Review: “Transit of Venus” (Saint Sebastian Players)

Heather Smith and Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams/Photo: Saint Sebastian Players.

Show: “Transit of Venus”

Company: Saint Sebastian Players

Venue: St. Bonaventure (1625 W Diversey Pkwy)

Die Roll: 6

The human heart is as mysterious as the heavens in “Transit of Venus,” a drama that showcases how obsession and ambition can eternally stall one’s life. Based on the true story of Guillaume Le Gentil’s tracking of Venus, Maureen Hunter’s play, currently in production by the Saint Sebastian Players, follows everyday patterns as well as celestial ones. And while this current incarnation of the story showcases one excellent performance and a keen sense of wit, the dividends do not make up for the script’s repeated beats and predictable conclusion.

Le Gentil (Jake Baker) plans to serve God by assisting the French government in measuring the distance from the Earth to the sun. In order to accomplish this, he must chart the transit of the planet Venus, and in the 1760s, one can only do that on a sailing journey. As his assistant Desmarais (Leo LaCamera) packs for the voyage, Le Gentil must say goodbye to his mother (Maggie Speer), break off an affair with housemaid Margot (Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams), and declare his love for her daughter Celeste (Heather Smith). As Celeste predicts, danger arises on his journey, and Le Gentil is kept from home and a promise of marriage repeatedly while tracking Venus.

Hunter’s script runs three acts, and that is too long for pretty much any drama written after 1965. (Her script hails from 1992.) The three most important scenes of the play involve Le Gentil and Celeste, and their ongoing debate about whether his dreams are destructive to their future. One could string those sequences together to build a fine, time-jumping one-act. But I must take the play on its own merits, rather than imposing my structural instincts on the work. That said, I have to admit that where we land at the end of the play is set up so clearly by the end of the first act, there is little dramatic tension in watching events unfold. Hunter gifts her characters fiery spirits and sharp tongues (particularly in the cases of Smith and Speer), but their arguments about who gets to leave the country when struggle to connect to present-day questions of inequality and opportunity. Thus, the play feels older than its 1992 publishing date, and has less to offer the audience than it promises.

Smith as Celeste represents the production’s beating heart. When we first glimpse her, she throws herself about a drawing room, moping in all her teenage glory over her loved one’s departure. As each act progresses, and Celeste ages, so does Smith’s physical and emotional life. By the time we hit act three, she has matured beyond Le Gentil’s understanding, and her command of the same drawing room she flounced about before is telling. Smith knows that Celeste is the one most affected by Le Gentil’s projects, and she embodies the weight of her love well across the play.

Director Kaitlin Taylor is smart to let her actors perform the play in contemporary style. The dialogue is semi-heightened, and the costume and set design could lead to broader presentational performances. Taylor always grounds the actors in the emotional turmoil of each scene, but she diminishes the play’s impact by staging two of its most important scenes far upstage in an observatory setting. Far from the audience, Smith and Baker’s expressions are hard to read, as they wrestle with their relationship to one another. The quiet moments they share are also hard to hear, so it becomes difficult to care about their romance later on.

“Transit of Venus” asks some elementary questions about how we value those we love in relationship to our chosen purpose. Though the play does not surprise, it does embrace the uncertainty of romance, and draw the audience into asking larger questions — even when the answers are not satisfying. That seems somehow appropriate, since Le Gentil and Celeste end up so unsatisfied themselves.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Astronomer seeks uncomplaining wife, but gets an independent woman instead.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: Psychonaut Librarians (The New Colony)

Jack McCabe, Christine Mayland Perkins, Matt Farabee/Photo by Evan Hanover

Show: “Psychonaut Librarians”

Company: The New Colony

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Floor)

Die Roll: 7

As a lover of books, I find any play that takes on the topic of librarians as fascinating.  As the child of a children’s librarian myself, I spent many an hour among the shelves and stacks.  Libraries–as well as the books contained therein–can be magical.  From my viewpoint, a play that suggests that what is often a figurative bridge to other worlds might also be a literal one launches itself from a solid base.  However, not every launch is successful.  Many rockets crashed or exploded before we put one into space.  And, though “Psychonaut Librarians” by Sean Kelly doesn’t crash and burn, it fails to get into orbit, or touch the stratosphere.

At its core this play is one in want of development.  There are perfect moments.  Kelly’s script mentions the perfect moments in one’s life when his lead character, Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins), speaks of having just added one to her list of perfect moments.  And, in truth, that moment is exactly what it mentions.  It is one of the few times when the script, the physicality of the actors, the sound design, and the projections all come together to create a well-defined, believable, and embraceable universe.  I wish that more of the show could be like that.

Director Krissy Vanderwarker has put together a cast of varied skill and called upon them to take on widely varied tasks in creating a world that is supernatural and familiar.  Perkins is strong enough to carry much of the show on her own.  Her acting brings you into the action and tempts you to care about what is going on.  Her physical work, along with that of her frequent scene partner, Matt Farabee (in the role of Jane’s love from another world, Dewey), is great.  The two of them share a physical vocabulary that creates some beautifully executed moments.  Yet, no matter how skillfully

David Cerda, Christine Maylan Perkins/Photo by Evan Hanover

employed a technique is, if the moment doesn’t fit in with the adjacent moments, then it is just out of place.  Such is the case with the show’s perfect moment.  The rest of its surroundings don’t jive.

Most of the time, when I see David Cerda’s name on a cast list, I assume that the show is going to be a campy comedy.  That’s because it is what Cerda is best at (as evidenced by the success of his company Hell in a Handbag Productions).  While I’ve seen him do other roles very successfully, I still expect something specific from him as an actor, and this production delivers that.  At least, when Cerda is on stage.  The show’s camp level goes up when Cerda’s librarian character, Hester, is present.  She is melodramatically making her way through a messy divorce, which is why she’s got her daughter with her in the library at the show’s beginning.  In that library we meet the Sandman (stiffly rendered by Jack McCabe) and his minions, Dreams (puppets manipulated by various cast members).  This villain resonates with all the menace of a mid-January mud puddle.  But, as the script informs us, he is pure evil and something to be feared.  Oh, and he apparently nibbles away parts of your soul.

Now, you may have noticed that I mention above that “the script informs us”.  That’s the greatest problem with this show.  In what appears to be an attempt to mimic the narrator’s voice within a story, various actors/characters recite pieces of exposition in the manner of prose from a somewhat poetic novel.  I get why this device is employed, for Jane eventually takes control of and tells her own story.  Nevertheless, the play suffers from an immense amount of telling-rather-than-showing.

And what it tells us isn’t terribly interesting much of the time.  Or, it is just too cluttered and not fleshed out.  Hester’s coworkers eventually join Jane on an adventure across the “anyverse” wherein you can be and do anything. And yet the do not choose to be or do much of anything that creates an interesting tale.  A few fun bits do pop up.  One particularly enjoyable moment is when the characters each have to pop through a tight spot and do so by miraculously shrinking and morphing into puppet form until they are on the other side.  This is a much better employment of puppetry arts than the earlier representation of the Dreams.

Matthew Farabee, Christine Mayland Perkins/Photo by Evan Hanover

But, why go on this adventure?  Why does it matter?  If, as Jane states, this is a love story, why does Jane chase her love all over creation and then some?  This especially confuses me because each time she comes near Dewey, he declares his love or his oneness with her, and then tries to kill her, violently.  Granted, one can say that it’s because he’s being controlled by the Sandman, but one can also discern a pattern in the behavior.  There is room in this tale to show Dewey’s struggle against that control, but it isn’t shown as the play currently exists.  There is room for Dewey’s regret, or Jane’s attempt to reconcile his behavior and his words.  Those things don’t happen here, either.  So, I don’t care if Jane and Dewey ever get together.  Why should they?  And why should any of the others be convinced that they are perfect for each other and worthy of an epic quest?

Too much is left to the audience’s imaginations to supply, which ironically is the beauty of books.  Much of what one can glean from a book is then processed in each reader’s own imagination.  But, the trick in writing a good book, perhaps one that gets published as opposed to a few hundred pages that should remain in someone’s bottom drawer, is knowing that you must provide a complete enough picture that the reader doesn’t have to fill in so much that it is overwhelming.

There is enough fun and laughter throughout to make the show a mostly enjoyable evening, even if it is a bit of a let down overall.  And that’s in and of itself a bit frustrating.  Each time the show leads you to believe it’s getting good, it lapses into disconnected segments surrounding that one perfect moment.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Surreal adventures of librarian’s daughter chasing abusive lover across universe.

DICE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad.  Not Great.”

Review: “Macbeth” (Theatre Y)

screenshot-2016-10-25-13-26-29Show: Macbeth

Company: Theatre Y

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Die Roll: 2

Macbeth the Scottish and “Macbeth” the Scottish play bear a tricky relationship to one another. Macbeth the king was a historical figure, but Macbeth the lead of Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with far too many witches and witchy prophecies to match the factual record. Throw in the fact that sixteen generations of actors — according to director Georges Bigot — have now played Macbeth, and the truth of his life and death gets even fuzzier.

Which is perhaps the way Theatre Y prefers its Macbeth, in their production currently running in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Anchored by Bigot and an ensemble that rehearsed the play for a year, and only cast roles three-quarters of the way through that process, this “Macbeth” is beautifully painted but still impenetrable. But that is not due to lack of effort and visual panache; it is due to lack of textual dexterity. The ensemble tries to draw parallels between our time and Macbeth’s tale of ambition and existential crises, but the resonance vanishes once it becomes clear some of the actors do not know what they are saying, and that still images and lip-syncing outweighed examination of the text.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing “Macbeth,” here is the basic plot outline: our protagonist is a Scottish thane (Brendan Mulhem) who runs into three witches (Kevlyn Hayes, Jackie Richards, and Laurie Roberts). They tell him he is fated to be king of Scotland, and that his friend Banquo (Cody Beyer) is fated to sire kings. Spurred on by this prophesy, Macbeth and his more opportunistic wife (Katie Stimpson) murder the current king Duncan (Arch Harmon). Heir to the throne Malcolm (Hector Alvarez) flees the country, and only vows to return and regain his crown once the warrior Macduff (Jerome Hicks) stands by his side. Meanwhile, Macbeth arranges the murder of many more people, in order to ensure his new title.

This is a play of immense uncertainty. Why do the witches appear to tell Macbeth about his future? Would he still become king if he didn’t murder his way into the position? Why is Lady Macbeth so steely before their crime, and what makes her unravel entirely after its completion? Can truth ever be discerned, when men are able to smile in spite of their malicious actions? Even the language of the play is confounding: “which is which;” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen;” the Porter’s speech on equivocation doesn’t resolve itself so much as peter out. People hear and see things, but the audience can never be sure if birds are crying, or if the Macbeths are jumping at shadows.

Bigot’s best work as a director comes in moments where characters fight the intangible. He is wise to have Macbeth grasp at a knife that does not exist, and then to have Mulhem whirl around the stage to keep from getting cut by his invisible foe. Likewise, the parade of kings that Macbeth sees under the tutelage of the witches happens in his mind’s eye, which allows the audience to take heed of his growing paranoia and psychosis. Moments such as these make for a hallucinatory experience. The audience is Macbeth’s ally throughout; he speaks to us more than anyone except his wife. But he also sees what we cannot, thus proving there is uncertainty in our relationship. Is Macbeth inspired by false prophecy? Is he mad? Or is he seeing true events that will come to pass? We can never know.

This production falters in its grander visual elements. The witches lipsync a Diamonds’ song early on in the play, and Lady Macbeth drags her fingers across a curtain sinsterly, all before performing a dance of her own and reading about Macbeth’s possible future. At other moments, she and Macbeth smile robotically while entertaining guests. Some of these flourishes underline the false faces of the characters, but more often, the sights and sounds put Macbeth in inverted commas. We are watching a production of “’Macbeth,’” not your run of the mill “Macbeth.” But the spectacle rarely informs the audience. Rather it draws the play out to a two hour forty-five minute run time that taxed my good will as an audience member. I also sense that visuals took precedence over looking at the thesis and antithesis in the verse. Rarely have I understood so little of what actors were saying in a Shakespeare play.

I should single out the performances that imbue the play with high stakes and deep meaning. Beyer as Banquo is recognizably human, and his command of poetry helps the audience see the rock and hard place he is stuck between as Macbeth’s rival. Hayes is remarkable as Lady Macduff late in the play. She does not overplay her grief or underplay the danger she is in; she focuses on her son, and her death sticks with the audience once she is gone. Mulhem has a great voice, but his increasingly erratic Macbeth made it hard to follow his thought patterns, especially in the “sound and fury” soliloquy. Stimpson located an intriguing fear in Lady Macbeth early on that vanished before her death, and I was sad to see her insecurity go unexplored.

Michael Rathbun’s light design gave the performance a lurid sheen. His use of low-placed lights to highlight internal monologue gave the actors a stark look, and his use of reds and purples during the banquet and murder scenes sold the carnage in the Chopin’s intimate space. KG Price’s sound editing provides jaunty themes for the characters, and the peppy music lends a creepy vibe to the whole play. The costumes by Branimira Ivanova set the play in a distinctly Kennedy Camelot-setting once action moved back to Dunsinane, an interesting contrast to the contemporary army fatigues that pepper the battlefield scenes.

This play may not be for everyone. If you are in the mood for a sight-heavy “Macbeth,” this production is your best bet. If you are looking for a clear examination of the play’s dark center, you might be better off reading the text on your own.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spectacle outshines character work and story in a shaky “Macbeth.”

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Sister Cities” (Chimera Ensemble)

sister3Show: “Sister Cities”

Company: Chimera Ensemble

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 1

At first glance, Colette Freedman’s play “Sister Cities” seems to be the perfect offering from a company such as Chimera Ensemble which is “dedicated to being storytellers that explore human behavior” (according to the About Chimera Ensemble section of their press kit).  This play is a close look at the interactions of five women, four of whom are sisters–the remaining woman, their mother.  Mary (the mother, played by Chimera’s artistic director Rainee Denham) is dying or is dead, depending on which part of the play is being witnessed at the time.  Her daughters have assembled in the aftermath of Mary’s death to hold a wake of sorts and to deal with the details that surround the apparent suicide of a family member.

sister2Accusations, love, hate, and grief all fly about the scene as one might expect, especially once it is made clear that Austin (Nicole Fabbri) has assisted in Mary’s suicide.  Austin is the second oldest daughter, and the one who came back home to be with her mother during her struggle with ALS.  This play is full of potentially heavy and intense topics and moments.  With the right nuances it can be very powerful.  Sadly, director Ashley Neal’s cast often missed the nuances that would have made this play a brilliant study of human behavior.  In attempting to delve deeply into the behaviors and relationships of women in a time of family crisis, the production has only succeeded in showing a surface level awkwardness that is present in most real-life interactions.  You know, the ones you would never consider putting on stage because they are just real enough to be painful to watch.

I really want to like this play.  It’s an attempt to explore some heavy issues and topics: assisted suicide, hereditary illnesses, nature v. nurture, birth order politics, the importance of chosen family, the affects of ALS on a person and their kin, the differences between legality and morality, and how we deal with grief.  The problem is that by listing them out just as I did, I came close to how effectively the play touches on each as well.  We receive a cursory glossing of the issues at hand, but never a real exploration of any of them.  Freedman’s script takes a buckshot approach to hitting as many of the targets as possible.  She doesn’t make a direct hit on any of them.  What I find missing is the answer to the question, what is at stake here?  It seems to me that what is at stake is Austin’s need to be understood and forgiven by her siblings for having guided her mother’s hands in slitting her wrists.  However, if that is the case, then the show could have been directed differently to focus on that through-line.  If that isn’t crux of the play, then it really is unclear what it could otherwise be.  Perhaps that has to be found between the lines.  If so, then the playwright has placed an unfair burden upon the producing company to improve her work to a level that it shines.

No matter wherein lies the flaw, the play suffers from a disconnect between the seriousness of its myriad topics and the intensity of focus laid upon them.  I came away from the play thinking about the issues within the play, but still somehow not having any emotional investment in what I’d just seen.  I hunger for an empathetic link to the material that brings me into closer contact with moments of intense human behavior.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Did these four sisters grow up together? Doesn’t seem so.

DICE RATING: d8– “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Amour” (Black Button Eyes Productions)

Show: “Amour”Amour-6

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

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

Die Roll: 15

Roll the premise of  Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Amour” around it your head for a bit,  and it’ll start to sound like a 1940’s French superhero origin story. It’s bestowed with some biting humor and a circus of oddballs, but this musical has some trouble living up to it’s own potential.

“Amour” is a musical based on a 1943 French short story, “Le Passe Muraille”, roughly, the man who could walk through walls. In “Amour” we follow sad-sack office worker Dusoleil (Brian Fimoff) as he avoids his shirking co-workers and pines after beautiful, unhappily married Isabelle (Emily Goldberg), who is held captive in her own home by a jealous husband. In a blackout, Dusoleil discovers he’s developed the ability to walk through walls, which allows him to pilfer from the rich and bestow gifts on downtrodden workers in the Monmartre square he inhabits. His deeds for local artists (Tommy Thurston), news vendors (Scott Gryder) and whores (Missy Wise) earn him a new moniker, Monsieur Passepartout (It’s really fun to say,  and translates roughly to Mr. Master Key). However, he cannot get any closer to Isabelle without provoking her dubious husband (Greg Zawada). The question you’ve probably already guessed the answer to, is if the power of molecular displacement will get Dusoleil the girl and the life he desires.

Brian Fimoff and Emily Goldberg are vocal powerhouses as Dusoleil and Isabelle, doing the heavy emotional lifting as their cast mates flit by with quips and costume changes. It’s especially fun to watch Fimoff transform Dusoleil from lonesome curmudgeon to beaming adventurer, and Goldberg’s rendition of Isabelle’s song “Other People’s Stories” (in which she compares her life to a gossip magazine) gives the character more substance than the authors do. Other wonderful and ridiculous turns come from Missy Wise as a popular Monmartre whore who longs for the war-time appreciation she used to get. Likewise, Scott Gryder turns everyone to putty when he delivers a riotous jolt of energy by turning in his newsboy cap for the powdered wig of novice Barrister. Amour-4

The problem? It isn’t the performers, who treat us to inspired vocal acrobatics and fantastic lyrical nuance. And it isn’t the music by  Didier Van Cauwelaert and Michel Legrand, who boast a song list that is sweet, funny and just the teeniest bit self-aware (during the “Street Vendors’ Waltz” they lament in song about hum-drum choruses they are forced to repeat). The problem comes from “Amour”’s paper-thin premise, and incredibly thinly sketched characters whose development is far less important than the witty lyrics they must be in place to spout. “Amour” is bursting with cleverness, but deep into act two, it sputters into tedium when the story runs out of tension and action to support it.

When a new show based on dated source material emerges, there’s a question every author/adapter should ask: Why is this story relevant now? There’s nothing wrong with endeavoring to rescue a popular public domain story and spruce it up for a new audience. But with “Amour”, the piece seems content to serve up unhealthy gender stereotypes and decrepit story tropes. When female characters sing together, but still can’t pass the Bechtel test, it’s more than a lyrical issue. When your production’s lead female role, Isabelle, takes on such ‘object’ status she may as well be a coveted houseplant, it’s more than a script problem. When her chief characteristic is ‘being lovely’, your words do a disservice to every woman in your audience, especially young women.

What “Amour” has in spades is whimsy and humor, and I don’t doubt it’s that sensibility that won over director Ed Rutherford and the Black Button Eyes production team, but I hope future productions have the substance and relevance that can truly feed a conscientious audience.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Meet France’s most whimsical magic stalker and his dream girl.

DICE RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Trash” (New American Folk Theatre)

Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark
Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark

Show: “Trash”

Company: New American Folk Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The promotional material for “Trash” describes the production by way of three unrelated cultural ingredients: “The Glass Menagerie,” the life of Anna Nicole Smith, and TV phenomenon “Hoarders.” While not an inaccurate description of this Midwest premiere by playwright Johnny Drago, the campy script eventually scraps its zany cultural smorgasbord in favor of a more traditional family secrets drama, and thus, loses some of the zest that defines the first act.

Produced by the New American Folk Theatre, “Trash” centers on Jinx Malibu (Anthony Whitaker), the washed-up star of smutty spy movies known as the “Rocket Pussy” series. She is addicted to both diet and sleep pills, and she lives in a garbage-filled house with her survivalist mother, Othermomma (Carrie Campana), her overeager and always pants-free son Loogie (Kirk Jackson), and her dreamy yet extraordinarily sheltered daughter Smudge (Caitlin Jackson). When a young man from California knocks on the door and insists on meeting Jinx, she quickly dubs him Mr. Hollywood (Jamal Howard), and assumes he is there to jumpstart her forgotten career. Despite his protestations, she launches into a full-scale pitch to revive the “Rocket Pussy” films, turning her family inside out in the process.

There are elements of Tennessee Williams’ Gentleman Caller in this play, but more noticeable is the thick veil of self-delusion that Jinx uses to smother the other characters; she shares this trait with that mother to end all mothers, Amanda Wingfield. Every moment is simply another scene for Jinx, another opportunity to wow the non-existent paparazzi, and gain love from her crush of invisible fans. Director Derek Van Barham underlines this attitude by having Whitaker look directly at the audience throughout the performance, often speaking directly to her admirers with a glassy-eyed gaze that conveys she hears cheers, even when staring at a wall. Late in the second act, Caitlin Jackson adopts a similar expression when repeating her closely held belief that she and her absentee father will be reunited in the wider world, if she ever gets the chance to leave the house.

Each character desperately clings to fantasies without having the actual wherewithal to achieve said dreams, and that makes for a less than ideal viewing experience. None of the actors shy away from the outsized nature of this material; Whitaker’s Norma Desmond routine elevates the script when the stakes appear flat, and Jackson’s Loogie gives his all when called upon to play a series of hot-shot characters required to sleep with Rocket Pussy. But the audience understands immediately that Mr. Hollywood can never revive Jinx’s career. The dramatic tension seems to lie in the family learning this fact while doing their level best to sell Howard on the new flick. But Drago never allows horrible reality to sink in. Rather than watching Jinx and Loogie and Smudge do the destructive work of continually restoring the fantasy, viewers are trapped in their gullible mindset, and thus, feel smarter than the people they are meant to root for. When the spell is never broken, do we care whether or not the magic impresses?

Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark
Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark

Drago complicates the plot by dropping a major revelation into the backend of the play, warping the story from a genre exercise until it becomes an O’Neill-heavy relationship drama. This switch might have worked, were the cracks in the family foundation allowed more time and space to grow beforehand.

Frankly, the design elements do a better job representing the push and pull between the garbage mountain apartment and the lively inner life fostered by Jinx. Set designer Clint Greene and set dresser Eric Shoemaker fill a faux wood-paneled living room with so much newspaper, the space resembles a dumpster. Light designer Cody Ryan, by contrast, fills the entrance to Jinx’s bedroom with bright yellows, so her shadow always precedes her entrance, and gives a horror movie feel to her appearances. When enacting “Rocket Pussy” with her children, deep purples and bright pinks accentuate trips into the dangerous blue yonder. It is through said light changes that we enter Jinx’s mind, and see the world as she wishes it be; the production delights in these moments.

“Trash” might not result in a consistent stew of high art and pop culture guilty pleasures, but the hardworking performers and smart design choices add flavor to the lack of cohesion. If you are a fan of camp and train wreck celebrities, this production provides ample servings of both.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Entertaining performances and sharp direction cannot salvage a divided script.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Sparky!” (Lifeline Theatre)

Sparky_02
Jhenai Mootz and Eunice Woods/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett.

Show: Sparky!

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue: Lifeline Theatre (6912 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: 12

Lifeline Theatre is one of my favorite theatres in town.  They focus on adapting literary works, and they do it very well.  They do it so well that most of their shows receive my highest ranking, including their children’s fare.  Sometimes, though, even your favorite flavor isn’t as fulfilling as usual.  That’s the way I feel about “Sparky!”.  This brief musical (script by Jessica Wright Buha, with songs by Laura McKenzie) adapts a 40-page picture book by Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans about a girl who wants a pet.  She eventually adopts a sloth.  The original book is a Charlotte Zolotow Award winner (The award is akin to the Caldecott, but for the text of a picture book, rather than the pictures).

So, the source material seems a solid bet for shifting to the world of the stage.  And, it works on a number of levels.  But, falls flat on others.  Plot-wise the show clicks along at a steady pace.  It isn’t a nail-biter by any means, and not a children’s show that will get the kids in the audience talking back to the characters out of excitement.  The play is divided into two halves, each complete with its own conflict.  Yet, the conflict isn’t enough to drive a story.  Conflict #1?  Mom says no.  Basically, Libby (Eunice Woods) wants a pet, but her mother (Jhenai Mootz) tells her she can’t have one because she’s irresponsible and killed her potted plant at some time in the not too distant past (RIP Planty).  After a bit of song and dance (literally), Mom gives in and says that a pet can be acquired… but only if it doesn’t require bathing, walking, or feeding.  There are references to pet rocks, which I assume is a nod to the fad from the 70s that shouldn’t even be within the memory of the parents of the kids for whom this show is geared.

Sparky_01
Andres Enriquez and Eunice Woods/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett.

Conflict #2? Once she has a pet, a neighborhood emotional bully named Mary Potts (Juanita Andersen) convinces Libby that a sloth is an inadequate pet that can’t do anything of interest.  So, she struggles to teach Sparky (Andres Enriquez) to do tricks one might normally expect from an exceptionally intelligent dog.  A presentation of Sparky’s non-existent skills fails to impress Mary Potts.  She says mean things, a neighbor lady says nice things, and Libby realizes she loves her pet just the way he is.

Here’s the problem: The play and production both feel cobbled together.  There are a couple of good songs that have hooks and clever lyrics.   But they are in the latter half.  Before getting to them one must sit through songs that stop the action dead, and are comprised of the safe, somewhat atonal melodies normally found in improvised musical shows in the Belmont Theatre District.  Additionally, the vocal arrangements make for challenging listening.  As the only male in the cast, Enriquez may be trying to make up for his being alone on the bottom half of the staff, but he has a really strong voice, and the harmonies of the women’s parts are overpowered by him.  The mix is just off.

The comedy within the show doesn’t seem to have been vetted.  There are a lot of moments that left me thinking, ‘Oh! That should’ve been funny.  I see what they are trying to do there.’  I have a daughter who is 10+ years older than the main target audience of this piece.  Many of my peers have kids who are within the proper range, though, and it seems that the adult jokes in the show are based on references that miss the Gen-X crowd completely, or are dependent on the feeling that kids are a burden to those of us who have them.  I’m not sure why that would be funny within the structure of a kids show.

Good points?  Enriquez’s physical work and charisma are something wonderful to behold.  He makes that sloth a fascinating creature from the moment he appears.  Which does raise the question of how on Earth Libby got ahold of a sloth, especially without her mother knowing about it, but that is not really a criticism of the show, rather of the story itself.  I was pulled out of the moment by wondering actively about who would sell an imported exotic animal to a minor.  That can’t have been the goal of the production.

Anyway… The kids who were all around me in the audience seemed to enjoy the show.  It is much more patiently paced than what they would get if they were to have their short attention spans catered to on television.  Were I to have an early elementary-aged child today, I’d take her to see this.  But, I’d also wish that it had been as good as last year’s “Lions of Illyria“.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A slow moving thing. Also, a play about a sloth.

DICE RATING: d8- Not Bad, Not Great

Review: “Fulfillment” (American Theater Company)

1_Fulfillment_AmericanTheaterCo_cMichaelBrosilowShow: Fulfillment

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron St.)

Die Roll: 10

Welcome to a palace of distinct American opulence! Hardwood floored condos, six figure salaries, stairwell sex, walls of backlit premium liquors, and readily available drugs. A landscape populated by status hounds that can smell the big pay-off that lies just outside of their reach.

That’s the slick environment that American Theater Company, director Ethan McSweeny, and “Fulfillment” author Thomas Bradshaw are hoping we’ll be distracted by, anyway.

What lies beneath is a play that is troubled and unsure of the message it wants to spray paint on the walls of contemporary literature. Maybe it’s an epithet against corporate exploitation, or a diatribe against the white privilege that allows for an undercurrent of bigotry to manifest itself. Although, personally, I think the impulse to paint a bright cartoon penis overcame the artistic team. “Fulfillment” has the opportunity to deliver scathing social satire, but stops short.

In “Fulfillment”, Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore) is on the verge of locking down a promotion, living in the luxury dwelling of his dreams, and getting romantically serious with a woman who is his physical and sexually voracious ideal, Sarah (Erin Barlow). But his boss, Mark (Scott Olson), won’t promote him until Michael deals with his alcoholism, and Michael is relegated to being the token black employee, trotted out for firm functions as needed. Pressures mount when his neighbor Ted (Jeff Trainor) starts a vicious tirade to make Michael’s home life unbearable, and when he suspects Sarah and best friend Simon (Jason Bradley) of cheating.

Then as they often do in theater, things fall apart in epic fashion. Michael is surrounded by people who gaslight him and assure him that his very real concerns are all in his head. When he must woo prospective celebrity athlete Delroy (Justin Cornwell), Michael slips and the worst consequences for even the tiniest transgressions seem to find him. His life spirals into violence and chaos.

Even in summarizing, it feels as if I am describing a much more gritty production than what appears on stage at ATC. Author Thomas Bradshaw has constructed very broad characters that lend themselves to satirization, but never seems to undercut anyone or anything in particular. Erin Barlow as Sarah, for instance, is a corporate go-getter, spiritual wellness seeker, submissive sexual role-player and an AA expert. This could be a statement on the many roles women assign themselves, but feels more as if Sarah is re-drawn just to keep scenes moving.

Jeff Trainor as Ted, the upstairs neighbor, devotes an exorbitant amount of time into making Michael’s life a living hell, but it’s incredibly hard to see what propels him to be so ruthless against minor infractions. It seems that Ted’s antagonism is ratcheted up when the script has need for more tension.

Stephen Conrad Moore as Michael is a bit of an enigma, in what I expected to be a nod to ‘Invisible Man’. He’s an outsider, asking for the rewards he sees handed out freely to his white counterparts, but being forced to double his efforts to get them. That being said, I’m not sure what has led Michael to alcoholism, his career, or even why he’s rude to wait staff.

All in all, “Fulfillment” may be missing something at the core of its’ identity. Is it an examination of race in the corporate sphere? A biting take on the shallow successes we chase? A platform for raunchy jokes, nudity, and hollow edginess? I hope that Thomas Bradshaw can clear away the brush and find the gems in his promising story.

Fair warning: “Fulfillment” is a treasure trove of sex, nudity, violence, explicit language and other fun adult situations.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rated NC17 for adult content, but PG13 for emotional development.

DICE RATING: d8- Has Some Merit

 

 

Link to Review: “The Raid” (Jackalope Theatre)

I review plays.  Sometimes I review plays for other places.  When I do, I post a link to those reviews right here.  And, I add a Ten-Word Summary and Dice Rating, too.  Think of it as added value for stopping by my site first.