Review: “Sycamore” (Raven Theatre Company)

Show: Sycamore

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 11

The Raven has turned out a miniature work of art in the new world premiere of Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore”. Despite the need for a few touch-ups, it’s a lovely introduction to a hyper-modern theatrical family that bears the mark of a generation not hampered by the name hang-ups you’d expect from say, William Inge or Paula Vogel. The households in “Sycamore” accept their children, even if they don’t understand their sexual preferences or can’t step in when they make a poor decision. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to keep these parents and children at odds.

In “Sycamore”, two affluent, suburban families find themselves becoming too close to expect neighborly privacy, or to properly hide secrets that loom too close to the surface. John (Johnathan Nieves) and his mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) struggle under the weight of their novelty as former artists, city dwellers, and accidental bohemians. Meanwhile, the teen siblings next door, Celia (Selina Fillinger) and Henry Jacobs (Julian Larach) tread very carefully around their well-meaning parents Louise and David (Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey), but mostly around one another. A recent traumatic event keeps them on their best behavior, until John appears and both Celia and Henry become a little infatuated.

But, order must be kept and everyone on stage feels obligated to cling to their own status quo, rather than embrace the growing desires that hide just under the surface. Celia tries to squash her growing interest in John out of respect for her brother, who she blames herself for hurting and sending into a tailspin. At the same time, Henry, well aware that there’s a romantic spark that is not focused on him, tries to escape the despair that almost succeeded in engulfing him once. Parents Jocelyn, Louise and David aren’t immune to the turmoil, either, and fester unhappily with their children in the same uneasiness. They mull returning to unsatisfying jobs, and loneliness despite being surrounded by their children and spouses. There’s an undercurrent of envy that crackles like a bolt of lightning seeking out a ground current. Something has to snap soon.

“Sycamore’s” strengths and emotional depths are solidified by a cast of ridiculously talented young actors.  Julian Larach gives Henry the apprehensive energy of a deer leaving the safety of the woods; he fears his own strong feelings more than anything. Johnathan Nieves is both sides of a free-spirited coin as John, at home in an emotional minefield, but vastly unprepared for the fallout. And Selina Fillinger is the real ticking time bomb of “Sycamore”. As Celia she puts herself under so much duress to be a rock for her brother that we can see the cracks forming as soon as we meet her.

On paper, “Sycamore” has a problem with homogeny. Characters speak in the same white, affluent cadence and struggle with very elite circumstances. Director Devon De Mayo combats this with a superb color-conscious cast, and allowing the actors help us find ourselves onstage. You’ll experience fantastic moments of authentic awkwardness, compelling performers sweating out modern dissatisfaction, and a visually stunning stage to house them all out in the open.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: For this patched-up family, returning to normal won’t do.

DICE RATINGd10- Worth Going To

Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

This has been a banner year for the amount of thought-provoking and ground breaking shows I have been ridiculously inspired by. I am so excited about the shows and theater companies that have seen Chicago’s struggle with making room for roles for people of color onstage and off. (A recent survey* of 71 Chicago theater companies in 2016 found over 60% of those surveyed had not showcased the work of a single director of color, and 47% had chosen seasons featuring only white playwrights. I sought out shows that embraced their role in bringing everyone’s stories to life, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or ability, and thanks to Theatre By Numbers (who’s assignments I will miss like the dickens), I got to see a good number of gems by die roll!

#1

Show: “East Texas Hot Links”

Company: Writers Theatre

Venue: Writers Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Open, festering brutality, administered close enough to implicate us all. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

In this story of a quiet night gone irreversibly wrong, actors Tyla Abercrumbie and Kelvin Roston, Jr. ratchet up Charlesetta and Roy’s sexually tense arguments, you don’t expect the come-ons might be the only thing to bring you solace when their world is rocked. When Luce Metrius puffs up his chest as Delmus, annoying his elders with promises to leave them all in the dust, you don’t anticipate that you might rally instantly to him when he becomes a target of violence. You might feel kinship, like I did, with Namir Smallwood as XL, the odd man out, who can’t seem to control his provoking nature. And you might regret that impulse with every fiber of your being when you see exactly what XL is capable of. The heart of East Texas Hot Links lies with the unassuming Alfred H. Wilson as Columbus; in a way, the story centers on how far his forgiving nature will stretch before it snaps. There is something truly affecting to be shown that you don’t exist apart from an active racist brutality that still thrives in the open. Hate is easy to compartmentalize when acts of violence and racism are distant blips on a social landscape far from you. But East Texas Hot Links brings the blood of black men and women close enough to stain your dress shoes, and dares you to look away.

#2

Show: “The Promise of a Rose Garden”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: City Lit Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Female, armed and dangerous: drop and give them 20, maggots.

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve. The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful, with stand outs Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion.

#3

Show: “Matchmaker”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: So much whimsey, it hardly needs ‘Dollys’ cloying musical numbers. 

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The “Matchmaker” ensemble is nothing short of incredible. They finesse themselves into larger-than-life ridiculousness sometimes with little more than throwing on a gaudy purple cape or by stealing a jar of pickles. Allan Gilmore storms in and goes toe-to-toe with everyone he meets as Vandergelder; his bluster is delightful to watch. Likewise, Kristine Nielsen is so unrelentingly winning as Dolly, I found myself wracked with want of a fairy godmother to pluck me from normalcy and place me in an adventure. Another ingenious turn comes from Anita Hollander, who plays a multitude of roles (an elderly Gertrude, a pianist, Flora Van Huysen’s cook); Ms. Hollander, an amputee, is easily one of the most mobile entities next to Behzad Dabu’s table-hopping young Barnaby. This and more makes “The Matchmaker” the ultimate arena to play with audience expectation. Proceeding with abandon (and with author’s blessing), director Henry Wishcamper delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actors of color in substantial roles, not to mention representation for non-cisgender and differently abled performers.

#4

Show: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Gwendolen and Cecily, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. The play revels gleefully in the subversion found in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

#5

Show: “Richard III”

Company: The Gift Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This Richard is out for every scrap owed to him. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Director Jessica Thebus and the unnerving Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard stage a minimal, modern-flavored production that invites you to draw current political and social parallels. In an unnerving way, it plays on the impulses of an impatient and well-meaning audience. In moments that go on just a little too long, and are punctuated only by rustling and shifting, an unconscious thought creeps over the faces of able-bodied audience members: Will Richard make it to his feet? Will we be able to catch him if he falls? Hardly necessary. The ever-dignified Richard rarely lets his compatriots see him in need, and he is outfitted for his coronation with the fine technology from The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, keeping him at eye-level. Range of moment and slowness of time play an interesting part of The Gift’s production; when Richard begins, he effectively stops time with every ‘aside’ to the audience, and drives circles around his abled-bodied adversaries. However, when he transitions to the crown and walks upright with mechanical assistance, cracks in his facade begin to form. His plots against his adversaries are less effective, and his command of time fades as he inches closer to a wartime present.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre), “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre), “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas) and “Wonderful Town” (Goodman Theatre).

*Circulated by director Lavina Jadhwani.

Review: “Barney the Elf” (The Other Theater Co.)

Show: Barney the Elf

Company: The Other Theatre Co.

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

The Other Theatre’s “Barney the Elf” is tailored specifically to the kind of holiday reveler that prefers their sentiment with a little political bite, a lot of swearing, and just a hint of innuendo peeking out from under the tree skirts. Author Bryan Renaud and director Tommy Rivera-Vega have taken their story telling cues from shows like “Book of Mormon” that turn reality into fairytale, marshmallow landscapes, then skewer their squishy targets pointedly.

In “Barney the Elf”, Christmas just hasn’t been the same since Santa Claus passed away, and left the whole operation to his far less competent son, Santa Junior (Jonathan Parker Jackson). But the titular Barney (Bryan Renaud) has enough cheer to supply the whole workshop, that is, until the Elves find out Barney is gay. Santa Junior quickly banishes him to the wilds of Chicago, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Claus (Maggie Cain) and all the other elves, who could really use a pep-talk in the face of a present onslaught. But in Chicago, Barney finds a community that embraces his love for Christmas and he stumbles upon his first love, a sardonic drag queen named Zooey (Dixie Lynn Cartwright).

Still, with Santa Junior at the helm, there’s a real concern among the elves that his bottom-line obsession will lead to there not being enough cheer to fuel his sleigh. Can Christmas go on without union rules, hot chocolate breaks and its’ cheeriest elf?

“Barney the Elf” parodies the 2003 Will Farrell vehicle “Elf”, but it almost doesn’t need to muddy waters of a very compelling original story. Well, as original as a story can be while working within the strict fictional guidelines of North Pole mythology. It’s poignant, with lightning fast wit, to-the-minute topical humor and the dimmest shade for any malcontent who would attack a persons’ gaiety, Christmas-themed or otherwise. The show is also dotted with an endless supply of compelling song parodies; I mean, aren’t you just a little bit curious to know what Wicked’s “What is This Feeling?” would sound like, if it were about boners?

Terrific performers are the jet propulsion that keeps this show’s engine humming, and the heavy listing comes courtesy of Bryan Renaud as Barney, a singing, dancing, ecstatic, crestfallen force of nature. Maggie Cain and Jonathan Parker Jackson gleefully inhabit alternate reality forms of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as Mrs. Claus and her son, Santa Junior. And don’t worry if you’re not a holiday obsessive, drag queen Dixie Lynn Cartwright’s Zooey is the much needed dry, dry dry ice in this production’s cocktail. I’d also like to distinguish Ben F. Locke, Mariah Furlow, and Molly LeCaptain as the hardest working elves in show business.

At it’s core, “Barney the Elf” is a story of putting aside squabbles to do necessary things, and losing the odd American fixation on never being the first to admit defeat. Only when they address each other as real people, can Christmas be saved.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A heartfelt holiday message from queens, queers and presidents elect!

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Thumbelina” (Lifeline Theatre)

Show: Thumbelinathumbelina_01_web

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue:  Lifeline Theatre (6912 N. Glenwood Ave.)

Die Roll: 16

Mothers and fathers, take your kids to see Lifeline Theatre’s “Thumbelina”, and you might notice them acting a bit differently. They may start asking after things like circus arts intensives and performing arts summer camps. They are definitely going to affect new accents and funky new gaits, you’ve been warned. This fairy tale adaptation by Amanda Delheimer Diamond is exactly the gateway drug to thespian-hood your kids will find themselves hooked on, and it will likely charm you, too.

In “Thumbelina”, you may remember our diminutive heroine (Brandi Lee) is born from an errant magical seed, and left in the care of an over-protective mother (Krystal Ortiz) who shelters her from the dangers at the edge of the edge of the world. She escapes her mother’s confines and loses herself for the winter in the woods. She befriends other creatures like field mice (Bryan Bosque), moles (Nate Buursma) and barn swallows (Dominique Watkins), and while I wouldn’t call anyone her enemy, she learns to recognize when others (say a frog, like Antoniao LaVance Bouie Jr.) don’t have her best interests at heart. No one comes to her rescue or doles out any great favors; to get where she’s going, she’s going to have to figure things out, mostly on her own.

thumbelina_04_webOne especially nice aspect of this adaptation are some of the troubling aspects of the original fable the developers have left on the cutting floor. You may remember the Hans Christian Anderson Thumbelina being passively inundated with interspecies marriage proposals and kidnapping attempts. Not so for Brandi Lee’s title character. This ensemble champions problem solving skills and a sense of humor that the 5-7 year old crowd would deem most impressive. This production also posits that belonging hinges less on what your community looks like and more on what they do. It encourages embracing people, even when their lives are vastly different from your own.

It has amazing charm for such a minimal concept, and the ensemble is quick to latch together, building creatures and plant life at speeds that would make Voltron envious.  Director/Adaptor Amanda Delheimer Diamond and choreographer Dan Plehal have boiled their concept down to the barest minimum, and the performers have made fantastic use of the canvas. Actors with the heaviest story lifting are Brandi Lee, Krystal Ortiz, and Bryan Bosque, and they will have you eating out of the palms of their hands before long. “Thumbelina” is a perfect show for audiences in the single digit age range, but maybe not ideal for most tweens.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A surefire gateway drug, hooking kids on the performing arts.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Feast” (Red Theater)

1929-300x200Show: The Feast

Company: Red Theater

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

Die Roll: 19

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

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

1423-300x169

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Amour” (Black Button Eyes Productions)

Show: “Amour”Amour-6

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

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

Die Roll: 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “The Promise of a Rose Garden” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Promise_BWBTC_9470-cropShow: The Promise of a Rose Garden

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  City Lit Theater (1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.)

Die Roll: 20

At the outset of Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of Dustin Spence’s “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, a foursome of new recruits stand, ready to be tried by the military’s most notoriously difficult proving ground. Their commanding officers offer little solace, but assure, “The fact that you don’t have a dick between your legs makes you more aerodynamic.” With this, Babes With Blades offers up one of the most unique and thrilling productions I’ve seen in recent years.

In “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, Captain Josephine Rockford (Maureen Yasko) is training a squad of four officers on passing the notoriously brutal US Marine Infantry Officer course. It’s such an unforgiving course that only three women have ever passed it, Rockford herself, her commanding officer, Selmy (Kathrynne Wolf) and a third female officer, whose death casts a long shadow that still divides the two officers. The rookies, however, are indignant at any underestimating party who insinuates that they’d do anything less than pass the course with flying colors. Lieutenant “Sunny” Sharif (Arti Ishak) has defied her Muslim family’s wishes to be there, pragmatic Ruiz (Izis Mollinedo) is hoping to spin her success into a book deal, and whatever you do, don’t cross Nichols (Charlie Baker) a laid-back Southerner who will cold-cock you for looking the wrong way at her candy stash. Newest grunt Ferguson (Sam Long) may be the most gifted Marine among them, but must swear, spit and scrap for her honor from the bottom up.

What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion. Reminders of Captain Rockford’s past failures are so potent to her, they appear as Deciding Angels (Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim) who taunt her from her bleak subconscious and threaten to expose her mania.

Promise_BWBTC_8707The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful; take the Deciding Angels, played nimbly by Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim, who twist themselves into unsettling shapes that add to their nightmarish air. In amazingly rough-hewn turns, Sam Long, Izis Mollinedo and Charlie Baker breathe brute force and sweat into Ferguson, Ruiz and Nichols. The true stand outs of this production, however, are Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.

The air is always alive and tense with radio chatter, bullets, Marine chants or the whispers of the Deciding Angels. Director Elyse Dawson and violence designer Rachel Flesher bring together an artful staging, cobbled from a bullet riddled blast zone, and paint stage images that are beautiful and ambiguous. It’s an incredible gift when you as an audience member are entrusted with puzzle pieces of a scene or a relationship unfolding in front of you, and all the more rewarding when those pieces begin to come together.

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Female, armed and dangerous: Drop and give them 20, maggots.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Eclipse Theatre Company)

Our-Lady-12Show: Our Lady of 121st Street

Company: Eclipse Theatre Company

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

Die Roll: 2

 

Open the chapel doors on Eclipse Theatre’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2003 play “Our Lady of 121st Street”, and you’ll encounter all the makings of a curbside memorial for an icon: saint candles, photos, toys and trinkets stuffed into every crevice. Director Sarah Moeller has created a gorgeous landscape and assembled a winning cast that fill in nearly all the blanks left by the author in this love story to Catholic Harlem.

A funeral is taking place for Sister Rose, once a mainstay in the lives of a generation of Catholic schoolchildren, now missing from her casket. Balthasar (Todd Garcia), a cop and former student, leads the investigation into the missing body as far-flung and close-knit mourners reunite. Flip (Gregory Geffrard), living a new life with Gail (Matt Thinnes), has his feet planted firmly in the closet, and insists on masculine bravado with his old friends, despite Gail and others providing him room to be open about his sexuality. Edwin (Anthony Apodaca) struggles alone to care for his mentally disabled younger brother Pinky (Rudy Galvan), that is until her meets Marcia (Kristen Johnson), who could be a kindred spirit or a another unstable dependent. Inez (Celeste M. Cooper) and Norca (Paloma Nozicka) are gorgeous women, aging out of sexpot status, and determining how much they really want to cling to pride and vindictiveness for indiscretions they’ve visited upon each other. Rooftop (Bernard Gilbert) is the neighborhood success story, but wracked with guilt for the trouble he’s caused and the people he’s wronged. He seeks absolution form Father Lux (Gary Simmers), a war veteran priest whose own faith has dwindled to nothing.

Our-Lady-13If that sounds like a lot of characters to follow, it is. If it also sounds like a lot of stories to resolve in a little more than 2 hours, it is, but author Stephen Adly Guirgis isn’t too concerned with how everyone makes it out of this Harlem funeral. Some exchanges feel like social experiments (“I wonder what a well-to-do white woman, working class Latino man and a gay Wisconsin actor would say to each other if they had to share a restaurant table?”), other exchanges can feel like thin platforms for characters with pent up emotions, in need of a monologue audience, I mean, uh… confessional booth. But despite some problems with the framework, these are important stories and viewpoints with a ridiculously talented cast to deliver them.

Among the characters we get to see go through turmoil and change, Bernard Gilbert stands out as Rooftop, a sweet-talking braggart who can talk circles around the heart of a problem before being forced into a landing pattern. Gary Simmers is his perfect counterpart as Father Lux, who is thwarted at every turn from getting Rooftop’s confession, but develops an obsession that triggers his log dormant compassion. Celeste M. Cooper as Inez and Gregory Geffrard as Flip are fantastic as two people who rarely intersect, but who are both greatly invested in keeping others in the dark about their deep wells of pain and fear. Finally, as Balthasar, Todd Garcia serves not only as a solid cable between intertwined stories, but as a reluctant authority and weary expert in the horrors that Harlem can visit upon unsuspecting people. He is both the reminder and relief from the cold fact that somewhere, something nefarious is happening to what remains of Sister Rose.

Director Sarah Moeller has assembled a powerhouse cast and design team for a beautifully gritty rendition of “Our Lady of 121st Street”.  Scenic Designer Kevin Hagen is particular has created a truly original space that encompasses run down churches, dingy dive bars, and graffiti covered back alleys in a single amorphous spot. A pair of red sneakers you might find slung on telephone wire are dangled instead from church rafters. It is disturbing, it is unsavory, but it is also holy, and for nearly everyone onstage, it is home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: There’s holiness in Harlem, but also large quantities of exposition.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Dead Writers Theatre Collective)

Show: The Importance of Being Earnest377_500_csupload_68904425

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

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

Die Roll: 4

The Dead Writers Theatre Collective has assembled a smart and fitting love note to Oscar Wilde and tribute to 19th century theater with “The Importance of Being Earnest”.  If the feel of an old Victorian handheld paper theater and show-stealingly opulent costumes don’t win you, the verbal and physical comedic smackdown delivered by a terrific cast will. Director Jim Schneider’s take on this simultaneously frivolous romantic comedy/blistering take-down of Victorian society/ode to a closeted 19th century gay underground, is delightful no matter from which angle it’s viewed.

In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, we meet two young friends John Worthing (Sean Magill) and Algernon Moncrieff (Jack Dryden) who claim to be fine, upstanding marriageable Victorian era fellows. However, each maintains an alter ego that allows him to lead a craven, debaucherous existence without risking his social standing. John has created a fictional brother ‘Ernest’, and Algernon escapes his family by claiming to care for a sick friend ‘Bunbury’. Things get complicated when Gwendolen (Maeghan Looney) falls for John’s alter ego, and her love is *very* contingent on his name. Likewise, when Algernon gets wind that John has an impressionable young ward, Cecily (Megan Delay), he takes up the ‘Ernest’ moniker to win her affections and does so with instant success  (women just can’t get enough of the name Ernest). But, before anyone ties the knot, they’ll have to settle all their naming and social credibility disputes with the chief authority, Gwendolen‘s mother Lady Bracknell (Mary Anne Bowman). No one is allowed entry into Bracknell’s family’s social sphere without an impeccable pedigree.377_500_csupload_68904431

Where the play gets subversive is in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Cecily and Gwendolen, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. With each entrance and elaborate costume change, she sets the young lovers running to appease her like a tyrant with a parasol. The costumes, designed by Patti Roeder (also Miss Prism), are in a class by themselves.

I couldn’t recommend this performance more highly, nor have I been as charmed by stage production in a long time. Dead Writers Theater Collective describes the show as their Victorian valentine to us, and I enthusiastically circle the ‘y’ under their “Do you like me? Please mark one”.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “World Builders” (First Floor Theater)

Show: World Builders5dde43b3-c7ac-4ef8-90d8-c4ba146be9be

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue:  Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.)

Die Roll: 8

Human brain chemistry is a damn near impossible terrain to navigate, and exponentially so if your brain can’t distinguish social and emotional cues. This is where the power of a good story comes in. Take a family recently featured on an episode of the ‘RadioLab’ podcast (‘Juicervoce’): they learned how to communicate effectively with their autistic son using the things he understood best, quotes from Disney films. Or an author who praised ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ for accidentally creating a skull-crushing alien who might also be on the autism spectrum near the author’s young brother. Moments like these help to build a vocabulary and understanding to someone who may never experience emotional highs and lows.

In the same way, characters in Johnna Adams’ ‘World Builders’ have built refuges that allow them to experience and create human feelings and relationships while also maintaining a safe, clinical distance. Adams asks what would happen if a medical breakthrough could erase that clinical distance for some lucky (or unlucky) guinea pigs. This clinical trial is a doozy of a concept though, and the story struggles with the weight of it.

In ‘World Builders’, Max (Andrew Cutler) and Whitney (Carmen Molina) are in treatment for a shared personality disorder that renders them both fixated on internal worlds of their own creation. Alone they are socially isolated, focused so much on the maintenance of their private internal retreats that they may be a danger to themselves, but they’re brought together for an experimental treatment designed to quell their internal worlds until they fade away.

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The expectation is then that Max and Whitney would come out of isolation, but they seek each other out with great trepidation of that looming unknown. What will replace the internal worlds they’ve devoted their lives to cultivating? Human interaction? Love? The emotions they never used to be able to process start creeping in, and Max and Whitney ping-pong against each other, hoping to assemble a new refuge to replace the disappearing ones they’ve always gone to.

Carmen Molina is brimming with fantastic nervous energy as Whitney, who is compelled to talk through every aspect of her multifaceted internal landscape, as the voluminous society of futuristic characters she supports start disappearing as a result of the drug. Her inner society gives her one thing she relies on: immediate do-overs and re-workings until things come out perfectly. As Max, Whitney’s reserved opposite, Andrew Cutler is quietly mesmerizing. His world is not sprawling, but it does threaten to consume him. He is withdrawn, and has learned to hide the things that scare away everyone close to him. But when he shares his secrets, they are wrenching.

Their proximity allows them to dip their toes into choppy new emotional waters as strange new feelings begin to ‘show up like warts’. The more the pills take effect, the less clinical their language and demeanor becomes. Director Jesse Roth doesn’t overstate a thing, choosing to hand his performers a sparse canvas to paint their lives on. Their inner worlds should steal focus.

There’s just one variable that prevents us from getting totally immersed: ‘World Builders’ has a tendency to over-explain its premise and its people, and not trust us with the concept of a medical breakthrough pill or its test subjects. As a result, Whitney and Max speak in place of their unseen doctors and loved ones, treading a thin line between frightened souls and vessels for exposition. With a lighter hand, author Johnna Adams and First Floor Theatre could really be on to something.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Isolated life, or the perils of human interaction? CHOOSE WISLEY.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”