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”

Review: “THRUST!” (Tapman Productions)

Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Star Dixon, Jumaane Taylor, Tristan Bruns, Ayan Imai-Hall, April Nieves, Ian Berg/Photo: Tapmen Productions.

Show: THRUST!

Company: Tapman Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

“THRUST!” is a dance show all about space. Over the course of two hours, performers move around a stage surrounded by seating on three sides. The hope is that each audience member will have a different emotional experience, depending on where they sit in the audience. The members of Tapman Dance Productions, the Modern Marvels Dance Company, Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms all combine to create an individualized evening of entertainment.

I love watching dance, though admittedly, my education in the art form is limited to taking one ballroom dance class, and picking up a few tap moves from my more choreographically inclined colleagues. So I don’t have much to say about the technical aspects of “THRUST!” as a dance performance. But I do know theatre space, and the experiments with the thrust stage over the course of the evening were interesting to watch, even if the smallness of the Stage 773 space doesn’t lend itself to much creative thinking.

The first half of the evening’s dances were far more politically motivated than the second portion. Tapmen and Marvels performers moved all over the stage and into the audience, often in dramatic fashion. The first dance was particularly unnerving, as it involved performers in masks carrying knives into the audience. These dancers skittered around the space like spiders and mimed slashing the throats of tap dancers that moved on and off the stage. I have no idea whether the dance was meant to make a specific statement about the nature of crime and violence, but it was memorable, to be sure. Certainly, masked performers flashing prop knives only a few feet away from my seat provided effective chills.

Another dance spoke to immigration issues. Three doors were wheeled onstage and three performers attempted to move their way through the entrances, while being blocked and pushed aside by those guarding the doors. Music was integrated into this piece as well, with singers at the back of the stage joining voices to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Close Every Door To Me.” This piece was effective, but also highlights the issues of working in a black box space, like the one at 773. From where I sat, the doors actually impeded my view of the movements onstage, so my individualized experience of the dance was hampered by the fact that it was performed on a thrust stage.

Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.
Martin Bronson, Zada Cheeks, Megan Davis/Photo: Tapmen Productions.

The second half of the evening was far less political, and far less complex. Whereas the earlier pieces were all choreographed by Kate O’Hanlon and Tristan Bruns, “From the Top” featured dances choreographed by Ian Berg and performed by Subject: Matter and M.A.D.D. Rhythms dancers. The moves executed by the core of performers were impressive, as the energy and rhythm of each phrase sped up over the long form piece. But there were fewer connections to be made to everyday life in these moments, and the experimentation with three sides of a stage was minimal. That said, the most delightful part of “From The Top” involved three tappers moving through a four by four square of light, improvising steps along to Maurice and the Zodiac’s “Stay Just A Little Bit Longer,” increasing in volume and rhythm each time to light square reappeared.

Lighting designer Michael Goebel doesn’t have as much to do in the second half of “THRUST!,” since the dances flow into each other more organically, but the vibrant reds and oranges cut by sudden blackouts in the first half inhibit the movement of one piece to another, in this writer’s humble opinion.

“THRUST!” is an engaging evening of dance. The artistic director of Tapmen encouraged audience members to move from the center seating to the sides in his pre-show announcement, and I will say that I was happy to be viewing the performance from a different angle. Performing dance in a thrust space provides plenty of opportunities to notice small changes in routines or phrases, even when the experimentation does not pay off. But what I most appreciated about viewing the performance from the side were all the moments I spotted of dancers smiling and enjoying the very act of moving itself.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Dancers outshine choreography meant to challenge proscenium seating.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Newsies” (Broadway in Chicago)

newsies imageShow: Newsies

Company: Broadway in Chicago

Venue:  Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W Randolph St.)

Die Roll: 18

There is a certain chunk of the population that is really into the early 90s Disney movie “Newsies”.  If you were in your formative (read: tween/teen) years during the Clinton administration, you may have a fond spot for this musical.  My wife is part of that generational subset.  I am not.  Nevertheless, though nostalgia isn’t the driving force behind my view of the stage version of “Newsies”, I do find it to be a well-rendered show with high production values.

Most of this show follows the plot of the movie, but if you are unfamiliar with it, I’ll break it down for you quickly.  A greedy businessman charges kids money to sell his papers.  He then raises the amount he charges them to sell his papers.  The kids get angry, get together, and form an impromptu union and go on strike.  They get some press and then they get beat up.  They lose their faith, get it back.  Take bigger action, publish their own paper, and make friends with Teddy Roosevelt.  In the movie, all but one of the significant characters was played by a man or boy.  In the play, two significant characters aren’t male.

The tale is that of charming rapscallion and newspaper vendor, Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) who longs for a better life than being a street urchin.  He’s the leader of the lower Manhattan newsies.  That’s not any sort of official group, the other kids just look up to him.  Most of the boys are down on their luck, and so they sell papers to get survival cash.  When Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (a 10 year-old character played on alternating nights by Turner Birthisel and Ethan Steiner) join the ranks of the paper sellers, the seeds are sown for a mini street rebellion.  But their noble struggle against the capitalist baddies couldn’t be anything of any regard without the interference of an ambitious young reporter (Morgan Keene playing the gender-swapped Bill Pullman role from the film).  The fact that their reporter/savior is a pretty, young woman helps move a second plot along… enter the love story.  Jack falls for Keene’s character Katherine, who just happens to also be the daughter of the man whose paper he’s striking against.  Hilarity ensues.

Well, really, it doesn’t.

The show, while an energetic musical, doesn’t pretend to be a raucous comedy.  Sure, there are points of levity, but also some major tear-jerking moments.  The cast is pretty solid, and the performances carry a serious tone that makes it clear that this is a piece with something to say.  So, what is it trying to say?

As I watched this show, I was never really sucked into it.  A really successful show will make me forget that I’m there to critique the performance.  Instead, I found my mind wandering to the elements that I was seeing on stage.  This play is about the value of unionization.  It’s “The Cradle Will Rock” for the younger set.   It is a piece that points to the ills of a broken system of business and society, that mirrors our own.  And yet, it is a show that is produced by one of the largest corporations in our country.  This is a show that flies in the face of most current theatrical trends.  The cast is huge, even with plentiful doubling of the smaller roles.  There are almost no women in the show, and (relevant to current conversations in the Chicago market) has very few minority cast members. The product is a white bread sausage-fest that still attempts to appeal to the classic liberal underdog mentality of a need for social justice.  Would I have noticed this if the show was more engaging?  Probably, but I also would’ve made a couple of snarky comments about it and addressed the thoughts more privately.  Instead, the inconsistencies within the show itself allowed me to ponder the ones that are there within the production as well.

Basically, this is a cultural anomaly that I can’t really wrap my head around.  It’s a well produced show, but not really a great show.  The dancing is generally good, although not all of the dancers have the skills to pull of the choreography.  The two black members of the cast are two of the most memorable: Aisha De Haas makes the stage her own as Medda Larkin, and every dance number in the show seems to be a showcase for Jordan Samuels’ gymnastics abilities.

I really wanted this to be a stellar show.  The movie came out during my Freshman year in college.  It never really resonated with me, but I was thrilled that someone had made a movie musical at the time.  Sadly, this isn’t the musical that I was looking for then.  It still isn’t.  In the day and age of “Hamilton”, this isn’t rising to a higher level.  And in a market currently dealing with all sorts of internal conflict over race and gender in casting, this isn’t a play for the people within the theatre community itself.  In truth it is for the suburban 30-somethings who are now raising children of their own and who would like to capture a little of the magic of their own young adulthood.  There were some teens and a few 30-somethings in what amounted to “Newsies” cosplay in the audience on opening night.

I guess, my main hope is that the audience may have gleaned a bit of the progressive (if anachronistic) message of the tale.  Sometimes disguising an important message in a remarkably safe package can plant seeds for later growth.  Perhaps this play will get some safely comfortable consumers of nostalgia to look at the issues the play brings up.  But, I doubt it will come to that.  In the meantime, the lines are really long for the CDs and souvenir ornaments in the lobby.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Perfect for its target audience. 90s kids should be pleased.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Eclipse Theatre Company)

Our-Lady-12Show: Our Lady of 121st Street

Company: Eclipse Theatre Company

Venue:  Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N. Southport Ave.)

Die Roll: 2

 

Open the chapel doors on Eclipse Theatre’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2003 play “Our Lady of 121st Street”, and you’ll encounter all the makings of a curbside memorial for an icon: saint candles, photos, toys and trinkets stuffed into every crevice. Director Sarah Moeller has created a gorgeous landscape and assembled a winning cast that fill in nearly all the blanks left by the author in this love story to Catholic Harlem.

A funeral is taking place for Sister Rose, once a mainstay in the lives of a generation of Catholic schoolchildren, now missing from her casket. Balthasar (Todd Garcia), a cop and former student, leads the investigation into the missing body as far-flung and close-knit mourners reunite. Flip (Gregory Geffrard), living a new life with Gail (Matt Thinnes), has his feet planted firmly in the closet, and insists on masculine bravado with his old friends, despite Gail and others providing him room to be open about his sexuality. Edwin (Anthony Apodaca) struggles alone to care for his mentally disabled younger brother Pinky (Rudy Galvan), that is until her meets Marcia (Kristen Johnson), who could be a kindred spirit or a another unstable dependent. Inez (Celeste M. Cooper) and Norca (Paloma Nozicka) are gorgeous women, aging out of sexpot status, and determining how much they really want to cling to pride and vindictiveness for indiscretions they’ve visited upon each other. Rooftop (Bernard Gilbert) is the neighborhood success story, but wracked with guilt for the trouble he’s caused and the people he’s wronged. He seeks absolution form Father Lux (Gary Simmers), a war veteran priest whose own faith has dwindled to nothing.

Our-Lady-13If that sounds like a lot of characters to follow, it is. If it also sounds like a lot of stories to resolve in a little more than 2 hours, it is, but author Stephen Adly Guirgis isn’t too concerned with how everyone makes it out of this Harlem funeral. Some exchanges feel like social experiments (“I wonder what a well-to-do white woman, working class Latino man and a gay Wisconsin actor would say to each other if they had to share a restaurant table?”), other exchanges can feel like thin platforms for characters with pent up emotions, in need of a monologue audience, I mean, uh… confessional booth. But despite some problems with the framework, these are important stories and viewpoints with a ridiculously talented cast to deliver them.

Among the characters we get to see go through turmoil and change, Bernard Gilbert stands out as Rooftop, a sweet-talking braggart who can talk circles around the heart of a problem before being forced into a landing pattern. Gary Simmers is his perfect counterpart as Father Lux, who is thwarted at every turn from getting Rooftop’s confession, but develops an obsession that triggers his log dormant compassion. Celeste M. Cooper as Inez and Gregory Geffrard as Flip are fantastic as two people who rarely intersect, but who are both greatly invested in keeping others in the dark about their deep wells of pain and fear. Finally, as Balthasar, Todd Garcia serves not only as a solid cable between intertwined stories, but as a reluctant authority and weary expert in the horrors that Harlem can visit upon unsuspecting people. He is both the reminder and relief from the cold fact that somewhere, something nefarious is happening to what remains of Sister Rose.

Director Sarah Moeller has assembled a powerhouse cast and design team for a beautifully gritty rendition of “Our Lady of 121st Street”.  Scenic Designer Kevin Hagen is particular has created a truly original space that encompasses run down churches, dingy dive bars, and graffiti covered back alleys in a single amorphous spot. A pair of red sneakers you might find slung on telephone wire are dangled instead from church rafters. It is disturbing, it is unsavory, but it is also holy, and for nearly everyone onstage, it is home.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: There’s holiness in Harlem, but also large quantities of exposition.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “Human Terrain” (Broken Nose Theatre)

Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Show: “Human Terrain”

Company: Broken Nose Theatre

Venue: Voice of the City (3429 W Diversey Ave)

Die Roll: 6

In the last ten years, a bevy of plays have been written about war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes, these plays focus on soldiers and the sacrifices they must make. Sometimes, these plays focus on by-standers harmed by the violence of war. Sometimes these plays demonstrate the effect of war on veterans who have returned home. Broken Nose Theatre’s “Human Terrain” distinguishes itself by centering its point of view on a civilian contractor for the army.

Mabry (Kim Boler) is an anthropologist serving with a United States unit in Fallujah. When we first meet our newly graduated doctor, she is being interrogated by Kate (Jessamyn Fitzpatrick) in a shadowy detention facility. Together, the two unravel Mabry’s actions and alliances during her time on a human terrain systems team in Iraq, with a suspicious hint of reticence marking all of Mabry’s dialogue. While embedded with a combat unit, Mabry befriends her military escort Detty (Matt Singleton), a young man who appreciates her college education. And she makes strides with Adiliah (Shozzett Silva), a local woman with whom she debates the use of the hijab. The two women begin meeting secretly without Detty, and while Mabry recognizes her violation of security protocol, she feels that gaining the trust of those she came to Iraq to help is paramount. Matters grow dire when a violent incident blurs Mabry’s loyalties, causing Kate to question whether her charge is treasonous or a poor judge of character.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer has done her homework. There is as much technical information about army regulations in this play as there is dramatic conflict. While I was never one hundred percent clear on Mabry’s ultimate anthropological goal in connecting with the people of Iraq, I appreciated how much time and effort Blackmer spent in outlining her insider-outsider status among the unit’s soldiers. Her relationship with Adiliah could have used the same attention. The two women share a lot of scenes, but I never felt their connection, because their bond never became concrete to me. The debate they have over the hijab lends thematic weight to the story, which pays off in the play’s final moments. But I failed to see the common bond uniting the women. In order for Mabry’s defiance to hold an audience member’s attention, her friendship with Adiliah requires high stakes. Once danger arrives, Mabry’s choices become distinct, personal, and fraught. But three-quarters of the play has passed by then. There is a difference between escalation of a conflict and marking time until events become complicated. More often than not, Blackmer seemed to be marking time with her female characters.

Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Though the script falters, Boler creates distinct relationships with each of her fellow cast members. Her discussions about military behavior and education with Singleton display an ease and equality that is missing from her interactions with her commanding officer, Alford, given a lot of salt by Robert Koon. She and Silva share a quiet series of scenes, and never let the theme-heavy dialogue impede their friendliness.

Director Benjamin Brownson does his best to evoke a desert feeling in the small performance space. The house is surrounded by beige cloth that represents an army tent and the color of the desert, a smart choice that doesn’t obscure the oddness of that permanent one-way mirror fixed into the back of the room. (I’m guessing this arts space is not geared specifically for theatre performances.) The sound design by Grover Holloway creates a distinct landscape, where artillery rounds and explosions are mixed with bird calls. And the mix of army uniforms and hijabs is well chosen by costume designer Moriah Lee Turner.

Broken Nose Theatre is a “pay-what-you-can” company, so it is impressive that they took on a script that requires a lot of bells and whistles for the audience to immerse themselves in the world. I applaud the company’s ambition, even if some of the production elements are hit or miss. “Human Terrain” offers a new perspective within a military narrative, one that motivates the audience to ask unique questions about American purposes abroad.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Military drama loses the audience until the stakes raise.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Ben Hecht Show” (Grippo Stage Company)

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

Show: “The Ben Hecht Show”

Company: Grippo Stage Company

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 3

“The Ben Hecht Show” is a quiet play. In real life, the title character is responsible for the chilling spy games of “Notorious” and the screwball newspaper antics of “His Girl Friday.” But in this solo piece dedicated to his fight against Antisemitism and atrocities during World War II, erudition and reflection are the screenwriter’s tools of choice.

Based on Hecht’s books A Guide for the Bedeviled and A Child Of the Century, this one-man play written and performed by James Sherman uses only Hecht’s words to take the audience on his journey from ignorance to enlightenment. We first see Hecht typing in his library, and he interrupts his work to introduce us to a conundrum: once you have experienced anti-Semitism, what can you do to stop it? His journey begins with an actress asking him to stand in for all Jews while positing that the Germans are not really all that bad, and soon Hecht is filling the audience in on his idyllic upbringing and fast-rising career as a screenwriter. His success seems untouched by his Jewishness, though he notes that many in his field hid or changed their Jewish names in order to get by in the industry. After experiencing prejudice and realizing that an entire people are being wiped out in Europe, Hecht resolves to use his skills to create a call to action.

Sherman welcomes the audience into Hecht’s puzzled state by degrees. Hecht’s writing avoids sensational stories and broad pronouncements, so the emotional meat of his struggle can come off as conceptual at times. Sherman must mix Hecht’s bewildered moments into a concoction that is equal parts humor at the human race and even-keeled curiosity about its failings. No easy feat, but he brings a conversational warmth to Hecht’s persona that ingratiates the audience to his breakdown of identity politics. Once Sherman gives up the ghost that Hecht has been hiding all evening – namely, that he fought for Jewish appreciation during the war not for political, but personal reasons relating to his love of his Jewish neighborhood growing up – the admission feels like it costs the actor something, and that is impressive, given how intellectually Hecht wraps us in his problems.

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

If the script is a bit muddled in the service of preserving Hecht’s voice, perhaps that is the cost of using only his words for the production. As Hecht organizes theatre and film people to perform what’s labelled a piece of “Jewish propaganda,” friends and colleagues argue with and abandon him. Given that this artistic creation is the most concrete representation of Hecht’s activism seen in the play, it is galling that the audience never understands why people turn against Hecht’s work at this moment. Why would “Jewish propaganda” be a bad thing? Why do various Jewish organizations fight over the proposal? What end result does Hecht hope for? None of these questions are addressed, and so the play ends on a confused, rather than clarifying note.

Director Dennis Začek provides visual cues for Hecht’s growing struggle with how he can help his people in a time of crisis. Props placed throughout Hecht’s home library (subtly furnished by set designer Abigail Reed) are picked up and shown to the audience, to give a little context to his tale. These objects, as well as slide projections showcasing movie posters, also give Sherman an impetus for movement and reflection. As he deepens his reflection, he removes his hat and loosens his tie. Such flourishes demonstrate at least the illusion of internal conflict, even when the script refuses to delve deep into the emotions Hecht is exploring.

But there are blessings in a quiet evening of theatre. Sherman’s portrayal is never overzealous, and when Hecht eliminates humor in favor of sorrow, he learns a valuable lesson: people will listen to what you have to say if you throw in some jokes with the drama.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Famous screenwriter spins a warm, intellectual yarn.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “World Builders” (First Floor Theater)

Show: World Builders5dde43b3-c7ac-4ef8-90d8-c4ba146be9be

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue:  Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.)

Die Roll: 8

Human brain chemistry is a damn near impossible terrain to navigate, and exponentially so if your brain can’t distinguish social and emotional cues. This is where the power of a good story comes in. Take a family recently featured on an episode of the ‘RadioLab’ podcast (‘Juicervoce’): they learned how to communicate effectively with their autistic son using the things he understood best, quotes from Disney films. Or an author who praised ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ for accidentally creating a skull-crushing alien who might also be on the autism spectrum near the author’s young brother. Moments like these help to build a vocabulary and understanding to someone who may never experience emotional highs and lows.

In the same way, characters in Johnna Adams’ ‘World Builders’ have built refuges that allow them to experience and create human feelings and relationships while also maintaining a safe, clinical distance. Adams asks what would happen if a medical breakthrough could erase that clinical distance for some lucky (or unlucky) guinea pigs. This clinical trial is a doozy of a concept though, and the story struggles with the weight of it.

In ‘World Builders’, Max (Andrew Cutler) and Whitney (Carmen Molina) are in treatment for a shared personality disorder that renders them both fixated on internal worlds of their own creation. Alone they are socially isolated, focused so much on the maintenance of their private internal retreats that they may be a danger to themselves, but they’re brought together for an experimental treatment designed to quell their internal worlds until they fade away.

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The expectation is then that Max and Whitney would come out of isolation, but they seek each other out with great trepidation of that looming unknown. What will replace the internal worlds they’ve devoted their lives to cultivating? Human interaction? Love? The emotions they never used to be able to process start creeping in, and Max and Whitney ping-pong against each other, hoping to assemble a new refuge to replace the disappearing ones they’ve always gone to.

Carmen Molina is brimming with fantastic nervous energy as Whitney, who is compelled to talk through every aspect of her multifaceted internal landscape, as the voluminous society of futuristic characters she supports start disappearing as a result of the drug. Her inner society gives her one thing she relies on: immediate do-overs and re-workings until things come out perfectly. As Max, Whitney’s reserved opposite, Andrew Cutler is quietly mesmerizing. His world is not sprawling, but it does threaten to consume him. He is withdrawn, and has learned to hide the things that scare away everyone close to him. But when he shares his secrets, they are wrenching.

Their proximity allows them to dip their toes into choppy new emotional waters as strange new feelings begin to ‘show up like warts’. The more the pills take effect, the less clinical their language and demeanor becomes. Director Jesse Roth doesn’t overstate a thing, choosing to hand his performers a sparse canvas to paint their lives on. Their inner worlds should steal focus.

There’s just one variable that prevents us from getting totally immersed: ‘World Builders’ has a tendency to over-explain its premise and its people, and not trust us with the concept of a medical breakthrough pill or its test subjects. As a result, Whitney and Max speak in place of their unseen doctors and loved ones, treading a thin line between frightened souls and vessels for exposition. With a lighter hand, author Johnna Adams and First Floor Theatre could really be on to something.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Isolated life, or the perils of human interaction? CHOOSE WISLEY.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

 

Review: “The Irish Curse” (Level 11 Theatre)

Show: The Irish CurseThe Irish Curse-4

Company: Level 11 Theatre

Venue:  The Den Theatre

Die Roll: 13

It’s important to admit it when you’ve made an egregious error, when you’ve done a disservice to the people around you. And so, it is in that spirit, that I have to beg your forgiveness. I assumed that a show focused primarily on small penis size wouldn’t have much to say to me a card-carrying feminist, but Level 11 Theatre’s production of “The Irish Curse” has proven me wrong on all counts. It’s an incredibly funny and crass journey that takes an honest glimpse into the pants and hearts of a group of greatly troubled men.

“The Irish Curse” may begin the same way a good limerick does- with ridiculous genitals- but it has legitimacy at its core. We may be laughing, and our laughter may be welcomed by author Martin Casella and director Justin Baldwin, but they’re also betting that the body dysmorphia, emotional stunting and ridicule these men suffer will strike a chord in all of us.

Four relatively affluent and successful New York men gather in a church basement to hold a weekly gripe session and welcome a new member, Kieran (Dennis Bisto) to their Irish brotherhood of the considerably poorly endowed. We meet Rick (Logan Hulick), a well behaved college student, masquerading as a lady killer. There’s also Stephen (Neil O’Callaghan), perhaps the gruffest gay cop in all of the NYPD, and Joseph (Rob Grabowski) a recent divorcee who can’t bring himself to date. They’re corralled by Father Kevin (James Bould) whose pious paint has begun to peel after years of dutiful silence. They’ve just come together to bitch about their unfortunate penile shortcomings to a familiar and discreet audience, but newcomer Kieran inspires a deluge of honesty among the brotherhood. More than anything, “guys are really screwed up about the size of their dicks.”The Irish Curse-11

In other hands, the ritual of an evening of church-sponsored therapy would threaten to get tedious, but director Justin Baldwin lets each man dictate his moment at the center of the circle. Rob Grabowski as Joseph shakes the brotherhood awake with his booming manifesto equating every political/historical conflict to a dick measuring contest. Neil O’Callaghan spits and fumes as Stephen, who speaks with an arrogant authority, giving a roomful of men their first taste of what it feels like to be mansplained. James Bould wields the same kind of power in his deliberately soft-spoken demeanor, imbuing Father Kevin with a reluctance to ever be fully seen or heard.  Logan Hulick’s Rick is more empathetic and understanding than he hopes the brotherhood will catch on and, I don’t know how he does it, but Dennis Bisto maintains an unrelentingly sweat-soaked, ‘nervous enough to vomit’ countenance as Kieran.

Altogether, this little show packs a decent sized wallop. But hey, Level 11 Theatre, don’t think because you’ve won over one feminist reviewer that this lets you off the hook. “The Irish Curse” still administers a heaping dose of what Chicago theater already has plenty of: the white male perspective. No matter what, I’ll always advocate for more plays and roles for women and people of color.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sir, can I interest you in some theatrical male enhancement?

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “A Splintered Soul” (ARLA Productions)

Eliza Stoughton, Nnik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Eliza Stoughton, Nik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Show: A Splintered Soul

Company: ARLA Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

How do we know what is right? Do we weigh our choices against past experiences, or decide the best course of action based on gut instinct? Do we approach each person we meet as a friend until further evidence proves them false? How much do we depend on others to direct our moral compasses?

These questions thread through the plot of “A Splintered Soul,” Alan Lester Brooks’ drama about Holocaust survivors living in 1947 San Francisco. A Midwest premiere presented by ARLA productions, the play concerns Simon (Craig Spidle), a revered rabbi and freedom fighter from Poland. He has formed a de facto community with fellow survivors: conflicted Gerta (Eliza Stoughton), shy Mordechi (Nik Kourtis), and cynical Sol (Matt Mueller). Happy to dole out advice to any young charge, Simon eagerly adopts newcomers Harold (Curtis Edward Jackson) and Elisa (Jessica Kingsdale), a newly arrived brother and sister with immigration issues. Convinced the man who brought them into the U.S. is mistreating the pair, Simon decides to take the law into his own hands — for their sake as well as for his own.

Perhaps I have indicated too much of the plot in the above description. But Simon is primed to make destructive choices before a single character joins him onstage. Ghosts haunt the man, whispering in his ear, thanks to an evocative sound design by Christopher Kriz. We witness firsthand how past decisions keep him from communing with his law-abiding American neighbors. It helps that Spidle brings coiled strength to his portrayal of the rabbi. His righteous anger, when unfurled, betrays a quick willingness to punch above his weight class.

Director Keira Fromm draws lived-in, solid performances from her entire ensemble. She encourages lots of movement across the long and wide stage, which helps minimize the feeling that Stage 773 spaces are too cavernous to create intimate theatre. How the young adults treat the tea cups and pastries present in Simon’s home expresses a lot about them, with Mueller bouncing from seat to seat like a petulant child, and Stoughton refilling refreshments and cleaning up after all the men. When each survivor pronounces his or her truth, Fromm plants them close to the audience, so we cannot close our eyes and ears. The performers are fierce in telling their stories, but Fromm also allows them moments of quiet, so the material about concentration camps never feels exploitative or overplayed.

If only Brooks’ script felt as unpredictable. The playwright has a strong sense of dramatic structure; his characters make dynamic choices onstage that have direct and terrible consequences. But the story kept me at arm’s length, rather than drawing me deeper into Simon’s dilemma. I considered thematic questions of right and wrong, but that was because the characters argued directly about assimilation into American society, even holding a fake trial to test-drive whether or not harming a man they’ve never met is a viable option. “A Splintered Soul” asks the audience to believe that absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence. Simon never confronts Harold and Elisa’s terrible mentor onstage, so one suspects far too early on that there is more to the newbies’ backstories than what we have been told.

Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting design work in concert to contrast Simon’s everyday living room and the world of his mind. Sprayed with harsh white light, his memories provide little comfort, except when the voice of his deceased wife calls. The lights then shift to a warm yellow highlighting her portrait. Perhaps this combination of choices would seem over the top in a less emotionally fraught production. Here, it sharply highlights the fragile state of Simon’s psyche.

Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes deftly communicate quick emotional transformations, especially in the case of Stoughton. Over the course of the play, she and the siblings spruce up, adopting more and more American styles of dress, leaving behind the more traditional looks displayed by Simon and Mordechi. The implication seems to be that these men are too haunted to move on from the past.

Overall, this is an accomplished production; it contains well-wrought performances, considered design elements, sensitive direction, and complex moral questions. Perhaps if the script were a bit messier, a bit less geared towards one pivotal discovery, the experience would be shattering. As it is, “Splintered” gives the audience pause. But it may not shatter anyone’s soul.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Smart, sensitive direction and design work strengthen predictable story.

RATING: d10 — “Worth  Going To”