Review: Marie Christine (Theater Wit)

Show: Marie Christine

Kryie Courter (Center) and Ensemble

Company: Boho Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

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

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

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

(L-R) Katherine-Bourne and Kyrie Courter

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

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

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

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

Dice Rating: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “J.B.” (City Lit Theater)

Morgan McCabe and Elaine Carlson/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: “J.B.”

Company: City Lit

Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)

“Are you ready?” asks one performer to another, before the pair dons masks representing God and the Devil, and play out the story of Job. Her opposite number nods. They adjust their masks, and the play truly begins.

It is a simple enough question to consider. A check-in is necessary before fantasy kicks in, when the focus required for a narrative moves artists to a higher plane. But in this case, it is also a troubling inquiry. Are these performers ready to destroy and judge a man? Are those watching ready to respond to the eternal questions of fairness and justice that lie at the heart of “J.B.”? In director Brian Pastor’s all-female, over-fifty cast at City Lit Theater, not a woman escapes epiphanies about choice, responsibility, and freewill. Set under the cover of a circus big top, and under the insightful eye of playwright Archibald MacLeish, humanity is dissected, and our place on Earth made an object of curiosity not unlike attending a side show.

Two carnival vendors, Mr. Zuss (Elaine Carlson) and Nickles (Morgan McCabe), put aside their popcorn and balloons, in order to regale the audience with a tale of human suffering. Zuss happily embodies God, while Nickles takes off her Satan guise as often as possible, interrogating the suffering set against Job, and lambasting the worthiness of the world. The two choose local banker J.B. (Stephanie Monday) as the subject of the Lord and the devil’s bet, and the audience watches the man and his family, particularly his wife Sarah (Judy Lea Steele), endure endless hardship, sickness, violence, and death.

Stephanie Monday, marssie Mencotti, Elaine Carlson, Shariba Rivers, Barbara Roeder Harris, Susie Griffith, and Rainee Denham/Photo: Tom McGrath.

In the press materials, Pastor points out that the women cast in “J.B.” will be well aware of what it feels like to live without agency. As they have aged out of ingenue status, they are likely offered fewer opportunities to work, while society at large has always devalued their contributions based solely on their gender presentation. What better group to bring MacLeish’s scathing indictment of destiny to light? I am not sure that this concept enriches the story being told, or that the idea even tracked for me, but I will say that the performances are all wonderful, with rich character work especially shining through in the relationships between Monday and Steele, and Carlson and McCabe. Likewise, the ensemble work by Barbara Roeder Harris, Shariba Rivers, Rainee Denham, Susie Griffith, and marssie Mencotti is strong, as they play comforters, children, and vagrants, building out a world we recognize all too well. Pastor works well in the City Lit space, allowing the actors to range across platforms right up close to the audience, as they question the value of a life well lived on Earth. He keeps the performances sharp and clear, as each actor moves in and out of their own personalities to adopt their roles. It is clear when McCabe bemoans her tale because she as Nickles is doubtful, and when Satan is sowing discord with Mr. Zuss.

The circus feel comes across in an impressively large set by Kaitlyn Grissom, with platforms and a creamy color scheme that pop under Jess Fialko’s light design. The muted tans and browns of Alaina Moore’s costumes give the Earth-bound characters a grounded feel, while David Knezz’s masks evoke Greek tragedy and the allegory of medieval theatre. Overall, the production has a cheerful feel undercut by MacLeish’s damning questions, and that vibe works well for the material. I only wish that there had been more music throughout the performance. The circus workers sing snatches of folk tunes here and there, but more live music or underscoring would have made the characters’ in-story choices even more haunting.

No one is ever ready to face a hardship, but City Lit’s “J.B.” makes the case that when suffering occurs, the only action worth taking is making the choice to go on, whatever causes it. While actors can remove themselves from an illusion, J.B. the banker cannot, and the character’s rejection of heaven and hell makes MacLeish’s point that humans are strongest when taking on hardship without flinching.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: All creatures under heaven face adversity through circus/mask work.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Fade” (Victory Gardens Theater)

Show: Fade

Company: Victory Gardens Theater & Teatro Vista

Venue:  Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave.)

“Fade” is a comedy that also serves as a biting critique on how easily a person’s race, class and gender become uncomfortable commodities, and it comes to the Chicago stage at an interesting time for abuse in the arts. As new light is shed on harassment and silenced voices  in what were supposed to be protected spaces, “Fade” shows us the lure of power and advancement and the disposability of anyone with the barest compulsion to speak out.

Teatro Vista and Victory Gardens Theater  and author Tanya Saracho have joined forces to produce a work that evokes laughs but also begs the question of each audience member: where would I draw my moral lines if there were no recourse for my actions? What would I do for a leg up in a world where odds are already stacked against me?

In “Fade”, a novelist and recent Chicago transplant Lucia (Sari Sanchez) has just begun a new life as the only writer of color for a floundering Hollywood Latinx television drama. She befriends a gruff janitor Able (Eddie Martinez) as a way of coping with her oppressively white, tone-deaf and abusive colleagues. However, as the two develop a genuine friendship, and Abel provides Lucia with intimate details of his life outside of work, Lucia realizes Abel’s story tops anything their milquetoast writers could come up with. The secrets he’s told her could easily advance her career if she was willing to invade his privacy. The only gritty authenticity that Lucia can muster, she had to outsource, but if a little moral compromise will net her a nicer office and  a cushier role, Abel will just have to understand.

The strengths that make director Sandra Marquez’s production stand out are the bursts of incredibly frank humor (after standing up for herself, Lucia screams “who’s the diversity hire, now, motherf*ckers?!”), an intricate stage brought to life by designer Regina Garcia, and an incredibly strong cast. Where the script struggles to take off early on in the show, you can’t help but stay transfixed to Lucia and Abel. Sari Sanchez’s Lucia is always on the verge of falling apart, crying into a fistful of corn nuts or venting her rage in the tiniest of outbursts. As Albel, Eddie Martinez is captivatingly stoic and dry as a bone. We’re so lucky to see him both guarded and unguarded; Abel is equal parts kind, troubling and world weary.

I encourage you to see this show if only to voice your support for diversity that rarely happens on Chicago stages: “Fade” has a majority Latinx cast, design team, and was written and directed by women of color. A show of this caliber should be happening an as many Chicago stages as possible.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Ambition taints an authentic bond between two lonely, underappreciated souls.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Lawrence Grimm and the cast/Photo by: Evan Hanover.

Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.

Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.

Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.

Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.

Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.

Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.

“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

 

Review: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)

Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.

After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.

This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.

Margaux Fournier and Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.

Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.

Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.

Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.

Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Red Theater Chicago)

Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Show: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Every professional wrestler has a signature finishing move. Chad Deity’s is called the power bomb, and it involves lifting his opponent into the air and then slamming them hard onto the mat, back first. In Red Theater’s energetic production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” what makes this move stand out is not its sheer power, but the wrestler’s showmanship. Before hoisting his fellow wrestler high over his head, Chad gyrates his hips and moves his hands around in a preemptive celebration, almost surigical in its precision. Without that bit, the move would simply be fight choreography. With it, Chad displays why he’s the best loved champion in wrestling. He has charisma. By contrast, the man lying on the mat lacks panache.

More often than not, that man is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a career underdog and true believer in the art form of professional wrestling. Chad (Semaj Miller) is the face of a wrestling company referred to only as “the wrestling,” though one can discern enough details in playwright Krisoffer Diaz’s script to peg the organization as the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Mace sees himself as a storyteller, since his primary job in each match is to make poorer wrestlers look like winners, a service he provides for Chad Deity often. But he longs for more space to tell his own stories. He wants an opportunity to win. Once he meets the motormouthed VP (a role usually performed by Priyank Thakkar, though I saw a performance with gifted understudy Harsh Gagoomal), he sees a chance to train a partner, someone to pump up the crowd before an entrance, someone who will support him to victory. But EKO (Mickey O’Sullivan), owner and operator of “the wrestling,” has other plans for the pair; they are to become villains, opposed to Chad Deity and all things American, and they will be billed as racist stereotypes.

Will Snyder, Dave Honigman, and Mickey O’Sullivan/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Diaz’s script is a wonder of craftsmanship. I can understand the impulse to revive the play in Chicago so soon after its original celebrated run at Victory Gardens in 2009. The playwright knows wrestling inside and out, and understands how the drama and showmanship of a great match is not too far from the dynamic work at play in the best theatrical performances. He uses wrestling as a metaphor for art and achieving the American Dream, and then complicates the entire scenario by highlighting how society regularly asks people of color to undermine their own identities in order to get ahead in their chosen fields. The fact that Mace addresses his tale of woe directly to the audience only makes its impact hit harder, as we become his fans, and watch while he struggles to reconcile new-found success with lost integrity.

Director Jeremy Aluma emphasizes the performance aspects of wrestling in hilarious bits. Each actor has a pratfall or excessive use of finger guns to mark their appearance. The referee (Dave Honigman) has as much of a stake in winning audience applause as anyone else, flinging himself onto the stage with a rolling sommersault. Aluma’s attention to detail places us in a world where what’s real and what’s fake blur, and what can be considered a drama or a fight can be debated. Fight choreographer Kyle Encinas adds to this with brutal and punishing bouts that make the small theatre space ring with bodies hitting the mat.

Such a landscape creates real problems for VP and Mace, who pretend to be stereotypes, only to question whether they are becoming stereotypes as they add more and more detail to each performance. The only area where I found Aluma’s work with the actors to be lacking was in the descriptions of Chad and VP’s elaborate entrances. The actors painted the imagery well, but I never got the sense of scope and bombast that Aluma and Encinas brought out in the performers physically at other moments. Of course, Michael Lewis’ wrestling ring set and Brian Lawrie’s projection work to flesh out those entrances, and costume designer Hailey Rakowieki’s wrestling outfits highlight the exaggerated nature of the profession.

Tey connects with the audience on an open-hearted and sincere level, an important accomplishment, given that the world around him relies on showing off first, and emotion second. He walks you through the industry he props up, and prepares you for the most shattering moments in the play. He is a great companion for the journey. Miller is tons of fun as Deity, helping you understand why his bravado works so well on others. Gagoomal is smooth and honest as an operator with a soul. And Will Snyder as numerous Bad Guy characters highlights how ridiculous wrestling characters can become.

In this production, whether or not Chad Deity should be the champ is rarely in question. He dominates any scene he is in, using flare and machismo to charm the audience; the true question is not whether Chad Deity will win using his signature finishing move, but what will happen to the guy hurled to mat after the final bell is sounded.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An energetic tale of charisma and hard choices about art.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

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”