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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Cookie Play is a world-premiere play created by long-time Trap Door collaborators, writer Ken Prestininizi and director Kate Hendrickson, that presents as a paranoid conspiracy theorist’s wet-dream. Two Men-In-Black agents of an unnamed American intelligence agency convince a suburban-Detroit middle-class couple (Harriet and Jim Penini) to turn their basement into a “black site” in order to interrogate the couple’s son, Tommy. The MIBs have been holding Tommy on suspicion of attempting to spill state secrets, a là Edward Snowden, but have managed to obtain no information from him. Harriet agrees, following some twisted maternal logic that by having her son under her roof, she will be better able to protect him. Insanity ensues as the MIBs torture Tommy in the basement, while at the same time maintaining an oddly childlike relationship with the Peninis upstairs. Jim (Chris Popio), resistant to this odd turn of events, is shuffled out the door rather quickly to a “golf vacation” paid for by Uncle Sam. This leaves Harriet on her own to ply the MIBs with a never-ending selection of fresh-baked cookies and to deal with the situation she has created for herself.
It’s an interesting premise: How do you protect your child when your child is accused of betraying your country’s secrets? The play also questions the concepts of authority, religious faith, and the strength of relationships under duress, and does so with a broad absurdist bent. I don’t object to this in the slightest – it’s one of the more interesting ways to provoke an audience to think about abstract ideas that they take for granted or don’t consider at all. The problem is that neither the script nor the production goes far enough.
This is a play that can’t decide what it wants to be, and so the characters come off as very one-dimensional. Harriet (Lyndsay Rose Kane) is one step away from hyperventilating at any given moment. Playwright Prestininzi has given her little room to try other tactics as her involvement with Agents Frank and Frank devolves. She has three settings: frustrated and trying to cover for her husband; lost in a fairy-tale past concerning her son; and a desperate purveyor of cookies to two off-kilter secret agents. Said agents Frank (Mike Steele and Carl Wisniewski) have the most room to play, yo-yoing from uptight caricatures of G-men to explosive three-year-olds trapped in adult bodies. They’re also the most fun to watch as they ricochet (physically and otherwise) through the show.
Oddly, Gage Wallace as Tommy Pernini gives the most riveting of all the performances – odd because he has much less in the way of lines, and while he’s physically present during much of the play, his character has much less focus until the end. Wallace has an excellent physical vocabulary that startles the audience into a harsh reality after the boffo interactions between Harriet and the agents. Wherever the other characters live, Tommy is in the here and now, and it’s hell.
There is a really startling 45-minute show in here that unfortunately has been stretched beyond its limits into a 90-minute, uneven bumper car ride. It is, however, an interesting experiment in physical and absurdist theatre not often seen in Chicago, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Not-quite-absurdist-enough Cookie Play crumbles in the end.
Let me start by saying that if you are a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, then this musical offering based on their mega-hit “H.M.S. Pinafore” may not be the right show for you. Much of what makes the operetta a classic has been stripped from the show (read: the music of Sullivan and wit of Gilbert). If you aren’t terribly well-versed in G&S pieces, or you enjoy watching generally aimless silliness, then you might appreciate this production. As for me, I find that I’m somewhere between those two points on the spectrum of theatre-goer.
A bit of context for where I’m coming from, and then a quick summary before I go into my thoughts on the piece. I feel that I should point out that I’ve been in a total of 7 G&S operetta productions over the years, but only three of the plays (“Pirates” 3 times, “Iolanthe” twice, and “Grand Duke” twice). I am not really a G&S scholar, nor a fanatic, but I do truly appreciate the music, the construction of their work, and the brilliance of the lyrical, topsy-turvy world that they create. I’m also not against creative interpretations of their work. It is in the public domain, after all, and that makes it a free-for-all (literally). “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a play that I have considered directing, and one of my audition pieces comes from the 2nd act.
Now, that I’ve declared any bias-inducing information, let’s talk about what this production brought forth. Sean Graney’s adaptation of the operetta cuts it down to a feisty hour and ten minutes. The general plot is still the same as the original work, but the gender of all of the characters is reversed. Additionally, many of the songs’ lyrics have been revised to include contemporary references such as “bronies”. Seating for the play is promenade style and that means that the audience is sitting on set pieces and will periodically be told to move so that action can proceed in the spot where they once sat. And, finally, the cast members are also the instrumentalists. Each plays at least one instrument while accompanying themselves and others.
There is a lot of novelty here. And that can be a good thing. After all, a piece of Victorian musical theatre probably needs a bit of the dust brushed off. And yet, this production kept making me ask whether there is a point at which novelty goes overboard and results in schtick merely due to quantity. The novelty of swapping the genders actually works really well. It makes the show fun and fresh. Robert McLean is especially wonderful as Buttercup. Christine Stulik and Emily Casey are also a lot of fun in their portrayals of Admiral Dame Jo-Ann and Captain Cat Coran, respectively.
Alison Siple’s costumes play into the gender swap really well, too. The sailors are all in outfits that are either pajamas or scrubs. Come to think of it, those are often the same thing. Anyway… The fancifulness of the costumes plays up the fact that this is a ship full of women, rather than men.
Where this production falls apart for me is the promenade seating. It doesn’t add to the production at all. I’ve seen other shows where promenade style works well, because the play couldn’t really function without it. That sort of seamless integration of audience and staging was prevalent in last year’s “Dorian” at The House. The Hypocrites employ it much less effectively. None of the staging/blocking that constantly relocated the audience served any true purpose in supporting the rest of the show. In fact, when during the curtain speech the actor who explained how the audience was going to be moved about, he stated that it would be “because the director told me to stand there”. And that’s how the action seemed. Seldom did it seem like there was a well thought out reason for the movement, other than the director having said so.
Additionally, the lyric changes were so drastic at times that one wonders why the company chose to do the piece in the first place. I left the performance thinking that it was like watching what happens backstage during a long run of a G&S show. The cast parodies itself while sitting around waiting to go onstage, and so they come up with alternative lyrics. They say, “What if…” and “Wouldn’t it be funny…” And normally, that is kept between them as funny anecdotes that they’ll share from time to time afterward, but otherwise the silliness fades to memory.
This production seems to be the direct result of backstage tomfoolery being put on stage without much in the way of a filter or editor. It is unfortunate, because there are a few moments of true brilliance in this show. They are surrounded by flotsam and jetsam, however.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A thought: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.