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

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

Show: Once in a Lifetime

Company: Strawdog Theatre

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Danielson and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

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

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

Show: In The Time of the Butterflies

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

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

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

Show: Adding Machine: A Musical

Company: The Hypocrites

Venue: The Den Theatre (1329 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre)

c700x420Show: Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical

Company: Stage 773 Theatre

Venue:  Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.)

Die Roll: 15

A woman must pick up the pieces after her husband commits suicide. Another must care for her emotionally distant mother. A man dealing with the stigma brought on by his disabilities turns to his family. A woman starts over after the breakup of a long-term relationship, and another deals with long standing issues with weight and body image. None of these things may sound like laughing matters, but in ‘Broken Record” each performer invites us to look in on their own personal warts, and come to the same conclusion they did: surmounting this deep emotional pain makes you a champion. A card-carrying, bona fide adult person.

The improvised comedy musical can be a challenging format to use to develop an artistically and emotionally rich production. But, with “Broken Record”, director Jill Valentine and composer Brad Kemp have taken great care to ensure their show invests in stories with depth and complete characters while allowing jokes to flow from an impulsive place, which feels off-the-cuff.

The performers’ true stories act as five one-person shows that are woven together by virtue of Chicago having an incredibly close knit comedy/performing community. When Jenna Steege, both performer and character, takes steps to let friends in on her grieving process following the loss of her husband, she is met by well meaning, but unhelpful voices not speaking her language of loss. When Kerri Morrison forces herself back into the dating pool (after a heart wrenching song “Room for Somebody New”), she turns to Amber Linde, who is avoiding having to log her sweet and salty indiscretions on an accurate calorie count. They are both the consoling voices at the other end of the same phone call. Performer Lou Leonardo is introduced during his boyhood as a social misfit, and sings an ode to his only solace, Legos, and his obsession to fashion a world in which everything gives that satisfying Lego ‘click’.

These skilled vocalists deliver each song clearly and resolutely, letting us see how well our emotional baggage matches their own. For example, “Piggyback Ride” tracks Amber Linde’s slow resignation to a life of never quite fitting in. The straw that broke my tear ducts came from performer Molly Todd Madison, unpacking objects that take her back to momentous events in her life. Absent from these events is the mother she tries so desperately to reach. The action of being lost in a sense memory, however, is powerful enough to draw in every voice and resonate in every story. Performers chime in with almost impulsive song interjections about their first taste of ice cream cake, or the sound of a loved one’s voice breaking.

Brad Kemp and Jill Valentine have zeroed in beautifully on the real life specifics that allow each song to tap into your experience, no matter if you’re onstage, in the tech booth, in row three or just listening from the lobby. The great insight that “Broken Record” has is allowing each emotional devastation it’s time to act as a skip on the record that brings discord to performers (and equally afflicted audience members). With unexpected strength, the performers replace the needles on their own turn-tables and their tracks can finally move forward. Each of them finds a way to rescue their own lives from pain, pick up the pieces and- as they all belt to the rafters- “Be my own fucking hero.”

Also: Please do not let my incredibly weepy assessment give you the wrong impression, this is also one of the funniest things I’ve seen from Stage 773, ever.  Each troupe member is as comically sharp as they are gifted musically, and they take down food porn, sitcoms and bad dates in ridiculous fashion.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This musical from hilarious Chicago improvisers packs an emotional wallop.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Edge of Our Bodies” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Review: “The Edge of Our Bodies” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Carolyn Molloy/Photo: Anthony LaPenna
Carolyn Molloy/Photo: Anthony LaPenna

Show: The Edge of Our Bodies

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: TUTA Theatre Chicago (4670 N Manor Ave)

Die Roll: 11

As we sat in the audience at TUTA’s performance space awaiting the start of “The Edge of Our Bodies”, my friend Tim mentioned that one of the things he likes most about their company aesthetic is that TUTA shows always feature design concepts that pull you immediately into the world of the play.  I have to heartily agree with that sentiment.  The set, created by Martin Andrew, combined with Keith Parham’s lighting design (which accomplished much with many small incandescent bulbs within wooden boxes), creates a unique world that we are forced to explore completely.  But then, we cannot, for our eyes blur.  About 18 inches in front of the audience, there is a shark-tooth scrim (a sheet of specially-woven black fabric which can be seen through when lighted from behind, but becomes opaque when lighted from the front).  The first half of this play is seen through that forced hazy filter.  It makes the world just a bit out of focus, and that fully supports the play itself in which much is unclear.

That lack of clarity is not unappreciated.  When it comes down to it, I think it’s part of the point.  Director Jacqueline Stone has delivered a production of Adam Rapp’s script that delves into the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl who is grasping at her maturing psyche and attempting to share it by thrusting it out into the open.

Now, I must point something out.  I have a sixteen-year-old daughter.  I spend a good amount of time around teenagers who are at this point in their lives.  I can say, with a significant amount of observational experience, that Rapp effectively captures the pinball-zinging pace of the thought process of today’s teens.  He creates a believable voice for Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy), the young woman who is the center of the world, whose blurred mind we peer into and witness as she takes a train from New England to New York City and whose insights are gathered into this script.  Molloy sometimes carries herself like the adult woman she actually is, but generally moves in a much younger way.  She shifts from a girl being what she is to one who is attempting to be what she may become.  It’s spot on for the behavior of the age.  She’s great.

TUTA-Edge-LaPenna-1764Bernadette is a girl who strives to be wise beyond her years.  She is an aspiring writer, so perhaps that makes sense.  She is also a girl who has made some major mistakes.  The whole journey upon which she travels is set in motion because she must inform her 19-year-old boyfriend in New York that she’s pregnant.  She makes the trip without having let him know she’s coming.  She’s skipping school.  She encounters a much older man at a bar and goes to a hotel room with him, role-playing a very dangerous situation. She takes risks constantly, and seems to not realize or care that each moment could be damaging to her future self.

So it is that our youth is spent in a confusing place.  Self-focused and not entirely present, while attempting to live in the moment.

I think that is where this production succeeds most.  It is a glimpse into a mind.  It is a character study.  The question is, do we want to spend a long time studying that mind?  After all, it is an unfinished one. But then, aren’t we all unfinished and incomplete? So, the play once again forces us into doing something that we might not otherwise want to do.  Sitting in the audience when the lights first let us see through the scrim into the dimly-lit space of what comes to represent a high schooler’s mind, we first notice the forced perspective of the angled walls that are like the receding lines that high school art teachers teach as a basic drawing skill.

The play forces us to confront the perspective of this girl at a time of great change in her life, mostly in order that we can reflect upon our own once we have emerged and escaped from her world and back into the one we normally inhabit.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Precocious teenage schoolgirl emerges from high stakes situations rather unscathed.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Mary Poppins” (NightBlue Performing Arts Company)

Sage Harper, Ryan Dooley, and Liam Dahlborn/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Sage Harper, Ryan Dooley, and Liam Dahlborn/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Show: Mary Poppins

Company: NightBlue Performing Arts Company

Venue: Stage 773 Thrust Stage (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Over the last twelve months, I’ve now seen three productions by NightBlue Performing Arts Company, and I can gladly say that each time I sit down to take in one of their performances, it is better than the last.  With that in mind, I really enjoyed their latest endeavor, a lively production of the Disney classic “Mary Poppins”.

The play generally follows the tale we are all familiar with from the Disney movie of the same name.  The characters are the same as well.  Many of the songs are the same (although there are new songs added for the sake of the stage by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The show is narrated by Bert (Ryan Dooley in a show-stealing role).  His charm and charisma carry the tale on its way.  Not unlike Dick Van Dyke from the film, Dooley gets all the best songs in the show, and he makes great use of them to show off his voice and his dancing skills.

 Kyrie Anderson and Ryan Dooley with the cast of "Mary Poppins"/Photo: Emily Schwartz.
Kyrie Anderson and Ryan Dooley with the cast of “Mary Poppins”/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Kyrie Anderson plays the title role a little more stiffly and smugly than her film-world counterpart, she is well-fitted to the world created upon director David E. Walters’ stage.  She isn’t going to measure up to Julie Andrews, but then again who is?  And I think that’s one of the strengths of this production: they do not try to duplicate the memories of the movie.  Anderson makes the role her own, and it does differ from what one may expect upon entering the theatre.  And that’s just fine.  She is a bit more ramrod straight and certainly seems a little less fun than her chimney sweep sidekick, but then she is the responsible party when it comes to the kids.  It works.

The kids themselves are solid performers, but I must go a step beyond and point out that Sage Harper in the role of Jane Banks shows a lot of skill and potential for one so young.  She’ll easily be able to take on roles like Mary later in her own life, I’m sure.

 Kyrie Anderson and Ryan Dooley/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Kyrie Anderson and Ryan Dooley/Photo: Emily Schwartz

I was particularly impressed by the technical aspects of this play.  The rig used to fly in Mary is at times visible, but easily ignored and enjoyed.  After all, one of the first thoughts I had when assigned this show was, “I wonder how they’re going to make Mary fly in the Stage 773 Thrust.  It has such a low ceiling.”  Well, they make her fly.  And, they do it well.  Bert gets his time in the sky, too.  The stage design features a number of units at various heights, including using the wrap-around catwalk that is naturally part of the space as the rooftops upon which the chimney sweeps can “Step in Time”.

The energy on this one is in-your-face, and it leaves a good feeling in the heart of each audience member.  So long as you’re not looking for a duplication of the film, you’ll be pleased with the show, and perhaps have a new view on what live would be like in Mary Poppins’ charge.

TEN WORD SUMMARYChimney sweep steals the show, but we really don’t mind.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre)

unspecifiedShow: Rolling

Company: Jackalope Theatre

Venue:  Broadway Armory Park (5917 N. Broadway)

Die Roll: 5

Little sister Molly announces “I officially hate who I am here,” and heads nod in an audience full of adult children at Calamity West’s “Rolling” at Jackalope Theatre. Having just come from a stint at my childhood home, I felt at home once again when Janet, mother to two grown children announces “We turned your room into an office,” and “are you hungry?”

In “Rolling”, a disgraced journalist Valerie (Dana Black) returns to her childhood home in a shroud of secrecy when doubt is cast on the subject of her latest controversial article. The fallout is numerous death threats and lawsuits, which Valerie attempts to navigate from her mother Janet’s (Ann James) rec-room. She has come to the exact wrong place to seek peace and solitude; surrounded by her aforementioned mother, the headmistress of passive aggression, recovering alcoholic sister, Molly (Abby Pierce), and suspicious new family friend, Danny (Pat Whalen). Valerie must keep in this punishing holding pattern until the dust has settled around her career, at least that’s what she tells herself. But what would an ‘all-clear’ signal for her situation even sound like?

What we see is hilarious, haunting and familiar to any person who grew up safe and well fed in the upper-middle class Midwest: a family of women undercutting themselves despite every good intention. They bestow more cruelty, harsh judgment and mistrust on each other than Valerie’s internet harassers ever could. Playful barbs become weaponized as the women expose their insecurities, and any facade of intellectual prowess, emotional stability or tolerance for bullshit comes down.

Dana Black, Ann James and Abby Pierce are hilarious. They are also infuriating. They embody our mothers, sisters and friends so well, it’s as if author Calamity West were listening in on our own kitchen conversations. Thanks to Ann James as Janet in particular, I have never understood so well what it is to be the parent of adult children. How a mother could look forward to having all of her brood back under her care, and simultaneously loathe the very thought. Janet is three dimensions of resentment, pride and good intentions, and god help you if you keep her from watching Suze Orman. Likewise, Abby Pierce is smashing as Molly both as she channels all of her energy into doing her family good, and as that energy sours into her vindictive fury. Dana Black has built Valerie into such a towering giant of professional success and quick wit, we can’t wait to see the unkempt self she works so hard to hide.

Director Nate Silver gives us a lived-in, magnificently ordinary landscape to evoke the two story homesteads etched firmly in our memories. There is beauty in the tackiness, and comfort in the generic flowers that adorn the walls. This is home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Home: where family judges you in your hour of need.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Explorers Club” (Windy City Playhouse)

Alex Goodrich and Cristina Panfilio/Photo: Michael Brosliow
Alex Goodrich and Cristina Panfilio/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: The Explorers Club

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue: Windy City Playhouse (3014 W Irving Park Rd)

Die Roll: 5

Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, in her native England, Nell Benjamin’s witty, fun, and silly play “The Explorer’s Club” has taken over the stage at the Windy City Playhouse and turned it into the barroom of an exclusive gentlemen’s club dedicated to the pursuit of all things scientific.

The titular club is clearly supposed to be a prestigious body, the membership of which is elite, white, and male.  One might wonder, however, how one gains admittance into the membership.  The very beginning of the play leads us to believe that these are men of science, as they join in a toast of “For Science”.  Yet, none of the club’s members seem to be brilliant minds.  In truth they may each represent the least competent members of each of their fields of study.

Ryan Imhoff and Wesley Daniel/Photo: Michael Brosilow
Ryan Imhoff and Wesley Daniel/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Only Lucius (Alex Goodrich), a mild-mannered botanist, seems to be any good at what he does. He is also the male protagonist of this play– handy that.  The conflict within the piece really gets its start when Lucius nominates a woman for membership in the club.  This move is unheard of, and not well-received, in the eyes of the other men.  Yet, they do allow Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Cristina Panfilio) to present her findings on a lost civilization which she has recently discovered.  A true anthropologist and explorer of the Victorian mold, she has brought a native of that lost civilization back with her to London to present to the Queen.

The play shifts from light comedy to full-on farce when Luigi (Wesley Daniel), the aforementioned native, slaps the Queen in the face as part of his people’s traditional greeting.  After that event, the club is placed under siege by the Queen’s guard, invaded by a militant former member, and surrounded by angry Irish Catholics who were recently informed by a club member that they’re actually Jewish and should relocate to Palestine.

Not unlike any farce, the troubles brought upon the characters are caused by their own behavior.  Often one lie piles atop another.  Refreshingly, in this farce it isn’t dissembling that leads to each complication, but total immersion in a society of ineptitude.  Each error, fallacy, or assumption takes the play further down the path of hilarity.

Don’t assume that as a farce this show has nothing to say.  While generally it is entertaining, silly fluff, the playwright has a wicked wit that skewers the misogynistic society of that time, as well as today.  By the end of the play, only the woman is man enough to make sure that everything resolves itself as it ought.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Silliness perpetrated by inept gentlemen scientists and one skillful woman.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

review-robin-hood-and-maid-marian-strawdog-th-L-mOjZZ8Show: Robin Hood and Maid Marian

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (Hugen Hall, 3829 N. Broadway)

Die Roll: 2

It’s hard to imagine a world before the many adventurer protagonists that clutter our popular culture landscape were conjured up. Bleak times call for stories that bestow people with the sort of human valor that no one sees in real life. It’s no wonder we’re so devoted to our professors in fedoras, time-hopping teens in puffy orange vests and archer outlaws in jaunty green caps; they get the rewards we all hope to achieve. So long as they don’t fall prey to, uh… what’s a better word for the Dark Side?

Strawdog Theater and adaptors Forks & Hope have crafted a very savvy adaptation of “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” that delivers the granddaddy of all ‘good triumphing over evil’ stories, sketched very sparingly by director Matt Pierce.

When their beloved king disappears in battle, life becomes very difficult for his loyalists, Robin Hood (Caleb Probst, lone straight man to the cast of clowns) and Maid Marian (played bold and fearless by Kelsey Shipley). Each of them rebukes interim ruler Prince John (Andrew Bailes) and Sheriff of Nottingham (Christian Stokes), both glorious in their moustache-twirling villainy. Robin is stripped of his land and title as a result, but he and his men go into hiding in Sherwood Forest, undermining Prince John at every turn. He vows to protect Marian, her eccentric father (Amber Robinson) who is also in danger of having his land seized, and any soul who pledges loyalty to King Richard (Stuart Ritter). The most sought after outlaw is Marian, who will not consider any suitor, prince, sheriff and outlaw included, until the king has returned to give her away. Even in exile, Robin has her favor and it’s not hard to see why- he’s handsome, fair, respectful and beloved by his followers.

The Forks & Hope troupe have a terrific knack for theatrical suggestion; they imply flocks of birds, herds of deer and great overstuffed banquet halls with little more than the change of a hat. “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” demonstrates the winning effect of a wonderfully in-sync ensemble, keen on filtering each moment for every last drop of hilarity. They sing and fight and pratfall in broad, commedia dell’arte style. The raucous party spills into the close-proximity audience whenever the ensemble is in need of witnesses, revelers and confidants.

In an effort to make a very white male-centric folk tale more inclusive, some genders have been swapped. For instance, Marian’s old father, Sir Richard is Amber Robinson, both doddering and unhinged. And the usually large Little John is played by Suzanna Ziko- a poignant choice for a character who obsesses over his masculinity with his forward love, Kate (Kaitlyn Majoy). I only wish that this production had made the same effort to court a more racially diverse cast. For this slightly immersive production, it’s only fitting that Chicago theater goers of every stripe should be able to see a bit of themselves in Sherwood Forest.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A feast for eyes and ears on a shoestring budget.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Link to Review: “Chapter Two” (Windy City Playhouse)

I review shows for this site, and also for other sites.  When I review for someone else, I post a link to that review here.  I also add a Ten-Word Summary and a Dice Rating so that it feels like home.

  • “Chapter Two” (Windy City Playhouse)
    • Ten-Word Summary: Seventies romantic comedy has many laughs and phones with cords.
    • Dice Rating: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”