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”

Review: “Transit of Venus” (Saint Sebastian Players)

Heather Smith and Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams/Photo: Saint Sebastian Players.

Show: “Transit of Venus”

Company: Saint Sebastian Players

Venue: St. Bonaventure (1625 W Diversey Pkwy)

Die Roll: 6

The human heart is as mysterious as the heavens in “Transit of Venus,” a drama that showcases how obsession and ambition can eternally stall one’s life. Based on the true story of Guillaume Le Gentil’s tracking of Venus, Maureen Hunter’s play, currently in production by the Saint Sebastian Players, follows everyday patterns as well as celestial ones. And while this current incarnation of the story showcases one excellent performance and a keen sense of wit, the dividends do not make up for the script’s repeated beats and predictable conclusion.

Le Gentil (Jake Baker) plans to serve God by assisting the French government in measuring the distance from the Earth to the sun. In order to accomplish this, he must chart the transit of the planet Venus, and in the 1760s, one can only do that on a sailing journey. As his assistant Desmarais (Leo LaCamera) packs for the voyage, Le Gentil must say goodbye to his mother (Maggie Speer), break off an affair with housemaid Margot (Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams), and declare his love for her daughter Celeste (Heather Smith). As Celeste predicts, danger arises on his journey, and Le Gentil is kept from home and a promise of marriage repeatedly while tracking Venus.

Hunter’s script runs three acts, and that is too long for pretty much any drama written after 1965. (Her script hails from 1992.) The three most important scenes of the play involve Le Gentil and Celeste, and their ongoing debate about whether his dreams are destructive to their future. One could string those sequences together to build a fine, time-jumping one-act. But I must take the play on its own merits, rather than imposing my structural instincts on the work. That said, I have to admit that where we land at the end of the play is set up so clearly by the end of the first act, there is little dramatic tension in watching events unfold. Hunter gifts her characters fiery spirits and sharp tongues (particularly in the cases of Smith and Speer), but their arguments about who gets to leave the country when struggle to connect to present-day questions of inequality and opportunity. Thus, the play feels older than its 1992 publishing date, and has less to offer the audience than it promises.

Smith as Celeste represents the production’s beating heart. When we first glimpse her, she throws herself about a drawing room, moping in all her teenage glory over her loved one’s departure. As each act progresses, and Celeste ages, so does Smith’s physical and emotional life. By the time we hit act three, she has matured beyond Le Gentil’s understanding, and her command of the same drawing room she flounced about before is telling. Smith knows that Celeste is the one most affected by Le Gentil’s projects, and she embodies the weight of her love well across the play.

Director Kaitlin Taylor is smart to let her actors perform the play in contemporary style. The dialogue is semi-heightened, and the costume and set design could lead to broader presentational performances. Taylor always grounds the actors in the emotional turmoil of each scene, but she diminishes the play’s impact by staging two of its most important scenes far upstage in an observatory setting. Far from the audience, Smith and Baker’s expressions are hard to read, as they wrestle with their relationship to one another. The quiet moments they share are also hard to hear, so it becomes difficult to care about their romance later on.

“Transit of Venus” asks some elementary questions about how we value those we love in relationship to our chosen purpose. Though the play does not surprise, it does embrace the uncertainty of romance, and draw the audience into asking larger questions — even when the answers are not satisfying. That seems somehow appropriate, since Le Gentil and Celeste end up so unsatisfied themselves.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Astronomer seeks uncomplaining wife, but gets an independent woman instead.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Squeeze My Cans” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Cathy Schenkelberg/Photo by: Greenhouse Theater Center.

Show: “Squeeze My Cans”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Roger Ebert once wrote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But that statement applies to any narrative form of storytelling, really. In fact, that quote came instantly to mind while watching “Squeeze My Cans,” a solo piece written and performed by Cathy Schenkelberg. In this one-woman show, Schenkelberg details her journey into and out of Scientology, and if you know even a little bit about the cult’s obsession with aliens and its notorious financial filchings, no new information is provided here. What does enchant is Schenkelberg’s rip-roaring performance, which engages the audience with heart, humor, and a little naiveté. So while the play itself does not break any new ground, its star provides a breath of fresh air concerning an old topic.

Taking us from an idyllic childhood to a teenage loss, and a twenty-something search for meaning, Schenkelberg gives the audience plenty of time to warm to her company. A working voice-over actor, she is recruited into Scientology by an older, successful mentor. Cathy dreams of being as put-together and unshakeable as the glamorous movie stars she meets via the many seminars she attends regarding the cult. While she searches for complete control over the way the world perceives her, she also longs for a deeper spiritual meaning. As her debt racks up, she nears a nervous breakdown, and must decide whether it is better to stay in the cult she has known for twenty years, or escape and rebuild her life in a society she has shunned.

The most engaging element of this performance is Schenkelberg herself. She has mined her life as a Scientologist for hilarity, recounting an audition to date Tom Cruise with the same verve as she describes an awkward interview where she must tell a fifteen year-old fellow member about her sex life. Our heroine throws herself into the performance with gusto, moving from memory to memory — and dead-faced interrogator to dead-faced interrogator — with little room for breath. She simulates her whirlwind romance with Scientology at such a quick pace, the audience understands how she ignored the hundreds of thousands of dollars she gave away without much thought. As she reaches new heights in the organization, she never underplays the ridiculous discoveries she makes at every level. She knows now that she was suckered, and we root for her to find a way off this ridiculous ride.

Though the play is largely built on Schenkelberg’s body, as she ages from being six to middle-aged, some nifty tricks show the passage of time. Her racked up debt is displayed on a projection screen as she rises through the Scientology ranks, and the ever-increasing numbers she ignores almost caused panic in this audience member. Other projections showcase her fondest memory, fishing with her father. These quiet moments are far and few between, so they stand out for the viewer.

One does wish that Schenkelberg had slowed down enough to deliver the more emotionally charged revelations. Her near nervous breakdown, brought on by excruciating self-analysis required by Scientology, is harrowing. But reveals involving the manipulation of her daughter do not land as heavily as they might, given that little in the script involves her family. She does reconnect with her father at one point, and learn a greater lesson about the universe and our purpose within it. But we do not see the journeys to these particular moments. We land at a healthier destination after the umpteenth reenactment of a Scientology seminar, and while those interrogations are chilling, they involve more reaction from her than dramatic tension over her choices. I would love to have spent more time with her decision to leave Scientology, in order to truly understand how painful the process would become.

But it is fortunate that Schenkelberg escaped, and it is fortunate that she found the will and humor to turn her experience into theatre. While no new discoveries will be made about the horrible nature of Scientology within this work, Schenkelberg puts a warm, human face on the difficulty of belief.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Woman rejects Scientology, and she lives to tell the tale.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Scottsboro Boy” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys”/Photo by: Kesley Jorissen.

Show: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

At its most basic level, live performance of any story is a lie. Actors pretend as if they exist in a certain time and place, and expect us to buy in to their perceptions and expectations. Any scripted story is a manipulation; the audience is asked to imagine that the events unfolding before them have never happened before, that the outcome is not already planned, that the themes of the narrative are not super-imposed on us by the playwright.

John Kander and Fred Ebb play with suspension of disbelief in all their musicals, but in “The Scottsboro Boys,” they may have reached the outer limits of performance as a lie. In recounting the tragic history of nine young men falsely accused of rape, the authors ask the audience to endure a minstrel show in order to get at the truth of the story. Which is a misdirection. Because minstrelsy was nothing but a cultural lie, a performance of racist stereotypes and hoary jokes (often completed by white actors in blackface) that extravagantly claimed plantation life was fine and dandy, and that African American men and women did not suffer and likely even enjoyed slavery. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the crucial tension between that myth and what these falsely convicted men endured does not quite reach thematic coherence. But the production does offer excellent performances and several cutting images, alongside a real-life miscarriage of justice that speaks to contemporary problems in the justice system.

Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, and Mark J. Hood/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Of the nine men, Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) receives the most attention from book writer David Thompson. He is arrested with eight other rail-riders, after being accused of molesting two white women, each played by one of the Scottsboro boys. He insists on his innocence, as racist jailers and incompetent lawyers sink their chances at a fair trial. He develops a mentoring relationship with his youngest cellmate Eugene (Cameron Goode), and he encourages his fellow men to stand up for their rights. As the Scottsboro Boys endure appeal after appeal, the Interlocutor (Larry Yando), along with Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood), orchestrate their interactions with the outside world, calling on them to sing and dance to minstrel tunes throughout.

Because the men are telling this story from beyond the grave, they cannot alter its trajectory, particularly under the influence of the white Interlocutor. Kander and Ebb musicals often treat the act of performance as a shambling, dead-eyed, ghoulish affair, and while director Samuel Roberson, Jr. aims to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible with the moments of minstrelsy, the robotic performance of his actors only chills about fifty percent of the time. I am unsure why this is so, as the music commands plastered on smiles and herky-jerky, dehumanizing gestures, all aptly performed by the actors. When it comes down to it, I wonder if the minstrel performances should not have been pushed even farther, into flamboyant grotesquerie, as is often done with the Emcee character in “Cabaret.” If we are physically frightened by the racist caricature, we can better understand how the men are commanded to act in order to make headway in court.

James Earl Jones II/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Jones as Haywood shines as the voice of righteous fury in “The Scottsboro Boys.” His early testimony number, “Nothin’,” provides both the requisite politeness required of him in court, but is performed with enough of a sneer that the audience is in on the injustice. Goode has a clear voice packed with innocence that makes his nightmares about the electric chair all the more horrifying. Tsopang and Hood have thankless roles as the Interlocutor’s collaborators, but neither shies away from their terrible jokes or terrible actions as several side characters. Likewise, Trequon Tate and Jos N. Banks as the lying white women excel at selfish, stardom-seeking behavior.

Andrei Onegin’s scenic design resembles a train car and a gallows, and it serves the small Stage 773 space well. Samantha Jones’ costume design evokes the 1930’s period while also commenting on the sameness of the men’s dress once they are imprisoned. Lighting designer Richard Norwood paints the stage in lurid and stark colors, depending on the monstrosity of the minstrel performance on display. The more horrifying aspects of the play are definitely elevated by the design elements, even if the production as a whole could have gone farther and shown how lies dehumanize and destroy us all.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The Scottsboro Boys speak truth, but show business demands lies.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Wolf at the End of the Block” (Teatro Vista)

Gabe Ruíz and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo by: Joel Maisonet.

Show: “The Wolf at the End of the Block”

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Abe likes to run. He tells us as much when he first appears onstage. It’s difficult to focus on what he’s saying, though, since his lower lip is split open, blood runs down his temple, and his knuckles are purple with bruises. In Teatro Vista’s “The Wolf at the End of the Block,” a world premiere by Ike Holter, what people say and how they look are often at odds.

Abe (Gabe Ruíz) is not a reliable sort. His sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) wishes he paid the rent on time, and his boss cum best friend Nunley (Bear Bellinger) spouts empty threatens about firing him for tardiness and potentially stealing from his store’s safe. But when Abe admits that his pain is the result of a hate crime, both members of his support system motivate him to stand his ground and speak. Nunley interrogates a man (James D. Farrugio) who may or may not know what happened to Abe, while Miranda enlists investigative reporter Frida (Sandra Márquez), a crusading Oprah type who demands Abe be unimpeachable before she report his story and calls for justice. As information from the attack comes to light, however, Abe’s reliability as a storyteller is called into question, and his motives become murky. Is he unimpeachable? Did events unfold as he said they did? Is he ready to stand in as a symbol for all victims, or would he rather run from another fight?

Holter is a powerful writer, and he plays expertly with perception and the parsing of language in this script. He excels at bombing the audience with a discovery mid-scene, altering the trajectory of personal relationships and often entirely changing what an ongoing conversation between characters had previously meant. His Chicagoans speak with verve and poetry, and it is no wonder his plays have been greeted with acclaim both here and in New York City. But because so much of this play’s structure hangs on what happened before the lights rise, characters remain flat for much of the eighty minute runtime. Their perceptions may change, but their points of view alter with insufficient onstage evidence. I speak particularly of Miranda, who claims to love the fuck out of her brother, but is given little direction in investigating his attack. The exploration of Abe’s psyche also suffers, with his revelations about the night in question creating holes in logic that other characters fail to adequately address. Yet when Holter gives a scene more breathing room, decisions build organically, and the sense of danger in the air is palpable once perceptions shift. This is true of the play’s best scene, in which Nunley encounters a stranger, and learns how he’d react in a crisis.

Director Ricardo Gutiérrez is a strong fit for this script. His actors never remain in the same place for long, bounding across the stage, shouting over and sizing up their targets. Each relationship feels lived in, even if the script doesn’t flesh out every motivation. Ruíz and Bellinger tower over one another, depending on who needs validation most. Farrugio moves from being friendly to being menacing with only two steps towards Bellinger. Muñóz is the most nervous of the bunch, hugging corners and observing how her brother’s mental state deteriorates with each interrogation of his actions. Márquez provides a nice contrast as a no-nonsense woman who barely has to wave a finger in order to command others to pay her the proper attention.

But these poses are fronts, and Gutiérrez emphasizes that fact in quieter moments. When his actors are alone, they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves; they fidget, they look around, they crumple in pain. They are freed from performing, but they don’t know how to be comfortable in their own skin. The world gives them little reason to feel easy.

Perhaps that is why Abe enjoys running so much. If he’s running, he has a destination, someplace else to go. But if he stands still, and confronts what’s happened to him, and what he’s done, he feels unsafe. Alone. Disconnected. If he’s always moving, he’ll never have to deal with the consequences. And he can tell us whatever he thinks we want to hear, whatever it takes to keep us from noticing the blood.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: One must choose to fight or run in this thriller.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Tempermentals” (About Face Theatre)

Alex Weisman, Lane Anthony Flores, Kyle Hatley, Rob Lindley, Paul Fagen./Photo: About Face Theatre.

Show: “The Tempermentals”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

Playwright Jon Marans wants to enlighten you about a lost moment in the gay rights’ movement. In “The Tempermentals,” making its Chicago premiere thanks to About Face Theatre, he chronicles the creation and evolution of the Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to defining and defending LBT rights in America. It is a fascinating history, animated by colorful characters and important choices. So it is a shame that Marans’ tendency towards short scenes and assumed knowledge detract from, rather than add to the drama.

Amid fear and suspicion in 1950’s Los Angeles, activist Harry Hay (Kyle Hatley) writes a manifesto calling gay men to publicly organize and fight for their civil rights. Few show any interest in it except his new lover, Rudi Gernreich (Lane Anthony Flores), who announces it is the most dangerous thing he has ever read. Both men are in the closet, and Hay is married, but that does not stop them from gathering associates in order to discuss political action. Joining them are Bob Hull (Alex Weisman), Bob’s longtime lover Chuck (Rob Lindley), and outsider Dale Jennings (Paul Fagen). When Dale is arrested for solicitation, the group decides to make his homosexuality a fact of public record at the trial, using the false charges as a way to declare human dignity for all tempermentals, the era’s slang term for homosexuals.

Marans clearly loves these men. He is particularly drawn to Harry and Rudi’s relationship, and the way their priorities shift as their private lives are held up to the light. He gives each character quirks that both charm and disarm. Rudi has a way of making everything into a fabulous masquerade. Harry shouts whenever he gets excited about anything at all. The audience is rooting for these two, and for Dale, who simply wants to live his life. But Marans is not content with staying small picture. He wants to explore the entire group of men, and their social circles, and the political turmoil of the time period. In dividing his focus equally, he ends up confusing the audience. He favors short bursts of dramatic action, but by so often shifting from scene to scene, and person to person, he loses the humanity and sense of stakes at the heart of the historical moment. I found myself doing research about the Mattachine Society when I got home from the theater, and I learned more about choices characters were making on Wikipedia than from what I saw onstage.

Lane Anthony Flores and Kyle Hatley/Photo: About Face Theatre.

Which is not to say “The Tempermentals” is unworthy of your time. Director Andrew Volkoff and his cast flesh out the play with brilliant bits of character business. Hatley and Flores are standouts as two men never meant to see eye-to-eye, but Weisman gets the lion’s share of laughs and sympathy, as a clown who tells jokes in order to hide how ashamed he is of aging and his own identity. Fagen and Lindley handle the multiple side characters they must embody with smarts, even when the script gives them little to start with. Volkoff uses clean movement and costume suggestion to move the piece from courtroom to lavish Hollywood party, but he most excels at quiet moments, when the characters must choose whether or not it is possible to risk touching before others. He lets these moments last, and they give weight to later debates in the play.

The design elements are stylish and sleek for this production, giving it a “Mad Men” feel. The elegant costumes by Mieka Van Der Ploeg, along with the sultry soft jazz permeating scenes courtesy of Aaron Benham, lull you into a sense of safety that is shattered by the play’s rare moments of urgency. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly provides an unhelpful blank canvas of sliding doors, but lighting designer Becca Jeffords paints the stage with rich colors, bringing depth to scenes that could take place anywhere without additional pizzazz.

Though “The Tempermentals” does not tell the richest possible story about the Mattachine Society, it is clear that a lot of care and work went into About Face’s production. It is definitely worth a viewing, at the very least to get acquainted with forgotten men and fights that continue on to today.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forgotten political rights movement makes history, but little drama

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Men on Boats” (American Theater Company)

Kelly O’Sullivan, Kelli Simpkins, and Arti Ishak/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Men on Boats”

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: 1909 W Byron St

Theatre can take you anywhere. Film can plant your field of vision in exotic locales, showing off brilliant sunsets and spotlighting wild rivers cutting through jagged cliffs. But only theatre can transport you into a world entirely of your own creation, where you accept colored gels are the rays of a sunset, and trust that fear in the performers’ eyes reflects an unforgiving canyon rising upwards. Theatre takes you on a journey, and the trip is so delightful because you build its scenes and story arcs with your limitless imagination.

American Theater Company’s “Men on Boats,” a regional premiere by Jaclyn Backhaus, uses little but the human brain to construct its travelogue of, well, men on boats. While the scenic design is sharp and the casting creative, the production provides little in the way of dramatic conflict, and the script’s overreliance on shallow theatricality and repetitive imagery bores after the first thirty minutes.

The plot, such as it is, follows the first-ever government sanctioned expedition to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. Though telling a tale set soon after the Civil War, Backhaus relies on snarky anachronisms to ground the play in contemporary life and attitudes. (When the explorers meet with members of a Native American tribe, the Utes remarks they want to keep everything chill.) Will Davis — as director and in his first turn as ATC’s new artistic leader — has cast a play containing mostly male characters with an entirely genderfluid company, and his sendups of masculine posturing encourage a lot of laughter early on. John Wesley Powell (Kelli Simpkins) leads the adventurous crew, preferring to brave rapids rather than portage boats and cost the explorers time. William Dunn (Kelly O’Sullivan) acts as Powell’s second-in-command, helping the major name natural landmarks, and helping the crew by hunting rabbits. John Colton Sumner (Arti Ishak) knows the wild and the people who live in the West. Bradley (BrittneyLove Smith) has loads of enthusiasm, the Howland brothers (Sarai Rodriguez and Avi Roque) have smarts, Old Shady (Lauren Sivak) is Powell’s mysterious brother, Frank Goodman (Erin Barlow) is British, Hawkins (Stephanie Shum) cooks the food, and Hall (Lawren Carter) keeps the map. These characters do not change over the course of the play’s almost two-hour run time. They do bits, they lose boats; their dynamics strain, but only break once. Dunn believes Powell’s carelessness might get them all killed, but the higher-ups’ continued argument results in little escalation. For a play about losing supplies and facing the elements, danger rarely seems to be a real concern.

Lawren Carter, Stephanie Shu, and Avi Roque/Photo: Michael Browsilow.

This is a problem for a comedy about surviving the length of the Grand Canyon. In order for the audience to believe in the story being told, real risks must be taken in the telling. One could argue that Backhaus has an ambitious theatrical bent; she does not shy away from portraying the crew’s run through raging rapids and waterfalls. Long stretches of the play involve people being thrown from boats and thrashing their way to shore. But Backhaus does not trust the audience in such scenes. When her characters ride the waters, they simply shout which direction they are headed, or they remind us which oars they use to move right or left. This gives those watching little to imagine. What we see is all we get. There are no puzzle pieces to put together, no mess for us to shape up in our minds. Davis is smart to put the crew in tight formations, their movements mimicking the tumult of the waves. But that spectacle is only spectacle. One never wonders whether there is an unexpected turn up ahead.

Kudos should be given to props designer Jamie Karas. Two boards hinged together make up the prow of each expedition boat, and they break up in surprising ways. Similarly, scenic designer William Boles is smart to opt for a simple background; the set’s main wall creates a vanishing point that serves as a cliff or a muddy bank. These utilitarian choices make room for the audience’s imagination, even if the script does not. Likewise, light designer Brandon Wardell paints the set in rich colors to denote every shade of the sky, though the excessive use of stage fog obscures the setting of time and place far too often. Costume designer Melissa Ng gives each character personal flair, whether that be a pair of suspenders or a dead snake wrapped around a cowboy hat; each of the ten crew members leaves a distinct impression, no matter how large or small the role.

Which leads us to the performances, all uniformly good. Sivak stands out for sheer weirdness and her milking of oddly phrased pre-dinner blues tunes. Simpkins dominates her scenes by force of will, and Smith gently reminds everybody that being young and excited is no vice. O’Sullivan has the heaviest lifting to do as the major dissenter, but she manages to rise to Ishak’s goofy level when they debate whether napping has any value. All in all, the ensemble serves the material well. Their work deserved a more daring script.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adventure’s promised; only unimaginative conflict and repetitive imagery is delivered.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Sarah’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

I feel darn lucky to have joined the Theatre By Numbers team in 2016. Courtesy of fortuitous die rolls, I have experienced incredible evenings of theatre, something all the more impressive when you consider I only began writing for the site last spring. It’s been a fantastic year for Chicago theatre, from the storefront scene to the regional giants, and I am happy to report my top five productions from the season. Some I reviewed for Theatre By Numbers, and some I sought out on my own, but I think they speak to the variety and vibrancy that lives in the Chicago scene right now.

#1

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I just reviewed this production, but “The Christians” deserves to have its praises sung twice. Lucas Hnath’s warm and sincere script wrestles with the complexities of faith in a way that’s rarely seen in the theatre. Director Todd K. Freeman urges his actors to embrace their characters’ metaphysical concerns, without pushing the performers into caricature or airy-fairy frustration. The matters of life and death are real here, and so of course, they are also wrapped up in the worship service that serves as the framework for the dramatic action. I gave shout-outs to the design team and lead actors in my review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to name-check the mesmerizing music team onstage: Jaret Landon, Leonard Madox, Jr., Charlie Strater, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, and Mary-Margaret Roberts. They invite us into the world of this play with power and sincerity, and they both alarmed and charmed audiences the night I attended.

#2

Show: “good friday”

Company: Oracle Productions

Venue: Oracle Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Searing portrait of whether or not violence is the answer.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Let us raise a glass to the dearly departed Oracle Production, whose dedication to public access in art has forever changed the face of Chicago’s storefront scene. It is a shame that 2016 was the company’s last season, especially given that they had just moved into a new space. But what an astounding play to end with in Kristiana Rae Colón’s “good friday.” This production about a school shooting confronted the audience with up-to-the-minute issues at every unexpected turn: campus rape, the shooting and abuse of men and women of color by police, economic injustice, the at-moments absurd use of social media, and the short memories we all share when it comes to atrocities. The ensemble of women onstage did the best work of any group of actors in the city this year, and the fact that each performance ended with their embrace — rather than a curtain call — speaks to the community-minded work Oracle has always built. The talkbacks after the show were essential, and the thoughts left behind on Post-Its made for powerful reading in the lobby. An unforgettable experience.

#3

Show: “180 Degree Rule”

Company: Babes With Blades

Venue: City Lit Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A love story to film and women, and their romances.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

The entertaining mystery at the heart of “180 Degree Rule” was actually a love story, It involved two women, but not the two women you initially thought. Written by the late, great M.E.H. Lewis and Barbara Lhota, this Babes With Blades production teased the audience with heart, humor, and a “Citizen Kane” structure that kept one guessing. Along the way, the viewer was treated to lessons in cinematography and Hollywood censorship, and one hell of a fantasia about Nazis potentially invading the American film industry. Director Rachel Edwards Harvith excelled at navigating the flashback structure, and Amy E. Harmon and Lisa Herceg pulled you into their past romance with playfulness and passion. As is expected from Babes With Blades, the violence work was top-notch, but the moment that’s stuck with me many months later is the play’s final image: a projection of M.E.H. Lewis smiling out at the audience. How fitting that a love story ended with a tribute to the beloved playwright.

#4

Show: “The Secretaries”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Stage 773

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I stand by my ten word summary. I still think about the horrific stage moment that Dawn and Susan shared in “The Secretaries,” even though I saw the play all the way last May. The Five Lesbian Brothers don’t mess around when it comes to gore, on and off the boards. And their campy satire about secretaries from a saw mill murdering their way through lumberjacks indulges all of humanity’s worst impulses with an infectious, unforgettable glee. About Face generated a lurid, hysterical fever dream of a production with this script, and while the comedic timing was off from time to time — likely because of the play’s design demands — its biting satire sunk in its teeth all the same. Sometimes literally. Kelli Simpkins ruled her scenes as butch executive secretary Susan, contorting her body to slope around the set, rather than walk. Her demented devotion to cleanliness, appearance, and sisterhood birthed some of the most ludicrous, predatory, and thought-provoking moments in the play.

#5

Show: “The Seagull”

Company: The Artistic Home

Venue: The Artistic Home

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intimate venue and strong ensemble work generate a haunting revival.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Gauzy but not flimsy, The Artistic Home’s “Seagull” displayed how well Chekhov works when his humor and his anguish intertwine. Never has the opening exchange about mourning for one’s life been delivered with more Daria-like disdain, courtesy of Laura Lapidus. Never have I seen a Nina quite as angry as Brooklyn Hébert’s. And never have I felt so sad about the poisonous relationship between Arkadina (Kathy Scambiatterra) and her son Treplev (Julian Hester), fellow artists who will never understand one another. I always roll my eyes at Trigorin, but Scot West made me like him for once. This meditation on shattered dreams benefited from The Artistic Home’s intimate space, and the broken down barn set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec framed the action with an eye towards country winters.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Limiting my list to five productions was difficult, as there was so much good theatre in the city this year. Here are my honorable mentions: “Fun Home” (Broadway In Chicago); “The Hairy Ape” (Oracle Productions); “Julius Caesar” (Writers Theatre); “King Charles III” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).