Review: “The Four” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

One of my favorite offerings “lost” during Covid-19 quarantine are the low-key artist gatherings (usually pre-or post show) that have been a Strawdog specialty over the years. Linger around after the curtain goes down, and you could be treated to a reading of Twitter penned short plays, or (my favorite) a special skills night where actors perform the least often called-upon skills on their resumes. “The Four” feels less like a full-fledged production, but more like a Strawdog community check-in. There has been so much change in the past year (not only during quarantine, but due to changing performance spaces and the naming of a new artistic director), this live broadcast is a welcome, and literal, fireside chat.

Interim artistic director Kamille Dawkins revisits the founding principles that have guided each Strawdog production since the company’s inception in poetry, live, next to a backyard fire pit. Ensemble members Scott Danielson, Becca Levy, Michael Reyes and Dawkins herself deliver an ode to their long-standing company, with all the affection you’d reserve for a frail, sometimes slow-moving senior canine. The troupe then opens up the forum to their live audience, asking viewers what pillars, besides their original four (genuine connection, challenge, community, ensemble), are tugging at our consciences and drawing our focus today. In ritual burning, those ideas that viewers want to uphold or abandon, abhor or emulate all get a brief moment to be held, then thrown into the licking flames; from nothing to nothing. 

This brief ritual might not lodge deep in the hearts of anyone outside of Strawdog’s intended circle of ensemble members and avid supporters, but if this theater has impacted your Chicago theater experience, it will feel like a welcome embrace. 

DICE RATING: d10 –– “Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Strawdog teases an entirely virtual season and leadership shake-up.

Show: “The Four”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Virtual (Broadcast on Facebook Live)

Bottom 5 of 2019 (Or, Here’s How We Can Do Better in the New Year)

Every piece of theatre is perfect for a particular audience member, no matter what critics may say. This is one reason we at Theatre By Numbers usually hesitate to “punch down” when it comes to productions we may or may not have cared for. There’s a difference when you’ve found a piece of theater to be not to your liking, and when you’ve found a production to be a danger, or harmful to performers and audiences alike. Maggie has chosen to highlight productions she views to be harmful in nature, and one production she can still highly recommend … to the right audience member.  Sarah has chosen one production that caused harm, and one production that did not quite live up to its themes.

Maggie’s Picks:

Show: “Ruse of Medusa”

Company: Facility Theatre

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Looking for sensical theater? You’ve come to the wrong place.

Do you like orchestras of men in jade monkey masks clanging on old rotary phones? Indistinct wailing poetry from barons in powdered wigs (sometimes directed only at you)? Or being taken into the tendrils of some monstrous jellyfish that is also a bandstand & unicycle circuit? Then my friend, strap on a mandatory bower hat, because “Ruse of Medusa” was the most rousingly successful nonsense I could possibly recommend. Director Dado trafficked in weird asymmetrical patterns and off-putting detachment, and inserted every tactic you could employ to annoy an audience; our unwilling participation, a distinct lack of rules and walls, and an ending so abrupt, it felt like a trick. It was perfectly absurd. 

Show: “Horse Girls”

Company: Exit 63 Theatre

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A show so troubled, it was cancelled before it ran. 

In the days leading up to the opening of “Horse Girls” the all-female cast went public with the struggles they endured while rehearsing with director Connor Baty. The cast made the Chicago theatre community aware of their attempts to amicably work out their grievances with Baty in spite of his noted dismissal of their concerns, name calling, and incidences of racism and sexism. Instead of moving forward and making the behavioral changes his cast called for, Baty cancelled the production, shuttered Exit 63, and has not commented publicly on the incident to this date. It’s a testament on how hard it can be to be frank, honest and genuine in your commitment to making a safe theatre space and still go unheard for far too long. 

Show: “Proxy”

Company: Underscore Theatre

Venue:  The Understudy (4609 N Clark St)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ethical dilemma distracts from okay writing and stellar performers.   

There’s nothing illegal about taking inspiration from a topical real news story, scrubbing that story of all names, locations and other identifying information, and writing a musical on the subject. However, I’d argue that not every story should be artistic fodder without permission.“Proxy” is based on a real 2014 “Slenderman” stabbing incident, and posits what could have happened to fictional people who suffered a similar fate. While watching, it occurred to me that there may be real survivors of a similar horror, unaware that their experiences were being dramatized. People under the age of 18 who may value their privacy, not notable public figures. The thought of real people not having knowledge or a say in this musical left me feeling implicated. I am still regretful of any enjoyment I got from potentially unconsenting sources. 

Sarah’s Picks

Show: “Utility”

Company: Interrobang Theatre Project

Venue: Rivendell Theatre (5779 N Ridge Ave)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The intense realism of poverty takes its time and toll.

“Utility” made great points about the grinding nature of poverty, how it invades even what should be joyful celebrations, such as a child’s birthday party. But playwright Emily Schwend does her theme a disservice in showcasing one woman boxed in without choices. Her protagonist does little onstage, and so an uneasy creep of condescension creeps into the drama, as if allowing the character to make even an unsuccessful choice would spoil the hammering message that poverty and bureaucracy do not allow one to accomplish anything.

Show: “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Company: Citadel Theatre

Venue: 300 S Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest

The cast of “Peter and the Starcatcher” left their production after physical safety and emotional well-being were sacrificed in the name of expediency and gaslighting. The group published a letter on Rescripted, which you should absolutely go and read if you have not had the chance yet. The cast created a set of guidelines to follow through on making the theatre community better moving forward, and this determination and collaboration is what we should most take forward with us into 2020.

Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2019

Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2019


#1 

Show: “Othello”

Company: Babes with Blades

Venue: Factory Theater (1623 Howard St)

DICE RATING: d20 –– “One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Shakespeare gets a much needed transfusion of bombastic feminine energy.

This complete transformation of Shakespeare’s Othello put a traditionally male-dominated story into the hands of an all female and non-binary cast. Directed by Mignon McPherson Stewart, this production made you aware of the human cost of maintaining an important man’s reputation, and how little societal reverence towards important men has changed. Brianna Buckley and Kathrynne Wolf were amazingly formidable opponents as Othello and Iago. Wolf’s Iago traded any villainous mustache-twirling for a presence that was quiet and insidious. I was disturbed at how understanding I was of their deepening levels of personal treachery. Meanwhile, Buckley’s Othello traded an abundance of joy for deep anger and suspicion, discovering how quickly their claim to privileges extended only to white men can be overturned.

#2

Show: “Head Over Heels”

Company: Kokandy Productions

Venue:  Theatre Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This glam-rock fairy tale and gender non-conforming dance party has EVERYTHING.

This madcap, energetic production of the Go-Go’s fairy tale musical was exceedingly serious in one arena: radically inclusive casting. Directing team Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson left the binary behind, as well as any preconceived notions an audience may have about what makes a typical ingenue/ romantic male lead. Instead, the artistic team asked audiences to see this exceptionally capable cast in roles they might get overlooked for by less imaginative productions. What resulted was revolutionary and fun; and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without delightful queer stage pairings, genre-spanning vocal ranges, and bodies of all sizes. “Head Over Heels” just wanted us to stop worrying about old traditions, appropriateness, or what other people may think, and live truthfully instead. 

#3

Show: “The Total Bent”

Company: Haven Theatre, in association with About Face Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

DICE RATING: d20 –– “One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An embittered father and son can’t shake each other’s influence.

Director Lili-Anne Brown and authors Heidi Rodewald and Stew put a biopic tale in a beat poetry blender and the result was part queer fantasy, part navigation of large-looming history, music politics and racism. “The Total Bent” was like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It was funny, but it also implicated you, the audience, for laughing; it was musically catchy and dynamic, but it forced you to look at the pain and darkness it takes to become a white fan favorite in a world that refuses to love black queerness. Robert Cornelius and Gilbert Domally were unstoppable forces as father and son Joe Roy and Marty Roy. They may have had their differences, but their journeys to keep artistic integrity in a world that only wants to exploit them are nearly the same. 

#4 

Show: “I Know My Own Heart”

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue:  Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway)

DICE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Anne Lister’s milkshake brings all the girls to the yard.

When you are a woman stuck in the repressive 19th century, and your actions, sexuality, and societal value under a microscope, there’s still hope that you can live out your true wants in the margins, with hidden letters, brief encounters and secret clubs. This was not enough for smitten Anne Lister, however, and this production from Pride Films and Plays and director Elizabeth Swanson had an uncanny way of making you appreciate one woman’s boldness to make her circumstances work for her. As Anne Lister and  Marianne Brown, Vahishta Vafadari and Lauren Grace Thompson made glorious romantic strides, then watched things fall apart in coded language and secret rendezvous, under our ever present judging gaze. 

#5

Show: “Six”

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue:  Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (800 E Grand Ave)

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: 

You were not ready for this feast of vocal talent, non-stop dance, and damn effective songwriting from creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. It was a concert from history’s six most maligned wives of King Henry VIII. But forget him, this pop concert and favorite wife competition experience just goes to show these women were so much more than just wives or historical footnotes. It also goes to show how impossible it is for a woman in power with a dissenting voice to last five minutes against the men determined to squash those voices. These astounding women deserved your hoots, screams, and standing ovations.

Review: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle ” (Chicago Immersive Theatre)

Review: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle ” (Chicago Immersive Theatre)

Andrew Bailes and Nicole Bloomsmith/Photo by Nicole Bloomsmith.

Because Chicago audiences are unlikely to have seen Chicago Immersive Theater’s brand of collaborative problem solving theater, I want to be careful not to divulge too much about their “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle” premiere. Creators Jacqueline Stone, Anderson Lawfer, Nicole Bloomsmith and Becca Braun have conceived a sweet, site-specific adventure that’s perfect if you have a multitude of young and old charges, spanning the faith spectrum. Director Jacqueline Stone and the creative team have ensured there is something to keep minds and hands occupied around every corner. 

In this immersive experience, audiences are greeted by Irving Walker (Anderson Lawfer) and Sir Cyrus (Julian Stroop), two time-travelers spanning the centuries with one mission: find a priceless menorah treasured by Irving’s wife Grace (Nicole Bloomsmith), lost for generations. Clues to its whereabouts have been hidden in the past, so we must visit as many previous December eighths as possible, looking for locked safes and the clues that will open them. So they don’t end up creating a paradox, Walker is sending the audience in his place with Cyrus to explore his wife’s past and locate the menorah. There may be hints with their daughter Sarah (Laura Nelson) and her wife Ruth (Becca Braun), or with Grace’s 1950s vaudevillian Grandfather Eli (Dan Cobbler), or her Holocaust era great-grandparents Mildred (also Bloomsmith) and Jonathan (Andrew Bailes).

Think of it like a series of escape rooms, or a very gentle LARP that even the youngest members of a cozy audience could grasp and participate in. It’s the sort of environment built to encourage collaboration, speaking up, and obeying the “yes, and” principal of improvisation when a time-jumping anomaly asks for your help. To move on in each pocket of time, you have to remember numbers, phrases, and hebrew symbols symbols, and use them to decode your next steps. You might also be invited to share something small, like a joke or a dance, with your group. Any audience member who is well versed in story structure can see what will happen before it does, but performers cue an atmosphere of patience and generosity; the puzzle isn’t solved until the smallest of us understands it. 

Julian Stroop and Anderson Lawfer/ Photo by Nicole Bloomsmith.

Aside from our central conflict against time, each character pairing we see is a solid example of loving marriage or working partnership. Anderson Lawfer as Irving Walker and Julian Stroop as Sir Cyrus are unflappable time professionals and devoted friends, with Stroop’s mad-scientist musings forwarding the whole experiment. Dan Cobbler turns to us as Eli Applebaum, a new comedian on the vaudeville circuit who just needs some new material to set him apart. Other wholesome pairings include Becca Braun as the Rabbi Ruth with Laura Nelson as Sarah,  a patient school teacher and wife to Ruth. There is nothing as sweet as the pairing of Andrew Bailes as Jonathan and Nicole Bloomsmith as Mildred, a couple escaping the holocaust, but who can still surprise each other with little gifts and love notes. 

For every jaded attendee, like myself, whose sense of wonderment has been whittled down to a nub, and is just content to have a pleasant afternoon, there are attendees for whom this experience will feel essential and aesthetic informing. This show is absolutely for them. 

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Get lost in the past to find a Hanukkah treasure. 

Show: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle”

Company: Chicago Immersive Theatre

Venue: Grace Lutheran Church (1430 South Blvd Evanston, IL)

Review: “Always … Patsy Cline” (Firebrand Theatre)

Review: “Always … Patsy Cline” (Firebrand Theatre)

Harmony France and Christina Hall/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

We’re encroaching on feel-good theater season; when the days get shorter, temperatures drop, and theater companies swap their usual biting fare for something a little more marshmallowy. Firebrand Theatre’s production of Ted Swindley’s “Always … Patsy Cline” has the feel of a wild-card entry in that arena, but it’s friendly, approachable, ageless, and packed to the brim with sugar. What this musical lacks in nutritional value, it easily makes up for with an intimate and twangy quartet, and a pair of tenacious singers who make themselves at home with anyone close to their thrust stage.  

“Always … Patsy Cline” is based on a real life letter correspondence kept up for years between  Louise Seger, a Texas divorcee, and Patsy Cline (each is played on alternating days by Harmony France and Christina Hall). Louise is the biggest Patsy Cline fan you will ever meet; she gets her first earful while watching Cline’s 1957 national television debut, and develops an obsession strong enough to annoy her boss, kids and the local radio host. When the singer appears in the flesh at a nearby honky tonk, Louise gets up the courage to introduce herself, and it’s the start of a much needed friendship for both. 

This production is so endearing, tear-jerking, and assertively friendly, it makes me wish director Brigitte Ditmars had invested a percentage of that energy to tackle the pitfalls that distract from it. The script holds Patsy Cline herself in such saintly reverence, she can feel sketched thinner than a placard on a museum wall. This can can come across as slowness or trepidation sometimes, as we wait for more meaty substance like Louise’s stories, or Patsy’s songs. It’s a sweet narrative shared between two hard-workin’, God-fearin’ white women, and while it’s very impressive they can swap roles at the drop of a hat, it still feels very safe. There’s room for more risk-taking, or a better projected reason why this show is important for Chicago audiences today.

Harmony France/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Don’t worry — while the script may be a bit dusty, these performers do their real-life counterparts justice and then some. With twenty-seven songs on her docket, Harmony France was an astounding, high-belting Patsy Cline for the evening. There’s a deep thread of loneliness in her performance, highlighting that Cline had to fend for her pittance while her male counterparts got easy support. As Louise Seger, Christina Hall spends her evening flirting, dancing, and buttering up the audience. If you’re in her sight line, you are fair game for getting entangled in the proceedings of her story. This is her honky tonk; we all just live in it.  

Kudos especially to musical director Andra Velis Simon, for assembling her backing quartet with mostly female musicians and musicians of color. It’s a nice touch, given that the script expects an all-male band and has gone to the trouble of giving them all red-neck nicknames. So, if you need holiday fare, but you’re done with Dickens, and your nuts have been cracked, there’s always Patsy Cline.

DICE RATING: d12 — Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This country-fried duo radiates warmth at a leisurely pace.

Show: “Always … Patsy Cline”

Company: Firebrand Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “A Man of No Importance ” (Pride Films & Plays)

Review: “A Man of No Importance ” (Pride Films & Plays)

Ryan Lanning, Ryan Armstrong, Orlando Shelly, Christopher Davis, Amanda Giles,  Ian Rigg, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Kimberly Lawson, Tommy Bullington, Tiffany T. Taylor, and Sarah Beth Tanner/Photo: Heather Mall.

Sometimes a musical gives you a terrific slice of local talent, with inspired staging, and unfailing enthusiasm to smooth over any rough bits. That’s Pride Films and Plays’ production of “A Man of No Importance” in a nutshell: an industrial boiler of a show, delivering warmth and humor enough to combat the wildest Chicago polar vortex. The production is set to extend for one more week until Sunday, November 17th. 

Director Donterrio Johnson and music director Robert Ollis have amassed a sprawling cast, and highlighted their vocal and instrumental idiosyncrasies to lovely effect. The stage never feels crowded, the pace is never slow; and in an intimate venue, with performers within a hair’s breadth of the audience, you rarely see the seams of this musical. Not every song is a barn-burner, and not every stage conceit rings true, but there’s enough charm in this staging to wipe the slate.  

Alfie (Ryan Lanning) is a repressed bus conductor, feeling increasingly out of place in early sixties Dublin. He can anchor a mildly talented/ultra-enthusiastic theater troupe, deflect his sister Lily’s (Kimberly Lawson, u/s) concerns, assure Father Kenny (Ian Rigg) his production of “Salome” won’t cause the church controversy, even cast his leading lady, Adele (Ciera Dawn), sight unseen. No sweat. But Alfie is terrified by his own desires in a way he can’t share with anyone. His fondness for affable bus driver Robbie (Nick Arceo), coupled with a crippling obsession with Oscar Wilde, could be the perfect storm to permit Alfie the boldness to love who he really wants. 

“A Man of No Importance” is not without some pitfalls from the 2002 Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally libretto. We’re treated to a few unsatisfying musical tangents and moments of small town bigotry that grind proceedings to a halt. There’s also something off about an apparition of Oscar Wilde (Kevin O’Connell) who should be a more haunting presence, but blends in too well with actual bodies onstage to evoke the right sense of foreboding/inviting. Script issues aside, the principal and supporting cast are a diverse, joyful and well oiled machine. As Lily Bryne,  understudy Kimberly Lawson lets loose with pithy zingers, painting Alfie’s sister as a proud curmudgeon that doesn’t soften so much as find a new direction for her ire. As bus driver Robbie Faye, Nick Arceo is open and freewheeling, but with a modicum of slippery added in for anyone asking the wrong questions about his personal life.

Ryan Lanning and Ciera Dawn/Photo: Heather Mall.

If it’s brilliance you want, look no further than Ciera Dawn as Adele Rice, another adept secret-keeper so steeped in anger and forboding for the future, that you feel her surprise at meeting people that embrace her wholeheartedly. Ryan Lanning’s Alfie Byrne is compelling beyond anything. It’s the smile with pain at the corners, the posture that hides him in an oncoming rush of wool coats, or the look of absolute panic when he’s sure you can see right through him. I feel the same knee-jerk protectiveness about Lannings’ Alfie that I usually reserve for adorable Pixar creatures; if anyone hurts him in the slightest, I will cry a bathtub of tears. The concept that “A Man of No Importance” traffics in is simple; queerness cannot be a tragedy or a tool of exclusion. In the right community, queerness makes you even more necessary. 

DICE RATING: d12– “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: It’s never too late for a charming Irish sexual awakening.

Show: “A Man of No Importance”

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4139 N Broadway)

Review: “Proxy ” (Underscore Theatre Company)

Review: “Proxy ” (Underscore Theatre Company)

Kyle Kite, Tessa Dettman, Carisa Gonzalez, Michael Mejia, and Jenny Rudnick/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Underscore Theatre’s newest non-equity world premiere musical “Proxy” by Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics), Austin Regan (book) and Rachel Franco (book and lyrics) has gone to great lengths to obscure its source material. You won’t find reference to the true story that inspired it mentioned anywhere, and all names and details have been changed just enough to let audiences enjoy the salacious fiction for a time. There’s a bloody murder attempt, a culprit in the throes of mental illness, and the longstanding hurt of the survivors. It all makes for thrilling drama. 

Unfortunately, I lost my taste for it the moment it occurred to me that there may be real survivors of a similar horror, unaware that their experiences were being dramatized. People under the age of 18 who may value their privacy, not notable public figures. While “Proxy” takes care to remove itself from the 2014 Wisconsin “Slenderman” stabbing that inspired it, the thought of real people not having knowledge or a say in this musical left me feeling implicated. I am immediately regretful of any enjoyment I got from potentially unconsenting sources. 

I understand not everyone may feel the same, but given that the musical itself values journalistic honesty, it’s odd that the creative team affords their fictional victims more say than the actual victims in how their stories are told. In “Proxy,” Vanessa (Carisa Gonzalez) is a digital media journalist whose publication is going under. To save her job and her boss Doug (Michael Mejia), Vanessa volunteers her own click-bait story of being stabbed multiple times at age twelve by her best friend, Ronnie (Tessa Dettman). Ronnie claimed that she only hurt her friend to appease the faceless gentleman that appears only to her and become his proxy. Vanessa decides to return to her hometown and confront Ronnie in disguise as another reporter to give herself distance, but reopening old wounds with Ronnie, her mother (Jenny Rudnick) and brother Sean (Jonas Davidow) solidify just how lost Vanessa is in her life’s impossible narrative. 

Carisa Gonzalez and Tessa Dettman/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Stephanie Rohr and music director T.J. Anderson keep the action moving at tight clip, and make the most of a very intimate stage and minimal score. As Vanessa and Ronnie, Carisa Gonzalez and Tessa Dettman are vocal powerhouses, with perfect soaring clarity and fantastic emotional depth. They portray two women that are not always likable or sympathetic, but can still ensure we are hanging on their every word. 

The “Proxy” score struggles to meet the performing team halfway. The songs carry so much plot and extemporaneous detail that it can be a struggle to find the hook or a definitive style. The wordiness of each number also obscures different character voices, or the discovery/changes they want to convey. Repetition and reprises may not be every songwriter’s favorite tools, but they’re effective where they appear in “Proxy.” One particular number that works well to offset the heavy subject matter is Sean’s comedy song of self discovery, “To Find Who I Am,” where he imagines all the amazing places he’d like to visit and smoke weed. 

I’d hesitate to recommend “Proxy” without an assurance from the authors, or from Underscore, that the minors whose stories have inspired this musical have given their blessing for this project to explore a dark time in their lives. Without some proof of due diligence, this production is asking audiences to ignore the real individuals who potentially had no say (or knowledge) in how this story was crafted. If I were the inspiration for a musical, I’d want to know. 

DICE RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ethical dilemma distracts from fine writing and stellar performers.   

Show: “Proxy”

Company: Underscore Theatre Company

Venue: The Understudy (4609 N Clark St)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Renee Lockett and Michael Turrentine/Photo: Gracie Meier.

Simple. Beautiful. Haunting. This is exactly what author Donja R. Love’s Chicago premiere production of “Sugar in Our Wounds” is in the hands of director Mikael Burke. The harrowing and uplifting tale comes to life under an intimate, cobbled tree canopy that breathes life, joy, and a heartbeat into a landscape of constant degradation. “Sugar is Our Wounds” is not an easy story, but it’s an important and affecting story that should be required viewing for all Chicago theater-goers. 

While the Civil War rages, and political dispatches reach them in dribs and drabs, a makeshift family of slaves on a plantation in the deep South welcomes a new member, Henry (Londen Shannon). They have all lost their people to death and disappearance and cling to each other; Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) is an all-encompassing mother and healer, Mattie (Ashley Crowe) is tortured and scarred daily by the plantation owners who share her blood, and James (Michael Turrentine) keeps his ability to read a secret, among other things. Their lives are all entwined with an ominous tree that has a bloody history as a slave hanging site, and a supernatural draw for James and Henry, inviting them to discover the love they could share. Of course, nothing stays simple in this fraught, transactional atmosphere, where a same-sex relationship makes James and Henry easier targets for white violence than just their blackness would.

Michael Turrentine, Londen Shannon, Ashley Crowe, and Renee Lockett/Photo: Gracie Meier.

What happens onstage is nothing short of a profound experience, with each character exchange broken down to be equally minimal and meaningful. As Aunt Mama, Renee Lockett lavishes knowledge and gifts on each of her younger charges, and takes up the weight of their losses and her own. Ashley Crowe retreats into herself so fully as Mattie, it’s as if she’s willing herself to become invisible each time the sadistic Miss Isabel (Grainne Ortlieb) gets within striking distance. Apart from his relationship with James, Londen Shannon’s Henry wearily fends off everyone else in their attempts to commodify him for his body. As James, Michael Turrentine floats on air in a way his close counterparts cannot. This is due to the special, dreamlike relationship he maintains with the large tree that seems to live, breathe and impart its’ secrets only to him. 

The tree itself is a gorgeous amalgamation character brought to life by scene designer Joy Ahn, sound designer Sam Clapp, and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Its voices, pulsing lights, and descending woven plank arms make it an interactive supporting player. Director Mikael Burke has amassed a brilliant ensemble, and whittled each moment down to angry and poetic normalcy. It’s an opportunity for all Chicago theater-goers to face historic cruelty at its most disturbing, and not flinch. “Sugar in Our Wounds” is not an easy play to watch, but there is such a reward in the way it values queerness and blackness that history has callously dismissed. 

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A tree is one slave’s portent of love and death.

Show: “Sugar in Our Wounds”

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave.)

Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

It’s a rare thing to find a musical that wrangles fun, simplicity and emotional depth from as much source material as Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels” does. Authors Jeff Whitty and James Magruder’s book, paired with crowd-pleasing songs from The Go-Go’s manages to be sweet, without losing its bite. It’s also smart, without getting bogged down by an overwhelming amount of story, and has a very present moral center of acceptance, fit for a souped-up fairy tale.

Based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Phillip Sidney — it’s a 16th century pastoral romance; don’t worry, it won’t be on the quiz — we follow the royal family of a prospering fictional nation, made glorious by “the beat.” Whatever it is, they’ve got it. But all is not perfect; the king Basilius’ (Frankie Leo Bennett) daughter Pamela (Bridget Adams-King), a prized beauty, keeps refusing every male suitor, and her sister Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) has found true love with a shepherd, Musidorous (Jeremiah Alsop), who the king has refused. 

To make matters worse, a prophetic non-binary oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), predicts a series of changes coming to Arcadia which sound grim and devastating to Basilius. There will be socially inappropriate matches for his daughters, he will become an adulterer with his wife, Gynecia (Liz Norton); then his kingdom will get a new ruler. Basilius decides to keep the predictions to himself and closest confidant Dametas (Shane Roberie), and just … grab his family and run away! But as with many fables, not every grim prediction is what it appears, and sometimes trying to prevent a future that scares you can unintentionally squash beautiful things and valid people. Will Pamela’s attendant Mopsa (Deanalis Resto) be able to confess her true feelings? Will the entire royal court fall for the mysterious amazon Cleophila (also Jeremiah Alsop)? Will Arcadia be able to sustain “the beat?” Only time will tell. 

Directing team Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson make the work of wrangling dozens of performers on a very tight playing space seem effortless. Choreographer Breon Arzell injects whimsy, fun, and inclusiveness into every stage picture. Music director Kyra Leigh ensures audience enthusiasm never wanes; each Go-Go’s song can inspire warmth and nostalgia on it’s own, but when paired with the perfectly engineered stage moment, they catapult things forward. Most songs featured in “Head Over Heels” manage to avoid the trappings of jukebox musicals, just by mirroring a character want, or a community mindset. Not every song’s a winner, however. “Vacation” is a seminal Go-Go’s song, but felt shoe-horned in for the sake of including a favorite. But this musical does such efficient storytelling in the assignment of other hits,  I can’t hold anything against it. 

This may be the hardest working cast of 2019 so far, with the bracing amount of energy they exude. It’s not hard to get invested, and I dare anyone to refrain from hooting and hollering for them. Not only are we getting phenomenal performances, we are observing too-often neglected characters (and performers) that are queer, non-binary and gender fluid individuals, fully seen and fully embraced. 

Bridget Adams-King as Pamela and Deanalis Resto as her attendant Mopsa are both a joy to watch as they navigate their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and learn how to be brave and open about their love. It doesn’t hurt that they both have resonating voices that truly compliment each other. Liz Norton as an understanding queen Gynecia plays magically off of Frankie Leo Bennett’s willful and petulant king, Basilius. The joy comes from how musically and physically different they are; Norton booms in a powerful lower register and Bennett brings a sprightly falsetto. 

This ensemble is freakishly talented, with everyone bringing their own artistic specialty to each role. Caitlyn Cerza as Philoclea ups the ante for inspiring ingenues everywhere by treating us to a magical operatic range. Parker Guidry as Pythio owns the room with the smallest gesture of their hand, along with a rotating line up of sparkling, gauzy lingerie — something new for every entrance, of course. And you can’t take your eyes off Jeremiah Alsop as Musidorous or as the armor-clad Amazon Cleophila. As Musidorous adds complexity to their gender identity, Alsop is a genuine, endearing vocal presence to observe. “Head Over Heels” is  a sterling example of how we should regard self-discovery in the real world: with open arms.   

DICE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This glam-rock fairy tale and gender non-conforming dance party has EVERYTHING.

Show: “Head Over Heels”

Company: Kokandy Productions

Venue: Theatre Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Review: “Take Me” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Review: “Take Me” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Nicole Bloomsmith, David Gordon-Johnson, Kristen Alesia, Carmine Grisolia, Loretta Rezos, Matt Rosin, Kamille Dawkins, and Megan DeLay/Photo by KBH Media.

Chicago is a fantastic destination for musical development; in fact, whenever I’m not reviewing theatre, you’re likely to catch me at work in musical theatre workshops providing dramaturgical assistance. There’s one piece of advice I give constantly, because even the best musical teams forget it: Be certain your songs move your story forward. A pretty melody may be enough for a pop song, but on a musical stage, your song has to carry a revelation, an argument, a plan, or even a delusion to get across. Anything less, and your audience will be checking their watches, waiting for the stage action to proceed once your beautiful music is over.

Strawdog Theatre’s “Take Me,” a new musical from book writer Mark Guarino and composer/lyricist Jon Langford, manages to hit that songwriting pitfall at full bore, and what should be a compelling concept just devolves into tedium. Great dramatic writing and songwriting come from specifics and fully realized characters, and while “Take Me” has scratched the surface, the creators leave significant depths unexplored.

Shelly (Nicole Bloomsmith) is having an understandably hard time on Earth; her husband Matt (Michael Reyes) is in a coma after a flight he captained went awry, and her young son is either being cared for by her mother and father (Loretta Rezos and Matt Rosin), or is missing. She’s in a grief spiral, and every authority she embraces has told her to move on with her life. Everyone except the new alien voices she hears via her corporate wireless headset. They tease a possible reunion with her husband and son, and task her with creating a “connector” space for their arrival. They even ensure that Travis (Carmine Grisolia), an Intergalactic Space Cowboy, is there to assist, mostly by writing sad country songs. Her childhood toy Doggy (Kamille Dawkins) also springs to life, both glad and bitter about being discarded for years in an attic.

“Take Me” can’t seem to make up its mind about what is reality, or what could be psychosis, so everything we see could be both or neither. That particular ambiguity kills the tension and lowers the stakes for every scene. For instance, if Shelly hasn’t really petitioned Roswell’s city council (staffed by Soviet space dogs) to build a theme park, and that park isn’t really a rousing success, and nothing has as deep an impact for her as her real missing husband and son, those events — real or not — have little bearing on her journey. Moreover, Shelly’s actions have no trajectory if she doesn’t have the conviction that doing them will bring her family back.  She is just tossed along in a weird, directionless current. The specifics, world rules, or even a definable want for the story’s protagonist are so vague, it’s hard to get invested.

Carmine Grisolia and Nicole Bloomsmith/Photo by KBH Media.

The strongest moments of “Take Me” come at the introduction of lovable weirdos. Shelly meets a support group of fellow abductees, and a collective of Soviet space dogs that are eccentric and vibrant, but barely factor into Shelly’s journey. Plus, if these characters stand in Shelly’s way, or can offer her tidbits of advice, she must hold for a musical number before that happens. Performers like Carmine Grisolia as Travis the Intergalactic Space Cowboy and Kamille Dawkins as an abandoned stuffed Doggy are spirited and energetic. They deserve writing that ensures they are not placeholders or exposition-fountains between moments of action. Nicole Bloomsmith as Shelly is a beacon of optimism under constant threat of being extinguished. Shelly the character has enough to contend with, like her own psyche, or unfeeling threshold guardians standing in her way. She doesn’t need to be saddled with writer indecision or forced silence as too many characters sing their soliloquies at her.

Director Anderson Lawfer and arranger Anabelle Revak have worked to make everything besides the script as charming as possible. The stage is the curving hull of a NASA spacecraft, swarming with gorgeous  projected constellations. The music is the rolicking Americana strum of guitars and violins. We should be filled with abject wonder, but it’s a real shame about that libretto.

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This space-traversing new musical needs more time to bake.

Show: “Take Me”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue:  Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W. Berenice Ave.)