Review: “Target Behavior” (20% Theatre Company)

IMG_1570Show: Target Behavior

Company: 20% Theatre Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N. Elston)

Die Roll: 1

A teenaged girl finds herself in an adolescent psych ward following a dangerous relationship with an older man. While there, she’s forced to confront her fears and relive the events that led to her confinement. For a play dealing with such heavy issues, you’d think it would have more substance.

Poor Kendra (Amanda Forman) is isolated and misunderstood. The adults in her life are all clueless, while the teens are all older than their years. It’s like a John Hughes movie, complete with character tropes. There’s the kind but ineffective counselor; Kendra’s selfish, immature mother; and the “nice” guy she meets in a park who turns out to be the worst kind of predator. Her “best friend” on the outside is a self-involved twit who unwittingly keeps throwing Kendra and her attacker together. In the psych ward, we meet another round of stereotypes: the sweet-but-odd-nature-obsessed-boy, the totally shut-down girl who injects inadvertent humor into tense situations through her actions, and the cool kid who immediately bonds with smart-ass Kendra over being Too Good For This Place.

Aside from the characters, major problem of the play is that Kendra is overburdened with Issues. Not only is she damaged by an absent father and a mother who’s an immature nightmare, the one meaningful relationship in her life ends horribly in rape — and she’s a cutter, which turns out to be her “target behavior”. She doesn’t have just a mountain to overcome – she has the whole range. Every scene has our beleaguered heroine tackling one overly dramatic situation after another. There’s no time for reflection and character growth because the scenes only average about five minutes, so no one has time to react to what just happened. Things just keep clipping along at a high intensity with no clear purpose other than to show us how hard her life is.

I’m frustrated by this play. I think its intention to bring awareness to mental health issues is admirable.  But that awareness isn’t served well by a play that provides cliches instead of characters, and a series of melodramatic events in the place of a compelling story.  For an early draft it’s ok, but it’s a long way from a finished product.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Plays like a tv teen drama about Kids With Issues.

DICE RATING: d6 = Has Some Merit

Review: “The Drowning Girls” (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

signal-074Show: The Drowning Girls

Company: Signal Ensemble Theatre

Venue: Signal Ensemble Theatre (1802 W. Berenice Av.)

Die Roll: 18

Three women. Three bathtubs. Three lives.

Signal Ensemble Theatre’s US premiere of “The Drowning Girls” is a lovely piece of theatre. Combining lyrical prose, memory, and many characters, three women guide us through their unfortunate relationships with a serial killer. George Joseph Smith wooed, married and drowned Bessie, Alice, and Margaret roughly one year apart from each other. Together, the wives relive the events leading up to their deaths. Over the course of a perfectly-paced eighty minutes, they discover truths about love, relationships, marriage, and their places in the world.

Each of the three women is wonderfully distinct and well-cast. Katherine Schwartz plays first wife Bessie with a sweet naiveté. Meghan Reardon adds fire to the trio in her tempestuous Alice, and Anne Sheridan Smith brings sensible, bittersweet humor as the wife number three (Margaret). Along the way, they speak to not only their personal desires, and the trials of womanhood in the Edwardian era, but also to society’s part in their murders. Smith fooled each woman completely by appearing to be the epitome of Edwardian manhood. We see Bessie, Alice, and Margaret respond to his attentions as society has conditioned them to – and it proves to be their undoing.

The set is both deceptively simple and effective: three clawfoot tubs, a handful of props, and some outstanding lighting design by Michael C. Smith. Such elegant simplicity perfectly frames the actors’ performances. While the theatre is small, there is no bad seat in the house, including the front row – which I highly recommend.

“The Drowning Girls” has it all – moving performances, a great script, and an excellent company. Treat yourself to this show.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Together in death, wronged wives seek justice for their murders.

DICE RATING: d12 = Heckuva Good Show

Review: “Beast on the Moon” (Raven Theatre Company)

BeastShow: Beast on the Moon

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: The Raven Theatre (6157 N. Clark)

Die Roll: 19

“Beast on the Moon”, playing now at the Raven Theatre in Rogers Park, is a moving example of a social issue play done right. The subject is the Armenian Genocide of 1915 – or rather, its effect. Two young people, sixteeen-year-old refugee Seta, and her twenty-something husband Aram, have to figure out what it means to be an Armenian in America. Neither has any family left and they both desperately need the other person to fill in those missing pieces.

Seta is young and somehow still naive in spite of her circumstances, and Aram is more a boy playing a man than an actual grownup. In the first act they engage in an intense tug-of-war about their marital roles. Of utmost importance to Aram is children: he wants a lot of them, and he wants them now. We’re never really sure about Seta’s opinion on the matter, although she dutifully goes along with his rather cold demands for intimacy. Both agree, though, that having children of their own will ease some of the pain of losing both their families and their histories.

Along the way, a Gentleman provides commentary and sets up each scene, and it becomes clear pretty early on that he’s more than a mere observer. He doesn’t sit to one side, “Masterpiece Theatre”-style, and speak up every once in a while. Instead, he prowls through the scenes, always in the background, never distracting, and occasionally lending a helping hand.

The production looks beautiful, and as a former resident of Milwaukee, I have to give props to the Kristin Abhalter’s design of the Tomasian apartment, because it’s spot on. Director Michael Menendian has cleverly melded visual and audio technologies and used them to great effect as well, without sacrificing the period feel of the piece.

Performance-wise, the show drags a bit, especially in the first act. Sophia Menendian is a capable young actress clearly not much older than Seta, but I didn’t believe the character in her teenage phase. Menendian looked uncomfortable and awkward (and not as a choice), as if she didn’t quite buy herself as a teenager. In the second act, however, she seemed more grounded and comfortable, and as a result, her entire performance improved.

Matt Browning was very good as Aram, a boy who is trying to be his father in a desperate attempt to bring him back from the dead.  The danger with a character as buttoned-up as Aram is that he becomes a one-note cold fish. Fortunately, Browning’s performance is subtle and deft, and he makes it look so natural. Aram is a bomb primed to go off, but when he finally does, it’s devastating.

“Beast on the Moon” can be a little uneven at times, but it’s well worth a look. It’s an unnerving reminder of both human intolerance and fortitude, and a necessary reminder for our increasingly disconnected society.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Poignant story focuses on everyone’s need for family and belonging.

DICE RATING: d10- Worth Going To

Review: “Martyr” (Steep Theatre Co.)

Martyr2: (left to right) Travis Coe and Brando Crawford in Steep Theatre's production of Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Joanie Schultz. Photo by Lee Miller.
Martyr: (left to right) Travis Coe and Brando Crawford in Steep Theatre’s production of Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Joanie Schultz. Photo by Lee Miller.

Show: Martyr

Company: Steep Theatre Co.

Venue: Steep Theatre (1115 W. Berwyn)

Die Roll: 4

“Martyr” turns the intersection of religious fanaticism and lost youth sideways in a fascinating, terrifying study.  A stellar example of new theatre coming in from Europe, the play was penned by German playwright Mayer von Mayenburg as a response to the rise Islamic fundamentalism in Germany. You will, however, find no mention of the Qu’ran in “Martyr”. Instead, the religious text that catalyses the action is the Bible.

Young Benjamin Sudel (Brando Crawford) is in the throes of high school angst, trying to figure out where he belongs. In his search for meaning he lands on the Bible as a guidebook, but quickly transforms from a moderate Bible-thumper to a full-on fire-and-brimstone evangelist who believes in the absolute literal interpretation of the book. In a determinedly secular world, this shortly puts him in contention with almost everyone around him. It’s not his sudden adherence to Christianity that is the real problem, though – it’s Benjamin’s insistence that the world realign to his new-found rules, which happen to be extremely misogynistic and homophobic.

The conflicts that grow from Benjamin’s increasingly volatile actions affect his hard-working single mother (Cindy Marker), his well-meaning phys ed teacher (Steve Schine), and puts him head to head with his guidance counselor, played by Kendra Thulin. Perhaps his only ally is Georg, (played by the excellent Travis Coe), a classmate similarly outcast from the student populace on account of a short leg and a speech disability. Georg finds in Benjamin someone to admire and emulate, and though he quickly falls in line with his charismatic friend, he somehow loses none of his sweet affability.

This script is phenomenal and unfolds in heightened, jolting scraps of action. It’s a shame, then, that instead of embracing the style of the play, which includes (at times) somewhat-stilted language and broad characters, director Joanie Schultz decided to convert the performance style into the typical realism American audiences expect. This is a play about radical idealism, and verisimilitude only undermines its impact. The end result was a lot of one-level acting, with characters attaining a high level of passion and then continuing at that level for minutes on end. Whenever anyone got impassioned, they stopped reacting to other events occurring in the moment that should have had an impact on their character.

Still, Chicago needs as much exposure to non-American theater as we can get. I’m glad Steep chose to tackle this play, and thereby challenge their audience with a different spin on a familiar theme. I wish the commitment to style had been braver, but “Martyr” is well worth a look.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: “Edgy, jarring examination of young fanaticism; misses the stylistic boat.”

DICE RATING: d10 – Worth Going To

Review: “End Days” (Windy City Playhouse)

End DaysShow: End Days

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue: Windy City Playhouse

Die Roll: 8

Much has been trumpeted in Chicago theatre circles in the past month about the addition of a new Equity company in the city. Because Equity generally equals resources, when I go to see an Equity show I automatically set the bar higher.  Now, I happen to think that having resources does not always make for a better theatrical experience; in fact, the opposite is often true. Happily, that is mostly not the case with Windy City Playhouse’s inaugural production. “End Days” by Deborah Zoe Laufe presents us with a high-quality production, a good script, and some fine acting.

Say hello to sweetly dysfunctional Stein family: father Arthur (Keith Kupferer) has been traumatized into inactivity after surviving the attacks on the World Trade Center, months before.  Mother Sylvia (Tina Gluschenko) has turned to Jesus – literally – and is convinced that the world will end on Wednesday. Their daughter Rachel (Sari Sanchez) has gone Goth in an attempt to deal with recent upheavals. Thrown into the mix is the adorably eager Nelson (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), the new next-door neighbor who wears an Elvis-style jumpsuit and carries a guitar everywhere he goes as a safety blanket. Rounding out the mix are the hallucinations – maybe? – of Stephen Hawking and Jesus, that appear to daughter and mother respectively, both inhabited by the hilarious Steven Strafford.

When you meet the Steins, the first thing you’ll realize is that no one is capable of talking to anyone else. They each putter around in their singular little orbits. Then Nelson plants himself in their living room, and serves as a catalyst to reopen their blocked relationships. Nelson comes with his own baggage: both of his parents are dead, and he’s now being raised by his father’s wife and her new husband. He desperately wants to connect with Rachel, over whom he’s gone immediately cow-eyed. While it sounds a little stalkerish, in practice, Nelson instinctively seems to know how best to reach each isolated Stein and bring them back toward each other.

The first act jumps around a lot from the Stein living room, to a school lunchroom, to a playground, with some scenes too short to be worthwhile. This also causes a lot of transition time, which makes the pacing falter. However, the second act is limited to the Stein living room, where the family and Nelson wait to see if Wednesday will indeed be their last day on earth. This is where the show really finds its footing, and each moment flows more naturally into the next.

The show does flounder with some of the performances, and I’m not sure if it’s the actors or the script. Tina Gluschenko plays wound-tight Sylvia with wonderful, desperate energy, but it becomes rather one-note quickly. Rachel suffered some similar one-dimensional character issues in the first act, but in the second act, Sari Sanchez has more room to expand into varied aspects of Rachel-ness.

At the end of the day, it was a light, fun piece of theatre. While is wasn’t particularly deep, it was a safe bet well performed for a fledgling company.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sweet and funny, End Days celebrates our need for family.

DICE RATING: d10 – Worth Going To

Review: “Tomato Queen” (Quest Theatre Ensemble)

tn-500_tomatoqueen1.jpg.pagespeed.ce.w81EcpQ8OPeCZLRKqZjEShow: Tomato Queen

Company: Quest Theatre Ensemble

Venue: The Blue Theater (1609 W. Gregory)

Die Roll: 1

Lonely Camina just wants to go to Camp Fun for the summer so she can make some friends. Instead, her loving but over-anxious parents schlep her off to Mr. Boggs’ Camp Success, where she strikes a deal with the slightly shady businessman-cum-camp counselor: if she manages to grow the perfect winter tomato, Boggs will consider her a success and let her go to Camp Fun. Along the way, Camina learns important lessons on friendship, hard work, patience and rewards.

It’s a cute idea based on good themes, but unfortunately the script is a mess. While the music is snappy and well-done, the storyline gets lost numerous times in the first act, although the second act rallies and the production finishes nicely enough.  In particular, a go-nowhere subplot involving the Evil Scientist could be completely excised with no loss of coherence. While writer Christine Kodak  and composer Scott C. Lamps were clearly aiming stylistically for something in the realm of “Urinetown”, the production falls short due to uneven acting and the aforementioned script issues.  Each character needs to be bold and strongly-drawn; some actors managed it, most notably Kirk Osgood as the delightfully vaudevillian Hawker. Had all the cast managed their versions of  his broad and committed performance, it would been a totally different show.

Most of the characters are thinly drawn, and the actors don’t have much wiggle room to break out. Everyone has wonderful voices, though, so the show sounds lovely. One outstanding moment: Taylor Keenan as Mother has a beautiful song toward the end of the first act called “Mother’s Song” that was so distinct from the rest of the show that I wished the writer and composer had built a show around it, instead.

The only other outstanding moments of the show involve a very clever puppet of a monster worm that swoops in to attack Camina’s tender tomatoes and ruin her chances at success. It’s a three-person affair, with Osgood stepping in as primary puppet-handler, and again, Osgood injects as much well-needed panache via the puppet as he does in all his myriad appearances as a human character.

There are a lot of good notions present in “Tomato Queen”, but it needs a few more workshops before it grows into itself.  Small fry under 10 will probably appreciate it for the colors and music, but there’s not a lot of fodder for adults.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sprightly music and clever design can’t make up for messy script.

DICE RATING: d8 – Not Bad, Not Great

Review: “The Sweeter Option” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart in "The Sweeter Option" at Strawdog Theatre
Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart in “The Sweeter Option” at Strawdog Theatre

Show: The Sweeter Option

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 17

If you’re a fan of film noir, then “The Sweeter Option” will be right up your alley. Set over three days of a sultry 1971 Chicago June, the play ably evokes specific set-pieces particular to the genre: the femme fatale, the average-joe in over his head, money gone astray, murder, a tense conversation in the getaway car, and last-minute twists and turns.  Our two protagonists, Tucker (Sam Guinan-Nyhart) and Irene (a phenomenal Michaela Petro), even have the trademark rapid-fire patter down.

In the wee hours of June 25, 1971, Tucker sidles into a buddy’s fishing cabin with a passed-out Irene over his shoulder. When she wakes up, what appears to be a kidnapping quickly proves something far more complex, involving a rather clever perpetration of fraud, two neighbor kids who think they’ll make a quick buck, and an uneasy truce between Irene and Tucker. A seemingly controlled situation goes sideways fast, and people start dropping dead all over the place courtesy of our two anti-heroes.

One odd thing: the scenes are played out of sequence starting with the second scene, but ending with the last. It’s an affectation that might have been employed to highlight the disjointedness of time common in film noir – but here, it can be incredibly confusing if you’re not following the scene list in the program. In addition, the transitions are Mad Men by way of an acid trip, and highlight Tucker’s struggle with the choices he makes, has made, or will make. I almost wish playwright John Henry Roberts had chosen one conceit or the other, though; together, they were a little overwhelming. I think the narrative is strong enough to show front-to-back or back-to-front sequences.  While the trick of scenes out of order was a neat idea, the text didn’t really support the choice.

Michaela Petro nails the complexities of Irene with ease: headstrong, calculating, funny, wry, conniving – all the necessary qualities of a fascinating woman. While Sam Guinan-Nyhart took a moment to relax into Tucker, he more than matched Petro by the end.  A great example is the give-and-take in the car as they’re trying to get out of town and decide where to go next, which sizzled with tension and expectation.

The rest of the cast ebb and flow around these two, and add nice touches to flesh out the small but interconnected world that swallows Irene and Tucker.  Sarah Price as Joy has the most range: she brings some well-needed levity to early scenes, but also delivers some gut-punches near the end. Emily Tate takes a nice turn as Carolyn, the woman who sets Tucker on his path, and Matt Farabee has small but touching role as a kid who recognizes Tucker as a former hero. Rounding out the cast are Rudy Galvan as the thuggish Pete (and Joy’s brother), and Jon Beal (the understudy for the role) as Tucker’s friend Mac. Beal in particular seemed a little out of his element, but he was also playing the one character whose purpose in the story is the least clear.

All is all, this was a treat of a show. A shoutout to Strawdog for this, their 100th production. May they continue to encourage and produce new works for 100 more.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Clever homage to noir, with complex anti-heroine and conflicted anti-hero.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

 

Review: “A Kid Like Jake” (About Face Theatre)

Show: A Kid Like JakeAKLJ

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: The Greenhouse Theater Center

Die Roll: 15

I had an extreme reaction to “A Kid Like Jake”, which I saw this past Sunday.

When I say “extreme”, I mean that it’s taken me two days to regain some sort of perspective so I can try to give the show a fair shake. Yes, this is now a Jeff-recommended production, and maybe the show deserves it. It’s well-designed, and Michael Aaron Lindner (Greg) is not only the finest actor in the play, he makes the other actors look good, too. Scenes without him tend to drag, mostly because the actors talk past each other instead of to each other.

The play’s premise sounds good on paper: Alex (played adequately by Katherine Keberlein)  and Greg are wading through the wilds of Manhattan’s posh private schools for the perfect kindergarten in which to place their four-year-old son. The thing is, Jake has recently shown interest in wearing dresses and playing a princess, and that places stress on the little family. How do they deal with this?

If the play had continued on as a thoughtful exploration of how parents choose to address cross-gender questions, it would be a show worth watching. However, playwright Daniel Pearle is running a con. Neither Jake and his needs, nor how his parents deal with this very timely complication, are important.

Instead, Pearle focuses on the constructed crises of Jake’s mother, Alex. She’s well-off, educated, white, heterosexual, spoiled, neurotic, destructive, and so focused on what society might think about her son’s choices instead of his welfare that I wanted to call Child Protective Services on her about ten minutes in. Make no mistake: this is not a show about how to nurture a child who may identify outside of his gender. This is a lazily-plotted, cliche-filed hour and forty minutes of a selfish adult behaving badly.

What infuriated me most is that “A Kid Like Jake” has no LGTBQ focus or thought, as is implied in its tagline. It’s barely a nod to an important issue of a very underrepresented population. Surely there are better plays out there that investigate child gender questions in the twenty-first century. Where’s the LGBTQ perspective? Also, are well-to-do white, hetero Manhattanites the only class of people who cope with unexpected child behavior? What does it say about our priorities if we think a prestigious kindergarten will somehow turn a child into a guaranteed success, and that his placement in or rejection from such a place could make or break him for life?

Instead, the play expects us to sympathize with a woman who has everything and still paints herself as a victim. This family has access to all of the resources America offers –  if you’re of a certain demographic.  They have no serious obstacles in life save those they create for themselves. They can afford to send Jake to a progressive pre-kindergarten that will help to prepare him for entry into a top-tier K-12 school. But if he doesn’t get into one of the top kindergartens in the city…then what? What are the fearful consequences? An excellent education? Broader social exposure? It’s implied that public schools are too scary for a kid like Jake because they have no facility to support a “special” child. Even though Greg is the product of a public school education (“But it was in the suburbs!” protests Alex), only the best will do for Mama’s little boy.

All of this elitist, insecure garbage is shoveled out through Alex , who spends her time fretting that her son will be stereotyped, or worse – held up as a poster-child for “difference” if his “choices” come to light.  There’s no room in her life for Jake to just be Jake – his every action must mean something. She exemplifies the stereotype of upper-middle-class, white, self-absorbed New-Yorkness that annoys the rest of America. When she finally pushes Greg past his breaking point and he calls her out on her toxicities point by point, it’s a welcome relief. The only character with a shot at getting through to her is finally smacking some sense into Alex. Finally, payoff!

Alas, no – because Pearle again takes the easy way out. There’s a bizarre dream sequence that is, I think, supposed to rationalize Alex’s actions, followed by a coda that implies that she is capable of change. Except that she doesn’t change. Her final lines cement her inability to think outside of herself. If Lindner hadn’t been present to inject some much-needed humanity into the play, it would be completely unwatchable.

I really had a hard time rating this one. If you want to go see a decently-performed play with good production values, have at it. If you like Michael Aaron Lindner (and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing whatever he does next), fine, go see it. But if you’re looking for a play that take a thoughtful look at gender identity and children, SKIP IT. You’re wasting your time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Token LGBTQ issue sets up drama for contemptible Mama. Unworthy.

DICE RATING: d6 –  “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Music Hall” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Show: “Music Hall”

Michael Doonan (First Boy), Jeffrey Binder (The Artiste), and Darren Hill (Second Boy)
Michael Doonan (First Boy), Jeffrey Binder (The Artiste), and Darren Hill (Second Boy)

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: The Den Theater

Die Roll: 09

It was such a pleasure to attend Sunday’s performance of “Music Hall” in the back studio at the Den. For 80 minutes I lost myself  in a simply gorgeous piece of theatre about theatre.

“But what is it about?”  Nothing. Everything. It’s a living, breathing memory in real-time.  Two actors enter a rehearsal space and begin to relive their years with The Artiste, a celebrated performer of great renown. A third man joins them and gradually transforms into The Artiste.  Together and apart, the three men embody the experience of enduring the theatre life year in and year out, all the while acknowledging that their salad days have passed.

For all that, it’s not a melancholy, sentimental or nostalgic play. Each of the three excellent actors keeps us solidly in the present, holding us close as they move time around us. Michael Doonan and Darren Hill open the show as First Boy and Second Boy, respectively, and set the tone with a mixture of charm and humor. Enter Jeffrey Binder as the third actor who morphs into The Artiste before our eyes. I have rarely seen an actor possessed of such simple subtlety and complexity. Every moment has exactly as much meaning as it needs to have.  All three actors reach far beyond the footlights to engage with the audience regularly, and in doing so, draw us into the experience with them.

It’s such a simple set: a studio with mirrors on two sides; a curtain running diagonally across the playing area; a trunk; a ladder; and The Stool, which I capitalize with very good reason.  The actors have simple, yet evocative costumes that evoke no specific period, but definitely belong to show business.  The lighting is deceptive – at times, the actors are lit only by a row of footlights; other times the house lights come up.  The changes are so subtle that it takes a moment to realize that we’ve moved from backstage to before the curtain because the Artiste is featured in a tight spotlight.  This is a show that trusts in simplicity, and it pays off in gold. Clearly director Zeljko Djukic is a master of interpretation and combination: he gathered exactly the right elements (human and otherwise) and uses them expertly.

I cannot recommend this show enough. It’s unlike anything else playing in Chicago – so distinctly European (the playwright was French): a combination of language, movement, dance, song and music that forms a memory-moment told from multiple perspectives. It’s funny, charming, sad, and thought-provoking all at once. Spend the time and experience a truly remarkable show.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Subtle, moving meditation on the vulnerability of the performing life.

Dice Rating: d2o= “One Of The Best!”

 

Review: “Dividing the Estate” (Raven Theatre)

Estate-336 - HurleyShow: “Dividing the Estate”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre

Die Roll: 01-07 on 2d10

“Dividing the Estate” is one of Horton Foote’s final plays. Set in 1987, it concerns the non-existent fortunes of an old Texas family that spends most of its time worried about preserving each individual’s status quo. Like many Foote plays, it’s more about the everyday relationships in a family than a single dramatic event.

Reviews of the 2008 Broadway run praise the show’s humor and humanity. Unfortunately, neither was present in the Raven’s production. There are a paltry few characters that seem to live onstage; the rest simply wander around the house and wait for their turn to speak.

The first issue I have is with the set itself. It presents beautifully: the foyer, parlor, and formal dining room of a grand old dame of a house that has clearly passed its prime. It’s also enormous. It dwarfed the actors. Especially in the first act, actors ended up in small clumps on one side of the set or another. The set pretty much swallowed them whole and left them fighting to own the space. If I could rationalize this as a choice, I would, but there was nothing in the acting, direction, or text that suggested that this was so.

Furniture is arranged in straight lines from upstage to downstage so that actors consistently face away from the audience while speaking. The worst example is a rather long scene toward the end of the first act when the whole family sits down together to eat, and the entire table is blocked by one actor who sits with his back to the audience. I had no idea what was going on or who was talking because I couldn’t see a damn thing. At that point, I pretty much gave up and instead tried to find something interesting to look at for the next ten minutes.

Another issue was volume. Between the set design, the choice to block actors facing away from the audience, and the inability of some of the actors to project, a lot of dialogue floated off into the ether. Too many actors ended up speaking past each other instead of to each other.

On the whole, individual characters came off as one-dimensional. Exceptions included solid turns by Tim Martin as Son, and Jon Steinhagen as Bob.  By far the most genuine performance was Eliza Stoughton’s Pauline, who seemed to be in another (much better) play.  Hillary Horvath as Irene was also a treat in a small but hilarious cameo at the end.

This was altogether a disappointing experience. There was little to engage an audience, and the show went from mediocre to tedious awfully fast. While I applaud Raven for focusing on one playwright this season, I wish they would honor him with a production worthy of his work. I rarely give out the lowest rating for a show because I try to advocate for all theatre experiences – but this one is not worthy of your time or your hard-earned money.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Frustratingly mediocre play about a family of money-grubbing jerks.

Dice Rating: d4 = “Not Worth The Time”