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.


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”

Review: “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre)

unspecifiedShow: Rolling

Company: Jackalope Theatre

Venue:  Broadway Armory Park (5917 N. Broadway)

Die Roll: 5

Little sister Molly announces “I officially hate who I am here,” and heads nod in an audience full of adult children at Calamity West’s “Rolling” at Jackalope Theatre. Having just come from a stint at my childhood home, I felt at home once again when Janet, mother to two grown children announces “We turned your room into an office,” and “are you hungry?”

In “Rolling”, a disgraced journalist Valerie (Dana Black) returns to her childhood home in a shroud of secrecy when doubt is cast on the subject of her latest controversial article. The fallout is numerous death threats and lawsuits, which Valerie attempts to navigate from her mother Janet’s (Ann James) rec-room. She has come to the exact wrong place to seek peace and solitude; surrounded by her aforementioned mother, the headmistress of passive aggression, recovering alcoholic sister, Molly (Abby Pierce), and suspicious new family friend, Danny (Pat Whalen). Valerie must keep in this punishing holding pattern until the dust has settled around her career, at least that’s what she tells herself. But what would an ‘all-clear’ signal for her situation even sound like?

What we see is hilarious, haunting and familiar to any person who grew up safe and well fed in the upper-middle class Midwest: a family of women undercutting themselves despite every good intention. They bestow more cruelty, harsh judgment and mistrust on each other than Valerie’s internet harassers ever could. Playful barbs become weaponized as the women expose their insecurities, and any facade of intellectual prowess, emotional stability or tolerance for bullshit comes down.

Dana Black, Ann James and Abby Pierce are hilarious. They are also infuriating. They embody our mothers, sisters and friends so well, it’s as if author Calamity West were listening in on our own kitchen conversations. Thanks to Ann James as Janet in particular, I have never understood so well what it is to be the parent of adult children. How a mother could look forward to having all of her brood back under her care, and simultaneously loathe the very thought. Janet is three dimensions of resentment, pride and good intentions, and god help you if you keep her from watching Suze Orman. Likewise, Abby Pierce is smashing as Molly both as she channels all of her energy into doing her family good, and as that energy sours into her vindictive fury. Dana Black has built Valerie into such a towering giant of professional success and quick wit, we can’t wait to see the unkempt self she works so hard to hide.

Director Nate Silver gives us a lived-in, magnificently ordinary landscape to evoke the two story homesteads etched firmly in our memories. There is beauty in the tackiness, and comfort in the generic flowers that adorn the walls. This is home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Home: where family judges you in your hour of need.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Old Friends” (Raven Theatre)

Old-Friends-6-Myers-Monson-Quade-Steele-1024x777 Show: The Old Friends”

Company: Raven Theatre

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

Die Roll: 5

I didn’t grow up watching soap operas, but if common knowledge about the clans depicted has taught me anything, it’s that you can expect the most treachery from your own family. I may not have personally hit my quota of murders, kidnappings, evil twins, or that thing where one evades death long enough to halt one’s rival’s wedding, but I know they are important to many. Nowhere is that more embraced than in Horton Foote’s soapy 1982 dramedy “The Old Friends”.

In the Raven’s decadent re-telling, I may have gotten my first taste of the scandal and heartbreak that lures soap fans in to their daytime “stories”, and I will wonder futilely if the late Horton Foote could have been a “Dynasty” fan.

The unsuccessful son of 1960’s Texas land empire, Hugo and his wife, Sybil (Lori Myers) would be coming to beg for work and board from their well-do-to family, but Hugo has died unexpectedly, and Sybil is forced into the den of lions alone. Sister-in-law Julia Price (Judy Lea Steele) and her unpleasant husband Albert (Ron Quade) fear Sybil is after the family fortune they’ve worked hard to keep to themselves. The woman responsible for the poverty in Sybil’s family, Gertrude Ratliff (JoAnn Montemurro) fears the new widow may make a move on the man she wants to woo, Howard Ratliff (Will Casey). Gertrude and Julia, equally big and brash, assume Sybil is out to usurp their seats of luxury, and work like crazy to cut her off at every turn. Gertrude offers bribes, Julia offers the families’ most run down rental home; they take great pains to expose the conniving they assume Sybil must be doing. All the while, Sybil becomes a touchstone for mother-in-law Mamie Borden (Marssie Mencotti) and Howard, who both want to escape the tornado of drunken destruction that follows Gertrude and Julia everywhere.

This summary hardly scratches the surface of this family’s exploits: there are also affairs, inappropriate work place conduct, attempted murder, and wanton destruction of property. The set devolves masterfully from an opulent living room/bedroom into a shoddy rental home that is scarcely more than a cot and fireplace (amazing work from designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec).

What ‘The Old Friends” has going for it is what every good opera has in spades: divas that can shatter glass with their ferocity. JoAnn Montemurro and Judy Lea Steele unleash a reign of drunken terror on their cohorts as Gertrude and Julia, chewing up everyone in their path. Actor Aneisa Hicks is so hilariously understated in the role of Catherine, Gertrude’s housekeeper, it’s a crime we see so little of her.

Where it falters, however, is in tone. Director Michael Menendian walks a thin line between naturalism and melodrama, sometimes allowing these old friend’s proceedings to land too far on either side.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Family Feuds? Money Squabbles? Torrid Affairs? Everything’s bigger in Texas.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “London Wall” (Griffin Theatre)

LondonWall-4-1024x768Show: London Wall

Company: Griffin Theatre

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

Die Roll: 11

Griffin Theatre’s “London Wall” gets by on a lot of charm and heaping spoons of nostalgia stuffed into every stage crevice. It’s so well designed, and immaculately costumed/coifed you might soon after find yourself in an antique shop with an armload of copper lamps and lacy hats with no memory of how you got there. It’s one part examination of unfairness to British women in the 1930’s workforce, one part syrupy romance, and one part office comedy replete with stock players you’d probably still find pushing paper in 2016.

To manage all those working parts, and permit these working stiffs their afternoon tea, the production clocks in at just under three hours. That time stamp may be a little much, depending on your affinity for accents, and young love and somewhat dated material.

In “London Wall” the protective, most senior woman in the typing pool at the Offices of Messers Walker, Windermere & Co, Miss Janus (Vanessa Greenway) has taken their new hire Pat (Rochelle Therrien) under her wing. Young Pat has a feckless admirer, Hec (George Booker), but she is pursued unrelentingly by the office Don-Draper-look-alike Mr. Brewer (Nick Freed). The typists are paid next to nothing, so there are high expectations when awaiting a plum engagement, like Miss Janus, going out on the town with top earning gents, like Miss Bufton (Amanda Powell), or waiting for your affair to result in divorce proceedings like Miss Hooper (Ashley Neal). Pat and Miss Janus buckle under the constraints that their London office places on them. They juggle industry imposed poverty, loneliness and the advances/dismissiveness their male counterparts dole out to them. Without a little deus ex machina salvation from weird and wealthy client Miss Willesden (Mary Poole), the future would look bleak.

Director Robin Witt has assembled a knock out cast of incredibly funny women, all who abandon their dignity, naivety and sophistication and walk off with the play stuffed into their briefcases. Rochelle Therrien stands out as Pat, a graceful doe just beginning to realize her woodland is full of predators. Likewise, when Vanessa Greenway’s Miss Janus reduces resident lech Brewer to wordless discomfort it sent shockwaves through the audience.

One thing that would benefit “London Wall” and evoke the era of author John Van Druten’s 1931 play even more, would be to ramp up the pace of this leisurely office. We get brief glimpses of the staffers sent into a panic by buzzers and phone calls, and it’s a wonderful energy boost to a very long show. Another thing that would be lovely to see here, or on any Chicago stage at any time? A more diverse cast. There is room for more actors of color on “London Wall”, and I would love to see Griffin Theater and other Chicago mainstays contemplate the ways their productions could be more socially relevant to a city that boasts one of the world’s most diverse audiences.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Leisurely day at the office could pick up the pace.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”