Review: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” (Pegasus Theatre Chicago)

debrah neal, Toni Lynice Fountain, Sandra Watson, and Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Show: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery”

Company: Pegasus Theatre Chicago

Venue: Chicago Dramatists (1105 W Chicago Ave)

There is only one way for the women of Shay Youngblood’s “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” to overcome their suffering, and that is through song. Music grants peace in that it solidifies their community, as much as it expresses their pain. Life lessons in this Pegasus production are doled out through music, making them all the more memorable for the characters and the audience.

The unnamed figure at the center of these women is known only as Daughter (Melanie Loren), and she recounts her life growing up with a variety of caretakers who all qualify as mothers to her in one way or another. Big Mama (Felisha McNeal) is her grandmother, and she looks after the girl’s daily bread, and comforts her when she laments the lost presence of her biological mother (Nichole Green in the performance I saw), who has retreated North for work. Aunt Mae (Stacie Doublin) and Miss Corine (debrah neal) weave prophecies and pinch snuff. Miss LaMama (Toni Lynice Fountain) tells our heroine stories in the tradition of African narratives. Together, these ladies prepare Daughter for womanhood, with all its trials and triumphs explained beforehand.

Director Ilesa Duncan has built a strong ensemble for this memory piece. The women age and de-age, depending on the stories and wisdom they impart to their young charge, and this reviewer could feel the history of shared lives vibrating between them at every moment. Such connection is vital, as Youngblood’s script moves in and out of the memories of multiple characters, while the main story is being shared by Loren as a flashback itself. Duncan uses the small space at Chicago Dramatists well, delineating which moments are present or past through blocking and characters’ physical choices. The emotional arc never gets away from the director, as she links all the stories Loren is told to present moments of remembrance.

Takesha Meshé Kizart, Stacie Doublin, Toni Lynice Fountain, debrah neal, Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal, Melanie Loren, and Sandra Watson/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

The actresses acquit themselves well with their varied roles. Loren is particularly impressive as she ages down to play a pre-teen, while Green excels at playing multiple women at multiple ages, each with her own strong sense of self. Sandra Watson stands out as an older woman with mystical sight, and as a lesbian sharing lessons about love with Loren. And McNeal commands the stage as a no-nonsense woman with many people to care for. The rivalry between Doublin and Fountain is entertaining and heartfelt, with a conclusion that satisfies both women and the audience.

Music director Shawn Wallace has a real gift in this cast. These women sing a capella for the majority of the show, performing the ghostly rhythms of memory as easily as they harmonize for gospel music. The balance of voices, each powerful in distinct ways, reinforces the theme at the center of the production: that each woman has something special to pass on to her charge, and each will give wisdom in her own unique way. This pattern is reinforced by Kirstin Johnson’s elegiac sound design, and cemented by choreographer Nicole Clark Springer (of the Duncan-directed “Rutherford’s Travels” last year) in the final moments of the play, where Loren moves from woman to woman, and mirrors their dances, and picks up their rhythms, suggesting she will carry them with her always.

“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” delivers on its title. Youngblood’s script, combined with Duncan’s well-crafted moments, and through diligent work from the performers, shines in a winning production that has the audience humming long after the lights have gone down.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women form a community through song in this lovely show.

DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “J.B.” (City Lit Theater)

Morgan McCabe and Elaine Carlson/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: “J.B.”

Company: City Lit

Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)

“Are you ready?” asks one performer to another, before the pair dons masks representing God and the Devil, and play out the story of Job. Her opposite number nods. They adjust their masks, and the play truly begins.

It is a simple enough question to consider. A check-in is necessary before fantasy kicks in, when the focus required for a narrative moves artists to a higher plane. But in this case, it is also a troubling inquiry. Are these performers ready to destroy and judge a man? Are those watching ready to respond to the eternal questions of fairness and justice that lie at the heart of “J.B.”? In director Brian Pastor’s all-female, over-fifty cast at City Lit Theater, not a woman escapes epiphanies about choice, responsibility, and freewill. Set under the cover of a circus big top, and under the insightful eye of playwright Archibald MacLeish, humanity is dissected, and our place on Earth made an object of curiosity not unlike attending a side show.

Two carnival vendors, Mr. Zuss (Elaine Carlson) and Nickles (Morgan McCabe), put aside their popcorn and balloons, in order to regale the audience with a tale of human suffering. Zuss happily embodies God, while Nickles takes off her Satan guise as often as possible, interrogating the suffering set against Job, and lambasting the worthiness of the world. The two choose local banker J.B. (Stephanie Monday) as the subject of the Lord and the devil’s bet, and the audience watches the man and his family, particularly his wife Sarah (Judy Lea Steele), endure endless hardship, sickness, violence, and death.

Stephanie Monday, marssie Mencotti, Elaine Carlson, Shariba Rivers, Barbara Roeder Harris, Susie Griffith, and Rainee Denham/Photo: Tom McGrath.

In the press materials, Pastor points out that the women cast in “J.B.” will be well aware of what it feels like to live without agency. As they have aged out of ingenue status, they are likely offered fewer opportunities to work, while society at large has always devalued their contributions based solely on their gender presentation. What better group to bring MacLeish’s scathing indictment of destiny to light? I am not sure that this concept enriches the story being told, or that the idea even tracked for me, but I will say that the performances are all wonderful, with rich character work especially shining through in the relationships between Monday and Steele, and Carlson and McCabe. Likewise, the ensemble work by Barbara Roeder Harris, Shariba Rivers, Rainee Denham, Susie Griffith, and marssie Mencotti is strong, as they play comforters, children, and vagrants, building out a world we recognize all too well. Pastor works well in the City Lit space, allowing the actors to range across platforms right up close to the audience, as they question the value of a life well lived on Earth. He keeps the performances sharp and clear, as each actor moves in and out of their own personalities to adopt their roles. It is clear when McCabe bemoans her tale because she as Nickles is doubtful, and when Satan is sowing discord with Mr. Zuss.

The circus feel comes across in an impressively large set by Kaitlyn Grissom, with platforms and a creamy color scheme that pop under Jess Fialko’s light design. The muted tans and browns of Alaina Moore’s costumes give the Earth-bound characters a grounded feel, while David Knezz’s masks evoke Greek tragedy and the allegory of medieval theatre. Overall, the production has a cheerful feel undercut by MacLeish’s damning questions, and that vibe works well for the material. I only wish that there had been more music throughout the performance. The circus workers sing snatches of folk tunes here and there, but more live music or underscoring would have made the characters’ in-story choices even more haunting.

No one is ever ready to face a hardship, but City Lit’s “J.B.” makes the case that when suffering occurs, the only action worth taking is making the choice to go on, whatever causes it. While actors can remove themselves from an illusion, J.B. the banker cannot, and the character’s rejection of heaven and hell makes MacLeish’s point that humans are strongest when taking on hardship without flinching.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: All creatures under heaven face adversity through circus/mask work.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Last Days of the Commune” (Prop Thtr)

Lyle Mays, Barry Lohman, Rory Jobst, and Don Schroeder/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

Show: “The Last Days of the Commune”

Company: Prop Thtr

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

“One or all, all or nothing, it will be.” So sings the collection of French peasants defending their freedom in Prop Thtr’s “The Last Days of the Commune.” And true to Brechtian form, as the play is an unfinished story by Bertold Brecht, adapted by Stefan Brün, Diane Hamm, Kyle Anne Greer, and directed by Stefan Brün, this song of determination is not joyful or defiant. The lyrics reflect the ideal, while the exhausted Frenchmen and women merely go through the motions of throwing up their fists and keeping up with the jaunty melody. This has been a short but costly revolution, their glassy eyes tell us, and the bloody end is in sight.

I had not known very much about the Paris Commune before attending this show, and I will say the history is communicated in fits and starts, the way Brecht liked it. Rather than allow the audience to get caught up in an emotion-based narrative about the months between March and May 1871, we see scenes of political speeches and rallying cries juxstaposed with the almost-too-peaceful capture of a cannon by radicalized French troops and peasants. We meet true believers in overthrowing the Paris government after a military shutdown of the city, like Papa (Lyle Mays). We meet fellow travelers who benefit from protection by the revolutionary National Guard, like the impoverished Madame Cabet (Karen Fort) and her son Jean (Christopher Sylvie). We hear from Thiers (Rick Reardon), the government’s official leader, as he conspires with Prussian leaders to quell the anger of the people. The audience pieces together a colleage of discontent, and must accept the dislocation as a form of intellectual exercise for Brecht’s belief in thinking “beyond defeat.”

Moments like that worn-out protest song make for memorable theatre in Prop’s examination of revolt, but I often found myself stretching to connect the conversations onstage with their historical moment. Perhaps that is the purpose, as Brün and Hamm wisely focus attention on how the men and women of the Commune view their revolution, and how they plan to create a new government in the midst of a military crackdown on personal liberty. Their conversations mirror questions that we ask today. What is the best means to achieving freedom? Who gets to speak and who gets to rule? How does a community determine what is best for the group, especially when a ruling class always steps forward to create institutions? There is a humorous scene halfway through the play where the leaders of the revolution guess at how to pay the salaries of those running the city’s lights and education initiatives, and it proves how unprepared they are to actually lead beyond a revolution.

Paul Brennan, Zoë Miller, Karen Fort, and Lyle Mays/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

The musical performances are the standout in this show. Delivered by various cast members with verve, with compositions and arrangements created by Greer, the songs reflect styles as different as punk rock, jazz, blues, and ballads. Brecht always included songs as a way to further alienate the viewer, and draw them into a greater philosophical examination of the story. Simply by interrupting the story with song, he drew you out of the play and back into your world. But here, the songs provide relief and connection. Early on, the performers stomp around joyously, creating a chorus of optimistic voices. A young woman in love (Zoë Pike) sings a ditty about chives, and I felt connected to her in that moment. So while there is value in Brecht’s epic approach to intellectual stimulation, it was nice to empathize with the characters in those moments.

If the main goal of the production is to motivate those in the audience to think beyond defeat in our own times, I am unsure about the message we are left with; strands of Marx’s writing are spoken via projection towards the end of the play, as this revolt inspired his own political theories. But the value of the loss is still to be struggled with. Are we the failed revolutionaries? How are we to avoid their missteps and to claim their victories? The play doesn’t tell us, and that may be one way it parts with Brecht, who loved underlining his themes. It seems we must work events out for ourselves — the true call to action for anyone living in interesting times.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adapted Brecht provides food for thought in song and events.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

 

Review: “A View From the Bridge” (Goodman Theatre)

Ian Bedford, Catherine Combs, and Andrus Nichols/Photo: Liz Lauren.

Show: “A View From the Bridge”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre (170 N Dearborn)

The smell of sea salt is referenced multiple times in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” part and parcel of the story’s connection to ancient grudges growing from family obligations stretching back to Sicily. But in the play’s startling Ivo van Hove production, recently on Broadway and now remounted at the Goodman, I kept anticipating the smell of blood. I waited for it be spilled on the pristine white set, as anxious and unsettled as the characters headed for oblivion onstage. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop its arrival; I simply had to pay attention, and heed the lesson at the heart of this penetrating and powerful production.

Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford) lives his life by a simple code: do right by your family, and protect them at all costs. He is particularly preoccupied with looking after his niece Catherine (Catherine Combs), a woman on the verge of her twenties who has lived with Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) for her entire childhood, and continues to do so in her emerging adulthood. Eddie and Catherine have settled into an uncomfortably flirtatious rhythm in recent years. Every day when he arrives home from the docks, she leaps into his arms, and wraps her legs around his waist. When he sits next to her, he absent-mindedly runs his hand up and down the length of her bare leg. Beatrice notes these gestures, but holds her tongue for the sake of peace in the household. Matters escalate with the arrival of Beatrice’s cousins from Italy; Marco (Brandon Espinoza) and Rodolpho (Daniel Abeles) enter the country illegally by ship, and work on the docks with Eddie in order to raise funds for family members back home. Eddie is happy to help out kin, but Rodolpho and Catherine take an instant interest in one another, and our protagonist’s disapproval eventually veers into obsession and results in violence.

Daniel Abeles, Brandon Espinoza, and Ian Bedford/Photo: Liz Larson.

Miller’s focus on the inevitability of tragedy is never stronger than in “View,” and van Hove’s stripped down presentation allows the script’s dread and anger to dominate the proceedings. By slicing away the realism centered in the home-set scenes, van Hove leaves only the actors to tell the story. Their bodies communicate fracturing and complicated bonds; their voices strain to reach scene partners across the wide white floor; the rhythm of their work prepares the audience for an awful outcome. Miller embraced Greek tragedy traditions up to a certain point, but stayed loyal to presenting the illusion of everyday life in his work. Ivo van Hove detaches the play entirely from reality, generating a sense that nothing in the world matters but Eddie’s desire. The result is a claustrophobic stage experience. The characters receive no relief; they cannot hide from one another, and you cannot look away from them. Serving as witness to this story carries its own weight and responsibility. When the show’s narrator, a lawyer named Alfieri (Ezra Knight), calls us to judge whether it is better to act in the community’s interest, rather than anguish in the purity of one’s own convictions, we are left to make the choice on our way out of the theater.

Bedford is a massive actor, and his frame sweeps across the space easily and with a sense of destiny. He plays Eddie as a man only half-aware of what he really wants; his fear always tips over into lashing out against and controlling the ones he loves. It is a tough performance, both sympathetic and frightening. Combs must be equally innocent of her affections, and only emerges as an independent adult slowly, with each passing scene, her inquiring mind driving her choices. Nichols could simply play a badgering wife, but she gives Beatrice’s needs complexity and dimension; the muting of her wants ends in her delivery of the play’s seminal line. Espinoza is appropriately intimidating in his solid quietness, and Abeles gives Rodolpho a sweetness and charm that proves in and of itself how wrong Eddie is about the boy’s masculinity and intentions towards Catherine.

The lights and sets by Jan Versweyveld are stark and square, a decision that often leaves the stage illuminated but the actors in shadow. As Combs and Bedford struggle with their desires, they sit in darkness, their voices alone carrying their questions to the audience. Costume designer An D’Huys lets Beatrice and Marco blend into the background with greys, while tracking Catherine’s changing feelings with blouses that first pop crayon colors, and eventually dim to black. Such design elements work in concert to reveal what the characters cannot.

When the blood finally arrives in “A View From the Bridge,” it provides no catharsis. As the actors stumble about the stage, splashed with color, there is no sense of relief, no discconection from pain and yearning. There is only the image, frozen in time, of men and women clutching at one another, always wanting more, but needing to settle for less.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Brilliant staging of an American classic examines desire and choice.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Alias Grace” (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

Ashley Neal and Steve Haggard/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Alias Grace”

Company: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (5779 N Ridge Ave)

Memory is unreliable, yet the lives of women and men often depend on certain events being recounted in a certain way. This is true for Grace Marks, the 1800s historical figure and convicted mudereress now sweeping across the Rivendell stage in Jen Blackmer’s adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel “Alias Grace.” Grace is a meek and mousy woman, so it is hard for most to believe she is guilty of killing her former employer and his housemaid. The dissonance between the cruelty of her crime and her behavior in prison provides a couple hours’ pondering, though the audience ends up as clueless at the end of the play as they were at the start.

Dr. Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard) plans to use the study of psychology to enter into Grace’s mind, and reveal her innermost truth. He is an ambitious young doctor, and largely wins a daily appointment to speak with the imprisoned Grace (Ashley Neal) because Rachel (Jane Baxter Miller), the warden’s wife, is fascinated by his work, while also harboring an attraction to him. Grace has been in jail for sixteen years, and now claims to have amnesia. Through her conversations with Jordan, she reveals the secrets of her employer Kinnear (Drew Vidal) and his housemaid-turned-mistress Nancy (Maura Kidwell). Aligning herself with hotheaded stablehand James (David Raymond), Grace never forgets the lesson she learned from a fellow maid and friend, Mary Whitney (Ayssette Muñoz): as servants, they know their superiors, from how they like their food cooked, to how they sleep at night; but the superiors will never know the servants, and that gives them power.

Blackmer is a gifted writer. She makes good use of Atwood’s quilting metaphor throughout her script, paralleling Grace’s story with the construction of a quilt. The playwright is especially fond of slipping in and out of memories, even granting flights of imagination to Jordan, as his dreams blur with the real world, once he comes to develop romantic and possessive feelings towards Grace. I am not sure that these dreamscapes are particularly dramatically thrilling, as they never last long enough for the viewer to question reality. But the confusion still does its work, highlighting that the doctor himself is not well, and just as calculating and controlling as any other person seeking Grace’s confession.

Director Karen Kessler pays special attention to how the women interact with one another physically in this production. From Kidwell to  Muñoz to Miller, the women are all much more at ease with one another than with any man. Nancy displays full-fledged drunkeness in front of Grace without fearing judgment. Mary depends on Grace’s strength to protect her from bodily harm. And Rachel dotes on Grace as a mother might her child. It is only in front of men that secrecy shrouds language, and what is being communicated comes out only through subtext. Grace must be careful, for she doesn’t always understand the game she is playing in her household.

Neal is particularly fine switching between the present, beaten down Grace, and the Grace of her teenage years, who enjoys living and working in Kinnear’s household. She sets the audience off-balance as she tells her tale, always indicating there is more to the tale than what she reveals to Dr. Jordan. Haggard comes apart at the seams as the play continues, and while I wondered if his harried demeanor may shut him off from fully hearing Grace’s story, his intensity helps communicate his downfall.  Muñoz is a breath of fresh air as the fiery-spirited Mary, and Kidwell does a lot with a look as the officious but concealing Nancy.

Quilts and paintings dominate Elvia Moreno’s set, and Michael Mahlum’s lighting help distinguish memory from dreams, while confounding expectations mid-scene sometimes. Janice Pytel’s costumes are simple yet elegant, highlighting the 1859 setting without making the world appear fusty or formal. And LJ Luthringer makes use of strings and standards to pull us back to the past while planting ominous religious overtones throughout the production.

If memory is unreliable, as Atwood and Blackmer remind us in “Alias Grace,” then what can we learn from an unveiled recollection? Do we know Grace any better once she has told her physician everything, or are we left still in the dark, understanding only how little we understand about how the human mind justifies its own actions?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A woman commits murder, only gains freedom once she remembers.

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Lawrence Grimm and the cast/Photo by: Evan Hanover.

Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.

Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.

Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.

Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.

Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.

Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.

“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

 

Review: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)

Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.

After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.

This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.

Margaux Fournier and Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.

Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.

Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.

Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.

Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Red Theater Chicago)

Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Show: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Every professional wrestler has a signature finishing move. Chad Deity’s is called the power bomb, and it involves lifting his opponent into the air and then slamming them hard onto the mat, back first. In Red Theater’s energetic production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” what makes this move stand out is not its sheer power, but the wrestler’s showmanship. Before hoisting his fellow wrestler high over his head, Chad gyrates his hips and moves his hands around in a preemptive celebration, almost surigical in its precision. Without that bit, the move would simply be fight choreography. With it, Chad displays why he’s the best loved champion in wrestling. He has charisma. By contrast, the man lying on the mat lacks panache.

More often than not, that man is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a career underdog and true believer in the art form of professional wrestling. Chad (Semaj Miller) is the face of a wrestling company referred to only as “the wrestling,” though one can discern enough details in playwright Krisoffer Diaz’s script to peg the organization as the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Mace sees himself as a storyteller, since his primary job in each match is to make poorer wrestlers look like winners, a service he provides for Chad Deity often. But he longs for more space to tell his own stories. He wants an opportunity to win. Once he meets the motormouthed VP (a role usually performed by Priyank Thakkar, though I saw a performance with gifted understudy Harsh Gagoomal), he sees a chance to train a partner, someone to pump up the crowd before an entrance, someone who will support him to victory. But EKO (Mickey O’Sullivan), owner and operator of “the wrestling,” has other plans for the pair; they are to become villains, opposed to Chad Deity and all things American, and they will be billed as racist stereotypes.

Will Snyder, Dave Honigman, and Mickey O’Sullivan/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Diaz’s script is a wonder of craftsmanship. I can understand the impulse to revive the play in Chicago so soon after its original celebrated run at Victory Gardens in 2009. The playwright knows wrestling inside and out, and understands how the drama and showmanship of a great match is not too far from the dynamic work at play in the best theatrical performances. He uses wrestling as a metaphor for art and achieving the American Dream, and then complicates the entire scenario by highlighting how society regularly asks people of color to undermine their own identities in order to get ahead in their chosen fields. The fact that Mace addresses his tale of woe directly to the audience only makes its impact hit harder, as we become his fans, and watch while he struggles to reconcile new-found success with lost integrity.

Director Jeremy Aluma emphasizes the performance aspects of wrestling in hilarious bits. Each actor has a pratfall or excessive use of finger guns to mark their appearance. The referee (Dave Honigman) has as much of a stake in winning audience applause as anyone else, flinging himself onto the stage with a rolling sommersault. Aluma’s attention to detail places us in a world where what’s real and what’s fake blur, and what can be considered a drama or a fight can be debated. Fight choreographer Kyle Encinas adds to this with brutal and punishing bouts that make the small theatre space ring with bodies hitting the mat.

Such a landscape creates real problems for VP and Mace, who pretend to be stereotypes, only to question whether they are becoming stereotypes as they add more and more detail to each performance. The only area where I found Aluma’s work with the actors to be lacking was in the descriptions of Chad and VP’s elaborate entrances. The actors painted the imagery well, but I never got the sense of scope and bombast that Aluma and Encinas brought out in the performers physically at other moments. Of course, Michael Lewis’ wrestling ring set and Brian Lawrie’s projection work to flesh out those entrances, and costume designer Hailey Rakowieki’s wrestling outfits highlight the exaggerated nature of the profession.

Tey connects with the audience on an open-hearted and sincere level, an important accomplishment, given that the world around him relies on showing off first, and emotion second. He walks you through the industry he props up, and prepares you for the most shattering moments in the play. He is a great companion for the journey. Miller is tons of fun as Deity, helping you understand why his bravado works so well on others. Gagoomal is smooth and honest as an operator with a soul. And Will Snyder as numerous Bad Guy characters highlights how ridiculous wrestling characters can become.

In this production, whether or not Chad Deity should be the champ is rarely in question. He dominates any scene he is in, using flare and machismo to charm the audience; the true question is not whether Chad Deity will win using his signature finishing move, but what will happen to the guy hurled to mat after the final bell is sounded.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An energetic tale of charisma and hard choices about art.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

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”