Review: Marie Christine (Theater Wit)

Show: Marie Christine

Kryie Courter (Center) and Ensemble

Company: Boho Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

BoHo Theatre’s production of Marie Christine by Michel John LaChiusa and directed by Lili-Anne Brown at Theater Wit started with a lurch, talent stilted by muddied sound design and choreography that was both too expansive for a black box stage, and too reductive of voodoo for a show that hinges on it being taken seriously. However, once past these hurdles the cast found their stride and took every opportunity to shine.

The cast was led by Kyrie Courter as Marie Christine, a woman who will do anything to keep the one man she shouldn’t have, in a performance that takes the audience from love struck girlhood to grief-stricken, heartbroken madness, with the use of her agile voice.

Ken Singleton was opposite her as Dante Keys, the smooth talking sailor who steals the heart (and arguably the mind) of Marie Christine, in this adaptation of the Greek tragedy, Medea. Singleton is perfect in his roll of the as an oily scumbag, but isn’t quite charismatic enough for the audience to ever forget the residue such charmers leave behind. It sours Dante’s introduction, but adds a delightfully skeevy quality once he starts to show his true colors.

(L-R) Katherine-Bourne and Kyrie Courter

The musical’s leads were supported by an ensemble featuring a Greek chorus—made up of women dressed in white, the color of magic, whose whites are are dirty and soiled like the theme of corruption that haunts the play’s take on love as something fetid that fouls the waters that would otherwise nurture a good life. The ensemble also included Marie’s European-educated brothers, servants, politicians, prostitutes, and white bourgeoisie. Ensemble standouts include: Katherine Bourne as Lisette, Marie Christine’s maid, who sings with the clear soprano voice of a golden age ingenue; Kevin Webb, whose comedic timing stands out even as he flits through as a gossipy party goer; Neala Barron as Magdalena, the salon owner and performer, whose powerful voice cuts through the second act in counterpoint to Courter’s songs ariatic keening grief; and Averis I. Anderson as Paris, Marie Christine’s more playful brother, the only actor who could handle the show’s occasional foray into patter. Anderson as Paris stole hearts in the first act and broke them in the second with his beautiful voice and skillful acting range.

(L-R) Emily Goldberg, Kyrie Courter, and Ken Singleton in Marie Christine.

The cast shines despite the show’s technical hiccups. The musical does occasionally veer into formula and dabbles in shock value (most notably the unnecessary use of the n-word during a sexual assault in the second act). The show’s theme of interracial relations as sexual deviance, the repeated implications that Dante specifically has a taste for the forbidden “chocolate” and the repeated comparisons of Marie Christine with animals might make this show extremely uncomfortable for some theatergoers, especially if they go into the theater with the knowledge that writer Michel John LaChiusa is a white man. Theatergoers who can stomach sitting through the retelling of a classic as an excuse for fetishization writ large, shouldn’t miss “Marie Christine” because the excellent work of the musical’s actors, whose talent and hard work make the production a success, despite the things holding them back, should not be for naught.

Ten Word Summary: Despite playing racism for shock value, cast gives good performances.

Dice Rating: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “1984” (AstonRep Theatre)

Show: “1984”

(front, L to R) Tim Larson, Alexandra Bennett, and Ray Kasper. (back, L to R) Rory Jobst, and Lauren Demerath

Company: AstonRep Theatre

Venue: The Raven Theatre

In America’s current political climate, it’s not unusual to hear reference to doubletalk and newspeak and Big Brother, some people seem to think that 1984’s Oceania is more future than fiction—those people are wrong: Oceania is here, or at least it’s at The Raven Theatre in Edgewater where AstonRep’s production of 1984 is being staged, directed by Robert Tobin and adapted for the state by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr, and William A. Miles.

Before you step into Raven Theatre’s West Stage, Jeremiah Barr’s fearsome scenic design lets you know Big Brother is watching. Propaganda posters featuring “the party’s” slogans line the entryway and are bordered by the same redacted newspapers that paper the stage scrawled with phrases like “Thoughtcrime”, and “DuckSpeak”, and the particularly resonant “Fake News”. All of this resides under the watchful eyes of Big Brother and his security camera pupils with their tell tale red recording light blinking in the relative darkness of the house lights.

When the play does start, it grabs your attention with klaxons blaring the call to watch the morning news loudly enough that I wondered if I should have brought ear plugs. It was not the last time that I would wish for ear protection while watching the play.

Despite my aching ears, Tim Larson as Syme and Alexandra Bennet as Parsons grasped my attention with their one-eyed salute and the dichotomy between Larson’s precise movements and Bennet’s choppy ones which when paired together spoke of group dynamics and group anxiety that I was excited to watch. They and the in group dynamics of a totalitarian regime was at times unsettling to watch with how it mirrored modern day, American Extremism (especially the amount of vitriol spewed at the character Emmanuel Goldstein, including comparing him to a reptile).

Ray Kasper’s introduction as the weary Winston did nothing to quell the mix of disquiet and excitement the beginning of the show wrought in me, and the way he navigated the world of Oceania and the party was fascinating to watch.

My excitement did wane however with the introduction of Sarah Lo as the juvenile and impetuous Julia. To be fair, Lo did not have much to work with, the Julia of Owens et al.’s adaptation like the Julia of the original work is more of an idea or fantasy than a fully formed character. She is the beautiful young girl who falls for a man, many years her senior, and rushes into a romance and rebellion with little thought. It is played this way despite her implied stalking of Winston, but the audience never sees the Julia who followed the object of her affection to restaurants or loitered outside his apartment, weeks before ever actually meeting him. The only version of an in love Julia the audience sees, is a saccharinely sweet young girl who would rather focus on small happinesses than great injustices.

(left to right) Sarah Lo and Ray Kasper

The one note portrayal falls flat, and undermines the rest of the show.

The adaptation as whole fails in respect to Julia, in part because of its poor pacing. Instead of letting the audience see a relationship build on stage, the play jumps from their meeting to their decision to marry, leaving the audience no time to invest in their relationship.

That time is given instead to Winston’s torture, which takes up most of the second act, and since his relationship with Julia doesn’t feel like much, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s fighting for, and after five minutes of Winston’s screams I just felt fatigued, despite the excellent performance of Amy Kasper as O’Brien. She delivered iconic lines like gut punches, and her instant chemistry with Ray Kasper as Winston made Winston’s relationship with Julia pale even further in comparison. Amy Kasper ‘s O’Brien gloried marvelously in the pain she caused Winston, but the eventual outcome still fell flat because what Winston was fighting for in the end wasn’t valued by the script and that textual decision was supported by the directing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: “Julia doesn’t pass the sexy lamp test, sorry lit nerds.”

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: Sister Africa (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Melissa Nelson (left) as Miriam and Takesha Kizart (right) as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman

Show: Sister Africa

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

“Sister Africa” written by Stephanie Liss and directed by Elayne LeTraunik is a play advertised as being about efforts to aid the women and children victimized during the Congo’s ongoing civil war by the Jewish World Watch. It’s a description that brings up mental images of the white savior narrative. The white savior narrative is a narrative in which an outsider, usually white, travels to a place, usually full of black or brown people, and rescues them from the horrors of their existence. It’s a prevalent narrative, that puts the lived experiences of the people being ‘saviored’ on the back burner often with a side helping of criticizing them for the savagery of their lives. The set, dominated by a pristine desk on one side, and a straw hut with a tin roof on the other does little to wash away those images. However, audience members who stick it out will learn the play is more of a loosely connected series of monologues framed by one woman’s journey to collect the stories of people surviving in the midst of a war’s horrors so she can share their stories with the larger world. The lived experiences of the Congolese are front and center.

Or more accurately, centered. The first third of the play is a series of monologues by Miriam (Melissa Nelson) the aid worker who conducts the interviews, based on both the author Stephanie Liss and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamener Reznik and by Rabbi (Jimmy Binns), Miriam’s Rabbi. They give the audience background into Miriam’s life as the child of two Holocaust survivors and into the Jewish World Watch and it’s mission to stop genocide worldwide to ground the play’s narrative in a Jewish tradition of justice work and what it means for a Jewish person to refuse to be complicit in mass atrocities, even when that complicity is only silence and consumption. The monologues would have been more effective if Nelson and Binns did not hold the emotional history at arm’s length. Nelson, in particular, was disappointingly disconnected from the text, which made her appear as a high schooler in a recitation contest and a trauma tourist by turns.

Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman.

The disconnect was made startlingly apparent when the first of the actor’s playing one of the Congolese characters arrived on stage, Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette, the sole survivor of her family after a night raid, a woman carrying the title “Mama” even after witnessing her children’s slaughter. Kizart, the true star of “Sister Africa”, breathed fresh life into a performance that already had the audience growing restless. She managed to capture the audience’s attention with the tilt of her chin and kept it for the rest of the play with her vast emotional range and stamina.

The other Congolese characters were played by Ahmed Brooks as Amani, the teacher running a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, and by Chris McClellan as Cesar, the pain-ridden child soldier. Ahmed tackled the job of giving both the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgian colony to now, while also managing to be a fully realized character with aplomb. While, McClellan as Cesar completely changed the feeling in the theater when he stepped on stage. A much quieter presence than either Kizart or Brooks, McClellan can gave a full monologue with the tug of his shirt and Cesar’s sorrow was immediately visible and undercut with a seething anger that made it clear: to watch him, is to watch a bomb waiting to explode.

Jimmy Binns as The Rabbi. Photo by Ron Goldman.

As these characters, Mama Jette, Amani, and Cesar, tell their stories, questions are asked: What does it mean to be a responsible global citizen? How do women become worth so little to a group of people that rape becomes “big business”? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Congolese man, when every Congolese man featured carries a gun?

They are questions that need to be asked, and different characters offer varying levels of nuance that range from rhetorical condemnation to childish desperation, but at the end the questions are still left unanswered, leaving the audience to carry the questions home, along with a mother’s grief.

Ten Word Summary: Hundreds of hours of interviews about atrocities in one play.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

(left to right) Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Show: Shockheaded Peter

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Imagine Brecht meets a roving band of insouciant faeries and you have Shockheaded Peter. Directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by T.J. Anderson, Shockheaded Peter is Black Button Eyes Productions’s delightfully macabre cabaret of cautionary tales about the naughtiest of children and adults. Adapted for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with music by The Tiger Lillies, the play is based on the German Children’s Book The Struwwelpter, and weaves the fates of misbehaving children in between chapters of the tale of Shockheaded Peter’s misbehaving parents.  In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect a musical based on a German children’s book to be.

The audience is led through this cheerfully grim collection by the Master of Ceremonies, a self-important showman who takes joy in the little things, like child pyromaniacs, played with wonderful affectation by Kevin Webb. Webb’s performance, which incorporated just the right amount of physical theater to make the sinister Master of Ceremonies an impish, Puck figure, kept the audience laughing and ready for the next twisted tale.

(front, l to r) Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon

Webb’s playful narcissism and booming voice, would have completely stolen the show, if it weren’t for the ensembles’ skill at clowning. Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre might have burst if they added more of the contortion, stilt work, and puppetry that made the show. Without the work of contortionist Genevieve Lerner and the stilt walking Ellen DeSitter Shockheaded Peter would have been a lesser production. As a whole, the ensemble fully committed to the physical comedy of Shockheaded Peter, with enough vibrancy and life that there was rarely a dull space on stage.

The show was supported by Jeremiah Barr’s puppets which kept the production walking the thin line between bleak and whimsical that is the space where Shockheaded Peter lives. It is worth noting, that Shockheaded Peter is a musical, full of the discordant, minor key tones that bring Kurt Weill to mind or the circus from a horror movie; however, it doesn’t stop them from jaunting from merrily irrelevant tunes to beautiful and haunting numbers and back again, under the musical direction of T.J. Anderson. One of the show’s standout voices is ensemble member Kat Evans, who manages to sound beautiful as both a cat and a storm. Not all of Shockheaded Peter’s soloists are as strong, but their harmonies bring to mind sirens and other auditorily pleasing harbingers of doom.

(front, l to r) Ellen DeSitter and Genevieve Lerner with (back, l to r) Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen Tulin in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Shockheaded Peter isn’t a world changing show—it is fun and full of the sort of darkness that you won’t see on the evening news. It is a sixty-six minute respite from the heavy world shifting events that hit when you turn your phone back on after the show.

Ten Word Summary: Brecht and Weill and faeries attempt a musical for children.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”