Review: “Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Show: Machinal

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Die Roll: 10

My favorite sequence in Greenhouse Theater’s 1928 “Machinal” is at an unnamed bar at the site of just about everyone’s clandestine encounters. In one corner, a woman helps a friend in the family way (they arrange an abortion), near them is a man inviting another man to have a look at his Poe collection (join him for sex), all as our protagonist pairs off for an extra-marital affair. Each of them is allowing their impossible fantasy to play out, knowing that time spent away from the grooves they occupy in the great machine is fleeting, at best. They will have to let a few of their unproductive traits wither and die if they wish to keep surviving in relative comfort.

It is in that fleeting space, we keep meeting our protagonist, Helen or maybe Ms. A (Heather Chrisler); don’t worry, names don’t mean much in this dreamy, expressionist landscape. She’s employed as a stenographer, and unfortunately/incredibly for her, the boss (Sean Gallagher) develops a crush on her dainty hands. The problem? Helen recoils at his every touch. Still, when he proposes, she’s simply not in any position to turn him down, no matter how disgusted she is. In what seems like seconds, she’s married, and after a few more seconds, she’s the mother of a newborn girl. She’s always enveloped in the anxious call of eerie strings, until she meets a free-spirited lover (Cody Proctor), who, of course, cannot stay. He gives her a moment’s happiness, a potted plant, and a terrific idea for how to kill her unwanted husband. There’s always the pestering clack of typewriter keys to follow her, however, and train cars full of anonymous bodies too close for her to breathe free.

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 script is almost like watching what would happen in a person’s subconscious mind. Our protagonist only remembers her darkest and most exhilarating moments, burned into her memory with the intensity of regret and longing. What comes between those moments is the most beautiful nothing and strangeness that director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius can conjure with just light, eerie music and their actor’s bodies.

The performances from start to finish are what keep things tense, sometimes frighteningly so. Heather Chrisler at the center of it all, is quite amazing to take in as Helen. She has nothing to sell us, no persona to hide under, and no want for anything more than just an inch or two more of her own breathing space away from everyone. Her asthmatic physical constriction at her own confinement is downright compelling. She volleys between jovial husband extraordinaire, Sean Gallagher, who is carefree in the way only successful white men are allowed to be, and Cody Proctor, who unwittingly attracts where he means to repel women like Helen, as her lover.

There are no slouches in the show’s ensemble either; notably, Sarah Rachel Schol is a ferocious office efficiency tyrant, Jonah Winston is barely containable as both a judge and an excitable restaurant diner, and Scott Shimizu is a whirlwind both as a doctor and a philandering husband.

Despite its advanced age, “Machinal” still has a lot to say to us in our new century, and mines a very cut and dried true historic event for all the deep lonesomeness and fear that the courtroom stenographers tend to leave out.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Going to battle against the patriarchy? I hear ya, sister.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre)

Show: “Triassic Parq”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

If someone had walked up to me and told me there was a show out there that re-imagined “Jurassic Park” from the perspective of the dinosaurs, there is no way that I would have guessed it to have been anything like what the folks at Circle Theatre have put up at the Heartland Studio.  On the surface the play is a parody that places its footing firmly upon the “Life will find a way” statement from the 1992 movie that explains a hatched brood of dino eggs from a supposedly all-female population of prehistoric creatures.  Had the show stopped right there conceptually, added a handful of songs about eating goats and humans, and the like, and this would have been a fun, light romp.  But the script by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo is far more sophisticated than that, and the audience is treated to a thoroughly enjoyable romp that is still quite fun, but not always so light.

Each time I enter the tiny Heartland Studio, I instantly look to see how the producing theatre company chose to deal with the remarkably restrictive confines.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some abysmal wastes of space, and a few reasonably successful and creative ways of making the space work.  But, I have never been as impressed previously as I am with Jimmy Jagos’s set.  The design extends into the lobby, as well as up the walls into the audience.  And the mobile set pieces that first confront the audience hearken directly back to the sense of awe one feels upon the first viewing of the gates into Jurassic Park.

With the mood set, there’s a bit of time for some absurd fun prior to the more serious content of the show, as so we meet our narrator, a woman (Caitlin Boho) who claims to be Morgan Freeman.  In that character, the tone of the evening is set.  The fourth wall is broken, the cabaret nature of the show is established, and the premise of the show is explained.  Life must find a way, despite the fact that all the dinos are females.  Now, it might be noted here that not all of the actors are female.  This helps a bit with the harmonies of the songs, but it also makes for a fluid gender-scape from the get-go.  When, partway through the play, a T-Rex suddenly sprouts a penis, it naturally does so on an actress-portrayed dinosaur.  Of note, the two dinosaurs who morph into male specimens are both played by women.  The female dinosaurs played by men remain female.  Some of the humor grows out of the sexual and romantic relationships that grow out of the gender changes, and some of it is pretty low-brow, but it is skillfully offset by other bits of commentary-based comedy that takes a hard look at the battle between science and religion.

These dinosaurs aren’t just ravaging reptilian monsters.  They are members of a well defined, if somewhat naive, society with a church-like organization at its core.  And the religion seems to have grown out of the population’s circumstances in an understandable manner.  We witness crises of faith, confrontations with new information, and the struggles of leaders and followers in their dynamic relationships.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Jacob Richard Axelson) drives much of the action of the show through her struggle to maintain control of a world that she recognizes less and less of.  The Velociraptor of Innocence (Parker Guidry) is her foil and the main character for much of the rest of the show.  It is her struggle to discover herself and her meaning that leads to the conflict between the old and new realities for the dinos.

Co-Directors Tommy Bullington and Nicholas Reinhart have put together a tremendous show.  The cast takes what could be just a campy bit of fun and creates something at least two notches of quality above that.  It is an evening of song and dance, and inventive drag costumes, and while it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, “Triassic Parq” is indeed more than what one expects, and is better for it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Blue and Yellow make Green. See the show. You’ll understand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Luzia” (Cirque Du Soleil)

Show: Luzia

Company: Cirque Du Soleil

Venue:  The Grand Chapiteau, United Center (1901 W. Madison St.)

In the midst of a torrential Chicago downpour, Cirque Du Soleil’s newest ethereal circus production “Luzia” put down stakes and gave nature’s majesty a run for it’s money. Billed as a waking dream of Mexico, “Luzia” is the mash up of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia) and is quite literally a celebration of bright, steaming sun showers and and their aftermath. All elements obey the gravitational pull of the encompassing shard-mirror disk hovering there like an open compact.  It beams solar rays, lunar beams and rotates like the flipping of a coin to release and swallow circus acts.

A clown tourist (Eric Fool Koller) sets the dream in motion by touching down in a field of Marigolds and turning an oversized wind-up toy crank, which bring all the stage mechanics (like rotating platforms and conveyor belts) to life. A giant-winged monarch (Shelli Epstein) is chased by a silver horse down her migratory path, flipping and spinning in the wind. A flock of deft red hummingbirds (Stephane Beauregard, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Marta Henderson, Michael Hottier, Maya Kesselman, and Ian Vazquez) run and dive through progressively smaller and more abundant emerald hoops. A trio of strapping male dancers (Anton Glazkov, Krzystof Holowenko, and Grzegorz Piotr Ros) dressed in their dance hall finest spin their female counterpart (Kelly MacDonald) so forcibly in their human centrifuges, you wonder how she’s able to walk in a straight line. And then comes the rain; a deluge pours from the grid above as Trapeze artist Enya White and Cyr wheel artist Angelica Bongiovanni weave in and out of the showers. 

But that’s not even the half: there’s also luchadores swinging in centrifuges (Krzystof Holowenko), impossibly synchronized footballers (Laura Biondo and Abou Traore), high-speed jugglers (Rudolph Janecek), contortionists (Aleksei Goloborodko), and a hair-flipping rain demigod (Benjamin Courtenay) climbing aerial straps in a dark Mayan sinkhole.

The soundscape is just as deft and changing as the circus artistry, and transforms a traditional Mariachi troupe into the perfect genre for each feat of agility. Jazzy noir elements creep in as the contortionist folds his spine in half. Opera notes lure a behemoth jaguar out into the open to drink from pristine green waters. They even dabble in electronica, helping the the high-speed juggler keep his speed up (you haven’t heard the bass drop until you’ve heard it dropped by a thundering tuba).

“Luzia” may not always paint a cohesive picture, but co-writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca and co-writer Julie Hamelin Finzi and the entire creative team have ensured each act can be boiled down to an orbit. The gentle circle of the Cyr wheel, spinning a soccer ball on an outstretched finger,  airborne somersaults arcing high with a pendulum’s swing, or the swift vault through the impossible circumference of hoop. Everything rotates, whirs to life with clockwork energy, and looks good from a hundred angles. It’s beautiful, right down to the giant red Papal Picado curtain, meant to emulate bright crepe paper party banners, and indicate something amazing is on the way.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Arid plains. Sweltering marshlands, Welcome to Mexico, pack your umbrella 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

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”