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)

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.

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.

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”