Review: “Hir” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Amy Morton and Em Grosland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: “Hir”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Main Stage

I have recently seen the play “Hir” by Taylor Mac twice: just this past weekend at Steppenwolf, and previously at a small storefront-sized theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.  Before I review Steppenwolf’s production of the show, I have a couple of declarations to make that should clarify the following review.

First, I contend the profundity of a profound work can suffer upon a second viewing because the significant effects of a first impression cannot be duplicated.  Additionally, the first viewing cannot help but inform the evaluation of the second.  So, the fact that I saw StageWest’s production prior to Steppenwolf’s does affect how I perceive the latter’s work.

My second point, before I sally forth into the depths of this review, is that I truly believe that “Hir” by Taylor Mac is one of the most brilliantly penned pieces of dramatic literature in recent times; its complexity and nuance, structure and pacing—everything about it makes it one of the more perfect plays of the last half century.

Francis Guinan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

When I first saw the play two months ago, it was a deeply disturbing, highly impactful, engaging and meaningful piece of work.  The title of the play leads toward thinking that this is a play about gender identity.  And it is, to some degree, but truly at its heart, this is a play about a family unit who are all survivors of an abusive relationship.  The plot really revolves around how each of the three former victims relate to each other and their former abuser.  It is true that one character, Max (Em Grosland), is transitioning from female to male, and that the gender pronoun that character has chosen for hirself is “hir”.  But, that isn’t what drives the plot forward.  And, in the act of making Max’s gender a topic of discussion, rather than the actual conflict of the show, Taylor Mac (whose own chosen pronoun is “judy”) has reached towards brilliance and genius.  If the intent is to become a society where all genders along the overall spectrum are seen as equal, then the characters that represent trans and non-binary people must be able to be perceived as just as normal as everyone else.  Because the conflict of the play revolves around something else, Max’s discussions with hir mother and hir brother are effective conversations that flesh out the characters.  We as audience members are able to listen and comprehend better the points being made because we are not taking sides in these chats.  They aren’t a point of conflict.  They are informative and mostly civil explanations.

This is a dark, dark comedy about a woman attempting to free herself from the physically and psychologically abusive relationship with her husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan).  Paige (the woman, played by Amy Morton) has taken advantage of her husband’s stroke a year prior to the play’s beginning  to medicate him heavily and alter everything about the life of the family; where once there was order there is now chaos, where once there was unrestrained masculinity there is now strictly controlled femininity.

Under the direction of Hallie Gordon, this production seems to have been treated more as a light comedy about a dark topic than a dark comedy that plumbs the nadir of human cruelty (how I perceive the intention of the script itself).  The staging seems to have been perfectly gauged to keep Steppenwolf’s specific audience laughing all the way through to the end.  Morton’s Paige is never fully realized as the revenge-seeking former beta dog who has now taken control and is doling out punishment to those who’ve done her wrong.  In this production she is more a still-afraid, still-abused woman who is lashing out.  This distinction in how Paige is played (I assume there are a number of other ways she can be approached as well) alters just about everything in the play.  And it is indicative of how the directorial choices were made so as to keep this play from going to the darker places that the script fully supports.

The concept of Chekhov’s Gun comes into play here.  The script contains a number of moments that work as necessary foreshadowing.  The concept of Chekhov’s gun is that if you show a gun on stage early in the play, it must be used/shot off by the end.  While viewing this production, I was led to ask myself, what happens if the gun never gets set on the stage when it is supposed to be there?  There is a sequence early on that hints at Paige’s capacity for cruelty: she discovers that the sound of her blender triggers her son (Ty Olwin) Isaac’s PTSD.  She then proceeds to torture him with short burst of the blender’s whirring which causes him to repeatedly toss his cookies in the sink.  Morton’s portrayal hovers around a point of curious exploration of the situation, rather than the necessary schaudenfruede that indicates where the character is ultimately headed.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Another example is smaller, but indicative of the missed opportunities in this production: Periodically, Paige sprays Arnold with a water bottle as punishment for bad behavior.  If you think that sounds like disciplining a cat, you’ve got the idea.  One of the first times she does so, she tells him to stop touching his penis.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t notice that he’d been touching his penis prior to that moment.  However, in the script Paige tells Arnold to “grab the knob”.  Had he followed the euphemistic instructions on that line, it would have set up the pattern of behavior a few lines later.  Instead, the moment is missed and the humor of a later line (“My penis is my best friend”) loses the momentum of the effective set-up provided by the playwright.

Gordon’s direction often leads to awkward stage pictures, clunky movement, and a lot of cheating-out akin to what one instructs beginning actors to do when on a proscenium stage.  There is one time that this is used to comedic effect: Arnold sneaks across the stage in full view of everyone, mugging to the audience the entire way.  And with that one interlude the legitimacy of the play’s world is shot to Hell.  Is it funny?  Sure.  Does it suddenly take a big budget play and put it on the level of community theatre? You bet.  It’s unfortunate, and it adds nothing to the play itself.

There are a huge number of small issues throughout the production that make me wonder if a work of this magnitude was just slightly out of Gordon’s scope.  And, I hate feeling that way.  I wanted everyone in that audience to walk away as disturbed and altered as I was when I first saw the play.  I wanted people to be afraid to laugh during the descent into the horrible aspects of the second act.  That wasn’t present in this production.  The play still stands up.  The play itself is still brilliant.  It just isn’t as good as it could be.  I wasn’t enrapt.  That’s partly because I had seen it before.  But then again, I’ve seen “Hamlet” innumerable times, and when well done it is as brilliant as the first time, if not better.

With this production I found myself wondering:  Why didn’t Isaac carry himself like a Marine? Why didn’t Isaac’s duffle bag have any weight to it?  Was it filled with blocks of Styrofoam?  Why were the parents of a 21 year-old and a 16 year-old cast with actors who are significantly older? Exactly how did Arnold punch holes in the wall well above his own shoulder/head height?  Why wasn’t the house truly a garbage house, rather than an orderly version of untidy? Why wasn’t the ugliness of every character explored more fully?  With a work such as this play, I should not have been so easily and constantly distracted.

Any audience that leaves a production of “Hir” ought to be exhausted and spent.  It shouldn’t be possible for them to bounce up into a standing ovation and then laugh their way out the door.  It’s still worth seeing.  It’s still a good play.  Yet, so much potential…

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  One of my favorite plays.  I wish it were better.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Nance” (Pride Films and Plays)

Show: The Nance

Company: Pride Films and Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (The Broadway), 4139 N. Broadway

Some theater is so compelling, timely and complicated, you can’t wait to dissect it like the frog in your AP biology examination tray. After seeing Pride Films and Play’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance”, the story of a performer both embracing and at odds with his stage persona, I wanted a deep look into this frog’s digestive tract- I mean, into the history of New York burlesque theater, and the titular stage ‘Nance’. For as much scrutiny as “The Nance” characters face at the famed Irving Place burlesque theater, the stereotypical effeminate gay character has had a long tenure in films, plays and television; but the question that author Beane poses is, what if a burlesque ‘Nance’ was portrayed not by a straight stage comic, but a gay performer, as a means of placing a toe juuuust outside the closet in the repressive 1930’s?

At the onset of “The Nance”, Chauncey Miles (played with fantastic world-weariness by Vince Kracht) is at the apex of popularity on the 1930’s burlesque circuit for his extremely effeminate comedy stylings. The cost of doing this kind of show business as morals-and-ethics Czar Paul Moss begins cracking down on deviance onstage is utter secrecy and caution. However, when Chauncy meets Ned (Royen Kent), his private world begins to open up. The two men embark on a relationship when all they can usually expect is to meet lovers quickly under the watchful gaze of policemen at the Automat. They find legitimacy denied them at every turn, and while Chauncy has come to expect this on a personal level, he cannot stomach to see his act suppressed one bit. He and his onstage cohorts (Patrick Rybarczyk, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Steph Vondell, and Melissa Young) feel the sting of closing avenues for their racy exploits. What will survive the crack-down is only what is nimble and can change with the times. And that’s the question: will Chauncy survive?

Director John Nasca and music director Robert Ollis have their work cut out for them in this fantastically compelling piece of theater, but have spared no expense in putting us at a 1930’s burlesque review, complete with exposed bulb footlights and a tiny but boisterous house band. The costumes are big, gaudy and faces are covered in bright greasepaint. This is one production I hope audiences feel enough at home to get into the burlesque hooting and hollering.

The show really rests in the capable hands of Vince Kracht, the simultaneously winning and conflicted Chauncy. His self destruction comes from his propensity to side with those government entities that have labeled his act stage deviance and jailed him. Unlike communist leaning Sylvie (Melissa Young) or naive Ned, Chauncy is inclined to agree that he is a social menace, only that he ought be recognized as a talented one. He holds to his belief that nothing he does will alter public opinion of him, and his brand of maligned comedy will come back with time. Though anger and sadness fuel Chauncy, Vince Kracht maintains a mad-cap glee throughout. Even as he chooses passivity, inaction, and says to the man he loves, “I want to be used and discarded because I like it. It’s what I deserve.”

You hope for Chauncy what you would hope for anyone that has placed themselves beyond rescue’s reach; that the pleas of the activists and bleeding hearts in his wake do something to turn his tides.

“The Nance” is mirth and heartbreak. It’s the last laugh you will have before your world falls apart. It’s a quick and dirty vaudeville revue wrapped in a crisp, tailored jacket. You will love it, and it will hurt you.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: When it’s not the act that’s too risqué, it’s you.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “London Assurance” (City Lit Theatre)

Kraig Kelsey, Kat Evans/Photo: Ally Neutze

Show: “London Assurance”

Company: City Lit Theatre

Venue: City Lit Theatre (1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave)

If you follow the Chicago theatre market at all, you have probably noticed that the air is full of tension these days.  Even before the most recent controversy over the writings of another critic in town, theatre practitioners have been highly energized over the last few months, largely because of the political climate of the country.  There have been calls from artists to their peers that ask us all to focus exclusively on making our works political in nature.  The quote that “All art is political” can be attributed to many, many people over the years, but one of my favorite renditions of the maxim comes from Ingmar Bergman: “Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.”  A constant barrage of pieces of angry, politically charged theatre have come to Chicago’s stages since November (and before).  They are welcome and they are needed, but sometimes audiences and artists need reprieve from the repetition of comment on the political climate.  So, it is that a comedy of manners from 1841 is a welcome addition to the theatrical scene.  It is a beautiful bit of comedic relief from a world that grates daily upon the spirit.  And yet, any comedy of manners revolves around ethics, and so Mr. Bergman remains correct.

“London Assurance” covers familiar territory for British farces of the early 1800s.  An old man is engaged to a nubile youth of 18 years.  The geezer’s son meets the young lady and falls in love.  She, too, has feelings for the younger guy.  Additional characters get involved, muddle the plot, and everything works out in the end.  It’s fun, funny, and mostly predictable.  And, that’s okay.  In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

Kingsley Day/Photo: Ally Neutze

Supposedly an influence on Oscar Wilde’s writing, this is witty show about the upper crust behaving badly.  At first light, Edward Kuffert takes the stage as the clever and droll butler, Cool.  His opening moments addressing the audience directly set a tone for the entire play, which does depend heavily on asides to comment on the action and provide a good deal of the humor.  A moment later, rapscallions Richard Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) and Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) take the stage.  The latter of the two is the son, mentioned above, who will come to fall in love with his father’s betrothed.  The former is a scheming trouble-maker whose machinations don’t carry direct malice of mischievousness, but rather the overall goal of providing himself an easy life.  And yet, it is those self same plots and actions which lead to much of the show’s complications.  Eisloeffel plays the part with easy charm and a puckish grin.

The other unintentional trouble-maker of the show is Squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling).  He is charmed by Richard Dazzle, and starts the chain of invitations that leads to Charles Courtly’s wooing of Grace Harkaway (Kat Evans), who just so happens be to both Max Harkaway’s niece, and Charles’s father’s fiance.  Sparling’s confident and engaging presence allows the boisterous role of Max to take firm hold of the show and carry it upon his shoulders.  Each time he takes the stage, things get more interesting.

Director Terry McCabe has done a tremendous job of casting the show exactly as needed.  Each actor seems fits their character so well, I can’t imagine another in their part. And the staging flows naturally, in a play that has a number of far-from-natural contrivances that make the whole thing work.  I mentioned the asides earlier.  Often times, I find such theatrical conventions annoying thanks to poor staging.  They can kill an otherwise sharp production.  McCabe’s cast executes the clever side comments in a way that makes you look forward to the next one.

There was one character that I could do without, Mark Meddle (Joe Feliciano).  At the time of its writing, perhaps the self-serving, maleficent lawyer may have lampooned some specific current opinion of attorneys.  In fact, it still may.  But as scripted, the overly-litigious, money-grubbing lawyer could be edited out of the script and it would remove needless distraction from what is an otherwise tight script.  Feliciano does all he can with the role.  What is lacking here is a fault of the playwright, not the actor.

A quick call-out to the scenic designer, Ray Toler, whose  rotating walls allowed City Lit’s uniquely shaped stage to become two large British estates.  And Tom Kieffer’s costumes were exactly what it took to place this show in its time and place, the attention to detail in the dresses was marvelous.

Finally, I cannot truly review this show without mention of Kingsley Day’s performance as Sir Harcourt Courtly.  The elder lover in this play is an absurd role, and this is just the sort of thing at which Day excels.  I’ve worked with Kingsley on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and this role has a bit of the flavor of many of the characters he’s embodied over the years.  I thoroughly enjoy watching an actor shine in a role that seems to have been written for him.  Not once do you hope that Sir Harcourt will get the girl, and it is easy to revel in his self-inflicted mishaps.  And yet, the character is hard not to love.  Day gives him that little something special that wriggles the aging fop into one’s heart.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Queen” (Victory Gardens)

Stephen Spencer, Priya Mohanty, Darci Nalepa/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Queen”

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 3

For the last ten years or so, there has been a spotlight on the mysterious disappearance of honey bees in America, and across the planet.  So, it isn’t at all surprising that plays have now been written about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  I’ve reviewed one other play about the topic a couple of years ago.  This second go-’round with the topic is similar to my last, in that both works are less about the bees than about the relationships of the humans on the stage.  Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen” looks at the interactions between two women who are researching the issue of CCD.  Shekar doesn’t try to draw comparisons between the lives of the bees and the humans investigating them.  That’s a relief.  When it comes down to it, the social structures forced upon those who live within academia are nothing like the shared communal intellect of a beehive.  Shekar’s characters are solid representations of scientists in the high-pressure final stage of getting a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) are two PhD candidates at a school that is part of the University of California system (in real life, UC-Davis is one of the leading sites of research into CCD).  The ladies are good friends, in addition to being partners on a study that is set to be published in the journal “Nature”.  They are simply one batch of data away from making their careers go gangbusters.  A problem arises when the newest data doesn’t match their earlier projections, and the validity of their whole study is called into question.

The women are pressured by their advising professor (played by the dynamic Stephen Spencer) into fudging the numbers so that publication can go forward.  And, Sanam encounters a potential love interest whose opposing views on most of her beliefs shakes the foundations upon which her work rests.  Adam Poss’s turn as Arvind Patel, the suave, over-sexed, greed-driven match found for Sanam by her parents, is one of the most entertaining parts of the show.  Arvind is not a terribly redeemable character, but he is strangely likable to both the audience and Sanam.

In most moments of this play, there is an intimacy and an urgency that can draw in people who know nothing about science generally, or the bee problem specifically.  One need not know anything about science and how it is pursued in order to identify with the two women who are struggling within their own lives with the day-to-day stressors that make all of our lives complicated.  I think this is wherein Shekar’s script most succeeds.  Friends support each other, until the crucial moment when they don’t.  Fights get personal, and healing is difficult.  This is the messiness of being human told in a tale of people who are often seen as distant and clinical in their interactions with others.

Director Joanie Schultz brings out both the common preconception of scientists (socially awkward, logical rather than emotional beings) and the truly passionate side of real life scientists who truly believe in what they are doing and the people whom they are doing them with.  I struggled with the first scene of the play as it is seen at Victory Gardens because Nalepa and Mohanty stand awkwardly together and have what is essentially a very awkward presentational chat which serves as the play’s exposition.  They have this chat with beers in hand, so we’re supposed to see them as friendly to each other and having a casual chat at a conference.  It is a scene that doesn’t immediately draw you into liking the characters, nor understanding that they are close friends and have been for years.  But, as was recently explained to me by my wife (who is a scientist–a chemist, to be precise), that’s basically what socializing at a conference is like.  So, now after the fact, I give the first scene a bit of a pass, though while watching the show, I was relieved that the production improved greatly after a rough start.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Watching their dreams collapse causes friends to take a stand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Stop Kiss” (The Cuckoo’s Theater Project)

Show: Stop Kiss

Company: The Cuckoo’s Theater Project

Venue:  1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Die Roll: 7

Cuckoo’s Theater Project and director Angela Forshee have taken great effort to transport us to 1998 with their current production of Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss”. They play a killer list of late 90’s acoustic songs, and  deck characters out in fuzzy and midriff-baring threads (the work of sound designer Gail Gallagher and costume designer Asha McAllister). But aside from a few references to Giuliani and the steady ‘brrring’ of a landline phone, Diana Son’s modern romance still feels as modern as it was meant to feel more than seventeen years ago.

In “Stop Kiss”, Callie (Winter Sherrod), a seasoned New Yorker, who hates her job as a traffic reporter, and is mostly ambivalent about her friends, takes a recent transplant Sara (Jackie Seijo) under her wing, in an uncharacteristic move. Over time, the two very different women develop an appreciation for each other that defies explanation. They need each other more than their sorta-exes, George (David Towne) and Peter (Nathan Wainwright), that’s certain. And there’s no one that either of them can turn to that cares for them half as much. But just as these two straight women venture to ask if they’re in love, their lives are put on brutal pause when Sara becomes the victim of homophobic violence. All of a sudden, the prying eyes of the authorities and extended families are scrutinizing their every move. If Callie wants Sara to remain in her life, she’ll have to fight for it.

Jackie Seijo is warm, decisive and blunt as Sara, who has sunk her teeth into a brand new city, new life and new friends, hoping to forget everything she left behind. The energy that Seijo brings to Sara after she’s been incapacitated is just as potent; the self assured woman is still there, even when she can’t open her mouth to speak.  Conversely, Winter Sherrod is a fantastic mess as Callie, who regards every phone call and door buzz as open blinds shedding light on a life she’s not particularly proud of. Even after Sara is the victim of violence, Callie struggles to own herself in the face of a deluge of strange new faces, all judging her harshly, she assumes.

With this rendition of “Stop Kiss”, Angela Forshee  and the folks at Cuckoo’s Theater Project have brought a thoughtful, relevant production onto the Chicago theater landscape. If you enjoy seeing more work from artists of color, artists on the LGBTQ spectrum and feminist artists, you can show your support for them all by catching “Stop Kiss”.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Tragedy strikes a new love before it can take form. 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

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”