Review: “Stop Kiss” (Pride Films and Play co-production with The Arc Theatre)

Review: “Stop Kiss” (Pride Films and Play co-production with The Arc Theatre)

Kylie Anderson and Flavia Pallozzi/Photo: Patrick McLean.

The delicacy and urgency of a crush is incredibly difficult to capture onstage, but in its joint production between Pride Arts Center and The Arc Theatre, “Stop Kiss” perfectly demonstrates how hard it can be to even stand near the one you love, especially if it is your best girlfriend, and you have never thought of yourself as queer. While the late nineties script suffers a bit from its vagueness about labels and connections, the direction and acting and intimacy work in this production makes it a must see.

Callie (Flavia Pallozzi) is a seasoned New Yorker homing Midwesterner Sara’s (Kylie Anderson) cat. The two strike up a friendship, as Callie takes Sara around her new neighborhood and reluctantly introduces Sara to her friend and sometimes boyfriend George (Shane Novoa Rhoades). Fast forward to a much less idyllic time, where Callie is speaking with a police detective (Joe Faifer), who is interrogating her about the attack she and Sara experienced from a strange man at four am in a park; they were rescued by bystander Mrs. Winsley (Sheila Landahl), but both are hurt and emotionally damaged. The play switches between scenes of flirting and unspoken feeling and frightening confrontations about Callie’s responsibility for the attack and her relationship with Sara. When Sara’s ex Peter (also Faifer) arrives at the hospital to help move Sara home to her parents, Callie must decide what she is willing to claim in order to be with Sara.

Son’s script is at once light and dark, both tense and warm. The earlier timeline, with Callie and Sara getting to know each other, often feels sitcom-esque in its witty wordplay and also its lack of forward momentum. The women are at a standstill with each other, trapped in 1998, and unable to fully express the changes they are experiencing emotionally. The present day scenes, a swirl of confusion surrounding the hate crime they experienced, have higher stakes and a stronger pull. And the contrast between the two doesn’t move the story forward as sharply as Son believes. There are a ton of short scenes, forcing actors and technicians into prolonged scenic changes that eat up the pacing and momentum of the script.

In another, quieter way, Son’s script loses some impact in the women lacking words to express themselves. By rarely addressing labels, or what will change about their lives, the play very much lives in a narrative where claiming of power is a negotiation, and she does not seem to want to interrogate what these women will become together. The in and out space Callie occupies creates an identity crisis, eloquently captured in a monologue where she begs a comatose Sara to tell her who she is, but Son is less interested in outcomes and more invested in the choice to begin something, and that may be frustrated to watch in 2020.

Director Kanomé Jones brings teasing, gentle performances out of the leads. Pallozzi as Callie seems less hesitant due to rut-sticking, and more scared out of her mind to be who she is. Anderson’s Sara is a breath of fresh air, bringing a warmth and incisiveness that never slides into the naivety that everyone presumes of her. Shane Novoa Rhoades is a charming and loyal presence, and Faifer excels at being pushy in the name of protecting citizens or protecting Sara. And Gaby Labotka’s intimacy work shines at highlighting both how well these women know each other, but what a large bridge in intimacy they still have to cross.

This production is a delicate balancing act. The quiet nature of its love story does not announce political ambition or timelessness, perhaps. But it does speak to how hard it can be to share your whole self with another person, to change fundamentally in order to be your best self. And that’s something worth witnessing onstage.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love blooms but lovers search for words to express love.

Show: “Stop Kiss”

Company: Pride Films and Plays in a co-production with The Arc Theatre

Venue: The Buena, Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway)

Review: “Always … Patsy Cline” (Firebrand Theatre)

Review: “Always … Patsy Cline” (Firebrand Theatre)

Harmony France and Christina Hall/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

We’re encroaching on feel-good theater season; when the days get shorter, temperatures drop, and theater companies swap their usual biting fare for something a little more marshmallowy. Firebrand Theatre’s production of Ted Swindley’s “Always … Patsy Cline” has the feel of a wild-card entry in that arena, but it’s friendly, approachable, ageless, and packed to the brim with sugar. What this musical lacks in nutritional value, it easily makes up for with an intimate and twangy quartet, and a pair of tenacious singers who make themselves at home with anyone close to their thrust stage.  

“Always … Patsy Cline” is based on a real life letter correspondence kept up for years between  Louise Seger, a Texas divorcee, and Patsy Cline (each is played on alternating days by Harmony France and Christina Hall). Louise is the biggest Patsy Cline fan you will ever meet; she gets her first earful while watching Cline’s 1957 national television debut, and develops an obsession strong enough to annoy her boss, kids and the local radio host. When the singer appears in the flesh at a nearby honky tonk, Louise gets up the courage to introduce herself, and it’s the start of a much needed friendship for both. 

This production is so endearing, tear-jerking, and assertively friendly, it makes me wish director Brigitte Ditmars had invested a percentage of that energy to tackle the pitfalls that distract from it. The script holds Patsy Cline herself in such saintly reverence, she can feel sketched thinner than a placard on a museum wall. This can can come across as slowness or trepidation sometimes, as we wait for more meaty substance like Louise’s stories, or Patsy’s songs. It’s a sweet narrative shared between two hard-workin’, God-fearin’ white women, and while it’s very impressive they can swap roles at the drop of a hat, it still feels very safe. There’s room for more risk-taking, or a better projected reason why this show is important for Chicago audiences today.

Harmony France/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Don’t worry — while the script may be a bit dusty, these performers do their real-life counterparts justice and then some. With twenty-seven songs on her docket, Harmony France was an astounding, high-belting Patsy Cline for the evening. There’s a deep thread of loneliness in her performance, highlighting that Cline had to fend for her pittance while her male counterparts got easy support. As Louise Seger, Christina Hall spends her evening flirting, dancing, and buttering up the audience. If you’re in her sight line, you are fair game for getting entangled in the proceedings of her story. This is her honky tonk; we all just live in it.  

Kudos especially to musical director Andra Velis Simon, for assembling her backing quartet with mostly female musicians and musicians of color. It’s a nice touch, given that the script expects an all-male band and has gone to the trouble of giving them all red-neck nicknames. So, if you need holiday fare, but you’re done with Dickens, and your nuts have been cracked, there’s always Patsy Cline.

DICE RATING: d12 — Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This country-fried duo radiates warmth at a leisurely pace.

Show: “Always … Patsy Cline”

Company: Firebrand Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “Beast Women Fall Series” (Beast Women)

Review: “Beast Women Fall Series” (Beast Women)

“Beast Women” is a long-running revue in Chicago, dedicated to the showcasing of women performers, whose talents range from burlesque to stand-up comedy to hula hooping. Curated by Jill Erickson and Michelle Power, this weekly fall revue is playing every Saturday through December 14th, and is well worth the time for fans of the unusual and the awesome.

Power serves as a wonderfully game emcee for the evening’s events; “Beast Women” rotates performers from week to week, so each attendee is likely to get a different performance depending on the Saturday they chose to attend. I can say that my experience with this past Saturday was full of amazing feats, from aerial work to impressive comedic burlesque pieces. The late night programming vibe at the Prop is rowdy and game for anything, with Power doing an excellent job pumping up the audience by leading us in a call and response: “Are you ready?” she asked. “Hell, yeah!” we shouted loudly back at her. The energy between performer and audience was made profoundly clear, and the anything goes nature at play led to an entertaining evening of amazing feats.

Erickson and Power have brought together a good group of performers. Of particular note was Fancy Fontina, a burlesque performer who entered the theatre space in a Vegas showgirl-type costume, only with multiple cheese graters hanging from her garter belts. As the dance progressed, each cheese grater was used to grate a hunk of cheese on Fancy herself, to the delight and shrieks from the audience. “Beast Women” clearly provides entertainment one will not see anywhere else in Chicago, and this is underlined by Fontina’s fellow performers, with Piper executing a flawless belly dancer routine, Roberta Miles deadpanning a rip-roaring story about a dude who will not leave her alone, and The McCrystalizor hooping to a mix of understated music and Charlie Chaplin’s moving monologue about humanity from “The Great Dictator.”

All in all, if you are looking for a wonderful night of talent you will not see curated anywhere else, check out the fall series of “Beast Women” performances. 

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: These Beast Woman provide thrills and entertainment in amazing revue.

Show: “Beast Women”

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

Review: “A Man of No Importance ” (Pride Films & Plays)

Review: “A Man of No Importance ” (Pride Films & Plays)

Ryan Lanning, Ryan Armstrong, Orlando Shelly, Christopher Davis, Amanda Giles,  Ian Rigg, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Kimberly Lawson, Tommy Bullington, Tiffany T. Taylor, and Sarah Beth Tanner/Photo: Heather Mall.

Sometimes a musical gives you a terrific slice of local talent, with inspired staging, and unfailing enthusiasm to smooth over any rough bits. That’s Pride Films and Plays’ production of “A Man of No Importance” in a nutshell: an industrial boiler of a show, delivering warmth and humor enough to combat the wildest Chicago polar vortex. The production is set to extend for one more week until Sunday, November 17th. 

Director Donterrio Johnson and music director Robert Ollis have amassed a sprawling cast, and highlighted their vocal and instrumental idiosyncrasies to lovely effect. The stage never feels crowded, the pace is never slow; and in an intimate venue, with performers within a hair’s breadth of the audience, you rarely see the seams of this musical. Not every song is a barn-burner, and not every stage conceit rings true, but there’s enough charm in this staging to wipe the slate.  

Alfie (Ryan Lanning) is a repressed bus conductor, feeling increasingly out of place in early sixties Dublin. He can anchor a mildly talented/ultra-enthusiastic theater troupe, deflect his sister Lily’s (Kimberly Lawson, u/s) concerns, assure Father Kenny (Ian Rigg) his production of “Salome” won’t cause the church controversy, even cast his leading lady, Adele (Ciera Dawn), sight unseen. No sweat. But Alfie is terrified by his own desires in a way he can’t share with anyone. His fondness for affable bus driver Robbie (Nick Arceo), coupled with a crippling obsession with Oscar Wilde, could be the perfect storm to permit Alfie the boldness to love who he really wants. 

“A Man of No Importance” is not without some pitfalls from the 2002 Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally libretto. We’re treated to a few unsatisfying musical tangents and moments of small town bigotry that grind proceedings to a halt. There’s also something off about an apparition of Oscar Wilde (Kevin O’Connell) who should be a more haunting presence, but blends in too well with actual bodies onstage to evoke the right sense of foreboding/inviting. Script issues aside, the principal and supporting cast are a diverse, joyful and well oiled machine. As Lily Bryne,  understudy Kimberly Lawson lets loose with pithy zingers, painting Alfie’s sister as a proud curmudgeon that doesn’t soften so much as find a new direction for her ire. As bus driver Robbie Faye, Nick Arceo is open and freewheeling, but with a modicum of slippery added in for anyone asking the wrong questions about his personal life.

Ryan Lanning and Ciera Dawn/Photo: Heather Mall.

If it’s brilliance you want, look no further than Ciera Dawn as Adele Rice, another adept secret-keeper so steeped in anger and forboding for the future, that you feel her surprise at meeting people that embrace her wholeheartedly. Ryan Lanning’s Alfie Byrne is compelling beyond anything. It’s the smile with pain at the corners, the posture that hides him in an oncoming rush of wool coats, or the look of absolute panic when he’s sure you can see right through him. I feel the same knee-jerk protectiveness about Lannings’ Alfie that I usually reserve for adorable Pixar creatures; if anyone hurts him in the slightest, I will cry a bathtub of tears. The concept that “A Man of No Importance” traffics in is simple; queerness cannot be a tragedy or a tool of exclusion. In the right community, queerness makes you even more necessary. 

DICE RATING: d12– “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: It’s never too late for a charming Irish sexual awakening.

Show: “A Man of No Importance”

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4139 N Broadway)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Renee Lockett and Michael Turrentine/Photo: Gracie Meier.

Simple. Beautiful. Haunting. This is exactly what author Donja R. Love’s Chicago premiere production of “Sugar in Our Wounds” is in the hands of director Mikael Burke. The harrowing and uplifting tale comes to life under an intimate, cobbled tree canopy that breathes life, joy, and a heartbeat into a landscape of constant degradation. “Sugar is Our Wounds” is not an easy story, but it’s an important and affecting story that should be required viewing for all Chicago theater-goers. 

While the Civil War rages, and political dispatches reach them in dribs and drabs, a makeshift family of slaves on a plantation in the deep South welcomes a new member, Henry (Londen Shannon). They have all lost their people to death and disappearance and cling to each other; Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) is an all-encompassing mother and healer, Mattie (Ashley Crowe) is tortured and scarred daily by the plantation owners who share her blood, and James (Michael Turrentine) keeps his ability to read a secret, among other things. Their lives are all entwined with an ominous tree that has a bloody history as a slave hanging site, and a supernatural draw for James and Henry, inviting them to discover the love they could share. Of course, nothing stays simple in this fraught, transactional atmosphere, where a same-sex relationship makes James and Henry easier targets for white violence than just their blackness would.

Michael Turrentine, Londen Shannon, Ashley Crowe, and Renee Lockett/Photo: Gracie Meier.

What happens onstage is nothing short of a profound experience, with each character exchange broken down to be equally minimal and meaningful. As Aunt Mama, Renee Lockett lavishes knowledge and gifts on each of her younger charges, and takes up the weight of their losses and her own. Ashley Crowe retreats into herself so fully as Mattie, it’s as if she’s willing herself to become invisible each time the sadistic Miss Isabel (Grainne Ortlieb) gets within striking distance. Apart from his relationship with James, Londen Shannon’s Henry wearily fends off everyone else in their attempts to commodify him for his body. As James, Michael Turrentine floats on air in a way his close counterparts cannot. This is due to the special, dreamlike relationship he maintains with the large tree that seems to live, breathe and impart its’ secrets only to him. 

The tree itself is a gorgeous amalgamation character brought to life by scene designer Joy Ahn, sound designer Sam Clapp, and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Its voices, pulsing lights, and descending woven plank arms make it an interactive supporting player. Director Mikael Burke has amassed a brilliant ensemble, and whittled each moment down to angry and poetic normalcy. It’s an opportunity for all Chicago theater-goers to face historic cruelty at its most disturbing, and not flinch. “Sugar in Our Wounds” is not an easy play to watch, but there is such a reward in the way it values queerness and blackness that history has callously dismissed. 

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A tree is one slave’s portent of love and death.

Show: “Sugar in Our Wounds”

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave.)

Review: “The Effect” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Review: “The Effect” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Daniella Pereira and Sam Hubbard/Photo: Jesus J. Montero. 

Before the action gets going in Strawdog’s “The Effect,” a projection at the back of the stage helpfully informs the audience that an experiment is about to begin. Said experiment refers to the onstage drug trial being monitored and endured by the production’s characters, but it could just as well refer to the performance of the play itself, which like any experiment, is testing out a hypothesis on a gathered group of test subjects, aka, the audience. As questions about identity and perception swirl around the performers, the viewers are invited to draw conclusions based on the scenes playing out in front of them. Of course, like all people, test subjects have biases, and it’s to this production’s credit that I found myself considering a wild variety of positions about the uses and misuses of medication without experiencing judgment or ridicule.

Directed by Elly Green with a game cast, “The Effects” follows Connie (Daniela Pereira) and Tristan (Sam Hubbard), two young adults who have entered into a weeks-long drug trial to test out a new antidepressant on healthy subjects. Dr. Lorna James (Justine C. Turner), hired by old flame and pharmaceutical conference hot-shot Toby (Cary Shoda), is carefully watching their progress while fighting demons of her own. Tristan is already flirtatious and impulsive, and the doses he’s given heighten his feelings and choices; he quickly becomes infatuated with Connie, the only woman on the trial. She is more hesitant than Tristan, less sure of the reality they both admit to experiencing. Are the drugs responsible for their increasing dopamine levels, and thus responsible for their attraction? If there is an external cause for their romance, does that invalidate their feelings? Are we really ourselves if we are using a substance in order to modify our moods and behavior

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s script could move into some dangerous territory by posing these questions. As long as there have been antidepressant medications available, there has been a backlash to said meds. Many, many people and professionals swear by the positive effect and efficacy of such drugs. Some claim there is no way to anticipate their long-term effects on users. Others claim exercise and exposure to nature will transform one’s mental health completely, without the addition of chemicals. Still others would claim that there is disquiet to be found in taking pills to become a different, potentially better version of yourself. I am not nearly qualified to comment on all these stances, though each is given a certain amount of discussion in “The Effect,” at once astute and perhaps a little mistrusting of its audience’s intelligence, when long-winded discussions of science get in the way of the flesh and blood relationships onstage. I know I came into the play biased — as everyone is, Toby helpfully points out — by my own use of Ritalin over the course of my chilhood into my twenties. You change when you are on medication; the first difference my mother noticed was that my handwriting transformed from overly large yet somehow cramped scrawl into neat, pretty cursive. But I would never say medication turned me into a fraud; it helped me become the writer I am today. However, by giving voice to worries in her script, Prebble is able to plum deep anxieties we all have about the nature of free will and choice, and she does so with humanity and surprise, particularly in regard to Lorna’s journey from antidepressant doubter to potential believer.

Justine C. Turner and Cary Shoda/Photo: Jesus J. Montero.

Pereira and Hubbard develop a rough and complex chemistry as their relationship develops. Hubbard does not shy away from Tristan’s pushiness and sleaziness in his opening flirtations. Pereira embraces Connie’s reservations without judgment, and allows a fuller expression of passion to build over time, so when the two test subjects finally collide, director Green’s stage pictures feel monumental, sharp, and enthralling. Turner has a subtler dynamic to craft with Shoda, and if it takes most of the production’s run-time for them to reach a satisfying emotional resonance, that’s more to blame more on the script’s pacing than on Green’s work with the performers.

Yeaji Kim’s scenic design and projections feel clean and clinical, while Claire Chrzan and John Kelly’s intermittently flashing white and red lights take you from a hospital room to someplace warmer and more intimate with ease. Leah Hummel’s costumes feel just right, particularly during the transformation from street clothes to drab patient wear.

“The Effect” could well be called an experiment on audience bias. It challenges those watching, and if the production does not come to any firm conclusions, that is as it should be. When posing questions about what we all do to make our lives livable, the answer lies ultimately in each of us.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Experiment in how romance forms, with alarming questions at play.

Show: “The Effect”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Review: “I Know My Own Heart” (Pride Films & Plays)

Review: “I Know My Own Heart” (Pride Films & Plays)

Pride Films and Plays and director Elizabeth Swanson have brought together a very close-quarters US premiere staging of Emma Donoghue’s already very intimate “I Know My Own Heart.” It’s a bittersweet lesbian love story that comes wrapped in intricate layers of social code, secret languages, and playing roles that don’t come naturally. What results is a simultaneously funny and tense look at how real life is conducted under the strict gaze of 19th century moral code. The artistic team is intent on capturing rebellious moments that are disguised as innocent female friendship, but are practically bursting with love, jealousy, and longing.

Anne Lister (Vahishta Vafadari) is counting the days until her uncle passes away, leaving her in control of his tidy Yorkshire estate and independently wealthy. She’s a local oddity in the early 1800’s, dressing all in black, and engaging in unladylike conduct, like running the estate for her sickly uncle, and weeeell, pining for the company of lower-class farmers’ daughters like Marianne Brown (Lauren Grace Thompson). The two discover they are mutually smitten: Marianne with Anne’s brash confidence, and Anne with with the way Marianne “waves her creamy neck about like a swan.”

When Marianne is pressured by her family to accept a proposal from a man, the ladies wed each other in secret and vow to be together when Anne can claim her inheritance, or when Marianne’s much older suitor passes away. But a lot can happen when your secret wife is away.  Whispers (and firsthand knowledge) about Anne’s particular womanly wiles inspire Nance (Jessie Ellingsen) and Tib (Eleanor Katz) to form a sisterhood of Yorkshire spinsters, devoted to her. Drawn in a hundred conflicting directions, Anne must come to terms if she’s even capable of a (relatively) ordinary marriage.

One particular element that informed the story, is how the actors were staged, sandwiched between audiences on either side, invoking the feeling of being bookended, or always being under a watchful eye, even as a patron. Director Elizabeth Swanson pulls off the impressive feat of making the staging compelling and cohesive from every angle.  

As Tib, a girlhood friend of Anne’s who shares in her love of other women, but has never put her own feelings for her friend into action, Eleanor Katz is swift, guarded, and wields her humor like a deadly weapon. Jessie Ellingsen is intrepid as Marianne’s little sister Nance, who is determined to break into her sister’s secret sexual cabal, not as someone who could truly use a sexual outlet, but more to obtain a rebellious trophy before she’s married and her life becomes tedious.

The performers who shoulder the lion’s share of lust, joy, longing and defeat are Lauren Grace Thompson as Marianne and Vahishta Vafadari as Anne. Thompson is a frank ray of sunshine as Marianne. She brings humor and viewpoints on queerness that seem ripped from the 21st century. As Anne, Vafadari steps in as a romantic hero, not unlike Mr. Darcy, with girl after girl swooning at her commanding feet. She daydreams that in an ideal world, she sees herself “in breeches and having a penis — just a small one.” Her complexities — and inability to say no — wind up unraveling everything she imagined would be simple in her life.

What I appreciate most about “I know My Own Heart” is that it tells a joyful and heartbreaking story, but it refrains from doling out punishments and tragedies to the intrepid women it follows. It may not be exactly what you’d expect from a sweeping period romance, but it points onward, with the knowledge that this story has hope and is far from over.

DICE RATING: d12 –– “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Anne Lister’s milkshake brings all the girls to the yard.

Show: “I Know My Own Heart”

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue:  Pride Arts Center (4147 N. Broadway)

Review: “Les Innocents/The Innocents” ((re)discover theatre)

Review: “Les Innocents/The Innocents” ((re)discover theatre)

Photo courtesy of (re)discover theatre.

(re)discover theater has an excellent knack for playing with your unease and shredding any idea of protective distance from a stage full of powerful, unpredictable feelings. With “The Innocents,” you are invited onto the stairwells, into the crumbling chapels, and down into the cold, dark catacombs of Paris, with creeping hands and eyes coming a bit too close for comfort. The only comfort in these harrowing walls is knowing you’ll be able to escape this communal despair. Right?  

Mathilde (Vahishta Vafadari) has died, and her lover Gui (Emilie Modaff) has grown despondent and has lost every shred of musical inspiration. Like a lovesick Orpheus desperate for a muse, Gui decides to track their Eurydice down in the dark, dripping catacombs under the streets of Paris. Once Gui has gotten sufficiently lost in the impossible map of crypt-keeper Jacques (Amanda Forman), and has tried summoning Mathilde with no success, other undead creatures wake to Gui’s candlelight, drawn like moths to flutter aimlessly and distract Gui from their task. The tribe of undead creatures surround like individual cyclones of sadness and longing, at once luring Gui to join them, and distracting Gui from finding Mathilde, who may have some compelling reasons to stay far from Gui’s grasp.  

Photo courtesy of (re)discover theatre.

The story of Gui and Mathilde is threadbare enough to get lost in the face of overwhelming ambiance, or overpowered with louder tales of murder, cowardice and broken hearts. Such as Helene’s (Deanalís Resto) cursed midwifery, Ignace’s (Alec Phan) pleas to God to rescue them from their punishment, soldier Valentin’s (Matthew Lunt) fierce pride in his actions during battle, or Veronique’s (Andrew Lund) insistence that the crimes they committed were only for love.

Creator and director Ann Kreitman has left so much room in this playing space for audience inclusion and actor interpretation, especially in the realm of gender fluidity. The space provided for non-binary versions of masculinity and femininity is compelling in a way that sets the bar for Chicago theater going forward. Who would choose a staid, homogeneous and binary-conforming production, when you could have a wicked good time breaking arbitrary rules in shiny spats or a corset?

Emilie Modaff is focused and unblinking as Gui, a composer with no safe harbor, no support, and a future that could just as easily propel them to prestige or leave them to rot in a gutter. When the definitions of what is real and sane start melting away, Modaff’s Gui embraces that, as if the world has finally started making sense. Equal parts disturbing, funny, and frustratingly stuck pushing their boulders up never-ending hills are Amanda Forman as the forever itchy and unhinged Jacques, and Andrew Lund as Veronique, a commanding, self-elected queen of an undead empire. When Vahishta Vafadari appears as the elusive Mathilde, she comes with the truth, anger and wisdom everyone has been trying to avoid; no one can exist just to be a muse, and a collection of old skulls won’t help you solve your problems. Take this weird journey and ask every burning question, just know that someone tore out and ate the answer sheet long ago.

DICE RATING: d12 –– Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Leave all of your questions and expectations outside these catacombs.

Show: Les Innocents/The Innocents

Company: (re)discover Theatre

Venue:  Preston Bradley Center, Mason Hall (941 W. Lawrence Ave)

Review: “Scandalous: I Want a Banana & Other Desperate Love Stories” (Prop Thtr)

Review: “Scandalous: I Want a Banana & Other Desperate Love Stories” (Prop Thtr)

With her trademark giant 3-ring binder of tales, Roberta Miles holds unrepentant, unrelenting court, while being extremely at ease with her neuroses. She is a Chicago storytelling staple as required for proper residency as the red line, the Millennium Park Bean, or an expertly decked-out relish and sport pepper hot dog. And, speaking of hot dogs …

Roberta Miles opened her Prop Thtr “Scandalous” series with “I Want a Banana & Other Desperate Love Stories,” her years of sexual exploits brought to life. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes heartwarming, most of her true tales end up walking a fine-line  between all three. Let’s see, there’s the inexperienced man who’s got a motorcycle and an obsession with sculpting penises. There’s the repulsive man dead-set on giving her truly awful cunnilingus. There’s the woman, so perfect she may just be a figment brought about by the shame Miles feels about her own body, and many, many more.

She sounds off against feeling restricted by the confines of monogamy, about the mistreatment she’s given and received, about how difficult it is to be let down by your failing body. It’s an incredibly open and inviting set, and has the the sort of side effects you get from good therapy, acceptance and healing. Even the evening’s opener, poet Robin Fine brings body positivity, acceptance and healing to the room in what begins in a poetic admission of loving the feeling of dancing naked in her window, and ends in an invitation: “Wanna watch?”

Chicago has a wonderful undercurrent of powerful storytelling, and it’s due in no small part to the support Roberta Miles provides to performers (especially female performers). She hands the microphone over to anyone that wants to come forward with their own audacity, myself included. I am strictly incapable of seeing the work of Roberta Miles without those years of support and love working to bias me in her favor. So my advice to you: grab a seat, let down your guard, and be part of this woman’s magic.

DICE RATING: d12 –– “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Choose your own storytelling adventure (warning: most will contain penises).

Show: “Scandalous: I Want a Banana & Other Desperate Love Stories, or Cracked: Surviving My Life”

Company: Prop Thtr

Venue:   Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

Review: “Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier” (Black Button Eyes Production)

Review: “Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier” (Black Button Eyes Production)

Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Webb/Photo: Cole Simon.

Sharing stories is part of human nature. The act bonds people together, showing us how others’ experiences reflect and rhyme with our own. Stories tell us we are not alone. And that makes them a comfort. Not so for The Dweller in Black Button Eyes’ “Nightmares & Nightcaps,” a theatrical adaptation of John Collier’s tales of irony and bedevilment. But at least his torment is our joy, as our episodic journey through Collier’s work provides a lot of laughs and a plethora of inventive staging.

The Dweller (Kevin Webb) spends long, isolated evenings in his townhouse reading tales of losers in love, failed parenting, and sacrificing one’s principles to strike a deal with Satan. He finds distraction and even fanciful delight in framing such narratives; he comes to believe the stories he shares with the audience could call a fantasy woman to him by night’s end.

Collier’s stories often call for such a suspension of logic in order to work, and they are best characterized as a mix between fairy tale and “Twilight Zone” episode. Adapted and directed by Ed Rutherford, this production’s musing on narrative works best when its stories’ arch humor is underplayed, and when Collier’s thematic threads are cleanly presented by a late turn in the action. The slower stories contain little of these surprises, but still display the author’s daffy humor. While the frame with The Dweller creates a sinister atmosphere for the show, his story does not add up too much in the long run. The perception shift in his journey is sharply staged, but doesn’t much illuminate the greater collection of stories.

Megan DeLay and Ellen DeSitter/Photo: Cole Simon.

Rutherford excels at bringing out detail in flights of fancy, finding room for all sorts of spectacle in The Dweller’s dark parlor. When a bickering married couple (understudy Jessica Lauren Fisher and Shane Roberie) travels the wide world, their escapades lead them not only to a singing Bird of Paradise (Kat Evans) flitting around the furniture, but also to a monstrous lizard creature bursting through the curtains, and a sloth-like mammal hiding in the coat closet. And Rutherford’s ability to underline a joke cannot be overstated; when the Huntress (Megan DeLay) admires her gun collection, she motions at it with long and loving gestures. And when her paramour (Ellen DeSitter) pretends to be stuffed like the rest of her trophy collection, your sympathies line up with her awkward stances. As a married couple too obsessed with one another’s well-being, Maiko Terazawa and Joshua Servantez get not only a variety of opportunities to make faces at one another, they also excel at capturing the intense need to escape a room to save their own skins.

Jeremiah Barr’s puppet creations only add to this cavalcade of fun. His giant lizard is a feat of scope and imagination. And even The Dweller’s use of a hand puppet bird adds to the silliness at play within one story. Beth Laske-Miller’s costumes are bright and evocative of class and time period, while Robert Hornbostel’s ghostly distortion of “Ain’t We Got Fun” slips us in and out of another world easily.

For those looking for a spooky show, “Nightmares & Nightcaps” may not fit the bill, but its dark humor provides enough enjoyment and insight to make a rewarding evening at the theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Humor and spectacle entwine to create a lively narrative analysis.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Show: “Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier”

Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)