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”

 

Review: “The Irish Curse” (Level 11 Theatre)

Show: The Irish CurseThe Irish Curse-4

Company: Level 11 Theatre

Venue:  The Den Theatre

Die Roll: 13

It’s important to admit it when you’ve made an egregious error, when you’ve done a disservice to the people around you. And so, it is in that spirit, that I have to beg your forgiveness. I assumed that a show focused primarily on small penis size wouldn’t have much to say to me a card-carrying feminist, but Level 11 Theatre’s production of “The Irish Curse” has proven me wrong on all counts. It’s an incredibly funny and crass journey that takes an honest glimpse into the pants and hearts of a group of greatly troubled men.

“The Irish Curse” may begin the same way a good limerick does- with ridiculous genitals- but it has legitimacy at its core. We may be laughing, and our laughter may be welcomed by author Martin Casella and director Justin Baldwin, but they’re also betting that the body dysmorphia, emotional stunting and ridicule these men suffer will strike a chord in all of us.

Four relatively affluent and successful New York men gather in a church basement to hold a weekly gripe session and welcome a new member, Kieran (Dennis Bisto) to their Irish brotherhood of the considerably poorly endowed. We meet Rick (Logan Hulick), a well behaved college student, masquerading as a lady killer. There’s also Stephen (Neil O’Callaghan), perhaps the gruffest gay cop in all of the NYPD, and Joseph (Rob Grabowski) a recent divorcee who can’t bring himself to date. They’re corralled by Father Kevin (James Bould) whose pious paint has begun to peel after years of dutiful silence. They’ve just come together to bitch about their unfortunate penile shortcomings to a familiar and discreet audience, but newcomer Kieran inspires a deluge of honesty among the brotherhood. More than anything, “guys are really screwed up about the size of their dicks.”The Irish Curse-11

In other hands, the ritual of an evening of church-sponsored therapy would threaten to get tedious, but director Justin Baldwin lets each man dictate his moment at the center of the circle. Rob Grabowski as Joseph shakes the brotherhood awake with his booming manifesto equating every political/historical conflict to a dick measuring contest. Neil O’Callaghan spits and fumes as Stephen, who speaks with an arrogant authority, giving a roomful of men their first taste of what it feels like to be mansplained. James Bould wields the same kind of power in his deliberately soft-spoken demeanor, imbuing Father Kevin with a reluctance to ever be fully seen or heard.  Logan Hulick’s Rick is more empathetic and understanding than he hopes the brotherhood will catch on and, I don’t know how he does it, but Dennis Bisto maintains an unrelentingly sweat-soaked, ‘nervous enough to vomit’ countenance as Kieran.

Altogether, this little show packs a decent sized wallop. But hey, Level 11 Theatre, don’t think because you’ve won over one feminist reviewer that this lets you off the hook. “The Irish Curse” still administers a heaping dose of what Chicago theater already has plenty of: the white male perspective. No matter what, I’ll always advocate for more plays and roles for women and people of color.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sir, can I interest you in some theatrical male enhancement?

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Eurydice” (BoHo Theatre)

BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice), Peter Robel (Father) [Amy Boyle Photography]Show: Eurydice

Company: BoHo Theatre

Venue:  Heartland Studio Theatre

Die Roll:15

In a strangely compelling sequence of BoHo Theater’s “Eurydice”, the title character’s father has found his child in the land of tedium and nothingness he occupies and make good on his instinctual need to find them safety. He stumbles on a spool of thread and constructs them a shelter suspended on hooks, stones and rain boots. It’s not a home for them, but a sanctuary for the contraband they harbor: memories and ideas. The greatest threat in the countless re-imaginings of Orpheus and Eurydice’s underworld is forgetting. Numbness and ignorance are in the water that threatens to crest the neighboring Styx riverbanks.

This is where I have to be honest: I have a small bias that may compromise my ability to review objectively. I can’t get enough of “Orpheus and Eurydice”. It’s a powerful pulmonary artery out of which thousands of plays, operas, films and stories like Sarah Ruhl’s “Euridice” flow. And BoHo has crafted not just a compelling story, but an ornately minimalist work of art.

BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice) and Adam Kander (Nasty Interesting Man) [Amy Boyle Photography] You consumers of popular Western mythos probably already know the drill; Orpheus (Chloe Dzielak), the world’s greatest musician, weds Eurydice (Amanda Jane Long), and within minutes, she is lured out of her mortal coil, and into the depths of hell. Orpheus rescues her by barging the gates to hell, playing the best song ever, and getting the okay from Lord of the Underword (Adam Kander) himself. There’s just one catch: he has to trust that Eurydice is  behind him, and never look back. Sounds simple enough, but it is a tragedy after all, made even more tragic in Sarah Ruhl’s look between page margins.

Ruhl introduces another figure, Eurydice’s Father (Peter Robel), who has retained his faculties, despite a memory wiping dip in the river Styx. Where the myth is more concerned with Orpheus’ rescue, “Eurydice” follows the title character through death and a second childhood in the darkest of places. BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice) and Chloe Dzielak (Orpheus) 3 [Amy Boyle Photography]

The additional story layers enrich the myth with character and substance. We see Adam Kander’s terrific Lord of the Underworld not only as what we expect, a sleek predator, but also as a tempestuous overgrown child ready to spite anyone who doesn’t dote on him. We see Amanda Jane Long and Peter Robel, a reunited father and daughter, comforting each other in their grey prison, finding glimpses of happiness in their misery. They retrace the steps of Eurydice’s childhood, until she can remember what the river took away. And in a very appropriate gender-blind turn, Chloe Dzielak carries on as a weary Orpheus, judged by every man in authority as too slight and weak in the shoulders to care for Eurydice.

Director Charles Riffenburg aligns this production to embrace strange angles and human body formations. Those of us in the audience are so close to the action that it can feel uncomfortably inclusive. If we are not complicit in every characters’ mistakes and hardships, then we are at least confined, right alongside them in a grey, industrial underworld. “Eurydice” succeeds in inviting us in for love and loss that strikes very close, not just in proximity, but in familiarity; characters speak our language and feel heartbreaks just like ours.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: New world discovered in the footnotes of a timeless story

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Land of Never-Lack” (Cave Painting Theater Company)

Show: The Land of Never-LackTeaser1

Company: Cave Painting Theater Company

Venue:  The Frontier (1106 W. Thorndale)

Die Roll: 5

The myths and superstitions that grew from ancient Irish faery culture (and were held to be true, long after) are particularly fascinating, if you think about the social need for them. Why did my daughter never return home? Probably because faeries lured her away. Why did my wife’s personality change? With limited knowledge of brain chemistry centuries away, we can safely assume faeries did it. Case closed.

You’d think life would a be a torment at the mercy of these fickle beings, but really, what they offer is the shelter of easy answers in the face of cold, endless mystery. Codes of conduct are not just to ensure wives and children stay obedient, but to avoid provoking the wrath of the faeries. With “The Land of Never-Lack”, Cave Painting Theater brings faeries to life, but hardly do justice to the menacing beings. Instead, author Harold Jaffe brings us two fairy tales that are mostly gentle and whimsical. Great if you need a bedtime story, but not if you want thought provoking theater.

In “Land of Never-Lack” a restless newly married woman, Maire (Therin Miller) and young child Siobhan (Gaby Fernandez) provoke mischievous and territorial faeries, and can’t resist their lure of eternal happiness, dancing and freedom, but quickly find that no faery claim can be trusted. When Maire and her husband (Stephen McClure) entertain her pious and judgmental in-laws (Sandra Howard and Michael Dwiggens) and a priest (Gabriel Howard) for supper, she summons an unholy faery child who would give Maire her heart’s desire if she leaves her family.

Rather than exploring the newlyweds in any further depth, another story with unrelated characters emerges, nestled in the folds of the first. Young Siobhan defies her father (also Stephen McClure) and follows a stag (also Gabriel Howard) into the forest, stumbling on a royal faery court (also Therin Miller, Sandra Howard and Michael Dwiggens). They decide to keep Siobhan as their captive, but they have no magic that can outlast a strong father-daughter bond.

Director Gwen Kelly-Masterton weaves together two scant stories, perhaps to distract from the threadbare simplicity of each tale. The concept does less to wed the stories and serves only to stall each scene, just as the action picks up, so that the actors can swap coats in the dark and lose precious forward momentum. It’s almost like encountering a cliffhanger every eight minutes, followed by a long wait for the team to painstakingly recreate where they were eight minutes before.

Therin Miller and Gaby Fernandez manage to stand out amidst coat swaps to step in as each other’s protagonist or antagonist, whenever needed. However, with each story so meticulously segmented, it’s easy for even strong performers to feel more like a place setting than a real person with a goal. The only thing that could salvage “The Land of Never-Lack” from this faery curse- I mean, from script troubles this far-gone, is a concerted effort towards effective storytelling.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Don’t cross Irish faeries, they’ll punish you with lackluster theater.  

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

 

Review: “Mary Page Marlowe” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

mpmprod8Show: Mary Page Marlowe

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue:  Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halstead St.)

Die Roll: 3

Before seeing Steppenwolf’s “Mary Page Marlowe”, I accidentally ended up consulting with two members of American theater’s largest audience, white women over the age of fifty. One had nothing but glowing things to say about Tracy Letts’ world premiere play, the other did not, but their even split gave me great hope; it’s so much easier to write about a production that you loved or loathed. Sadly, I wasn’t compelled to either extreme. Such is life.

Sometimes the most skillful acting, the most impeccable design, and a well written story can end up leaving you feeling hollow. What should move you to tears and ovation simply does not, and like the titular Mary Page, you’re compelled to see the value in every piece of the quilt that comprises you. It’s no less of an incredible thing to be invited to the playground where author Tracy Letts, director Anna D. Shapiro and a bevy of Steppenwolf ensemble members shape the future of American Theater.

We glimpse the life and times of Mary Page Marlowe through an assortment of snapshots strewn out of order, as if someone has upended her shoebox full of polaroids. She is played through the years by actors Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch, Carrie Coon, Rebecca Spence, Laura T. Fisher and Blair Brown, each of whom haunt the photo frames of which ever Mary Page is in focus. Without pause, we flip through one transition, breakthrough or breakdown after another: negotiating the dissolution of a marriage with her children (Madeline Weinstein and Jack Edwards), spiraling down into addiction and depression with one husband (Ian Barford), and regaining control of her vices with another (Alan Wilder). Through the years we join Mary Page for sharp moments of childhood torment with her mother and father (Amanda Drinkall and Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), witnessing the callouses of her personality form. But, with every wall that goes up, Mary Page eventually encounters the loved one or inadvertent soul who knows how to vault it, allowing her to embrace the sweet sadness of her years alive.

The cast is a great mix of strength and warmth, with impeccable standouts, such as Stephen Cefalu, Jr. and Amanda Drinkall as Mary Page’s novice parents, who tire easily of parenthood and aim to quietly slip away as a docile child starts to become a multilayered human being. As mother and daughter, Rebecca Spence and Madeline Weinstein each end up as ballast to one another as tragedy strikes. This particular Mary Page may not be suited to the hardship, but her daughter aptly picks up the slack, leaving her mother to marvel at the individual who developed. With Blair Brown, we see a Mary Page who is finally starting to be at peace with herself; out of the longing and destructiveness of her past selves she cultivated strange stalks of joy and appreciation for those around her.

Anna D. Shapiro and Tracy Letts have given us a production of great beauty and backbone, and by parceling a single woman into six distinct people, they capture a very minute sadness that comes from looking back at old photos and recognizing the many unseen ways you’ve changed. “Mary Page Marlowe” also provides substantial, thought provoking roles (I mean, role) to a generous cast of women. This is still a theater landscape where women’s contributions can be boiled down to minute nuggets or non-presence (think of Erin Pike’s sad but accurate compilation of lines for most produced female characters in “That’s What She Said”), and “Mary Page Marlowe” does more than it’s fair share to correct the deficit.

You may not leave the theater a changed person, but you may be compelled to start seeing the many versions of yourself that exist simultaneously.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A woman’s life; not the biggest revelation, but still beautiful.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre)

c700x420Show: Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical

Company: Stage 773 Theatre

Venue:  Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.)

Die Roll: 15

A woman must pick up the pieces after her husband commits suicide. Another must care for her emotionally distant mother. A man dealing with the stigma brought on by his disabilities turns to his family. A woman starts over after the breakup of a long-term relationship, and another deals with long standing issues with weight and body image. None of these things may sound like laughing matters, but in ‘Broken Record” each performer invites us to look in on their own personal warts, and come to the same conclusion they did: surmounting this deep emotional pain makes you a champion. A card-carrying, bona fide adult person.

The improvised comedy musical can be a challenging format to use to develop an artistically and emotionally rich production. But, with “Broken Record”, director Jill Valentine and composer Brad Kemp have taken great care to ensure their show invests in stories with depth and complete characters while allowing jokes to flow from an impulsive place, which feels off-the-cuff.

The performers’ true stories act as five one-person shows that are woven together by virtue of Chicago having an incredibly close knit comedy/performing community. When Jenna Steege, both performer and character, takes steps to let friends in on her grieving process following the loss of her husband, she is met by well meaning, but unhelpful voices not speaking her language of loss. When Kerri Morrison forces herself back into the dating pool (after a heart wrenching song “Room for Somebody New”), she turns to Amber Linde, who is avoiding having to log her sweet and salty indiscretions on an accurate calorie count. They are both the consoling voices at the other end of the same phone call. Performer Lou Leonardo is introduced during his boyhood as a social misfit, and sings an ode to his only solace, Legos, and his obsession to fashion a world in which everything gives that satisfying Lego ‘click’.

These skilled vocalists deliver each song clearly and resolutely, letting us see how well our emotional baggage matches their own. For example, “Piggyback Ride” tracks Amber Linde’s slow resignation to a life of never quite fitting in. The straw that broke my tear ducts came from performer Molly Todd Madison, unpacking objects that take her back to momentous events in her life. Absent from these events is the mother she tries so desperately to reach. The action of being lost in a sense memory, however, is powerful enough to draw in every voice and resonate in every story. Performers chime in with almost impulsive song interjections about their first taste of ice cream cake, or the sound of a loved one’s voice breaking.

Brad Kemp and Jill Valentine have zeroed in beautifully on the real life specifics that allow each song to tap into your experience, no matter if you’re onstage, in the tech booth, in row three or just listening from the lobby. The great insight that “Broken Record” has is allowing each emotional devastation it’s time to act as a skip on the record that brings discord to performers (and equally afflicted audience members). With unexpected strength, the performers replace the needles on their own turn-tables and their tracks can finally move forward. Each of them finds a way to rescue their own lives from pain, pick up the pieces and- as they all belt to the rafters- “Be my own fucking hero.”

Also: Please do not let my incredibly weepy assessment give you the wrong impression, this is also one of the funniest things I’ve seen from Stage 773, ever.  Each troupe member is as comically sharp as they are gifted musically, and they take down food porn, sitcoms and bad dates in ridiculous fashion.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This musical from hilarious Chicago improvisers packs an emotional wallop.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”