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).

Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

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

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Review: “Murder On Mount Olympus” (The Public House Theatre)

Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.
Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.

Show: “Murder On Mount Olympus”

Company: The Public House Theatre

Venue: The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 6

It is not easy being a god. Regardless of the pantheon, one might be stereotyped as evil, end up utterly forgotten, or live in constant fear of being torn limb from limb by a fellow jealous immortal. For the gods in “Murder On Mount Olympus,” such everyday problems are the least of their concerns. These gods are stuck in a murder mansion of non-belief, and they are getting picked off one by one.

Lucifer, aka the Prince of Darkness (Alexander Baggett), and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Sarah Lavere), are first to arrive on our plane of existence. They have been trapped in a creepy old house that serves as a performance space for murder mystery style dinner parties. By the time the brotastic Zeus (Mitchell Stone) joins them, they know something is wrong. Too many gods existing in human reality must be a set-up. The spell book nearby and the entrance of gods as varied as Cthulhu (a handy giant tentacle wielded from offstage), Cupid (Whitman Johnson), and Isis (Emily Ember) confirms their suspicions. The butler (Ryan Bennett) has no information to aid them, but plenty to say about their behavior and demands on his time.

Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield
Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield

If it sounds like there is little to this story, you are right! The plot is oblique and events are kept to a minimum, because the Public House Theatre is more in the business of making audiences laugh, rather than making them puzzle through a wild clue hunt. Given the high-stakes nature of his gods, writer/director Byron Hatfield missed the opportunity to flesh out their predicament. Rather than keeping the gods in the dark about whom or what brought them to Earth, Hatfield could have spent time developing relationships between his characters, and complicating their circumstances beyond simply having an elder god show up to wreak havoc. The performance lasts about seventy-five minutes, but there’s really only forty minutes of material here. Thus, the pace is slowed, and some of the jokes don’t land, because the timing is off — I assume, to stretch for precious full-length level minutes.

That said, I did chuckle quite often at “Murder On Mount Olympus,” probably because Hatfield’s snarky characters barely believe the situation they’re in, either. The mystery at the heart of the play is easy to solve, but it’s the down to earth take on the gods that elicits enjoyment of the scenario. Baggett and Lavere have the driest characters, so their job seems easiest. As the eternal bodies pile up, these two display sarcastic human reactions to their imminent death and destruction, and it’s nice to see a catastrophic scene underplayed to that degree. Likewise, Bennett’s stunned reaction to being bathed in blood is worth the price of admission alone.

“Murder On Mount Olympus” will not rattle you to your core, or force you to face spiritual and existential questions. But there is something to be said for a solid troupe of actors doing comedy pretty well. While it may not be easy being a god, it is a lot of fun to watch them operate.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gods get a mystery to solve in entertaining comedy hour.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Macbeth” (Theatre Y)

screenshot-2016-10-25-13-26-29Show: Macbeth

Company: Theatre Y

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Die Roll: 2

Macbeth the Scottish and “Macbeth” the Scottish play bear a tricky relationship to one another. Macbeth the king was a historical figure, but Macbeth the lead of Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with far too many witches and witchy prophecies to match the factual record. Throw in the fact that sixteen generations of actors — according to director Georges Bigot — have now played Macbeth, and the truth of his life and death gets even fuzzier.

Which is perhaps the way Theatre Y prefers its Macbeth, in their production currently running in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Anchored by Bigot and an ensemble that rehearsed the play for a year, and only cast roles three-quarters of the way through that process, this “Macbeth” is beautifully painted but still impenetrable. But that is not due to lack of effort and visual panache; it is due to lack of textual dexterity. The ensemble tries to draw parallels between our time and Macbeth’s tale of ambition and existential crises, but the resonance vanishes once it becomes clear some of the actors do not know what they are saying, and that still images and lip-syncing outweighed examination of the text.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing “Macbeth,” here is the basic plot outline: our protagonist is a Scottish thane (Brendan Mulhem) who runs into three witches (Kevlyn Hayes, Jackie Richards, and Laurie Roberts). They tell him he is fated to be king of Scotland, and that his friend Banquo (Cody Beyer) is fated to sire kings. Spurred on by this prophesy, Macbeth and his more opportunistic wife (Katie Stimpson) murder the current king Duncan (Arch Harmon). Heir to the throne Malcolm (Hector Alvarez) flees the country, and only vows to return and regain his crown once the warrior Macduff (Jerome Hicks) stands by his side. Meanwhile, Macbeth arranges the murder of many more people, in order to ensure his new title.

This is a play of immense uncertainty. Why do the witches appear to tell Macbeth about his future? Would he still become king if he didn’t murder his way into the position? Why is Lady Macbeth so steely before their crime, and what makes her unravel entirely after its completion? Can truth ever be discerned, when men are able to smile in spite of their malicious actions? Even the language of the play is confounding: “which is which;” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen;” the Porter’s speech on equivocation doesn’t resolve itself so much as peter out. People hear and see things, but the audience can never be sure if birds are crying, or if the Macbeths are jumping at shadows.

Bigot’s best work as a director comes in moments where characters fight the intangible. He is wise to have Macbeth grasp at a knife that does not exist, and then to have Mulhem whirl around the stage to keep from getting cut by his invisible foe. Likewise, the parade of kings that Macbeth sees under the tutelage of the witches happens in his mind’s eye, which allows the audience to take heed of his growing paranoia and psychosis. Moments such as these make for a hallucinatory experience. The audience is Macbeth’s ally throughout; he speaks to us more than anyone except his wife. But he also sees what we cannot, thus proving there is uncertainty in our relationship. Is Macbeth inspired by false prophecy? Is he mad? Or is he seeing true events that will come to pass? We can never know.

This production falters in its grander visual elements. The witches lipsync a Diamonds’ song early on in the play, and Lady Macbeth drags her fingers across a curtain sinsterly, all before performing a dance of her own and reading about Macbeth’s possible future. At other moments, she and Macbeth smile robotically while entertaining guests. Some of these flourishes underline the false faces of the characters, but more often, the sights and sounds put Macbeth in inverted commas. We are watching a production of “’Macbeth,’” not your run of the mill “Macbeth.” But the spectacle rarely informs the audience. Rather it draws the play out to a two hour forty-five minute run time that taxed my good will as an audience member. I also sense that visuals took precedence over looking at the thesis and antithesis in the verse. Rarely have I understood so little of what actors were saying in a Shakespeare play.

I should single out the performances that imbue the play with high stakes and deep meaning. Beyer as Banquo is recognizably human, and his command of poetry helps the audience see the rock and hard place he is stuck between as Macbeth’s rival. Hayes is remarkable as Lady Macduff late in the play. She does not overplay her grief or underplay the danger she is in; she focuses on her son, and her death sticks with the audience once she is gone. Mulhem has a great voice, but his increasingly erratic Macbeth made it hard to follow his thought patterns, especially in the “sound and fury” soliloquy. Stimpson located an intriguing fear in Lady Macbeth early on that vanished before her death, and I was sad to see her insecurity go unexplored.

Michael Rathbun’s light design gave the performance a lurid sheen. His use of low-placed lights to highlight internal monologue gave the actors a stark look, and his use of reds and purples during the banquet and murder scenes sold the carnage in the Chopin’s intimate space. KG Price’s sound editing provides jaunty themes for the characters, and the peppy music lends a creepy vibe to the whole play. The costumes by Branimira Ivanova set the play in a distinctly Kennedy Camelot-setting once action moved back to Dunsinane, an interesting contrast to the contemporary army fatigues that pepper the battlefield scenes.

This play may not be for everyone. If you are in the mood for a sight-heavy “Macbeth,” this production is your best bet. If you are looking for a clear examination of the play’s dark center, you might be better off reading the text on your own.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spectacle outshines character work and story in a shaky “Macbeth.”

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

Ira Aldridge was the first man of color to perform Othello on the London stage in 1833. He trod the Covent Garden boards at a compelling moment. As riots surrounding the abolition of slavery raged outside the theatre’s front doors, questions about how best to act classical texts for contemporary audiences stymied traditional actors in the rehearsal room. The Aldridge showcased in Raven Theatre’s “Red Velvet” could be seen as the fiery spark burning down outdated racial and artistic sensibilities, only to usher in the new growth of an open-minded and sensitive performance style. If only the play were actually about Ira Aldridge.

This Midwestern premiere, penned by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarkti, gamely attempts to capture the entirety of the English theatre scene circa the mid-1800’s — introducing issues of race and class, the integration of actresses into Shakespeare’s traditionally gender-bent scripts, and the fevered competition between famously presentational performers like Edmund Kean and the more emotionally truthful Aldridge. That is a lot of subject matter to chew on, and the men and women onstage are sacrificed in the name of maintaining and explaining historical context.

Matthew Klingler, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Tim Martin, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

When Ira Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) arrives for rehearsal at Covent Garden, the white actors in his band of players react with shock. They assumed Aldridge was white, and his taking up the role of Othello represents a vile rejection of tradition for his Iago, Charles Kean (Tyler Rich). Aldridge tries to persuade Kean that he, of all actors, can best embody the doomed war hero, but Kean responds that great theatre is about the magic of transformation and escapism, not about playing what one begrudgingly greets in the real world. Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), Kean’s fiancée and Aldridge’s Desdemona, is willing to work with Aldridge in his more emotional style, even if it means allowing for slips in pronunciation, as well as acknowledging that an African American man must lay his hands on the dainty throat of a white woman before an outraged audience. The two artists develop a bond that could grow to romance, if the play had space for the excesses of the human soul. Alas, stage time that could explore the “make or break” passions surrounding the production is sadly spent delivering lessons on British economics and declaiming over and over again that Aldridge is a game-changer, without clearly demonstrating what made his acting style so magical, or even what he desires to make of his own career.

It is too bad so few scenes are spent rehearsing the tragedy, because the personal story of creation and social justice stashed away in the heart of “Red Velvet” resonates with issues currently facing the Chicago theatre scene. The Porchlight Theater has been roundly criticized for casting a white man as the Latino narrator of the recently opened “In the Heights.” Organizations like the Chicago Inclusion Project have begun working with theatre companies to diversify casting for texts where minority or disabled actors might be ignored. On a national scale, film companies are being asked to reflect the multicultural reality in which we live via campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. The most powerful scenes in “Red Velvet” revolve around the very same concerns and demands.

Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

The actors recognize what is at stake. Greenhouse is an engaging actor, and he does an admirable job distinguishing between his own acting choices and the bombastic style of Aldridge’s day. He packs his lines with conviction and energy, and though he is currently a bit too loud for Raven’s small space, creating echoes that obscure meaning, he leads the play with conviction. White does similarly well by Aldridge’s leading lady, revealing a devilish streak underneath her sense of propriety. Tim Martin is a lot of fun as the abolitionist Henry Forester, who fan-boys over Greenhouse the moment they meet. Meanwhile, Rich and Scott Olson do solid work as the ugly members of the cast who don’t want to act beside a man of color.

Still, the script lacks emotional follow-through, sweeping conflicts under the rug until the final ten minutes of the show, where an undercooked parallel between the false faces in “Othello” and the false faces in the theatre company appears. Director Michael Menendian does what he can to build complex relationships between Greenhouse and the other actors, but the shouting matches that result betray how thin the script is when it comes to flesh and blood choices. Why does theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) not defend his leading man, when London newspapers print racist reviews? What becomes of Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Sophia Menendian), once he is forced to tour on the road again? What is the personal cost of such racism to Aldridge? The playwright cares so much about scope that she loses her sense of scale, and this history play is turned into a dead, rather than a living, thing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Historical drama leans heavily on history and forgets the drama.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”