Review: “Venus in Fur” (Circle Theatre)

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

Show: “Venus in Fur”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio Theatre (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: ?

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

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

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

Arti Ishak/Photo by: Cody Jolly Photography.

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

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

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

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

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “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: “bare: a pop opera” (Refuge Theatre Project)

The cast of "bare: a pop opera"/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
The cast of “bare: a pop opera”/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

Show: bare: a pop opera

Company: Refuge Theatre Project

Venue:  Epworth United Methodist Church (5253 N Kenmore)

Die Roll: 4

I’ve seen almost every show that Refuge Theatre Project has done since its inception.  I say that as a critic, not at a fan.  That is, until this newest show, which has converted me toward being the latter.  This is a relatively young group what produces theatre aimed at very young people and has historically done so with a glaring lack of experience or practiced skill.  Yet, there has been a major change.  This work, this effort, this piece of theatre is a solid one that elevates Refuge Theatre Project into the artistic neighborhood of other young and really good groups that are also making Edgewater their home. Bravo!  They’ve come into their own, and now it is time for them to shine.

Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

“bare: a pop opera” is just what it claims to be: operatic in structure, but featuring music best suited for the more nasal, throttled boy-band style of singing that permeates both current popular music and more modern Broadway pieces.  It is more a musical without any talking than an opera, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks substance.  It is actually chock full of thoughtful exploration of deep issues that confront the youth of today, and any of us who interact with those youths.

Billed as an exploration of “sexuality, sexual identity, and the role of the church” in their press materials, the show is all of those things.  It also delves into issues of trust, communication, denial, parenting, leadership, drug use, popularity and ostracism.  This is a meaty evening of theatre.

Director Matt Dominguez chose wisely when he opted to present this production within the walls of an actual church.  With very little added effort, the setting is easily taken to be a private Catholic boarding school’s auditorium and dorms.  And, it is a wonderful space for singing.  The architecture allows for a wonderful mix of voices and instrumentation.  Which brings me to one of the things that always pleases me about Refuge Theatre Project’s work.  Their pit orchestra is always phenomenal.  The company’s regular music director, Mike Evans, is clearly their ace in the hole.

To sum up the plot quickly, “bare: a pop opera” is about Jason (Chris Ratliff) a popular boy who all the girls adore, but who is actually in a relationship with his male roommate, Peter (Lewis Rawlinson).  Peter is the primary driving force behind the story as he attempts to get Jason to be more public about their relationship.  The boys both get cast in the school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”:  Jason as Romeo and Peter as Mercutio.  Ivy (Molly Coleman), a young woman who wants to jump Jason’s bones gets cast as Juliet, and an awkward love triangle develops.  Rather, a love trapezoid, for Matt (Ryan Armstrong) is not only the campus stick-in-the-mud, he’s also in love with Ivy.  The kids are advised in their times of need by a Priest (Shaun Baer) and the director of the play, Sister Chantelle (Nikki Greenlee).

Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

As the adults in this show, Baer and Greenlee, bring a sense of calm wisdom to the stage.  Their gravitas provides an anchor to which the passions of the youths can be moored.  Things take a turn for the dark side of life, after many small dark spots have already been revealed.  Life is hard, especially for the young, passionate, and confused.  The show drives relentlessly toward an inevitable and foreseeable end.

While this could easily be a piece in which the characters are paper-thin two-dimensional representations in order to make a point, instead they are well fleshed out and the actors/singers all do a nice job of embracing the many layers that they are given to work with.  Most major characters have an aria/ballad which allows us to see inside their motivations.  My one disappointment is that the Priest did not get a solo piece of his own.  That one character’s inner story is neglected, and would likely inform much of the interaction he has with the others.

In the past, I have seen Refuge Theatre Project as a group that needed some time to mature into something better.  They’ve always had enthusiasm and dedication to their product.  I’d now have to say that they’ve made it through their artistic adolescence, and while they still produce shows about being young, they no longer seem hampered by their own early-career hurdles.  This is a solid piece of work that will serve as a foundation for many great shows to come.  I see it as their coming out party, in as many ways as you’d like to take that phrase.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Coming of age pop opera marks young group’s own maturity.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Apartment 3A” (Windy City Playhouse)

Dan Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo by Michael Brosilow
Daniel Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: Apartment 3A

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue:  Windy City Playhouse

Die Roll: 12

My first career was in broadcasting.  My first post-college full-time job was as a development associate for a public radio station in Iowa.  So, when I see a play about a character who is in charge of the on-air fundraising effort of a Midwestern public television station, I have instant empathy for their plight.  Jeff Daniels’ play  “Apartment 3A” captures the quiet desperation and the emphatic passion of one woman who is charged with raising the funds to keep Big Bird alive while her own life falls apart around her.

Annie (Eleni Pappageorge) starts the play looking for a new home because she’s been cheated upon and summarily dumped.  After giving the titular apartment a rushed, cursory perusal, she agrees to rent what the landlord (Peter Defaria) describes as the best apartment in the building.  We don’t get to see much of that apartment.  What we do get to see is the random visits of an entertaining neighbor named Donald (Daniel Smith) who takes an interest in improving Annie’s life.  Don’t mistake his interest in Annie as romantic.  Donald is more than happily married.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t romance in Annie’s life.  Her co-worker Elliot (José “Tony” García) has held a torch for Annie for years and now that he has the opportunity, he’s making his (rather awkward) move.

This show basically comes down to being a romantic comedy with a bit of magical realism thrown in for good measure.  The script is consistently funny and just quirky enough to keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next.  Some of the scenes are cleverly written to allow for Annie to be in a scene with one character while commenting on the same scene to another character.  It is an interesting convention, and it makes for some fun banter and word play.

Eleni Pappageorge and Jose "Tony" Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow
Eleni Pappageorge and Jose “Tony” Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow

This show succeeds on many levels, but the most successful is director Ron OJ Parson’s casting.  Pappageorge starts out cold and difficult to warm up to.  That may sound like a criticism, but it really isn’t.  That’s the character of Annie in a nutshell.  She’s job focused and puts up walls around her personal life.  Pappageorge captures that wounded yet ambitious personal perfectly.  More impressive is the casting of the men in the piece.  One might assume that the parts were originally written for this ensemble.  Smith, Garcia, and Defaria are all spot on and create characters that are more real than reality, even when they are in unreal situations.  The final cog in this well-oiled machine is Wardell Julius Clark in the role of Tony.  Tony is a technician, most likely a board engineer at the studio where Elliott and Annie work.  Back in the mid-90s I worked with a lot of guys like Tony.  Clark doesn’t have a lot of stage time, but he perfectly captures the vibe that surrounds that person in real life.  Parson’s cast is what makes this play sing to me.  I ache for Elliot as he pursues the woman of his dreams.  I conk my head each time Annie doesn’t see what’s going on directly in front of her.  I nod as I absorb Donald’s wisdom.  And I smile knowingly as Tony attempts to keep the show going amid chaos.

I am once again impressed with the level of creative excellence that crosses the stage at Windy City Playhouse.  I’ve yet to see a show there that doesn’t come up to an elevated level of production quality.  Now, with that being said, this script isn’t a masterpiece.  It is a fun and enjoyable evening that makes it worth getting out there to see a play despite the myriad possible alternatives right now.  While the production isn’t life-altering, it did transport me for a couple of hours filled with laughter and a few tears.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love is the reason public broadcasters do what they do.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Dead Writers Theatre Collective)

Show: The Importance of Being Earnest377_500_csupload_68904425

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue:  Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N. Southport Ave.)

Die Roll: 4

The Dead Writers Theatre Collective has assembled a smart and fitting love note to Oscar Wilde and tribute to 19th century theater with “The Importance of Being Earnest”.  If the feel of an old Victorian handheld paper theater and show-stealingly opulent costumes don’t win you, the verbal and physical comedic smackdown delivered by a terrific cast will. Director Jim Schneider’s take on this simultaneously frivolous romantic comedy/blistering take-down of Victorian society/ode to a closeted 19th century gay underground, is delightful no matter from which angle it’s viewed.

In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, we meet two young friends John Worthing (Sean Magill) and Algernon Moncrieff (Jack Dryden) who claim to be fine, upstanding marriageable Victorian era fellows. However, each maintains an alter ego that allows him to lead a craven, debaucherous existence without risking his social standing. John has created a fictional brother ‘Ernest’, and Algernon escapes his family by claiming to care for a sick friend ‘Bunbury’. Things get complicated when Gwendolen (Maeghan Looney) falls for John’s alter ego, and her love is *very* contingent on his name. Likewise, when Algernon gets wind that John has an impressionable young ward, Cecily (Megan Delay), he takes up the ‘Ernest’ moniker to win her affections and does so with instant success  (women just can’t get enough of the name Ernest). But, before anyone ties the knot, they’ll have to settle all their naming and social credibility disputes with the chief authority, Gwendolen‘s mother Lady Bracknell (Mary Anne Bowman). No one is allowed entry into Bracknell’s family’s social sphere without an impeccable pedigree.377_500_csupload_68904431

Where the play gets subversive is in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Cecily and Gwendolen, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. With each entrance and elaborate costume change, she sets the young lovers running to appease her like a tyrant with a parasol. The costumes, designed by Patti Roeder (also Miss Prism), are in a class by themselves.

I couldn’t recommend this performance more highly, nor have I been as charmed by stage production in a long time. Dead Writers Theater Collective describes the show as their Victorian valentine to us, and I enthusiastically circle the ‘y’ under their “Do you like me? Please mark one”.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams” (MCL Chicago)

Doowop1Show: Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams

Company: MCL Chicago

Venue: MCL Chicago (3110 N Sheffield Ave)

Die Roll: 17

In a city where improvisational comedy can be seen in myriad venues on any given night, it’s difficult to rise above the rest.  That is especially true given the long shadows cast by iO and Second City, which are recognized giants in the field.  Yet, with each production I see as MCL Chicago, I truly believe that this little musical improv theatre is a step above what others are doing in a similar vein.

The latest offering that I was able to take in there was called “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams”.  The show is partly scripted and partly improvised, both the script and the music… well, at least the lyrics.  The framework upon which this story is stretched is that of a 1960s a cappella quartet.  Sadly, that quartet recently lost a member, so it is now a trio searching for a new lead singer.  In the meantime, the group is called “The Three Skins”.  Well, you can guess what they’ll be called once they find a new high tenor, right?  Not necessarily.  The group’s new name is left up to the audience.  On the night that I took in the show, the audience took the bait and we witnessed the rise and fall of “The Four Skins”, but on other nights the show isn’t quite as replete with as many dick jokes (… a comment I get to make more often than I’d like about MCL shows).

Doowop2Anyway… The quartet with the unfortunate name is actually quite good.  More than quite good, really.  They blend really well, and their renditions of Doo-Wop classics such as “Run Around Sue” and “Calendar Girl” are beautifully done.  But, more notably, even many days after seeing the show, one of the original songs is still stuck in my head.  Now, I’m going to make an assumption that the song “I Love You More Than You Love Me” was written by the show’s director/musical director, Stephanie McCullough, although the show’s program and press materials don’t make that exactly clear.  Nevertheless, it’s a catchy number, a well-penned song.  And, I can’t get it out of my head!

Within the play, Nicky Sage (John Wesley Hughes) writes the song at the spur of the moment, when challenged by his new band mates to create something original.  Jimmy O’Connor (Jake Meyer) lays down a bass line, and the others (Jean Bonavita and Mark Rudy) fill in the harmonies.  A new song is created, as is the career path for this likable crew.  They break onto the scene with their single, they go on tour, Nicky goes solo, life falls apart, and they eventually com together again for an emotional reunion.

Doowop3If you swap out names and genders, you have the plot of “Dreamgirls“.  And that’s part of the charm here.  The tale is familiar and reliable. The characters are ones who we know.  The one difference here is that some of the songs are being made up on the spot, and some of the dialogue wasn’t memorized beforehand.  The beautiful thing is that one generally can’t tell which parts of the show are being made up at the time of performance.  There’s a lot of improv skill on display here.

That isn’t to say that all of the improvisational work is hidden from the crowd.  One specific chunk of the show is very obviously presented as being made up on the spot.  There’s an air of excitement and risk that heightens the experience.  But, it is clear the audience is in safe hands because the show continues on an obvious trajectory without a hiccup.

In essence, “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams” is a fun evening of musical theatre.  It is a feel-good event that leaves you smiling with a song stuck in your head… forever!

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I’m still singing the main song to myself days later.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Eurydice” (BoHo Theatre)

BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice), Peter Robel (Father) [Amy Boyle Photography]Show: Eurydice

Company: BoHo Theatre

Venue:  Heartland Studio Theatre

Die Roll:15

In a strangely compelling sequence of BoHo Theater’s “Eurydice”, the title character’s father has found his child in the land of tedium and nothingness he occupies and make good on his instinctual need to find them safety. He stumbles on a spool of thread and constructs them a shelter suspended on hooks, stones and rain boots. It’s not a home for them, but a sanctuary for the contraband they harbor: memories and ideas. The greatest threat in the countless re-imaginings of Orpheus and Eurydice’s underworld is forgetting. Numbness and ignorance are in the water that threatens to crest the neighboring Styx riverbanks.

This is where I have to be honest: I have a small bias that may compromise my ability to review objectively. I can’t get enough of “Orpheus and Eurydice”. It’s a powerful pulmonary artery out of which thousands of plays, operas, films and stories like Sarah Ruhl’s “Euridice” flow. And BoHo has crafted not just a compelling story, but an ornately minimalist work of art.

BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice) and Adam Kander (Nasty Interesting Man) [Amy Boyle Photography] You consumers of popular Western mythos probably already know the drill; Orpheus (Chloe Dzielak), the world’s greatest musician, weds Eurydice (Amanda Jane Long), and within minutes, she is lured out of her mortal coil, and into the depths of hell. Orpheus rescues her by barging the gates to hell, playing the best song ever, and getting the okay from Lord of the Underword (Adam Kander) himself. There’s just one catch: he has to trust that Eurydice is  behind him, and never look back. Sounds simple enough, but it is a tragedy after all, made even more tragic in Sarah Ruhl’s look between page margins.

Ruhl introduces another figure, Eurydice’s Father (Peter Robel), who has retained his faculties, despite a memory wiping dip in the river Styx. Where the myth is more concerned with Orpheus’ rescue, “Eurydice” follows the title character through death and a second childhood in the darkest of places. BoHo Theatre - Eurydice - Amanda Jane Long (Eurydice) and Chloe Dzielak (Orpheus) 3 [Amy Boyle Photography]

The additional story layers enrich the myth with character and substance. We see Adam Kander’s terrific Lord of the Underworld not only as what we expect, a sleek predator, but also as a tempestuous overgrown child ready to spite anyone who doesn’t dote on him. We see Amanda Jane Long and Peter Robel, a reunited father and daughter, comforting each other in their grey prison, finding glimpses of happiness in their misery. They retrace the steps of Eurydice’s childhood, until she can remember what the river took away. And in a very appropriate gender-blind turn, Chloe Dzielak carries on as a weary Orpheus, judged by every man in authority as too slight and weak in the shoulders to care for Eurydice.

Director Charles Riffenburg aligns this production to embrace strange angles and human body formations. Those of us in the audience are so close to the action that it can feel uncomfortably inclusive. If we are not complicit in every characters’ mistakes and hardships, then we are at least confined, right alongside them in a grey, industrial underworld. “Eurydice” succeeds in inviting us in for love and loss that strikes very close, not just in proximity, but in familiarity; characters speak our language and feel heartbreaks just like ours.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: New world discovered in the footnotes of a timeless story

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Once in a Lifetime” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath
Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: Once in a Lifetime

Company: Strawdog Theatre

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 8

Generally, I am a bit saddened by the fact that Strawdog Theatre will no longer be a mainstay of the Northeast corner of Lakeview anymore.  When their current show closes, that will be that.  They will return to the ranks of itinerant companies here in Chicago.  Granted, unlike most itinerant groups that often struggle to find places for their shows, Strawdog landed on their feet as a temporary resident company of the new Factory stage in Rogers Park next to the Howard Red Line stop.  That’s where they’ll be doing their good works starting next season.

In the meantime, they are offering a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  “Once in a Lifetime” is not the classic that Kaufman & Hart’s collaboration brought us with “You Can’t Take It With You”, but it is a solid comedic play about the birth of Hollywood and the rise of the studio system in the days of the talkies (read: late 1920s/early 1930s).  The play was written in 1930, just three years after Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” made its debut.  So, at the time it was a very topical lampooning of the show business industry.  Now, it amounts to a bit of dated nostalgia that is fun to revisit, but isn’t really pushing any boundaries.

Perhaps that is the point in doing the show at this time in Strawdog’s trajectory.  It is fun to look nostalgically at something that has a relevant past, which may not be currently pushing any boundaries, but will also endure for many years to come.

Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath
Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath

Damon Kiely puts together a show that is very sharp in its presentation.  Every bit of every moment is precisely choreographed, not only the scenes, but the scene changes, too.  While the action of the play takes place in the 1920s, the soundtrack for this production is anachronistically lodged firmly in the years between 2009 through 2011 (although one of the songs, “When I’m Gone”, is actually originally from 1930 despite being recently popularized by Anna Kendrick’s recording).

All of the music is performed by the acting ensemble to cover the transitions between the scenes.  They become a vaudevillian olio which ia just as much of the action of the production as the real scenes themselves.  And, in a fun/snarky way, they often comment on the action of the show.  The aforementioned “When I’m Gone” comes as one major character, May (Kathleen McDonnell), moves on to the next part of her life.

STC_OnceInALifetime_1
Scott Danielson and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Mike Dailey and Scott Danielson round out the play’s primary roles as Jerry and George, respectively.  Along with May, Jerry and George go from being two-bit Vaudevillians at the tail end of a not-too-promising career, to running an elocution school for actors in California. A ridiculously large set of characters cross their paths and the stage, and they are played by a creatively capable cast that embraces the variety with gusto.  Every member of this cast was perfectly suited for their roles, but the two who I feel I must hold up to celebrate are Anderson Lawfer and Michaela Petro.  One of the best things about this play was to see what these two actors would come onstage as next.  Sure, they played a couple of has-been starlets who couldn’t effectively make it in the new days of films with sound, but they also made a gaggle of other oddball characters come alive, often for just one cross lasting 20 seconds or less.  It is a cool thing to watch actors who can create characters for quickly and fully.

As the play comes to an end, there is a rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” which seems to be staged to represent the impending destruction of the building wherein this production takes place.  It’s one bit of contemporary comment sneaked into a show that otherwise is an intriguing hodgepodge of old and not-so-old nostalgic performances that pay homage to what has been a solid run on Chicago’s own Broadway.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Fitting end for old venue.  Well executed.  Fluffy, inane fun.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “In The Time of the Butterflies” (Teatro Vista)

Flavia Martínez, Ayssette Muñóz, Rinska Carrasco, and Sari Sánchez/Photo: Joel Maisonet
Flavia Martínez, Ayssette Muñóz, Rinska Carrasco, and Sari Sánchez/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Show: In The Time of the Butterflies

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 18

“In The Time of the Butterflies” begins with a dance and ends with a song. In between these musical moments lie arguments about sacrifice and purpose, along with tense political confrontations that result in imprisonment and execution. One might think this a strange mix of elements, but the drama is equally well-served by poetry and radical calls for change.

Teatro Vista’s Chicago premiere, adapted by Caridad Svich from Julia Álvarez’s fictionalized account of real-life events, concerns the present and past of Dedé Mirabal (portrayed as an adult by Charin Álvarez and as a young woman by Rinska Carrasco). An American writer, also played by Carrasco, has come to the Dominican Republic to hear the story of Dedé’s sisters — known by legend and code as “the butterflies” — who lost their lives while working to unseat dictator Rafael Trujillo during the 1960’s. Dedé recounts the birth of Minerva’s (Flavia Martínez) fiery activism, the simmering conflict within the grieving Patria (Sari Sánchez), and the burgeoning political beliefs of Mate (Ayssette Muñóz). Meanwhile, the writer struggles with whether or not she is capable of doing justice to the Mirabals’ experiences.

The play covers an epic chunk of the historical record, starting in the 1930’s when the girls still lived under the protection of their capitulating father, and ending right after their deaths. Though certain events are rushed through during direct address monologues, Svich shrewdly gives each woman a specific emotional journey. The audience understands how all the injustices Minerva witnessed would lead her to take part in a revolution. The loss of a child shapes Patria’s choice to lead a coup. And Mate’s evolution from boy-crazy teen to defiant prisoner is particularly thrilling to behold.

The three mourned sisters are so fascinating, one wonders whether the play would hit harder without its present-day frame. Thematically, I understand why the older Dedé must council a reflection of her younger self to act, having stayed clear of revolutionary activities and lost her sisters regardless. But Svich does not have enough stage time to generate stakes for an unknown author’s inability to recount the sisters’ full stories. The writer’s anger over the Mirabals’ deaths, and her drive to wrench something meaningful from that loss, is relatable for a contemporary audience living in a free society. But we learn so little about this scribe’s life, and the elder Dedé’s interactions with her, that her internal conflict cannot hold the same weight as the external obstacles threatening Patria, Minerva, and Mate.

Sari Sánchez and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo: Joel Maisonet
Sari Sánchez and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Director Ricardo Gutiérrez takes special care celebrating and cementing the sisters’ relationships across their incredible lifetimes. During their first scene together, the foursome discusses romantic partners and dancing with infectious playfulness. By the time they are driving to visit their husbands in prison (a trip Patria, Minerva, and Mate will not return from), a similar energetic conversation about purses and shoes breaks out, indicating that their joy for life and concern for one another’s well-being has not diminished. Muñóz especially stands out in a vivacious, joking performance, while Sánchez carries the audience up mountains of emotional highs and down valleys of parental devastation in a monologue remembering the burial of her first born. Carrasco communicates the deep frustration of those left behind whenever she spars with Martínez, and Álvarez’s quiet attitude speaks volumes. As these women age and endure, they wield Svich’s poetic descriptions of waste and war like weapons, and Gutiérrez encourages their investment in recounting lost lives.

And then there is the music. Throughout, dance and song play an integral part in the sisters’ world. A waltz is used to proposition Minerva at a fancy political party, while the Mirabals embrace salsa as a way to escape their troubles in the family courtyard. A propagandist DJ spins records supporting Trujillo’s leadership, and Minerva and Mate write a song of protest while facing torture and rape in prison. Svich’s imagistic dialogue highlights the heightened nature of treacherous times, but sound designer Brandon Reed and composer Gabe Ruíz’s music buoys the characters’ spirits, while also invoking the ghosts that haunt Dedé later in life.

Because a world without memory is not one worth living in, the play postulates. The elder Dedé may not remember events precisely as they happened, and certain stories are colored with hallucinatory sights and sounds. But that does not mean both personal beauty and political movements should not be preserved in equal measure.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Wonderful ensemble work a highlight of this poetic, political drama.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Adding Machine: A Musical” (The Hypocrites)

The cast of "Adding Machine: A Musical"/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
The cast of “Adding Machine: A Musical”/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Show: Adding Machine: A Musical

Company: The Hypocrites

Venue: The Den Theatre (1329 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Chicago, or rather the Chicago area, has had an intimate history with Elmer Rice’s play “The Adding Machine”.  The play was originally written in 1923, which conveniently puts it on the right side of the line when it comes to being in the public domain.  And therefore it is a great piece of theatre to adapt into further works of art.  In the last 30 years, we have been lucky to host the biggest of those adaptations.  Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Hystopolis Productions took the play one step farther down the path of dehumanization (a central theme of the work) by adapting the piece to be performed by puppets.  Their production eventually made it to NYC.  Then, a little under ten years ago, The Next Theatre Company created a musical based on the play.  And, as one might expect, through the addition of music a sense of deep human connection was instilled where it had not been before.  It is this musical that The Hypocrites have brought to life in a new production at their home base on the ground floor of The Den Theatre.

In a true embodiment of having a number rather than a name, Mr. Zero (Patrick Du Laney) is a working schlub who notes numbers in a pad all day long.  He’s been doing it for 25 years.  He’s been doing it across the table from a woman whom he might love were it not for his miserable marriage to Mrs. Zero (a role fiercely sung by Kelli Harrington). On Mr. Zero’s 25th anniversary at the job, he is fired and in a fit of anger, he kills his boss (Andres Enriquez).

Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

The show is basically a modern opera.  There is almost no plainly spoken dialogue.  What spoken words there are outside of songs are often delivered in a rhythmic cant that doubles for what recitative does in classical opera.  So, I find that I am disappointed that the singers were individually mic’d.  Can’t singers in this town project?  This is an ongoing frustration on mine, and it’s not unique to The Hypocrites’ production.  That being said, I’ve heard some of these cast members sing full voice before, and I would have preferred the cast to have been allowed to raise to the operatic levels of the piece itself.  The inconsistencies of volume that come with singing into another person’s microphone as well as one’s own were heard throughout the show marring the otherwise wonderfully executed music.

Joshua Schmidt’s music could be compared to what one might expect if a Sondheim score and a song my Phillip Glass had a baby.  Despite how you might take that statement, it is intended as a good thing.  The score is complex, concussive, repetitive, and eerily melodic at the same time.  The music carries powerful emotional moments forward.  This is especially true when telling the tale of Daisy (Neala Barron) whose unrequited love for Mr. Zero carries through life and beyond the grave.  Barron, who I last saw in a production of “[title of show]” has a tremendous voice and imbues her character with pathos to spare.  She is the humanizing force of this play personified.

Kelli Harrington, Jonah D. Winston, and Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Kelli Harrington, Jonah D. Winston, and Patrick Du Laney/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

The world spins out of control around Mr. Zero.  This fact is fully realized through the constant motion and changing of the set and lights (designed by Lauren Nigri and Mike Durst, respectively).  Many scenes feature a sedentary, and unchangeable, Mr. Zero in his chair as life and the world itself go on around him. Geoff Button’s staging thrusts the audience through the changes that his main character refuses to be a part of.  Mr. Zero’s single actual action in his life was to kill his boss.  Outside of that, it is his own refusal to participate in life that pushes humanity away from him.  It isn’t the machinations of others, nor the advance of technology intruding to make life less human.  He does that to himself in this musical.  The physical world is more dynamic than Mr. Zero.  In fact, the set is more of a character than Mr. Zero.  Du Laney had a challenge before him to create a character that is at once non-dynamic and empathetic.  He accomplishes this with aplomb.

The play does occasionally suffer from pacing issues.  There is a point at about the 70-minute mark wherein the show feels like it could be done, only to keep going for another 20 minutes or so.  That being said, it does ramp up and get going again with improved energy, but the lag in the middle there throws things off for a few minutes.  Yet, that’s only about 3 minutes out of a 90-minute performance that is otherwise elevated to a high level.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Man is victim of own inertia in a whirlwind world.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”