Venue: The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)
Organic Theater Company and adaptor/director Alexander Gelman have entered the arena of absurd farce with Alfred Jarry’s “King Ubu”, the tale of a would-be Macbeth brought low by cruelty and incompetence. They’re hoping that we’ve also got an appetite for a good send up of one of the most deluded modern men to hold public office in the United States (I don’t have to give him the satisfaction of printing his name, do I? Good).
The problem may be fatigue, it may be toothless parody, or it may be the sour taste of our most unattainable revenge fantasies playing out in front of us as the title couple is besieged and run out of creation on a rickety boat. Whatever it was, something about obnoxious King Ubu’s short, bloody reign doesn’t quite land with the punch it needs.
In “King Ubu” Ma and Pa Ubu (Alys Dickerson and Joel Moses) see an easy path to ultimate power over the country of Foland laid out in front of them. They just have to murder benevolent King Wenceslas (Adam Zaininger), his queen (Matthew Romriell), his son Beaujolais (Kearstyn Keller), who- oh, darn, the little bugger got away. No matter! They still have all the power of Colonel Baseboard (Colin Jackson) behind them, and all the land and gold they can force from the hands of their increasingly angry subjects. While devoid of charisma, wisdom or any understanding of how their country functions, Ma and Pa Ubu are overflowing with cruelty to make up for it. The royal couple soon discover that when loyalty no longer holds sway, their subjects are only too glad to wage war with them.
What “Ubu” has going for it is a fountain of ingenuity and a wildly dexterous cast, with Joel Moses, able to clear Ubu’s way forward with the power of noxious gas, sallow eyes and a mighty prosthetic belly. Alys Dickerson steps in as Ma Ubu, the brains of the outfit, and conniver in chief. Other ensemble notables are Kearstyn Keller as Beaujolais, really selling her swordsmanship (I should mention: there are no swords, all deaths are administered by a children’s hand-slapping game) and Adam Zaininger, who’d take home a statue if there were a Jeff award for sexiest horse.
Where the show falters is is in it’s mild flirtation with sending up our current president. Every chance he gets, Ubu will insert a hashtag-ready rejoinder proclaiming his leadership style the be big league, or insisting “I have a good brain, believe me.” It’s meant to garner laughs, and the comparison is apt enough, but thanks to the complete saturation of White House dealings, a once laughable man has drained us all of good will. However, if there were anything adaptor Alexander Gelman could do to silence the ever-yammering presidential maw, I’d line up for a ticket, pronto.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Some despots need to be skewered on a sharper stick.
Early in the second act of “Time Stands Still,” a journalist lashes out at theatrical attempts to capture the experience of Iraqi war refugees. He has covered atrocities and combat incursions across the globe, and he knows better than some playwright who the victims are; how dare authors try to exoticize other people’s pain for the enlightenment of an audience! Much better, it seems, to focus on crumbling romantic relationships and domestic dramas.
Or so seems to be the message of playwright Donald Marguiles, who examines violence and its effects on a couple in AstonRep’s “Time Stands Still.” Unfortunately, hanging a lampshade on topics he is unwilling or unable to handle doesn’t immediately make the bourgeois concerns of his Western characters more compelling. His askance references to the Iraq War and its cost to investigative and photojournalists actually weaken the conflict between his characters, and while director Georgette Verdin does her level best to create unspoken trauma between her actors, little can be done to connect war crimes and one individual relationship.
We meet Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire) and James (Robert Tobin) at a turning point in their lives. Sarah has just returned from Iraq, where she worked as a photojournalist, and where she was injured in a roadside bomb blast. Her partner James, a writer, left the country months before, but welcomes her home to heal. He is reluctant to return to the field, while Sarah plans to power through physical therapy and fly back to Iraq in a matter of months. Richard (Rob Frankel), her editor, protests this plan, just as much as Sarah protests his relationship with a much younger and seemingly callow woman, Mandy (Kirra Silver). Over the course of several months, the audience watches the characters spar over how to best provide service to the world, and the conclusions they reach have seismic repercussions for their personal relationships.
Marguiles is at his best when he allows the characters to debate the purpose of their work. Sarah’s photography can be viewed as voyeuristic or informative, based on one’s baggage about responsible reporting. James’ growing concerns about being desensitized to violence provide shading to his character; he is clearly working through his own post-traumatic stress by endlessly watching and analyzing horror films. The trouble lies in Marguiles’ inability to connect such work concerns to Sarah and James’ romance. When Sarah chastises herself for not helping a dying mother and child late in the play, she is referring to her own failures as a partner, as much as she is criticizing the passive nature of her job. But Marguiles gives her so few opportunities to suggest this, the audience ends the play feeling cheated out of a larger emotional conversation.
Verdin works hard to create a fraying tether between Pavlak McGuire and Tobin, using dimming light and turned away faces to highlight the distance between her leads. But she can only rely on hardworking actors so much, when the script doesn’t give them space to organically inject their pain into conversations that seem — on the surface — not to be about pain. Subjects change and arguments resolve without the consequences being clear to the audience, and while Pavlak McGuire and Tobin build fine individual portraits of suffering, the weight of their pain doesn’t impact one another the way it should, nor does it account for the play’s later explosive scenes.
Jeremiah Barr’s city apartment feels just full enough to suggest people living there two months out of the year. Arielle Valene’s costumes reflect a comfortable couple, and Samantha Barr’s lights zero in on faces at their most revealing. The design elements reflect a thought out and lived in world, even if the script doesn’t allow the characters space to articulate their deepest feelings.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Spotty script keeps debate about romance and war from sticking.
On the surface, I really like the idea of a show that is made up of a rock singer and a backing band. In fact, I was really excited going into this show, especially since Haven Theatre Company has a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in its not-to-distant past. So, if anyone can tackle what could be described quickly as a female approach to the same idea, it should be them. And, in all regards, the production managed to do a reasonable job of putting forth a one-woman show about confronting her own mortality. The backing band was solid (more on that shortly). The lead singer (Isa Aciniegas) was well matched to the songs, her vocals being both impassioned and frenzied, while capturing a soulful resonance at the right times.
So, wherein is my problem with this show? First, the execution of the basic concept. Normally a statement like that would put the blame on the director, but the failing here is not on Josh Sobel. It is on playwright Young Jean Lee. While speaking at the top of the show, Singer (Aciniegas) says that she is going to share thoughts with us that she’s been having that have to do with the darker times and her intention in doing so is to give us positive things to reflect on when we hit those more difficult moments (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s a quick summation of her opening monologue). She then spends the first half hour relating tales and singing songs that do not work toward that stated purpose, but which seem to have been written as exposition for some play that might have a plot, and may happen in the future, but not tonight. Luckily the second half of the piece gets on track, and not only targets the stated goal of the show, but makes it quite enjoyable.
The show itself is brief (barely over an hour and perhaps a quarter more). And it is loud. The company kindly provides earplugs. The show can easily be heard through them clearly, and wearing them prevents tinnitus, so I recommend them heartily. The band is backed up against a brick wall and no matter where you sit in the tiny Janet Bookspan Theatre (one of the ground floor spaces at The Den), you’re never more than 16 feet from an amplifier.
So, the songs that make up the better part of the show are really well written. And the band rocks them hard. Spencer Meeks is a tremendous guitarist and has an enviable stack of effects pedals which color the moods of the world we’re visiting in this show. Drummer Sarah Giovannetti sets the beat and drives her way through some impressive solos, and Jordan Harris and Elle Walker (both on keys and backing vocals) blend really well and create a great overall sound. As a concert, I was both impressed by this show, and I enjoyed it.
Then there were the stories/monologues/whatevers. None of them were badly scripted. Young Jean Lee is a skillful writer. But, the words didn’t necessarily ring true. Part of that is due to the presentational structure of a concert setting. Singer’s direct interaction with the audience at what should be moments of connection are inhibited by a microphone planted against her lips. Touching moments feel more like stand-up comedy than instances of emotional vulnerability. Also, there seems to be a casting issue here. I’m not besmirching Arciniegas, nor her talent. She’s good. But, she’s not in her 40’s. She’s not old enough to be the contemporary of her friend who she is talking about in one scene, a friend who was 40-something long enough ago that the two have now lost touch and she can speak about it casually as having taken place a few years ago. Another scene talks about Singer confronting her own realization of mortality when she gets her first gray hair. As an early middle-aged individual, plucking that first gray hair could definitely cause one to realize that youth has come to a close. Once again, though, the script puts that occurrence in Singer’s past, and in her early- to mid-20’s, it is highly unlikely that she’s sensing that her youth has now flown.
I found myself constantly struggling with a disconnected feeling from the material. I see what Sobel and his cast are attempting to do, but never was I drawn into what could have been an empowering, or at least entertaining evening about life, death, and everything else. So it is that I merely got to hear some well-executed music, and some sub-par storytelling.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Monologue masquerades as rock concert. Trying hard to be profound.
Company: Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company
Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway St)
Die Roll: 2
At the beginning of “Mother of Smoke,” a performer informs the audience that we exist in an in-between space. We are living outside time and experience, so we are safe in the theater. Yet we are not at home. We are constantly in transit. This is a fitting introduction, given that home and safety form the twin concerns of the experimental performance, and the script itself is a mash-up of “The Trojan Women,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and monologues about the crumbling of the American Dream. The destruction of Troy occurs simultaneously with the ruling class’ loss of their orchard property, and in the middle of all this, food deserts in Inglewood are discussed. It is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, and while the cast valiantly brings life to each set-piece, the end result feels disjointed and taxing, no matter how much the safety of drama is heralded.
Co-created by Thom Pasculli, and the Walkabout Theater and Red Tape Theatre ensembles, the production includes writing from Charles Mee, Ellen McLaughlin, Anton Chekhov, Euripides, and company writers Emma Stanton, Morgan McNaught, Lucas Baisch, and Lucia Thomas. If that seems like too many cooks in the kitchen, your instinct is correct. While the acting ensembles generate affecting visuals and excel at the contemporary material in “Mother of Smoke,” the older texts create contrasts that blur the performance’s overall context. While it is an interesting academic exercise to ponder how the loss of the Russian nobility’s cherry orchard matches up with the ravages of war experienced by the women of Troy, the script cannot link the two directly enough to generate dramatic friction or worthwhile meaning. Loss of home can be much more viscerally felt when it comes to military refugees. How that trauma connects to gentrification in Chicago is anyone’s guess, because we hear so few speeches about it. I appreciate that the writers left the audience to their own conclusions, but a stronger spine, or clearer deconstructions of each text, would have provided us more entertainment and a clearer set of tools to work with as fellow collaborators.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Mazzini particularly stands out in her performance as Helen of Troy. She moves from sardonic wit about her plight to a fevered shout about how her beauty and the war are meaningless. Kelsey Shipley as Lyubov in “The Cherry Orchard” single-handedly holds that storyline together, simply by providing a grounded presence for the other actors around her. Alex Rodriguez as Lyubov’s lost tutor, and as Aeneus in the play’s final section, brings a raw emotional quality to haunted speeches. And Emma Ladji as Dido proves a wise teacher in a world born after war.
Movement collaborator Carrie Drapac provides the most memorable moments of the production, using each actor as a piece of the storytelling. Women wave their hands frantically while men roll around on the floor, desperate for connection and clinging to one another. The strongest parts of the play involve silence and movement, rather than worked-over monologues. The times I felt most affected by the colliding scenes all arrived during dances or scenic transitions.
When we enter a theatrical performance, we implicitly agree to live in an in-between space for a few hours. We do this because we hope to learn something about the world, something about ourselves. By listening to others’ stories, we become more human, and hopefully, find some semblance of safety and community during that reinforcement. “Mother of Smoke” wants to unsettle in order to educate, but its stitched together parts form a patchy whole, and leave us wanting clarity.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Uneven script hampers strong emotional and physical acting from cast.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Accusations, 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.