was far better and far more than I was expecting.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre); “Rent” (Theo Ubique Productions); “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions); “Dream Girls” (Porchlight Music Theatre); and “The Lion in Winter” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).

Review: “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas)

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Show: [Trans]formation

Company: Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studios

Every once in a while I see a show that redefines a part of the art of theatre.  Once in a great while.  Over the years I’ve pretty much solidified what I see as a good show.  And the guideposts that have been set along the way are the ideals that I use when writing for this outlet or any other about what I’ve seen.  But, then something like “[Trans]formation” comes along.  The show, which is now playing at Collaboraction Studios under the dual flag of Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas, takes on the heavy task of redefining language and interpersonal relationships, self-identity and how we look at others.

This production has clearly been carefully crafted by director Gaby Labotka and her collaborators.  It is a devised work that stems from a series of submissions from trans individuals from around the country.  The source material is available in a zine that is offered up at the performance. I highly recommend getting a copy as part of the experience.

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
So, I’ve said that this thing shifted my idea of theatre.  Why is that?  Well, for one, the piece is essentially what I would have called performance art in the past.  Much of the show has no plot, nor characters. Yet it is clearly theatrical. It is constructed around a theme and presented by way of images.  Sometimes these are literal images projected upon a screen, but more often the images are created through a brilliant collage of stage-wide projected textures that are caught upon the myriad surfaces of the stage, and more importantly upon the varied shape of the bodies of the performers.

Part of any production by The Living Canvas involves the actors performing nude, and this is performance is no different.  The images and their interplay upon the bodies of the actors is like a vibrant and vital painting that is constantly shifting before your eyes.  Though the performers don no clothing, this is not a bit of gimmick for attracting more eyes and titillating the senses.  This is a literal baring of one’s body and metaphorically the soul as well.

I have never been to a production of The Living Canvas before, so I can’t comment on how appropriate it seems in other productions, but with the topic of gender identity, the human body seems perfectly suited as the tool to tell tales.  As I sat and watched the six performers on stage, there were often times that their nudity was completely lost among the rest of the presentation.

Through short monologues and songs, physical pieces and proclamations, this piece finds a way to speak to each viewer and touch them deeply.  There are multiple levels of truth constantly being put forth and taken in.  You’ll note that I don’t make special mention of any specific performer in this review.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, I don’t believe that any one individual within this work can be held separate from the others.  I’ve never seen another show in which the meaning of ensemble is better represented.  Second, nothing I saw can be subject to the standard criticisms I might address in a review.  I can’t honestly tell you if these performers are good actors when it comes to a regular play.  But, I can tell you that they are perfect for this piece.  The sum total of their work here is something brilliant and wonderful.  It challenges the audience.  It informs the audience.  It changes the audience.  That’s what this art is supposed to do, and they do it better than I’ve seen in a long, long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Resolution” (Pride Films & Plays)

Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

Show: Resolution

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 5

There is something comfortable about a simple, straight-forward morality play.  One can clearly tell who is the villain, who is the hero, where right and wrong reside within the tale.  That is what Nancy Nyman’s and Heather McNama’s “Resolution” does under the direction of Diana Raiselis. The newest offering from Pride Films & Plays unfolds upon the Rivendell stage which has been beautifully transformed into a 1890s home by set designer Milo Bue.

Set in New York City in 1892, this show tells the tale of a happily married couple, Jack (Tiffany Mitchenor) and Hannah (Aneisa Hicks) on the eve of a new year.  They’ve sent their staff home early in order to have a nice quiet evening in.  Their housekeeper and her husband are the last to go, just after getting their end of the year bonus (an important plot point).

At first glance this play is set up for a good deal of inherent complication and complexity.  The rich couple is black, in New York City, at a time when the black population in that metropolitan area was consolidating in Harlem.  The house staff is represented by an Irish woman, Margaret O’Malley (Amber Snyder).  The Irish at that time were often regarded as poorly as blacks by the majority of upper class white society.  So, there is potential for exploring many racial and class issues.  However, with the exception of one line tossed into the middle of a heated argument, racial issues don’t really come up.  A second, earlier, more veiled reference to limited advancement opportunities within Jack’s professional field is also likely a comment on race, but it lands lightly and skitters on by so quickly that it carries little weight.

Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

The real issue of this play is that the loving couple is made up of two women.  One lives publicly as a man, so that they are not discovered and persecuted.  But their world comes crumbling down when Margaret discovers their secret when she returns unannounced to retrieve her bonus envelope, which she mistakenly left behind. The housekeeper is driven by her self-righteousness to ruin the lives of the supposedly sinful people for whom she has cared over the previous three years.  This is another place wherein the script could have explored an interestingly deep topic, that of a crisis of faith.  Instead, this is where the play descends from the realm of drama into that of melodrama.  Despite the determined efforts of Snyder, Margaret is a one-dimensional villain in this piece.  She is filled with stereotypical Catholic beliefs of her day, and she is unchangeable in her stance, unable to even acknowledge or react to anything she hears opposing her own viewpoints.

So, the play throws complexity out the window in favor of making a statement.  That’s fine.  That’s what happens in all morality plays.  But, the groundwork was laid for something far deeper, and it feels a bit of a shame that at least one additional aspect wasn’t explored.

The characters created by Mitchenor and Hicks are far more fully realized, and they are quite fun and enjoyable.  A favorite scene is when they attempt to teach each other how to behave in case they’d ever have to swap their assumed roles.  It is in this scene, and the immediately surrounding ones, that the script does a wonderful job of showing two people who love each other functioning within a fully realized marriage.  It is a 100% “normal” marriage, and as far as slice-of-life scenes go, the action was believable and often humorous in that way that comes from watching common truths and empathizing with them.

Edward Fraim plays the show’s narrator and Margaret’s husband, Harrison.  I’m going to assume that his surname is also O’Malley, seeing as his wife is often referred to as Mrs. O’Malley.  Fraim isn’t on the stage as often as the others, but when he is, his energy imbues the whole performance with added life.  Harrison is dedicated to two people whom he sees as being good, and valuable as people.  He also knew about their secret life long before his wife did.  He is caught in an awkward position between the two camps.  His struggle seems most real of those upon the stage.  His arguments ring most true, as does his defeat due to his sense of marital duty.

Sitting in the house at Rivendell, the play zips by and is enjoyable to take in.  But, I do have to wonder if it is anything more than watching a comfortable, familiar parable.  Not unlike watching a rerun of the 1960s version of Star Trek, we see a brief morality play in which everyone on the good side gets a happy ending, and in one briefly sharp moment of realization, the villain gets what’s coming to her.

It’s a show that feels surprisingly safe in addressing the topic of hatred, because it doesn’t go anywhere complicated or truly ugly.  It stays on the surface and safe.  Now, true, this wouldn’t necessarily be safe if it were put on in front of an audience of right-wing-aligned conservative evangelical Christians or Trump supporters.  Yet, as you may guess, that’s not who attends shows put up by Pride Films & Plays.  I’ll acknowledge that there are still people who could benefit from hearing the simple, didactic message of this show.  They, however, were not sitting in the same theatre as I was on opening night.  So, we all sat and agreed with the comfortable, reaffirming position taken by the work in front of us.

At the same time, the friendly audience wasn’t truly challenged in any way to understand the opposing viewpoint, either.  I think that is where this play fell short.  It isn’t a bad play.  PFP doesn’t do bad plays.  I say that without doubt.  But, the playwrights missed a number of opportunities to make this a multi-layered, complex masterpiece.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Don’t be like this one lady, says preacher to choir.

RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

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: “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: “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”