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.

Link to Review: “Good for Otto” (The Gift Theatre)

As I review plays for various press outlets, I like to compile a record of them here.  I also give them a 10-Word Summary and a Dice Rating to enable you to compare what you think and what I think.  Neat, eh?

Link To Review: “The Black White Love Play” (Black Ensemble Theater)

When I’m not writing for this site, I’m reviewing for other sites.  But, because I want you to know what I’ve said no matter where I’ve said it, I compile all of my reviews here.  And to make everything similar and familiar, I give them a 10-Word Summary and a Dice Rating when I post them here.

Review: “ZIG: EDM Suicide” (MCL Chicago)

ZIG EDMShow: ZIG: EDM Suicide

Company: MCL Chicago

Venue: Studio BE (3110 N. Sheffield Ave)

Die Roll: 3

Accidentally, before seeing “ZIG: EDM Suicide” I’ve been a huge fan of MCL Chicago (a performance space and training center for musical improvisers) for a long time. Upon learning I’d be on the guest list for a homegrown, full-length musical from a roster of their enormously talented improvisers and musicians, I was as giddy as a kid at Christmas. How better to showcase the work of your best and brightest than to invite director Alex Richmond and composer Brad Kemp to step outside the scope of short sketches?  All that said, I think that “ZIG: EDM Suicide” could have a used a bit more time to bake before hitting the marquee.

World-renowned EDM artist, David Tom (Alex Garday), known onstage as ‘ZIG’, laments that he is an electronic music button-pusher and has not connected with his music or the army of smart-phone obsessed teens that comprise his fan base. His hero and name-sake, David Bowie, would surely be disappointed. He is urged by his record label manager, Labell (Katie Nixon) to take ever more potent drugs, and each brings about more powerful hallucinations as Tom OD’s. He is visited Christmas-Carol-style by three rock ‘n roll mentors. Space Jesus Neil Degrasse Tyson (Ed Selvey IV), Sarah from Labyrinth (Abby Vatterott) and Major Tom (Michael Shepherd Jordan) himself; not to mention their intergalactic backing band, The Wenus from Venus. The crew attempts to mold David into a more genuine, stable rock star.

Where “ZIG: EDM Suicide” delivers in spades, is in laughs. The cast has the rapport to sustain each loosely scripted scene, and finds a laugh in every flub or quiet space. Notable standout improvisers are Katie Nixon (Labell) and Michael Shepherd Jordan (Major Tom), who have both done great work in filling in their lightly sketched characters. However, this production has fallen prey to musical numbers and story elements that aren’t memorable or specific enough to keep us invested, nor do they tell us very much about the characters who sing them. While it is fun to say the name ‘Space Jesus Neil Degrasse Tyson’ over and over, there seems to be little reason that Jesus and Tyson were referenced, other than the absurdity of the names mashed together. In fact, Ed Selvey IV sings us the virtues of human touch in a funky number that is more reminiscent of Stevie Wonder or Rick James, than say, a deity or astrophysicist.

At its moral center, “ZIG: EDM Suicide” would fault the internet and over-connectivity for the downfall of rock, and looks to ZIG to finally deliver the music that will inspire teens to look up from their screens. But I’d argue that our relationship with our phones is more complex and no matter what, our rock appreciation can’t diminish as a result. And nothing kills the mood of funky power-house musical numbers, all geared at loosening our death-grips on our mobile devices, than the obligatory post-show “tweet about us or follow our page on Facebook”.

“ZIG: EDM Suicide” seems geared toward an easy-going improve crowd (it’s BYOB), and I hope that this show is just a first step toward more improvised musical productions.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Strange Ch-ch-changes may be needed to salvage this interstellar musical.

DICE RATING: d8- Not Bad, Not Great

 

Review: “Tomato Queen” (Quest Theatre Ensemble)

tn-500_tomatoqueen1.jpg.pagespeed.ce.w81EcpQ8OPeCZLRKqZjEShow: Tomato Queen

Company: Quest Theatre Ensemble

Venue: The Blue Theater (1609 W. Gregory)

Die Roll: 1

Lonely Camina just wants to go to Camp Fun for the summer so she can make some friends. Instead, her loving but over-anxious parents schlep her off to Mr. Boggs’ Camp Success, where she strikes a deal with the slightly shady businessman-cum-camp counselor: if she manages to grow the perfect winter tomato, Boggs will consider her a success and let her go to Camp Fun. Along the way, Camina learns important lessons on friendship, hard work, patience and rewards.

It’s a cute idea based on good themes, but unfortunately the script is a mess. While the music is snappy and well-done, the storyline gets lost numerous times in the first act, although the second act rallies and the production finishes nicely enough.  In particular, a go-nowhere subplot involving the Evil Scientist could be completely excised with no loss of coherence. While writer Christine Kodak  and composer Scott C. Lamps were clearly aiming stylistically for something in the realm of “Urinetown”, the production falls short due to uneven acting and the aforementioned script issues.  Each character needs to be bold and strongly-drawn; some actors managed it, most notably Kirk Osgood as the delightfully vaudevillian Hawker. Had all the cast managed their versions of  his broad and committed performance, it would been a totally different show.

Most of the characters are thinly drawn, and the actors don’t have much wiggle room to break out. Everyone has wonderful voices, though, so the show sounds lovely. One outstanding moment: Taylor Keenan as Mother has a beautiful song toward the end of the first act called “Mother’s Song” that was so distinct from the rest of the show that I wished the writer and composer had built a show around it, instead.

The only other outstanding moments of the show involve a very clever puppet of a monster worm that swoops in to attack Camina’s tender tomatoes and ruin her chances at success. It’s a three-person affair, with Osgood stepping in as primary puppet-handler, and again, Osgood injects as much well-needed panache via the puppet as he does in all his myriad appearances as a human character.

There are a lot of good notions present in “Tomato Queen”, but it needs a few more workshops before it grows into itself.  Small fry under 10 will probably appreciate it for the colors and music, but there’s not a lot of fodder for adults.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sprightly music and clever design can’t make up for messy script.

DICE RATING: d8 – Not Bad, Not Great

Review: “Yankee Tavern” (American Blues Theatre)

American_Blues_Theater_Yankee_Tavern-3+++2015Show: Yankee Tavern

Company: American Blues Theatre

Venue: Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 20

Sometimes, it feels good to dip your toes in communal waters, and pipe up with your side of the story when someone at the bar prompts a conversation with “I remember where I was, when _______.” The American Blues Theater sure hopes to rekindle our old memories of 9/11, but falls short with its production of Steven Dietz’s “Yankee Tavern”. Part conspiracy thriller, part love story left in the bottom of pint glass.

In the Yankee Tavern, a run-down pub awaiting a date with a wrecking ball, Adam (Ian Paul Custer) and Janet (Darci Nalepa), plan a wedding and a graduation. They are both gladly lured into barfly Ray’s (Richard Cotovsky) outlandish tales of conspiracy and too-coincidental to be coincidence hypotheses that cover everything. The government faked the moon landing (unless you’re talking about our second, invisible moon), JFK’s grassy knoll, and most importantly, the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11. His 9/11 theories are so lucid and plausible that Adam decides to decry them in his graduate thesis. But the trio’s focus on the minutiae lands them in a network of shadowy players like Palmer (Steve Key), and Adam and Janet are left holding more knowledge than their would-be marriage may be able to withstand.

This production finds its heart in Ray, brought to life warmly but weirdly by Richard Cotovsky, racing through pages of inexhaustible manifestos like miles in a marathon. It’s an incredibly hard task to keep up with a guy like Ray; he’s an encyclopedic holder of footnotes, keeper of keys, feeder of ghosts, and Cotovsky seemed lost in a sea of his own lines, at times.

I was lucky enough to quiz author Dietz in a post-show talk-back, and he described Ray as the closest he’d probably get to Shakespearean grandeur. The scales are a bit lopsided in this respect. Like Adam and Janet, we’d just as soon avoid the trivial duties of wedding preparation and hear more from the resident crackpot. This leaves actors Ian Paul Custer and Darci Nalepa with precious little to do until the narrative needs a break from conspiratorial jargon.

Director Joanie Schultz implores us to turn our eyes from any script deficits with an especially well outfitted dingy basement tavern, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to finding my way to my own scuffed bar stool, immediately after the show. Catching “Yankee Tavern” will allow you a fleeting chance to immerse yourself in a once strong national fervor, and take note of how that fervor has faded over the past 14 years.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: 9/11 conspiracies trump couple’s pre-wedding jitters. Coincidence? I think not.

Dice Rating: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

 

Review: “The Book of Merman” (Pride Films & Plays)

The Book of Merman
The Book of Merman

Show: The Book of Merman

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Mary’s Attic (5400 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 10

For every great piece of theater like ‘Book of Mormon’ or any number of the classics featuring Broadway’s golden age darling, Ethel Merman, there’s a spate of shows poised to cash in on their popularity. Especially in the improv capital of the world, there are parody shows ready to take political figures, beloved/maligned entertainers and blockbuster movies down a peg. Somewhere in this city right now there’s a troupe ripping your favorite Star Trek episode or Hitchcock movie to shreds.

But, it’s a tall order to satirize an already brilliantly satirical show like ‘Book of Mormon’. The pointed skewering of religion, sexuality, Broadway tropes, and white imperialism on the global stage leaves imitators with very little to add besides a few more perfectly starched white short-sleeve shirts singing their slightly different version of “Hello” with enthusiasm.

Leo Schwartz’s ‘The Book of Merman’ imagines Mormon missionaries Elder Braithwaite (Dan Gold) and Elder Shumway (Sam Button-Harrison) have stumbled onto the house of Ethel Merman (Libby Lane) while canvassing door-to-door. They can’t decide what to do with their uncanny find or if she’s the real McCoy or just an imposter. When the elders can’t agree on where Ms. Merman ranks in importance on their mission, or if they can maintain their ‘never-out-of-each-other’s-sight’ partnership, they resort to musical parody. Sweet homages to popular Merman and Morman numbers pop up, sometimes with a cheeky legal disclaimer, made to fit snugly over the unlikely threesome as a tea cozy. ‘Small World’ becomes ‘Crazy World’, and ‘I Believe’ becomes ‘She Can Sing’ along with countless repurposed numbers (and some original). The heavy lifting has already been done by Sondheim, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, this production just tweaks in a few jokes and modern references to complete their take.

I can commend Libby Lane, Dan Gold and Sam Button-Harrison for giving voice to characters that are sketched very lightly. ‘Book of Merman’ seems a bit more preoccupied with paying tribute to each popular song than finding a good context or reason for them. There will be ‘Everything’s Coming up Ros- I mean, Merman’ come hell or high water; it doesn’t matter so much who sings it or why. Likewise, entire plot lines and character traits can be conjured up or forgotten for the sake of getting the trio to their next song.

David Zak and Leo Schwartz have conjured up a laid-back musical crafted for an audience that is much the same; unconcerned with the minor details that comprise their theatrical mash up, just happy to see a big, brassy diva hob-nob with a couple of chaste Mormon boys, and inspire them to re-direct their hopeless, godly devotion to musical theater and each other.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Who ordered the Book of Mormon/Ethel Merman mash up?

RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

 

Review : “Top Girls” (The Arc Theatre)

Top GirlsShow: “Top Girls”

Company: The Arc Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre

Die Roll: 54 (on a d%)

This is the second Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the past four-ish months, and, while I applaud the complexity of her scripts, I also think they are extremely difficult to perform, and that they are a product of their time of writing.  “Top Girls” is a collection of scenes loosely tied around a few days in the life of Marlene, a woman who has just achieved a directorship position at her employment agency,”Top Girls”.

It begins with a dream sequence – a rowdy dinner party hosted by Marlene that features famous historical female figures.  This was by far the most interesting part of the show, anchored by the excellent Pamela Mae Davis as Pope Joan. A puzzling choice of casting was of  a non-Asian actor to play a famous Japanese concubine, Lady Nijo. The Japanese dialect spoken by Lana Smithner, while probably accurate, was so at odds with her appearance that it the whole character came perilously close to charicature.

Another troubling aspect of this scene was the “talking over one another”conceit, presumably employed by the script, but which produced mixed results. Sometimes the volumes of various small conversations would ebb and flow naturally to highlight different topics around the table so the audience could float from character to character; but mostly it sounded like people shouting across the table, trying to top one another. Davis as Pope Joan was about the only one who could take and give control of the various conversations naturally.

The rest of the play happens in the “real world”, either at the employment agency or at the home of Marlene’s sister, Joyce. It becomes a rather domestic tale of a woman who has decided to choose between conventional wife-motherhood, or a successful career. Remember, it was written in the 1980s, and some of its assumptions betray its age.

Ultimately, the problem is that none of the characters are all that sympathetic. In fact, some of the women perpetuate negative female stereotypes without addressing their underlying sources. At the time of its writing, “Top Girls” was bringing to light issues that women face in the workplace that had long been swept under the carpet, but in 2015, it doesn’t go far enough. The issues women face today are similar, but there’s a lot more nuance and variety in how we face these challenges than you’ll see in “Top Girls”.

The actors are all adequate to their tasks, and I especially liked that they turned transitions into some kind of business-chic catwalk routine to bass-heavy trance music, but all in all, the show just doesn’t seem quite relevant. Of all of the various relationships hinted at in the play, the strongest and most believable was between Natalie Sallee as Joyce and Patricia Lavery as Marlene. The first time the play really came alive was in the final scene between the two sisters as they gradually reveal through their conversation how events came to be.

“Top Girls” presents its age and its structure as tall obstacles to a producing company. The Arc Theatre comes close, but can’t quite overcome them in this show.

 

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A complex, dated script about women’s challenges hinders solid performances.

d8 = Not Bad, Not Great