Review: “The Fair Maid of the West” (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Show: “The Fair of the West”

Company: Oak Park Festival Theatre

Venue: Austin Gardens (167 Forest Ave Oak Park, IL)

“May that man die derided and accursed that will not follow where a woman leads.” So says a soldier of fortune in thrall to the fair maid of the west, known in taverns and back alleys simply as Bess, though her theatrical adventures grant her a swashbuckling reputation and the admiration of any she meets. The Oak Park Festival Theatre audience at “The Fair Maid of the West” certainly hooted in agreement on the night I attended. Brought to glorious life by Amanda Forman and a cast of hilarious and game fighters, this sixteenth century drama is a rollicking good time, a treasure that has been luckily saved from the history bin by director and adapter Kevin Theis.

Bess Bridges is a simple tavern wench who finds herself swept up in international intrigue when Spencer (Zach Livingston), a nobleman and the love of her life, is banished from England for murdering a man in self-defense. His man Friday, a captain by the name of Goodlack (Debo Balogun), alternately betrays and assists his friend, and a braggart by the name of Roughman (Aaron Christensen) pledges fidelity to Bess after she tricks him into admitting his cowardice outside the tavern. When the two lovers are separated, Bess chooses to pursue her partner across oceans — war with Spain and encounters with indecent sailors be damned.

Theis has crafted a sprightly script to suit his strong actors. His take on Thomas Heywood’s swashbuckler is fresh and immediate, with actors using asides to wink at the audience with contemporary flourishes. As the action moves from England to the sea to Fez, Theis keeps the shenanigans moving at a quick pace, and embraces all the devices of Shakespeare’s day, up to quick-turn redemptions, and even including the infamous “bed trick.”

Forman and the ensemble are clearly having a hell of a time onstage. She imbues her heroine with a confident center and a surprising sense of humor. Livingston is a great match for Forman, and his true blue love for her shines through, even when he is choosing honor above his personal attachments. Christensen steals the show in the coward soldier role, flexing his muscles and passionately screaming to the heavens once his plans go awry. Clem (Bobby Bowman), Bess’ assistant, gamely plays the clown, spouting truths to the audience that his fellow adventurers will not hear.

Fight choreographer Geoff Coates take special care with each sword fight, creating dramatic storylines to each battle. Spencer’s final attempts to reach Bess was particularly impressive, as it involved the entire cast attacking, twice. Also fun were the localized bouts between ensemble members. Each fight made a statement about the characters, their skills, and where they were at emotionally within the performance. It is not easy to tell a story through violence, but Coates makes it spectacular and important to the audience.

Michael Lasswell’s set design encompasses a ship, several taverns, and one royal palace, with rooms popping up out of nowhere — proving that the humblest of settings can still birth great things. Julie Mack’s light design highlights the romantic moments onstage, and the rousing music provided by Christopher Kriz set the epic tone needed for the play.

“The Fair Maid of the West” should entertain and delight audiences throughout the Chicago area. Its every detail is full of joy and innovation. Look no further for a lovely summer treat.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A rollicking adventure awaits the audience, along with killer fights.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” (Velvet Fox Productions)

Jessica Sherr/Photo Courtesy of Velvet Fox Productions.

Show: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sisses”

Company: Velvet Fox Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Bette Davis has a lot to say in “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies.” About love, about Hollywood, about acting, about her mother. And Jessica Sherr’s winning performances carries the audience along smoothly, story by story. But the odd thing about one-person shows is the storytelling itself. Often, the propulsive need to go over the speaker’s history is not grounded in clear dramatic stakes. Such is the case with “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” a romp through Davis’ life that never really pays off with much onstage drama, though Sherr manages to make an entertaining raconteur.

The premise for the evening is sound. Bette Davis has escaped to her home from the 1939 Oscar ceremony because the press has leaked the winners early, and she knows she will lose to Vivien Leigh. “Dark Victory” is no match for “Gone With the Wind.” Tethered by turns to her two already-won Oscars and the incessant ringing of the telephone, Davis uses her free evening to reflect on the choices she’s made as a Hollywood actress, examining who Bette Davis really is, outside of the perceptions and accolades of Hollywood.

Dealing with disappointment provides a nice frame for Sherr’s stories, but little in what Bette shares has weight to it. Her romantic entanglement with Howard Hughes, for example, doesn’t necessarily relate to her crushing professional disappointments. The strongest material at play involves Bette’s disputes with various movie studios, who want to paint her as a musical ingénue, when she knows that she belongs in stronger dramatic roles. Had the play centered more around her defiance of Hollywood norms, the stakes to her loss would have been starker, and her journey towards self-acceptance over her loss would have been clearer to the audience.

Sherr does make a delightful companion for the seventy-five minute run time. Her work with voice and diction coach Robert Perillo pays off, as the mid-Atlantic accent of the era rings strong and true throughout the evening. Sherr’s energy is infectious, and while her transition from phone call to memory isn’t always clearly lit, the force of her performance draws you into the next scenario clearly and cleanly. It is a shame that her script does not drive the action forward as well as it could; she could do so much with more dramatically grounded material.

The costume design by Isabelle Color is lovely. Bette’s Oscar gown is eye-catching, and Sherr’s moving from that dress to more comfortable evening wear helps the audience understand the play’s transition through time. While the script is not up to the level of Sherr’s performance, there are eye-catching moments, and there is a lot to enjoy in this evening of theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forceful performance drives script about Bette Davis’ Hollywood woes.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Three Days of Rain” (BoHo Theatre)

Niko Kourtis, Kate Black-Spence, and Kyle Curry/Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography.

Show: “Three Days of Rain”

Company: BoHo Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

How well can we know our parents? Playwright Richard Greenberg is a student of the dysfunctional American family, and many of his plays examine the tantalizing and painful secrets held by mothers and fathers, none more theatrically than “Three Days of Rain,” now running in an excellent production mounted by BoHo Theatre. In his three-hander drama, the audience sees the end and then the beginning of a parent-child history, with the timeline shake-up only provoking more and more questions about the tentative bonds between family members.

Walker (Kyle Curry) is the unstable son of genius architect Ned (also played by Curry, but we’ll get to that). After his father’s death, he calls together his sister Nan (Kate Black-Spence) and childhood best friend Pip (Niko Kourtis), to alternately antagonize those who love him most, and get to the bottom of his father’s journal, recently discovered in the ramshackle building in which Ned is squatting. It turns out that this rundown two-room was the apartment shared by Ned and his fellow architect Theo (played by Kourtis) in their hungry days, as they cooked up the first design that won them accolades and fame in 1960’s New York. Walker wants nothing more than to understand his distant and silent father, but the journal yields few answers. After deciding to view his parents in a certain light, the play shifts perspectives, with the second act detailing how Ned came to fall in love with Walker and Nan’s mother Lina (played by Black-Spence). How the two come together is beyond the grasp of their children, just as the pair’s dreams for their children do not match up to the reality of raising them.

Greenberg rewards the audience and the actors with this second act flashback. Not only do offhand references from the first half gain deeper meaning, as with the play’s title, but the performers play in opposition to their roles in the first act. Whereas Walker is bombastic and motor-mouthed, Ned is shy and sympathetic. While Pip is extraordinarily genial and kind, Theo is bullying and egotistical. And though Nan is dependable and focused to a fault, her mother Lina always seems on the edge of an emotional breakdown. I imagine it is a treat for the actors to swap tones; it is certainly a treat to watch as they transform with detailed adjustments. By asking Curry and Black-Spence to play their own parents, Greenberg highlights the irony of how close we actually are to our own blood, even when we fail to see them properly. The audience gets to evaluate both sides of the same coin, and likely still leave the play wondering how much can be understood about the past.

Kate Black-Spence and Niko Kourtis/Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography.

Director Derek Van Barham (recently of American Folk Theatre’s dark “Trash”) uses space elegantly in both halves of the play. The combative nature of the present day scenes allows for sharp triangulation between the actors; based on who is the center of the triangle, one understands whose allegiance is being fought for. There is more furniture and less empty space in the play’s second act, but that makes every move matter more. As Curry and Black-Spence circle one another, edging closer and closer to a connection, tension fills the room. When Kourtis backs Curry into a literal corner, one’s sympathy aligns quickly and permanently with the quiet Ned.

Curry and Black-Spence share a lived-in brother-sister quality, but their chemistry comes alive in the play’s second act, with unspoken longings hovering between them and threatening to break them apart at any minute. Black-Spence does a particularly fine job highlighting Lina’s vulnerability. Lina is profoundly unstable in her children’s recollections, but Black-Spence centers her portrayal on the young woman’s efforts to keep her wits in the face of overwhelming criticism and misunderstanding. Her handling of a speech about Theo’s surface impressions of her really resonated on the night I sat in the audience.

G. “Max” Maxin IV’s lights buoy the direct address that occurs throughout the first act. His pink and blue hues give the speeches a dreamlike quality, as if the carefully constructed stories delivered by Curry, Black-Spence, and Kourtis are vital to understanding the children in the present. Kallie Rolison’s sound design transitions us from the present to the 1960’s with a few deft song choices, and Patrick Ham’s set transforms with only small touches that reveal how lived in this apartment was, for all parties.

When all is said and done, little objective truth is available in “Three Days of Rain.” Do the parents expect to scar their children so deeply? Do the children appreciate the sacrifices they dream up from their parents? BoHo’s fine production provides few answers, but the deep mysteries at work in something as simple as a few words haunt long after the audience exits the theater.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Elegant staging and transformative performances mark this excellent, haunting production.

Review: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas” (Subtext Theater Company)

Hilary Hensler and David M. Hartley/Photo: John Oster.

Show: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas”

Company: Subtext Theater Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

Die Roll: 2

I am unsure where to begin. “A Prayer for the Sandinistas,” as an exploration of faith and family loyalty, is generally fine, if too gentle in its challenges to the status quo. The production is well-acted, and seems suited to the Prop black box space. But there are some dramatic choices that gnaw at my mind when thinking about the performance I saw this week, so I find myself unsure how best to give readers a fair impression of the production.

Let’s start light and easy with a taste of the story. Johnny (played as a child by Jack Edwards, and as an adult by David M. Hartley) lives in 1979 Chicago, a place the Pope is about to visit. His devout mother Kassia (warmly brought to life by Hilary Hensler) has spent months preparing the local parish for the event, and during this time, she opens her home to her arriving sisters, nuns Eva (Julie Schlesinger) and Anna (Laura Brennan). The women have been serving at an orphanage in Nicuragua, where Johnny sent money and letters to the orphaned Maria (Gloria Alvarez) as a child. Maria has come with the sisters, bringing along her boyfriend Carlos (Victor Maraña), a Sandinista with whom Johnny, his cop uncle Stanley (Phil Troyk), and everyone else clashes.

The play involves debates between atheists and Catholics, questions of social justice and family responsibility. But there are two elements of the script that deserve addressing outside of those thematic concerns. First, Johnny was born with a sizeable port wine stain birthmark on his face; playwright Leigh Johnson makes it a focus of the story, serving as a reminder of guilt to Johnny’s mother, and acting as an obstacle for Johnny’s advancement at work. Johnson expends a lot of energy and dialogue in regards to what is essentially a make-up choice. Though he is willing to attach the birthmark to Kassia’s complicated psychology, he offers little follow-through in regards to how Johnny’s feelings about it change, marking the “othered” party as less important than his more typically beautiful mother. This would be of little note, if not for the play’s presentation of Anna, the second concerning element of the play for me.

Victor Maraña and Gloria Alvarez/Photo: John Oster.

Anna has some sort of developmental disability. She is viewed simply as “slow” or a handful by those around her. She is childlike and innocent, and Brennan works overtime to display a curiosity and understanding in Anna’s eyes that the script does not support. Johnson never gives his nun the definition necessary to draw a conclusion about her condition. Because his work is set in 1979, the attitudes of characters in his world would not reflect how we address identity labels now, possibly. But Anna is constantly referred to as the “heart of the family,” and it is her lack of understanding and individuality that makes her an asset and a burden to everyone onstage. So she becomes a caricature and stereotype played by a neurotypical actress, who does her best not to look down on the character.

By play’s end, I wondered why exactly Johnson has included Anna and Johnny with his birthmark. The same story about faith could have functioned without unsurprising pronouncements that trumpet acceptance but do not give characters their full voices or humanity. Add to that an outdated discussion about how the Catholic church influences and traumatizes its parishioners, and the script becomes so old-fashioned, it is difficult to connect its 1970’s concerns to the contemporary world.

Director Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch allows for some quiet character work, but he also gives so much breadth to awkward pauses that the play shuts down throughout much of the first act. The design work by Subtext Theater Company members is minimal and adequate, while Hartley and Hensler build a warm relationship over the run time. This production might best be viewed as a museum piece, a portrait of a different time, in which principles about faith can be resolved within a week.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Troubling portraits of two “othered” characters muddy a domestic drama.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “The Radiant” (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Debbie Ruzicka and James McGuire/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Show: “The Radiant”

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Scientific discovery should provide a wealth of material for theatrical exploration. Nothing is more engaging than human curiosity and effort. However, STEM-based plays often fall into traps of plot contrivance or confusing jargon, for fear of misleading or boring the audience. Such is the case with the Chicago premiere of “The Radiant,” an exploration of Marie Curie that is less interested in her achievements, and more invested in how romance sets her on a path to melodrama and potential ruin.

Marie Curie was a total boss, known for the discovery of polonium and radium, as well as her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was also the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes. As portrayed by Debbie Ruzicka in Genesis Theatrical’s production, she is shy and overwhelmed after her husband Pierre’s death. She does not fight for his teaching position at the University of Paris, and only weakly steps into his lectureship after receiving encouragement from his former assistant, Paul Langevin (James McGuire). She fears entering Pierre’s lab due to the memories it will dredge up. And once she develops romantic feelings for Paul, any dramatic focus on her research goes out the window, even as she fights (mostly) offstage to isolate radium and defend her work as a chemist. Her niece Katarina (Chloe Dzielak) acts as her confidant and caretaker to the Curie children, while Michael Lomenick takes on the roles of every man who tries to undermine Curie’s work.

Michael Lomenick/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Playwright Shirley Lauro clearly understands the gender double standard that Curie experienced in academia; her secret relationship with Langevin caused a scandal that threatened her second Nobel Prize. But the author is unwilling to push Curie into high-stakes decisions. Her affair randomly begins at her husband’s graveside, only moments after she laments how much she misses him. Her scientific work is referenced often, but the isolation of radium is never given context. There is little to root for in this biographical piece, when the audience is whisked from scene to scene and year to year with little information given about what Marie outside, outside of time with her boyfriend. Ultimately, the science feels lost, Curie’s goal is unknown, and the relationship at the center of the play ends by giving gratitude and power to Paul. I doubt that was Lauro’s intention, but the affair storyline carries little weight, while the effect of an affair on a prominent woman’s work could have unleashed a longer, more nuanced dramatic exploration.

Ruzicka is dutiful to the script, emphasizing Curie’s insecurity about her appearance, as well as her melancholy. It doesn’t make the scientist easy to root for, but she is recognizably human amid time jumps and announcements regarding her affair. McGuire is less able to flesh out Paul, whose inner life is left mostly a blank; why he loves Marie remains a mystery by play’s end. Dzielak starts the play using broad humor, which is jarring, but settles in to a more subtle, serious vein by her final scene. Director Kaitlin Taylor tries to pull the threads of romance and science together, but she has the actors speak at such a slow pace, it’s hard to find momentum or conflict in their love and work.

I am not sure why set designer Harrison Ornelas chose to use movable pillars as a marker for different spaces in a black box theatre. Eric J. Vigo’s lights could have delineated offices and living rooms from the outdoors well enough. Continual movement of the pillars added time that the play did not need, and actually hemmed the actors in, creating a couple of unnecessary blind spots from where I was sitting.

Across her career, Marie Curie dealt with xenophobia, gender discrimination, and loss. “The Radiant” skims across these issues, and minimizes her work onstage. A better portrait would develop her steely resolve, and display how she chose to move past these obstacles into exciting new discoveries.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Marie Curie was a badass; she deserves a stronger play.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “Time Stands Still” (AstonRep Theatre Company)

Robert Tobin and Sara Pavlak McGuire/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Show: “Time Stands Still”

Company: AstonRep Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 10

Early in the second act of “Time Stands Still,” a journalist lashes out at theatrical attempts to capture the experience of Iraqi war refugees. He has covered atrocities and combat incursions across the globe, and he knows better than some playwright who the victims are; how dare authors try to exoticize other people’s pain for the enlightenment of an audience! Much better, it seems, to focus on crumbling romantic relationships and domestic dramas.

Or so seems to be the message of playwright Donald Marguiles, who examines violence and its effects on a couple in AstonRep’s “Time Stands Still.” Unfortunately, hanging a lampshade on topics he is unwilling or unable to handle doesn’t immediately make the bourgeois concerns of his Western characters more compelling. His askance references to the Iraq War and its cost to investigative and photojournalists actually weaken the conflict between his characters, and while director Georgette Verdin does her level best to create unspoken trauma between her actors, little can be done to connect war crimes and one individual relationship.

We meet Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire) and James (Robert Tobin) at a turning point in their lives. Sarah has just returned from Iraq, where she worked as a photojournalist, and where she was injured in a roadside bomb blast. Her partner James, a writer, left the country months before, but welcomes her home to heal. He is reluctant to return to the field, while Sarah plans to power through physical therapy and fly back to Iraq in a matter of months. Richard (Rob Frankel), her editor, protests this plan, just as much as Sarah protests his relationship with a much younger and seemingly callow woman, Mandy (Kirra Silver). Over the course of several months, the audience watches the characters spar over how to best provide service to the world, and the conclusions they reach have seismic repercussions for their personal relationships.

Robert Tobin, Rob Frankel, Kirra Silver, and Sarah Pavlak McGuire/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Marguiles is at his best when he allows the characters to debate the purpose of their work. Sarah’s photography can be viewed as voyeuristic or informative, based on one’s baggage about responsible reporting. James’ growing concerns about being desensitized to violence provide shading to his character; he is clearly working through his own post-traumatic stress by endlessly watching and analyzing horror films. The trouble lies in Marguiles’ inability to connect such work concerns to Sarah and James’ romance. When Sarah chastises herself for not helping a dying mother and child late in the play, she is referring to her own failures as a partner, as much as she is criticizing the passive nature of her job. But Marguiles gives her so few opportunities to suggest this, the audience ends the play feeling cheated out of a larger emotional conversation.

Verdin works hard to create a fraying tether between Pavlak McGuire and Tobin, using dimming light and turned away faces to highlight the distance between her leads. But she can only rely on hardworking actors so much, when the script doesn’t give them space to organically inject their pain into conversations that seem — on the surface — not to be about pain. Subjects change and arguments resolve without the consequences being clear to the audience, and while Pavlak McGuire and Tobin build fine individual portraits of suffering, the weight of their pain doesn’t impact one another the way it should, nor does it account for the play’s later explosive scenes.

Jeremiah Barr’s city apartment feels just full enough to suggest people living there two months out of the year. Arielle Valene’s costumes reflect a comfortable couple, and Samantha Barr’s lights zero in on faces at their most revealing. The design elements reflect a thought out and lived in world, even if the script doesn’t allow the characters space to articulate their deepest feelings.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spotty script keeps debate about romance and war from sticking.

RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Mother of Smoke” (Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company)

Kelsey Shipley, McCambridge Dowd-Whipple, Emma Ladji and Stephanie Shum/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Mother of Smoke”

Company: Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway St)

Die Roll: 2

At the beginning of “Mother of Smoke,” a performer informs the audience that we exist in an in-between space. We are living outside time and experience, so we are safe in the theater. Yet we are not at home. We are constantly in transit. This is a fitting introduction, given that home and safety form the twin concerns of the experimental performance, and the script itself is a mash-up of “The Trojan Women,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and monologues about the crumbling of the American Dream. The destruction of Troy occurs simultaneously with the ruling class’ loss of their orchard property, and in the middle of all this, food deserts in Inglewood are discussed. It is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, and while the cast valiantly brings life to each set-piece, the end result feels disjointed and taxing, no matter how much the safety of drama is heralded.

Co-created by Thom Pasculli, and the Walkabout Theater and Red Tape Theatre ensembles, the production includes writing from Charles Mee, Ellen McLaughlin, Anton Chekhov, Euripides, and company writers Emma Stanton, Morgan McNaught, Lucas Baisch, and Lucia Thomas. If that seems like too many cooks in the kitchen, your instinct is correct. While the acting ensembles generate affecting visuals and excel at the contemporary material in “Mother of Smoke,” the older texts create contrasts that blur the performance’s overall context. While it is an interesting academic exercise to ponder how the loss of the Russian nobility’s cherry orchard matches up with the ravages of war experienced by the women of Troy, the script cannot link the two directly enough to generate dramatic friction or worthwhile meaning. Loss of home can be much more viscerally felt when it comes to military refugees. How that trauma connects to gentrification in Chicago is anyone’s guess, because we hear so few speeches about it. I appreciate that the writers left the audience to their own conclusions, but a stronger spine, or clearer deconstructions of each text, would have provided us more entertainment and a clearer set of tools to work with as fellow collaborators.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Mazzini particularly stands out in her performance as Helen of Troy. She moves from sardonic wit about her plight to a fevered shout about how her beauty and the war are meaningless. Kelsey Shipley as Lyubov in “The Cherry Orchard” single-handedly holds that storyline together, simply by providing a grounded presence for the other actors around her. Alex Rodriguez as Lyubov’s lost tutor, and as Aeneus in the play’s final section, brings a raw emotional quality to haunted speeches. And Emma Ladji as Dido proves a wise teacher in a world born after war.

Movement collaborator Carrie Drapac provides the most memorable moments of the production, using each actor as a piece of the storytelling. Women wave their hands frantically while men roll around on the floor, desperate for connection and clinging to one another. The strongest parts of the play involve silence and movement, rather than worked-over monologues. The times I felt most affected by the colliding scenes all arrived during dances or scenic transitions.

When we enter a theatrical performance, we implicitly agree to live in an in-between space for a few hours. We do this because we hope to learn something about the world, something about ourselves. By listening to others’ stories, we become more human, and hopefully, find some semblance of safety and community during that reinforcement. “Mother of Smoke” wants to unsettle in order to educate, but its stitched together parts form a patchy whole, and leave us wanting clarity.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Uneven script hampers strong emotional and physical acting from cast.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Venus in Fur” (Circle Theatre)

Zach Livingston and Arti Ishak/Photo by: Cody Jolly Photography.

Show: “Venus in Fur”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio Theatre (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: ?

Who controls a dramatic scene, the actor or the director? Who has final say over the movement, the emotions expressed, the power dynamics that play out? Circle Theatre’s “Venus in Furs” provides a simplistic answer in an audition sequence that goes horribly awry.

Thomas (Zach Livingston) is looking to cast the ideal sexy, feminine, bold woman. He has adapted a real-life sadomasochistic novel into a full-length play, and he bemoans his inability to fill the role of his leading lady, Vanda. Then an actual woman named Vanda (Arti Ishak) walks into his office, and he must square her apparent ditziness with her strong performance in the role. She has somehow obtained a full draft of the script, and she has a remarkable ability to recall her lines on very little study. Mostly, Thomas is annoyed that she refuses to see the play from his point of view. The two act out various scenes, switching roles, and controlling one another’s choices, playing out an exercise in dominance and submission.

David Ives’ play-within-a-play directly spells out the power struggle his artists experience. The director wants the actress to adhere to his commands, just as his in-script character wants her to dominate him sexually. The actress has her own interpretation of the story, and will not back down simply because she is told to; this mirrors her in-script character’s resistance to being manipulated into certain actions by her lover. The lines between reality and fiction blur as the drama progresses, and the characters’ desires become more complicated. The outside world seems to vanish, as the two become involved in a dangerous one-upmanship that may destroy their real lives. Ives leaves us on a revelation that fails to resolve the conflict, and plays more as an excuse than an answer to the behavior displayed, but the journey towards destruction is fascinating enough to forgive a silly ending.

Arti Ishak/Photo by: Cody Jolly Photography.

Director Charlotte Drover pays keen attention to Livingston and Ishak’s physical relationship throughout. The two exist in Thomas’ space, but he quickly loses ownership of his office once Vanda starts changing outfits and moving furniture around to transition from scene to scene. Drover has the actors maneuver one another into corners, staking claims to specific pieces of the set in order to control the action. The constant movement and comedic energy she draws from Ishak, in particular, buoys the play’s momentum.

The intimacy and violence, designed by Kelsey McGrath, rarely resembles real-life interactions. The slaps and canings take on a theatrical flair; the audience sees Ishak missing by a mile in the small Heartland Studio space. If the script does not tip us off that something magical is afoot, then the fight sequences do.

Ishak and Livingston never shy away from the serious themes at play. Livingston claims space and bullies without much care to whether or not the audiences like him. Ishak transitions between flake and goddess and artist so quickly, it is difficult to tell when she is playing a trick on Livingston or on herself. While the play fails to land with the same complexity it displays in its set-up, the performances and direction offer the audience more than enough entertainment to fill an evening.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Man auditions woman; woman disciplines man; disaster and desire follow.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Gentle” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Tom Dacey Carr and Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Gentle”

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 20

“What’s happening?” I asked my friend. “I’m already nervous.”

A man had walked onstage, looking severe in a business suit and holding his own shoes. Something was wrong, though I had no idea what. I sensed bad news, and my instinct turned out to be correct.

In TUTA’s “Gentle,” a theatrical adaptation of a short story by Dostoevsky, the man’s (Tom Dacey Carr) serious nature and bitter disposition do, in fact, harm those around him. He is a pawnbroker, and he happily parts people with their keepsakes, secure in his knowledge that he need only run his shop long enough to raise funds for a new life and career. His plans change once he encounters a young girl (Dani Tucker) desperate to escape her awful family. He offers to marry her, and confident of his rescue, he sets out to make her the model wife for him. His housekeeper (Lauren Demerath) approves of the match, but keeps a watchful eye on the girl, concerned about the pawnbroker’s silences.

Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

The pawnbroker narrates the story to the audience, and it is clear from the first moments of the play that his tale is a tragic one. Adapted and directed by Zeljko Djukic, the drama is trimmed with Dostoevsky’s religious themes; the Virgin Mary and Jesus serve as the ultimate paragon of selfless love, and everyone else falls short. What eludes the people onstage is crystal clear to the audience, as an icon hangs over the proceedings. Djukic must preserve Dostoevsky’s tone while bringing his words into a real world inhabited by dialogue and scenic conflict. This proves difficult, as Dostoevsky’s abstractions about love and faith rarely lead to concrete choices being made before the audience. Djukic has actors delivering long speeches about the day-to-day life of the household, and it can be difficult to tie one event to the next, especially since the pawnbroker bathes the girl in disapproving silence, often to teach a lesson.  There is a lot of monologuing between domestic squabbles, and most of the girl’s relevant activities occur offstage, so we understand only what the pawnbroker perceives. This is clearly the point of Dostoevsky’s tale, but tense silence can only keep its sharpness for so long, when enacted onstage. I found myself frustrated by the pawnbroker’s lack of insight, though Djukic alleviates the annoyance with his hero by cleverly having his characters move about the space and shift props in a variety of ways, showcasing how the man of the house, his wife, and the housekeeper control various aspects of one another’s daily lives.

The actors are uniformly excellent. Carr never begs the audience’s sympathy, barely earning it when he attempts a fragile act of love at the story’s end. Throughout, he is stubborn and exacting and clings to a belief that he is unlovable. Tucker must complete a harder task. She must remain a mystery while still seeming more in touch with her emotions and empathy than her husband. She becomes a literal whirling dervish at one point in the script, and I absolutely could not blame her desperate need to be seen and accepted as she is. Demerath is delightful as the housekeeper, using a shuffling walk and wry smile to suggest that she is more in touch with humanity than the others.

The production design is impeccable. Keith Parham’s lights flicker on and off, suggesting a world on the verge of crumbling. Kurtis Boetcher’s scenic design evokes nineteenth century traditions, with a border framing the pawnbroker’s immaculate rooms, where people appear as if out of nowhere. Natasha Djukic’s costumes reflect the smoldering inner life of each character, changing with the seasons, and offering some relief from the blank whiteness surrounding the actors.

The pawnbroker troubles his wife because he cannot see past the borders of his life. He believes people should act in certain ways and express themselves appropriately. Everyone must adhere to his views. The way he stares at the audience, daring us to contradict him, mirrors this. We have right to be nervous. We will be given no ground in his world.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Lonely man grapples with mysterious wife in well-designed production.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Private Eyes” (Piccolo Theatre)

Kurt Proepper, Megan DeLay, and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

Show: “Private Eyes”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 8

“Lie to everyone but me,” says a husband to his wife.

This line of dialogue from Steven Dietz’s “Private Eyes” has always stood out to me. It has been stuck in my mind since first seeing the play during my undergraduate education, when I could hardly be expected to understand what it meant. But I sensed a delicious irony in the line. In a relationship, truth is often held up as the highest virtue. So what does it mean when your lies are accepted, as long as they belong to others? Piccolo Theatre, dedicated to making audiences laugh, attempts to address such thorny issues of intimacy and illusion in their current production of Dietz’s script. While the end product is tonally inconsistent, the dizziness of Dietz’s script means the characters’ desires and doubts linger.

Matthew (Kurt Proepper) and Lisa (Megan DeLay) are married actors cast in the same play. Adrian (Edward Fraim) is their pompous director. Adrian and Lisa are having an affair that Matthew knows about, though he refuses to confront the pair. That is the play’s predicament in two sentences, and it lacks color when laid out so bluntly. In reality, the audience watches this conflict unfold as a play within a play within a play within Matthew’s mind. Each scene eventually reveals itself to be a performance or possibly a figment of our protagonist’s imagination, where nothing is certain for the characters or the audience.

A large part of why this play can be so thrilling comes from Dietz’s ability to turn one scenario into another with a snap of the fingers or an appearance by the mysterious Frank (David W.M. Kelch). Rehearsals become closed door conversations. Revenge fantasies become mundane lunch hours. The appearance of an actual private eye (Shantelle Szyper) is not even worth batting an eye at; she may have a license to kill, but for Matthew, she only represents the possibility of being wanted by a stranger — the same way his wife is wanted by another.

Shantelle Szyper and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

In order to follow these men and women through all their theatrical twists and turns, you need sharp, bold direction. While Michael D. Graham excels at comedic character bits, such as the anal retentive addition of dressing to a salad, the transition between fiction and reality is so slippery that at times the emotional arcs can become hard to follow. Similarly, I was unsure what to make of the characters’ squared off entrances and exits, mirroring the squares of the set design (by Milo Bue and Lee Moore, based on abstract art). Were they following set patterns, only to bust out of them later? I could not put the pieces together, as I never noticed a change.

While the actors are all solid as people who want more than others can give or communicate, I found myself craving more gravity from the production. There are elements of danger here, and the destructive impulses all four characters share should not be turned into the same type of meta-theatrical joke Dietz favors in the rehearsal scenes. Real relationships are at stake here, and only one of them is feverish and new. The others involve years of knowledge being put in jeopardy, and I never got the sense that all of Matthew and Lisa’s philosophizing grew from feeling stuck in their same routines. Either Graham needed to guide his performers to make broader choices, or subtler ones. They land between wacky and tortured, and at odd times. In order for their discoveries to matter to the audience, the revelations need to be clear to the actors, and as of now, the emotional life is drained for some scenes in the middle of the play.

Dietz has called this work a “comedy of suspicion,” and that is apt. The story is steeped in deceit, and it is impossible to apply logic to Matthew’s unraveling spool of evidence. Truth is impossible, Dietz seems to be telling us, and so our promises to one another should take that into account.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Inconsistent storytelling hamper choosing whether play is fact or fiction.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”