Review: “Alias Grace” (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

Ashley Neal and Steve Haggard/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Alias Grace”

Company: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (5779 N Ridge Ave)

Memory is unreliable, yet the lives of women and men often depend on certain events being recounted in a certain way. This is true for Grace Marks, the 1800s historical figure and convicted mudereress now sweeping across the Rivendell stage in Jen Blackmer’s adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel “Alias Grace.” Grace is a meek and mousy woman, so it is hard for most to believe she is guilty of killing her former employer and his housemaid. The dissonance between the cruelty of her crime and her behavior in prison provides a couple hours’ pondering, though the audience ends up as clueless at the end of the play as they were at the start.

Dr. Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard) plans to use the study of psychology to enter into Grace’s mind, and reveal her innermost truth. He is an ambitious young doctor, and largely wins a daily appointment to speak with the imprisoned Grace (Ashley Neal) because Rachel (Jane Baxter Miller), the warden’s wife, is fascinated by his work, while also harboring an attraction to him. Grace has been in jail for sixteen years, and now claims to have amnesia. Through her conversations with Jordan, she reveals the secrets of her employer Kinnear (Drew Vidal) and his housemaid-turned-mistress Nancy (Maura Kidwell). Aligning herself with hotheaded stablehand James (David Raymond), Grace never forgets the lesson she learned from a fellow maid and friend, Mary Whitney (Ayssette Muñoz): as servants, they know their superiors, from how they like their food cooked, to how they sleep at night; but the superiors will never know the servants, and that gives them power.

Blackmer is a gifted writer. She makes good use of Atwood’s quilting metaphor throughout her script, paralleling Grace’s story with the construction of a quilt. The playwright is especially fond of slipping in and out of memories, even granting flights of imagination to Jordan, as his dreams blur with the real world, once he comes to develop romantic and possessive feelings towards Grace. I am not sure that these dreamscapes are particularly dramatically thrilling, as they never last long enough for the viewer to question reality. But the confusion still does its work, highlighting that the doctor himself is not well, and just as calculating and controlling as any other person seeking Grace’s confession.

Director Karen Kessler pays special attention to how the women interact with one another physically in this production. From Kidwell to  Muñoz to Miller, the women are all much more at ease with one another than with any man. Nancy displays full-fledged drunkeness in front of Grace without fearing judgment. Mary depends on Grace’s strength to protect her from bodily harm. And Rachel dotes on Grace as a mother might her child. It is only in front of men that secrecy shrouds language, and what is being communicated comes out only through subtext. Grace must be careful, for she doesn’t always understand the game she is playing in her household.

Neal is particularly fine switching between the present, beaten down Grace, and the Grace of her teenage years, who enjoys living and working in Kinnear’s household. She sets the audience off-balance as she tells her tale, always indicating there is more to the tale than what she reveals to Dr. Jordan. Haggard comes apart at the seams as the play continues, and while I wondered if his harried demeanor may shut him off from fully hearing Grace’s story, his intensity helps communicate his downfall.  Muñoz is a breath of fresh air as the fiery-spirited Mary, and Kidwell does a lot with a look as the officious but concealing Nancy.

Quilts and paintings dominate Elvia Moreno’s set, and Michael Mahlum’s lighting help distinguish memory from dreams, while confounding expectations mid-scene sometimes. Janice Pytel’s costumes are simple yet elegant, highlighting the 1859 setting without making the world appear fusty or formal. And LJ Luthringer makes use of strings and standards to pull us back to the past while planting ominous religious overtones throughout the production.

If memory is unreliable, as Atwood and Blackmer remind us in “Alias Grace,” then what can we learn from an unveiled recollection? Do we know Grace any better once she has told her physician everything, or are we left still in the dark, understanding only how little we understand about how the human mind justifies its own actions?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A woman commits murder, only gains freedom once she remembers.

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: Sister Africa (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Melissa Nelson (left) as Miriam and Takesha Kizart (right) as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman

Show: Sister Africa

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

“Sister Africa” written by Stephanie Liss and directed by Elayne LeTraunik is a play advertised as being about efforts to aid the women and children victimized during the Congo’s ongoing civil war by the Jewish World Watch. It’s a description that brings up mental images of the white savior narrative. The white savior narrative is a narrative in which an outsider, usually white, travels to a place, usually full of black or brown people, and rescues them from the horrors of their existence. It’s a prevalent narrative, that puts the lived experiences of the people being ‘saviored’ on the back burner often with a side helping of criticizing them for the savagery of their lives. The set, dominated by a pristine desk on one side, and a straw hut with a tin roof on the other does little to wash away those images. However, audience members who stick it out will learn the play is more of a loosely connected series of monologues framed by one woman’s journey to collect the stories of people surviving in the midst of a war’s horrors so she can share their stories with the larger world. The lived experiences of the Congolese are front and center.

Or more accurately, centered. The first third of the play is a series of monologues by Miriam (Melissa Nelson) the aid worker who conducts the interviews, based on both the author Stephanie Liss and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamener Reznik and by Rabbi (Jimmy Binns), Miriam’s Rabbi. They give the audience background into Miriam’s life as the child of two Holocaust survivors and into the Jewish World Watch and it’s mission to stop genocide worldwide to ground the play’s narrative in a Jewish tradition of justice work and what it means for a Jewish person to refuse to be complicit in mass atrocities, even when that complicity is only silence and consumption. The monologues would have been more effective if Nelson and Binns did not hold the emotional history at arm’s length. Nelson, in particular, was disappointingly disconnected from the text, which made her appear as a high schooler in a recitation contest and a trauma tourist by turns.

Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman.

The disconnect was made startlingly apparent when the first of the actor’s playing one of the Congolese characters arrived on stage, Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette, the sole survivor of her family after a night raid, a woman carrying the title “Mama” even after witnessing her children’s slaughter. Kizart, the true star of “Sister Africa”, breathed fresh life into a performance that already had the audience growing restless. She managed to capture the audience’s attention with the tilt of her chin and kept it for the rest of the play with her vast emotional range and stamina.

The other Congolese characters were played by Ahmed Brooks as Amani, the teacher running a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, and by Chris McClellan as Cesar, the pain-ridden child soldier. Ahmed tackled the job of giving both the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgian colony to now, while also managing to be a fully realized character with aplomb. While, McClellan as Cesar completely changed the feeling in the theater when he stepped on stage. A much quieter presence than either Kizart or Brooks, McClellan can gave a full monologue with the tug of his shirt and Cesar’s sorrow was immediately visible and undercut with a seething anger that made it clear: to watch him, is to watch a bomb waiting to explode.

Jimmy Binns as The Rabbi. Photo by Ron Goldman.

As these characters, Mama Jette, Amani, and Cesar, tell their stories, questions are asked: What does it mean to be a responsible global citizen? How do women become worth so little to a group of people that rape becomes “big business”? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Congolese man, when every Congolese man featured carries a gun?

They are questions that need to be asked, and different characters offer varying levels of nuance that range from rhetorical condemnation to childish desperation, but at the end the questions are still left unanswered, leaving the audience to carry the questions home, along with a mother’s grief.

Ten Word Summary: Hundreds of hours of interviews about atrocities in one play.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

(left to right) Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Show: Shockheaded Peter

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Imagine Brecht meets a roving band of insouciant faeries and you have Shockheaded Peter. Directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by T.J. Anderson, Shockheaded Peter is Black Button Eyes Productions’s delightfully macabre cabaret of cautionary tales about the naughtiest of children and adults. Adapted for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with music by The Tiger Lillies, the play is based on the German Children’s Book The Struwwelpter, and weaves the fates of misbehaving children in between chapters of the tale of Shockheaded Peter’s misbehaving parents.  In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect a musical based on a German children’s book to be.

The audience is led through this cheerfully grim collection by the Master of Ceremonies, a self-important showman who takes joy in the little things, like child pyromaniacs, played with wonderful affectation by Kevin Webb. Webb’s performance, which incorporated just the right amount of physical theater to make the sinister Master of Ceremonies an impish, Puck figure, kept the audience laughing and ready for the next twisted tale.

(front, l to r) Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon

Webb’s playful narcissism and booming voice, would have completely stolen the show, if it weren’t for the ensembles’ skill at clowning. Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre might have burst if they added more of the contortion, stilt work, and puppetry that made the show. Without the work of contortionist Genevieve Lerner and the stilt walking Ellen DeSitter Shockheaded Peter would have been a lesser production. As a whole, the ensemble fully committed to the physical comedy of Shockheaded Peter, with enough vibrancy and life that there was rarely a dull space on stage.

The show was supported by Jeremiah Barr’s puppets which kept the production walking the thin line between bleak and whimsical that is the space where Shockheaded Peter lives. It is worth noting, that Shockheaded Peter is a musical, full of the discordant, minor key tones that bring Kurt Weill to mind or the circus from a horror movie; however, it doesn’t stop them from jaunting from merrily irrelevant tunes to beautiful and haunting numbers and back again, under the musical direction of T.J. Anderson. One of the show’s standout voices is ensemble member Kat Evans, who manages to sound beautiful as both a cat and a storm. Not all of Shockheaded Peter’s soloists are as strong, but their harmonies bring to mind sirens and other auditorily pleasing harbingers of doom.

(front, l to r) Ellen DeSitter and Genevieve Lerner with (back, l to r) Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen Tulin in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Shockheaded Peter isn’t a world changing show—it is fun and full of the sort of darkness that you won’t see on the evening news. It is a sixty-six minute respite from the heavy world shifting events that hit when you turn your phone back on after the show.

Ten Word Summary: Brecht and Weill and faeries attempt a musical for children.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” (Velvet Fox Productions)

Jessica Sherr/Photo Courtesy of Velvet Fox Productions.

Show: “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sisses”

Company: Velvet Fox Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Bette Davis has a lot to say in “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies.” About love, about Hollywood, about acting, about her mother. And Jessica Sherr’s winning performances carries the audience along smoothly, story by story. But the odd thing about one-person shows is the storytelling itself. Often, the propulsive need to go over the speaker’s history is not grounded in clear dramatic stakes. Such is the case with “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” a romp through Davis’ life that never really pays off with much onstage drama, though Sherr manages to make an entertaining raconteur.

The premise for the evening is sound. Bette Davis has escaped to her home from the 1939 Oscar ceremony because the press has leaked the winners early, and she knows she will lose to Vivien Leigh. “Dark Victory” is no match for “Gone With the Wind.” Tethered by turns to her two already-won Oscars and the incessant ringing of the telephone, Davis uses her free evening to reflect on the choices she’s made as a Hollywood actress, examining who Bette Davis really is, outside of the perceptions and accolades of Hollywood.

Dealing with disappointment provides a nice frame for Sherr’s stories, but little in what Bette shares has weight to it. Her romantic entanglement with Howard Hughes, for example, doesn’t necessarily relate to her crushing professional disappointments. The strongest material at play involves Bette’s disputes with various movie studios, who want to paint her as a musical ingénue, when she knows that she belongs in stronger dramatic roles. Had the play centered more around her defiance of Hollywood norms, the stakes to her loss would have been starker, and her journey towards self-acceptance over her loss would have been clearer to the audience.

Sherr does make a delightful companion for the seventy-five minute run time. Her work with voice and diction coach Robert Perillo pays off, as the mid-Atlantic accent of the era rings strong and true throughout the evening. Sherr’s energy is infectious, and while her transition from phone call to memory isn’t always clearly lit, the force of her performance draws you into the next scenario clearly and cleanly. It is a shame that her script does not drive the action forward as well as it could; she could do so much with more dramatically grounded material.

The costume design by Isabelle Color is lovely. Bette’s Oscar gown is eye-catching, and Sherr’s moving from that dress to more comfortable evening wear helps the audience understand the play’s transition through time. While the script is not up to the level of Sherr’s performance, there are eye-catching moments, and there is a lot to enjoy in this evening of theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A forceful performance drives script about Bette Davis’ Hollywood woes.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

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”