Review: “Sycamore” (Raven Theatre Company)

Show: Sycamore

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 11

The Raven has turned out a miniature work of art in the new world premiere of Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore”. Despite the need for a few touch-ups, it’s a lovely introduction to a hyper-modern theatrical family that bears the mark of a generation not hampered by the name hang-ups you’d expect from say, William Inge or Paula Vogel. The households in “Sycamore” accept their children, even if they don’t understand their sexual preferences or can’t step in when they make a poor decision. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to keep these parents and children at odds.

In “Sycamore”, two affluent, suburban families find themselves becoming too close to expect neighborly privacy, or to properly hide secrets that loom too close to the surface. John (Johnathan Nieves) and his mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) struggle under the weight of their novelty as former artists, city dwellers, and accidental bohemians. Meanwhile, the teen siblings next door, Celia (Selina Fillinger) and Henry Jacobs (Julian Larach) tread very carefully around their well-meaning parents Louise and David (Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey), but mostly around one another. A recent traumatic event keeps them on their best behavior, until John appears and both Celia and Henry become a little infatuated.

But, order must be kept and everyone on stage feels obligated to cling to their own status quo, rather than embrace the growing desires that hide just under the surface. Celia tries to squash her growing interest in John out of respect for her brother, who she blames herself for hurting and sending into a tailspin. At the same time, Henry, well aware that there’s a romantic spark that is not focused on him, tries to escape the despair that almost succeeded in engulfing him once. Parents Jocelyn, Louise and David aren’t immune to the turmoil, either, and fester unhappily with their children in the same uneasiness. They mull returning to unsatisfying jobs, and loneliness despite being surrounded by their children and spouses. There’s an undercurrent of envy that crackles like a bolt of lightning seeking out a ground current. Something has to snap soon.

“Sycamore’s” strengths and emotional depths are solidified by a cast of ridiculously talented young actors.  Julian Larach gives Henry the apprehensive energy of a deer leaving the safety of the woods; he fears his own strong feelings more than anything. Johnathan Nieves is both sides of a free-spirited coin as John, at home in an emotional minefield, but vastly unprepared for the fallout. And Selina Fillinger is the real ticking time bomb of “Sycamore”. As Celia she puts herself under so much duress to be a rock for her brother that we can see the cracks forming as soon as we meet her.

On paper, “Sycamore” has a problem with homogeny. Characters speak in the same white, affluent cadence and struggle with very elite circumstances. Director Devon De Mayo combats this with a superb color-conscious cast, and allowing the actors help us find ourselves onstage. You’ll experience fantastic moments of authentic awkwardness, compelling performers sweating out modern dissatisfaction, and a visually stunning stage to house them all out in the open.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: For this patched-up family, returning to normal won’t do.

DICE RATINGd10- Worth Going To

Review: “Gentle” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Tom Dacey Carr and Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Gentle”

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 20

“What’s happening?” I asked my friend. “I’m already nervous.”

A man had walked onstage, looking severe in a business suit and holding his own shoes. Something was wrong, though I had no idea what. I sensed bad news, and my instinct turned out to be correct.

In TUTA’s “Gentle,” a theatrical adaptation of a short story by Dostoevsky, the man’s (Tom Dacey Carr) serious nature and bitter disposition do, in fact, harm those around him. He is a pawnbroker, and he happily parts people with their keepsakes, secure in his knowledge that he need only run his shop long enough to raise funds for a new life and career. His plans change once he encounters a young girl (Dani Tucker) desperate to escape her awful family. He offers to marry her, and confident of his rescue, he sets out to make her the model wife for him. His housekeeper (Lauren Demerath) approves of the match, but keeps a watchful eye on the girl, concerned about the pawnbroker’s silences.

Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

The pawnbroker narrates the story to the audience, and it is clear from the first moments of the play that his tale is a tragic one. Adapted and directed by Zeljko Djukic, the drama is trimmed with Dostoevsky’s religious themes; the Virgin Mary and Jesus serve as the ultimate paragon of selfless love, and everyone else falls short. What eludes the people onstage is crystal clear to the audience, as an icon hangs over the proceedings. Djukic must preserve Dostoevsky’s tone while bringing his words into a real world inhabited by dialogue and scenic conflict. This proves difficult, as Dostoevsky’s abstractions about love and faith rarely lead to concrete choices being made before the audience. Djukic has actors delivering long speeches about the day-to-day life of the household, and it can be difficult to tie one event to the next, especially since the pawnbroker bathes the girl in disapproving silence, often to teach a lesson.  There is a lot of monologuing between domestic squabbles, and most of the girl’s relevant activities occur offstage, so we understand only what the pawnbroker perceives. This is clearly the point of Dostoevsky’s tale, but tense silence can only keep its sharpness for so long, when enacted onstage. I found myself frustrated by the pawnbroker’s lack of insight, though Djukic alleviates the annoyance with his hero by cleverly having his characters move about the space and shift props in a variety of ways, showcasing how the man of the house, his wife, and the housekeeper control various aspects of one another’s daily lives.

The actors are uniformly excellent. Carr never begs the audience’s sympathy, barely earning it when he attempts a fragile act of love at the story’s end. Throughout, he is stubborn and exacting and clings to a belief that he is unlovable. Tucker must complete a harder task. She must remain a mystery while still seeming more in touch with her emotions and empathy than her husband. She becomes a literal whirling dervish at one point in the script, and I absolutely could not blame her desperate need to be seen and accepted as she is. Demerath is delightful as the housekeeper, using a shuffling walk and wry smile to suggest that she is more in touch with humanity than the others.

The production design is impeccable. Keith Parham’s lights flicker on and off, suggesting a world on the verge of crumbling. Kurtis Boetcher’s scenic design evokes nineteenth century traditions, with a border framing the pawnbroker’s immaculate rooms, where people appear as if out of nowhere. Natasha Djukic’s costumes reflect the smoldering inner life of each character, changing with the seasons, and offering some relief from the blank whiteness surrounding the actors.

The pawnbroker troubles his wife because he cannot see past the borders of his life. He believes people should act in certain ways and express themselves appropriately. Everyone must adhere to his views. The way he stares at the audience, daring us to contradict him, mirrors this. We have right to be nervous. We will be given no ground in his world.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Lonely man grapples with mysterious wife in well-designed production.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Private Eyes” (Piccolo Theatre)

Kurt Proepper, Megan DeLay, and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

Show: “Private Eyes”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 8

“Lie to everyone but me,” says a husband to his wife.

This line of dialogue from Steven Dietz’s “Private Eyes” has always stood out to me. It has been stuck in my mind since first seeing the play during my undergraduate education, when I could hardly be expected to understand what it meant. But I sensed a delicious irony in the line. In a relationship, truth is often held up as the highest virtue. So what does it mean when your lies are accepted, as long as they belong to others? Piccolo Theatre, dedicated to making audiences laugh, attempts to address such thorny issues of intimacy and illusion in their current production of Dietz’s script. While the end product is tonally inconsistent, the dizziness of Dietz’s script means the characters’ desires and doubts linger.

Matthew (Kurt Proepper) and Lisa (Megan DeLay) are married actors cast in the same play. Adrian (Edward Fraim) is their pompous director. Adrian and Lisa are having an affair that Matthew knows about, though he refuses to confront the pair. That is the play’s predicament in two sentences, and it lacks color when laid out so bluntly. In reality, the audience watches this conflict unfold as a play within a play within a play within Matthew’s mind. Each scene eventually reveals itself to be a performance or possibly a figment of our protagonist’s imagination, where nothing is certain for the characters or the audience.

A large part of why this play can be so thrilling comes from Dietz’s ability to turn one scenario into another with a snap of the fingers or an appearance by the mysterious Frank (David W.M. Kelch). Rehearsals become closed door conversations. Revenge fantasies become mundane lunch hours. The appearance of an actual private eye (Shantelle Szyper) is not even worth batting an eye at; she may have a license to kill, but for Matthew, she only represents the possibility of being wanted by a stranger — the same way his wife is wanted by another.

Shantelle Szyper and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

In order to follow these men and women through all their theatrical twists and turns, you need sharp, bold direction. While Michael D. Graham excels at comedic character bits, such as the anal retentive addition of dressing to a salad, the transition between fiction and reality is so slippery that at times the emotional arcs can become hard to follow. Similarly, I was unsure what to make of the characters’ squared off entrances and exits, mirroring the squares of the set design (by Milo Bue and Lee Moore, based on abstract art). Were they following set patterns, only to bust out of them later? I could not put the pieces together, as I never noticed a change.

While the actors are all solid as people who want more than others can give or communicate, I found myself craving more gravity from the production. There are elements of danger here, and the destructive impulses all four characters share should not be turned into the same type of meta-theatrical joke Dietz favors in the rehearsal scenes. Real relationships are at stake here, and only one of them is feverish and new. The others involve years of knowledge being put in jeopardy, and I never got the sense that all of Matthew and Lisa’s philosophizing grew from feeling stuck in their same routines. Either Graham needed to guide his performers to make broader choices, or subtler ones. They land between wacky and tortured, and at odd times. In order for their discoveries to matter to the audience, the revelations need to be clear to the actors, and as of now, the emotional life is drained for some scenes in the middle of the play.

Dietz has called this work a “comedy of suspicion,” and that is apt. The story is steeped in deceit, and it is impossible to apply logic to Matthew’s unraveling spool of evidence. Truth is impossible, Dietz seems to be telling us, and so our promises to one another should take that into account.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Inconsistent storytelling hamper choosing whether play is fact or fiction.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “Squeeze My Cans” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Cathy Schenkelberg/Photo by: Greenhouse Theater Center.

Show: “Squeeze My Cans”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Roger Ebert once wrote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But that statement applies to any narrative form of storytelling, really. In fact, that quote came instantly to mind while watching “Squeeze My Cans,” a solo piece written and performed by Cathy Schenkelberg. In this one-woman show, Schenkelberg details her journey into and out of Scientology, and if you know even a little bit about the cult’s obsession with aliens and its notorious financial filchings, no new information is provided here. What does enchant is Schenkelberg’s rip-roaring performance, which engages the audience with heart, humor, and a little naiveté. So while the play itself does not break any new ground, its star provides a breath of fresh air concerning an old topic.

Taking us from an idyllic childhood to a teenage loss, and a twenty-something search for meaning, Schenkelberg gives the audience plenty of time to warm to her company. A working voice-over actor, she is recruited into Scientology by an older, successful mentor. Cathy dreams of being as put-together and unshakeable as the glamorous movie stars she meets via the many seminars she attends regarding the cult. While she searches for complete control over the way the world perceives her, she also longs for a deeper spiritual meaning. As her debt racks up, she nears a nervous breakdown, and must decide whether it is better to stay in the cult she has known for twenty years, or escape and rebuild her life in a society she has shunned.

The most engaging element of this performance is Schenkelberg herself. She has mined her life as a Scientologist for hilarity, recounting an audition to date Tom Cruise with the same verve as she describes an awkward interview where she must tell a fifteen year-old fellow member about her sex life. Our heroine throws herself into the performance with gusto, moving from memory to memory — and dead-faced interrogator to dead-faced interrogator — with little room for breath. She simulates her whirlwind romance with Scientology at such a quick pace, the audience understands how she ignored the hundreds of thousands of dollars she gave away without much thought. As she reaches new heights in the organization, she never underplays the ridiculous discoveries she makes at every level. She knows now that she was suckered, and we root for her to find a way off this ridiculous ride.

Though the play is largely built on Schenkelberg’s body, as she ages from being six to middle-aged, some nifty tricks show the passage of time. Her racked up debt is displayed on a projection screen as she rises through the Scientology ranks, and the ever-increasing numbers she ignores almost caused panic in this audience member. Other projections showcase her fondest memory, fishing with her father. These quiet moments are far and few between, so they stand out for the viewer.

One does wish that Schenkelberg had slowed down enough to deliver the more emotionally charged revelations. Her near nervous breakdown, brought on by excruciating self-analysis required by Scientology, is harrowing. But reveals involving the manipulation of her daughter do not land as heavily as they might, given that little in the script involves her family. She does reconnect with her father at one point, and learn a greater lesson about the universe and our purpose within it. But we do not see the journeys to these particular moments. We land at a healthier destination after the umpteenth reenactment of a Scientology seminar, and while those interrogations are chilling, they involve more reaction from her than dramatic tension over her choices. I would love to have spent more time with her decision to leave Scientology, in order to truly understand how painful the process would become.

But it is fortunate that Schenkelberg escaped, and it is fortunate that she found the will and humor to turn her experience into theatre. While no new discoveries will be made about the horrible nature of Scientology within this work, Schenkelberg puts a warm, human face on the difficulty of belief.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Woman rejects Scientology, and she lives to tell the tale.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Scottsboro Boy” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys”/Photo by: Kesley Jorissen.

Show: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

At its most basic level, live performance of any story is a lie. Actors pretend as if they exist in a certain time and place, and expect us to buy in to their perceptions and expectations. Any scripted story is a manipulation; the audience is asked to imagine that the events unfolding before them have never happened before, that the outcome is not already planned, that the themes of the narrative are not super-imposed on us by the playwright.

John Kander and Fred Ebb play with suspension of disbelief in all their musicals, but in “The Scottsboro Boys,” they may have reached the outer limits of performance as a lie. In recounting the tragic history of nine young men falsely accused of rape, the authors ask the audience to endure a minstrel show in order to get at the truth of the story. Which is a misdirection. Because minstrelsy was nothing but a cultural lie, a performance of racist stereotypes and hoary jokes (often completed by white actors in blackface) that extravagantly claimed plantation life was fine and dandy, and that African American men and women did not suffer and likely even enjoyed slavery. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the crucial tension between that myth and what these falsely convicted men endured does not quite reach thematic coherence. But the production does offer excellent performances and several cutting images, alongside a real-life miscarriage of justice that speaks to contemporary problems in the justice system.

Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, and Mark J. Hood/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Of the nine men, Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) receives the most attention from book writer David Thompson. He is arrested with eight other rail-riders, after being accused of molesting two white women, each played by one of the Scottsboro boys. He insists on his innocence, as racist jailers and incompetent lawyers sink their chances at a fair trial. He develops a mentoring relationship with his youngest cellmate Eugene (Cameron Goode), and he encourages his fellow men to stand up for their rights. As the Scottsboro Boys endure appeal after appeal, the Interlocutor (Larry Yando), along with Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood), orchestrate their interactions with the outside world, calling on them to sing and dance to minstrel tunes throughout.

Because the men are telling this story from beyond the grave, they cannot alter its trajectory, particularly under the influence of the white Interlocutor. Kander and Ebb musicals often treat the act of performance as a shambling, dead-eyed, ghoulish affair, and while director Samuel Roberson, Jr. aims to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible with the moments of minstrelsy, the robotic performance of his actors only chills about fifty percent of the time. I am unsure why this is so, as the music commands plastered on smiles and herky-jerky, dehumanizing gestures, all aptly performed by the actors. When it comes down to it, I wonder if the minstrel performances should not have been pushed even farther, into flamboyant grotesquerie, as is often done with the Emcee character in “Cabaret.” If we are physically frightened by the racist caricature, we can better understand how the men are commanded to act in order to make headway in court.

James Earl Jones II/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Jones as Haywood shines as the voice of righteous fury in “The Scottsboro Boys.” His early testimony number, “Nothin’,” provides both the requisite politeness required of him in court, but is performed with enough of a sneer that the audience is in on the injustice. Goode has a clear voice packed with innocence that makes his nightmares about the electric chair all the more horrifying. Tsopang and Hood have thankless roles as the Interlocutor’s collaborators, but neither shies away from their terrible jokes or terrible actions as several side characters. Likewise, Trequon Tate and Jos N. Banks as the lying white women excel at selfish, stardom-seeking behavior.

Andrei Onegin’s scenic design resembles a train car and a gallows, and it serves the small Stage 773 space well. Samantha Jones’ costume design evokes the 1930’s period while also commenting on the sameness of the men’s dress once they are imprisoned. Lighting designer Richard Norwood paints the stage in lurid and stark colors, depending on the monstrosity of the minstrel performance on display. The more horrifying aspects of the play are definitely elevated by the design elements, even if the production as a whole could have gone farther and shown how lies dehumanize and destroy us all.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The Scottsboro Boys speak truth, but show business demands lies.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Tempermentals” (About Face Theatre)

Alex Weisman, Lane Anthony Flores, Kyle Hatley, Rob Lindley, Paul Fagen./Photo: About Face Theatre.

Show: “The Tempermentals”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

Playwright Jon Marans wants to enlighten you about a lost moment in the gay rights’ movement. In “The Tempermentals,” making its Chicago premiere thanks to About Face Theatre, he chronicles the creation and evolution of the Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to defining and defending LBT rights in America. It is a fascinating history, animated by colorful characters and important choices. So it is a shame that Marans’ tendency towards short scenes and assumed knowledge detract from, rather than add to the drama.

Amid fear and suspicion in 1950’s Los Angeles, activist Harry Hay (Kyle Hatley) writes a manifesto calling gay men to publicly organize and fight for their civil rights. Few show any interest in it except his new lover, Rudi Gernreich (Lane Anthony Flores), who announces it is the most dangerous thing he has ever read. Both men are in the closet, and Hay is married, but that does not stop them from gathering associates in order to discuss political action. Joining them are Bob Hull (Alex Weisman), Bob’s longtime lover Chuck (Rob Lindley), and outsider Dale Jennings (Paul Fagen). When Dale is arrested for solicitation, the group decides to make his homosexuality a fact of public record at the trial, using the false charges as a way to declare human dignity for all tempermentals, the era’s slang term for homosexuals.

Marans clearly loves these men. He is particularly drawn to Harry and Rudi’s relationship, and the way their priorities shift as their private lives are held up to the light. He gives each character quirks that both charm and disarm. Rudi has a way of making everything into a fabulous masquerade. Harry shouts whenever he gets excited about anything at all. The audience is rooting for these two, and for Dale, who simply wants to live his life. But Marans is not content with staying small picture. He wants to explore the entire group of men, and their social circles, and the political turmoil of the time period. In dividing his focus equally, he ends up confusing the audience. He favors short bursts of dramatic action, but by so often shifting from scene to scene, and person to person, he loses the humanity and sense of stakes at the heart of the historical moment. I found myself doing research about the Mattachine Society when I got home from the theater, and I learned more about choices characters were making on Wikipedia than from what I saw onstage.

Lane Anthony Flores and Kyle Hatley/Photo: About Face Theatre.

Which is not to say “The Tempermentals” is unworthy of your time. Director Andrew Volkoff and his cast flesh out the play with brilliant bits of character business. Hatley and Flores are standouts as two men never meant to see eye-to-eye, but Weisman gets the lion’s share of laughs and sympathy, as a clown who tells jokes in order to hide how ashamed he is of aging and his own identity. Fagen and Lindley handle the multiple side characters they must embody with smarts, even when the script gives them little to start with. Volkoff uses clean movement and costume suggestion to move the piece from courtroom to lavish Hollywood party, but he most excels at quiet moments, when the characters must choose whether or not it is possible to risk touching before others. He lets these moments last, and they give weight to later debates in the play.

The design elements are stylish and sleek for this production, giving it a “Mad Men” feel. The elegant costumes by Mieka Van Der Ploeg, along with the sultry soft jazz permeating scenes courtesy of Aaron Benham, lull you into a sense of safety that is shattered by the play’s rare moments of urgency. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly provides an unhelpful blank canvas of sliding doors, but lighting designer Becca Jeffords paints the stage with rich colors, bringing depth to scenes that could take place anywhere without additional pizzazz.

Though “The Tempermentals” does not tell the richest possible story about the Mattachine Society, it is clear that a lot of care and work went into About Face’s production. It is definitely worth a viewing, at the very least to get acquainted with forgotten men and fights that continue on to today.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forgotten political rights movement makes history, but little drama

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Barney the Elf” (The Other Theater Co.)

Show: Barney the Elf

Company: The Other Theatre Co.

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

The Other Theatre’s “Barney the Elf” is tailored specifically to the kind of holiday reveler that prefers their sentiment with a little political bite, a lot of swearing, and just a hint of innuendo peeking out from under the tree skirts. Author Bryan Renaud and director Tommy Rivera-Vega have taken their story telling cues from shows like “Book of Mormon” that turn reality into fairytale, marshmallow landscapes, then skewer their squishy targets pointedly.

In “Barney the Elf”, Christmas just hasn’t been the same since Santa Claus passed away, and left the whole operation to his far less competent son, Santa Junior (Jonathan Parker Jackson). But the titular Barney (Bryan Renaud) has enough cheer to supply the whole workshop, that is, until the Elves find out Barney is gay. Santa Junior quickly banishes him to the wilds of Chicago, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Claus (Maggie Cain) and all the other elves, who could really use a pep-talk in the face of a present onslaught. But in Chicago, Barney finds a community that embraces his love for Christmas and he stumbles upon his first love, a sardonic drag queen named Zooey (Dixie Lynn Cartwright).

Still, with Santa Junior at the helm, there’s a real concern among the elves that his bottom-line obsession will lead to there not being enough cheer to fuel his sleigh. Can Christmas go on without union rules, hot chocolate breaks and its’ cheeriest elf?

“Barney the Elf” parodies the 2003 Will Farrell vehicle “Elf”, but it almost doesn’t need to muddy waters of a very compelling original story. Well, as original as a story can be while working within the strict fictional guidelines of North Pole mythology. It’s poignant, with lightning fast wit, to-the-minute topical humor and the dimmest shade for any malcontent who would attack a persons’ gaiety, Christmas-themed or otherwise. The show is also dotted with an endless supply of compelling song parodies; I mean, aren’t you just a little bit curious to know what Wicked’s “What is This Feeling?” would sound like, if it were about boners?

Terrific performers are the jet propulsion that keeps this show’s engine humming, and the heavy listing comes courtesy of Bryan Renaud as Barney, a singing, dancing, ecstatic, crestfallen force of nature. Maggie Cain and Jonathan Parker Jackson gleefully inhabit alternate reality forms of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as Mrs. Claus and her son, Santa Junior. And don’t worry if you’re not a holiday obsessive, drag queen Dixie Lynn Cartwright’s Zooey is the much needed dry, dry dry ice in this production’s cocktail. I’d also like to distinguish Ben F. Locke, Mariah Furlow, and Molly LeCaptain as the hardest working elves in show business.

At it’s core, “Barney the Elf” is a story of putting aside squabbles to do necessary things, and losing the odd American fixation on never being the first to admit defeat. Only when they address each other as real people, can Christmas be saved.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A heartfelt holiday message from queens, queers and presidents elect!

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Murder On Mount Olympus” (The Public House Theatre)

Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.
Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.

Show: “Murder On Mount Olympus”

Company: The Public House Theatre

Venue: The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 6

It is not easy being a god. Regardless of the pantheon, one might be stereotyped as evil, end up utterly forgotten, or live in constant fear of being torn limb from limb by a fellow jealous immortal. For the gods in “Murder On Mount Olympus,” such everyday problems are the least of their concerns. These gods are stuck in a murder mansion of non-belief, and they are getting picked off one by one.

Lucifer, aka the Prince of Darkness (Alexander Baggett), and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Sarah Lavere), are first to arrive on our plane of existence. They have been trapped in a creepy old house that serves as a performance space for murder mystery style dinner parties. By the time the brotastic Zeus (Mitchell Stone) joins them, they know something is wrong. Too many gods existing in human reality must be a set-up. The spell book nearby and the entrance of gods as varied as Cthulhu (a handy giant tentacle wielded from offstage), Cupid (Whitman Johnson), and Isis (Emily Ember) confirms their suspicions. The butler (Ryan Bennett) has no information to aid them, but plenty to say about their behavior and demands on his time.

Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield
Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield

If it sounds like there is little to this story, you are right! The plot is oblique and events are kept to a minimum, because the Public House Theatre is more in the business of making audiences laugh, rather than making them puzzle through a wild clue hunt. Given the high-stakes nature of his gods, writer/director Byron Hatfield missed the opportunity to flesh out their predicament. Rather than keeping the gods in the dark about whom or what brought them to Earth, Hatfield could have spent time developing relationships between his characters, and complicating their circumstances beyond simply having an elder god show up to wreak havoc. The performance lasts about seventy-five minutes, but there’s really only forty minutes of material here. Thus, the pace is slowed, and some of the jokes don’t land, because the timing is off — I assume, to stretch for precious full-length level minutes.

That said, I did chuckle quite often at “Murder On Mount Olympus,” probably because Hatfield’s snarky characters barely believe the situation they’re in, either. The mystery at the heart of the play is easy to solve, but it’s the down to earth take on the gods that elicits enjoyment of the scenario. Baggett and Lavere have the driest characters, so their job seems easiest. As the eternal bodies pile up, these two display sarcastic human reactions to their imminent death and destruction, and it’s nice to see a catastrophic scene underplayed to that degree. Likewise, Bennett’s stunned reaction to being bathed in blood is worth the price of admission alone.

“Murder On Mount Olympus” will not rattle you to your core, or force you to face spiritual and existential questions. But there is something to be said for a solid troupe of actors doing comedy pretty well. While it may not be easy being a god, it is a lot of fun to watch them operate.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gods get a mystery to solve in entertaining comedy hour.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Thumbelina” (Lifeline Theatre)

Show: Thumbelinathumbelina_01_web

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue:  Lifeline Theatre (6912 N. Glenwood Ave.)

Die Roll: 16

Mothers and fathers, take your kids to see Lifeline Theatre’s “Thumbelina”, and you might notice them acting a bit differently. They may start asking after things like circus arts intensives and performing arts summer camps. They are definitely going to affect new accents and funky new gaits, you’ve been warned. This fairy tale adaptation by Amanda Delheimer Diamond is exactly the gateway drug to thespian-hood your kids will find themselves hooked on, and it will likely charm you, too.

In “Thumbelina”, you may remember our diminutive heroine (Brandi Lee) is born from an errant magical seed, and left in the care of an over-protective mother (Krystal Ortiz) who shelters her from the dangers at the edge of the edge of the world. She escapes her mother’s confines and loses herself for the winter in the woods. She befriends other creatures like field mice (Bryan Bosque), moles (Nate Buursma) and barn swallows (Dominique Watkins), and while I wouldn’t call anyone her enemy, she learns to recognize when others (say a frog, like Antoniao LaVance Bouie Jr.) don’t have her best interests at heart. No one comes to her rescue or doles out any great favors; to get where she’s going, she’s going to have to figure things out, mostly on her own.

thumbelina_04_webOne especially nice aspect of this adaptation are some of the troubling aspects of the original fable the developers have left on the cutting floor. You may remember the Hans Christian Anderson Thumbelina being passively inundated with interspecies marriage proposals and kidnapping attempts. Not so for Brandi Lee’s title character. This ensemble champions problem solving skills and a sense of humor that the 5-7 year old crowd would deem most impressive. This production also posits that belonging hinges less on what your community looks like and more on what they do. It encourages embracing people, even when their lives are vastly different from your own.

It has amazing charm for such a minimal concept, and the ensemble is quick to latch together, building creatures and plant life at speeds that would make Voltron envious.  Director/Adaptor Amanda Delheimer Diamond and choreographer Dan Plehal have boiled their concept down to the barest minimum, and the performers have made fantastic use of the canvas. Actors with the heaviest story lifting are Brandi Lee, Krystal Ortiz, and Bryan Bosque, and they will have you eating out of the palms of their hands before long. “Thumbelina” is a perfect show for audiences in the single digit age range, but maybe not ideal for most tweens.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A surefire gateway drug, hooking kids on the performing arts.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Resolution” (Pride Films & Plays)

Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

Show: Resolution

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 5

There is something comfortable about a simple, straight-forward morality play.  One can clearly tell who is the villain, who is the hero, where right and wrong reside within the tale.  That is what Nancy Nyman’s and Heather McNama’s “Resolution” does under the direction of Diana Raiselis. The newest offering from Pride Films & Plays unfolds upon the Rivendell stage which has been beautifully transformed into a 1890s home by set designer Milo Bue.

Set in New York City in 1892, this show tells the tale of a happily married couple, Jack (Tiffany Mitchenor) and Hannah (Aneisa Hicks) on the eve of a new year.  They’ve sent their staff home early in order to have a nice quiet evening in.  Their housekeeper and her husband are the last to go, just after getting their end of the year bonus (an important plot point).

At first glance this play is set up for a good deal of inherent complication and complexity.  The rich couple is black, in New York City, at a time when the black population in that metropolitan area was consolidating in Harlem.  The house staff is represented by an Irish woman, Margaret O’Malley (Amber Snyder).  The Irish at that time were often regarded as poorly as blacks by the majority of upper class white society.  So, there is potential for exploring many racial and class issues.  However, with the exception of one line tossed into the middle of a heated argument, racial issues don’t really come up.  A second, earlier, more veiled reference to limited advancement opportunities within Jack’s professional field is also likely a comment on race, but it lands lightly and skitters on by so quickly that it carries little weight.

Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino
Edward Fraim, Aneisa Hicks, Amber Snyder, Tiffany Mitchenor/Photo: Lynn Sorrentino

The real issue of this play is that the loving couple is made up of two women.  One lives publicly as a man, so that they are not discovered and persecuted.  But their world comes crumbling down when Margaret discovers their secret when she returns unannounced to retrieve her bonus envelope, which she mistakenly left behind. The housekeeper is driven by her self-righteousness to ruin the lives of the supposedly sinful people for whom she has cared over the previous three years.  This is another place wherein the script could have explored an interestingly deep topic, that of a crisis of faith.  Instead, this is where the play descends from the realm of drama into that of melodrama.  Despite the determined efforts of Snyder, Margaret is a one-dimensional villain in this piece.  She is filled with stereotypical Catholic beliefs of her day, and she is unchangeable in her stance, unable to even acknowledge or react to anything she hears opposing her own viewpoints.

So, the play throws complexity out the window in favor of making a statement.  That’s fine.  That’s what happens in all morality plays.  But, the groundwork was laid for something far deeper, and it feels a bit of a shame that at least one additional aspect wasn’t explored.

The characters created by Mitchenor and Hicks are far more fully realized, and they are quite fun and enjoyable.  A favorite scene is when they attempt to teach each other how to behave in case they’d ever have to swap their assumed roles.  It is in this scene, and the immediately surrounding ones, that the script does a wonderful job of showing two people who love each other functioning within a fully realized marriage.  It is a 100% “normal” marriage, and as far as slice-of-life scenes go, the action was believable and often humorous in that way that comes from watching common truths and empathizing with them.

Edward Fraim plays the show’s narrator and Margaret’s husband, Harrison.  I’m going to assume that his surname is also O’Malley, seeing as his wife is often referred to as Mrs. O’Malley.  Fraim isn’t on the stage as often as the others, but when he is, his energy imbues the whole performance with added life.  Harrison is dedicated to two people whom he sees as being good, and valuable as people.  He also knew about their secret life long before his wife did.  He is caught in an awkward position between the two camps.  His struggle seems most real of those upon the stage.  His arguments ring most true, as does his defeat due to his sense of marital duty.

Sitting in the house at Rivendell, the play zips by and is enjoyable to take in.  But, I do have to wonder if it is anything more than watching a comfortable, familiar parable.  Not unlike watching a rerun of the 1960s version of Star Trek, we see a brief morality play in which everyone on the good side gets a happy ending, and in one briefly sharp moment of realization, the villain gets what’s coming to her.

It’s a show that feels surprisingly safe in addressing the topic of hatred, because it doesn’t go anywhere complicated or truly ugly.  It stays on the surface and safe.  Now, true, this wouldn’t necessarily be safe if it were put on in front of an audience of right-wing-aligned conservative evangelical Christians or Trump supporters.  Yet, as you may guess, that’s not who attends shows put up by Pride Films & Plays.  I’ll acknowledge that there are still people who could benefit from hearing the simple, didactic message of this show.  They, however, were not sitting in the same theatre as I was on opening night.  So, we all sat and agreed with the comfortable, reaffirming position taken by the work in front of us.

At the same time, the friendly audience wasn’t truly challenged in any way to understand the opposing viewpoint, either.  I think that is where this play fell short.  It isn’t a bad play.  PFP doesn’t do bad plays.  I say that without doubt.  But, the playwrights missed a number of opportunities to make this a multi-layered, complex masterpiece.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Don’t be like this one lady, says preacher to choir.

RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”