Review: “Musical Therapy” (Death & Pretzels)

Show: “Musical Therapy”

Company: Death & Pretzels

Venue: Gorilla Tango (1919 N. Milwaukee)

Die Roll: 19

There are certain things that one looks for in a major Broadway musical or a show at the Goodman that one doesn’t expect from a small theatre in a tiny black box setting.  In fact, the storefront theatre scene creates a very different hunk of art than does the loop theatre district.  This isn’t really a headline of any sort.  Anyone who has taken in a show or two in Chicago knows how it is.  But, if you don’t take in storefront musicals often, perhaps you’ll allow me to take a moment to contemplate what makes the perfect storefront musical experience…

For me, a perfect storefront musical must begin with an admission to oneself that expectations are not high.  I see 10 to 20 new musicals a year and most of them are in tiny venues by people who are earnest, but not experienced makers of musical art.  And, because of this, I know that in most instances I’m going to leave in what amounts to a listener’s walk of shame, head slung low wondering how I’ll forget what just came to pass (and normally, once I’ve written my review of said show, it does leave my brain quickly).  However, there are a few shows that were so remarkably bad that the damage sticks with me years later.  So, when the music starts and the first number gets rolling, there has to be that moment when a singer hits a sour note, or an errant step makes the choreography look wrong.  That single moment is the set-up for the perfect storefront musical.  That flaw allows the reviewer/audience to think that they are once again in for a stinker, only to then have the whole ship righted and the production to rise well above their anticipated quality.

In “Musical Therapy”, Death & Pretzels presents an evening that isn’t perfect, but which does offer up the perfect storefront musical theatre experience.  The harmonies in composer Joey Katsiroubas’s first number are a little roughly rendered by the five actors who first grace the stage.  Dan Hass’s book staggers into the first spoken scene like a timid and gawky teen.  Awkwardness abounds.  Then, after about five minutes, the show hits its stride and its comfort zone, and it never looks back.  Hass’s script is funny, and intelligent.  Karsiroubas’s songs are memorable to the point that I’ve currently got one of them stuck in my head as I write this.  The show’s structure is familiar, but quirky in a way that both reinforces what we want in a musical, but also pokes fun at what can be a a too tired trope at times.  It is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek while simultaneously honest and true to itself.

At the heart of this production is a tale about a couples therapist, Theresa (Haley Mozer), who is unlucky in love herself.  She is in lust with the guy (Ethan Peterson) who’s just moved into the office next door to hers.  And she longs to get with him. Most of the show takes place in Theresa’s therapy sessions with two couples.  Ryder (Matt Lamson) and Liz (Emma Palizza) suffer from a lack of sexual chemistry (largely because she’s secretly a lesbian). Timothy (Sean Cameron) and Darcie (Erika Hakmiller) are addressing some control issues (hers over him). Each session contains a catchy number in which the relationship is explained, and then a time buzzes and the session is over.  Theresa discovers that Will (Peterson) has a girlfriend, and she schemes to use her practice to tear them apart, while also reshuffling the romantic deck for all of her clients.  Hilarity ensues.

Director Madison Smith guides the cast through what could be cliche situations with a deft sense of comedy, elevating the show’s potentially silly moments to something better.  Smith’s efforts are helped along by the choreography of Brian Boller.  None of the dancing is too technically demanding, but it fits the mood of the piece perfectly, and establishes that the show’s laughs will come from physical sources as well as script-based chuckles.

My one gripe with the show is that there is only a 5-minute intermission.  In this day and age of short shows with no intermission, I wouldn’t have minded if the break were outright eliminated, but if it is necessary, a slightly longer lull in the action would be good so that drinks may be procured and bathrooms visited.  I understand that Gorilla Tango runs a tight ship when it comes to scheduling multiple shows on the same stage each night, but the 5-minute interlude doesn’t serve a positive purpose for anyone.

Gorilla Tango can be a very limiting space in which to put up a production, and it’s probably the last place I would think to put up a musical, but I can safely say that “Musical Therapy” is worth casting aside any trepidation or otherwise negative expectations regarding the venue and/or storefront musicals in general.  It is a good evening well spent, a fun time, and a show that fits its environs perfectly, treating its topic both viciously and lovingly.  Death & Pretzels has created a show that succeeds at being exactly what is and what it should be.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sock puppets and sex and singing and dancing and wow.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre)

Daniel Kyri/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Objects in the Mirror”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

Die Roll: 11

Let me begin by saying that this show is the best production that I’ve seen so far in 2017.  It’s scope and scale are epic, and though Charles Smith’s “Objects in the Mirror” addresses the struggles of one family unit, the story told is so much bigger than that of just a handful of people.  This production, directed by Chuck Smith (not the same guy as the aforementioned Charles, nor of any relation), only has five actors who often seem dwarfed by the massive, yet simple scenery (designed by Riccardo Hernandez).  As I continue to digest what I saw on the Goodman’s stage, I keep returning to the set and how it informed the action of the play.  The set itself was simple in that it included very few elements and there were no raised platforms or intricately built pieces, or ornate decorations.  Yet, every piece was immense.  A large and imposing ceiling/roof loom large over segments of the play that take place in the present (much of the show is in flashback).  A massive, retractable rear wall facilitates projections, as well as a border that rises up from ground level to the infinite heavens.  Often a bare stage creates a sense of vastness that is difficult to overcome because a lone actor in that gaping space seems ever so small; a tiny force against insurmountable odds.

Breon Arzell, Daniel Kyri, Allen Gilmore/Photo: Liz Lauren

Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri) is the individual most often confronted by the outward forces in this story.  After all, he is the tale’s protagonist.  We meet him as a survivor of a decade-long struggle to be free of the violence and oppression that has torn many western African nations apart.  He now resides in Australia.  He is on a search for meaning in his life and for who he really is.  As part of that, he revisits his life story up to that point.  In flashback we meet his crafty trickster uncle (Allen Gilmore), his mother (Lily Mojekwu), and his cousin (Breon Arzell).  These are the people who share Shedrick’s world.  And they are the ones who make it possible for him to escape the dangers of a country that kills off its young men by fighting civil wars with child armies.

Charles Smith has written a piece that makes the reality of war ever-present and imposing.  Shedrick is never sure of who he can trust, and in all likelihood, his uncle’s advice to trust no one is best applied.  And yet, one wants to trust the people nearest to them.  And the internal struggle of who to trust and how much is at the heart of this play.  The narrative struggle of the journey toward freedom is matched in intensity by the personal journey taken by Shedrick as he struggles with self-identity and conscience.  Can Shedrick trust his uncle?  Can he trust his own mother?  Can he trust himself?  For that matter, can anyone trust anyone else ever?

Chuck Smith’s powerfully simple staging gives the more dynamic and complex moments of the play a gigantic blank canvas upon which to create an overall picture that is both brilliant and dark.  The cast rises to the task of telling a gripping and meaningful tale, always surrounded by the spirit that they are just a small part of something so much larger, but never being defeated by the overall massiveness of their troubles.  This is a piece that must be seen.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Trust in this one thing: You should see this play.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Review: “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas)

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Show: [Trans]formation

Company: Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studios

Every once in a while I see a show that redefines a part of the art of theatre.  Once in a great while.  Over the years I’ve pretty much solidified what I see as a good show.  And the guideposts that have been set along the way are the ideals that I use when writing for this outlet or any other about what I’ve seen.  But, then something like “[Trans]formation” comes along.  The show, which is now playing at Collaboraction Studios under the dual flag of Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas, takes on the heavy task of redefining language and interpersonal relationships, self-identity and how we look at others.

This production has clearly been carefully crafted by director Gaby Labotka and her collaborators.  It is a devised work that stems from a series of submissions from trans individuals from around the country.  The source material is available in a zine that is offered up at the performance. I highly recommend getting a copy as part of the experience.

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
So, I’ve said that this thing shifted my idea of theatre.  Why is that?  Well, for one, the piece is essentially what I would have called performance art in the past.  Much of the show has no plot, nor characters. Yet it is clearly theatrical. It is constructed around a theme and presented by way of images.  Sometimes these are literal images projected upon a screen, but more often the images are created through a brilliant collage of stage-wide projected textures that are caught upon the myriad surfaces of the stage, and more importantly upon the varied shape of the bodies of the performers.

Part of any production by The Living Canvas involves the actors performing nude, and this is performance is no different.  The images and their interplay upon the bodies of the actors is like a vibrant and vital painting that is constantly shifting before your eyes.  Though the performers don no clothing, this is not a bit of gimmick for attracting more eyes and titillating the senses.  This is a literal baring of one’s body and metaphorically the soul as well.

I have never been to a production of The Living Canvas before, so I can’t comment on how appropriate it seems in other productions, but with the topic of gender identity, the human body seems perfectly suited as the tool to tell tales.  As I sat and watched the six performers on stage, there were often times that their nudity was completely lost among the rest of the presentation.

Through short monologues and songs, physical pieces and proclamations, this piece finds a way to speak to each viewer and touch them deeply.  There are multiple levels of truth constantly being put forth and taken in.  You’ll note that I don’t make special mention of any specific performer in this review.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, I don’t believe that any one individual within this work can be held separate from the others.  I’ve never seen another show in which the meaning of ensemble is better represented.  Second, nothing I saw can be subject to the standard criticisms I might address in a review.  I can’t honestly tell you if these performers are good actors when it comes to a regular play.  But, I can tell you that they are perfect for this piece.  The sum total of their work here is something brilliant and wonderful.  It challenges the audience.  It informs the audience.  It changes the audience.  That’s what this art is supposed to do, and they do it better than I’ve seen in a long, long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Naperville” (Theater Wit)

29350749946_3d1c3a7935_kShow: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Every major metropolitan area has a suburb where the nouveau riche congregate.  That suburb’s name is often then embraced as a code word for self-important, ostentatious, absurdly materialistic, terrible people.  Making fun of the people from such a place is a safe bet in comedy, especially within the borders of their proximate urban center. Really, it’s comedic low-hanging fruit. So, it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that I was surprised that isn’t the tack taken by Mat Smart’s “Naperville”, currently playing at Theater Wit.

This is a play about people in a Caribou Coffee shop (remarkably well rendered by Joe Schermoly).  It is a play about new beginnings in a place where one normally has to be established to fit in.  But, where one man long ago decided to try for a new beginning of his own.  For anyone who has spent any time in the Naperville area, the name of Joseph Naper is a familiar one.  After all, the town is named for him.  And his new beginning—shifting from life as a shipwright to that of a farmer, townsman—is held as an allegory for her own life by one of the show’s primary characters, Anne (Abby Pierce).

29385040455_2351eeb03c_kThe play kicks off when Anne, a recently divorced woman recording a podcast, meets TC (Andrew Jessop) who is the new manager of the Caribou.  TC is desperate to not lose this newly acquired job.  Going through his day from one nervous twitch to the next, TC encounters Candice (Laura T. Fisher) and her son Howard (Mike Tepeli) who are dealing with the fact that Candice is newly blind and stubbornly refusing her son’s assistance.  Charlie Strater plays the last of the five characters to enter the scene: an evangelical Christian named Roy whose life isn’t necessarily in a new place on his own, but who is newly a part of each of the lives of the others.

28761036724_8a71ad5a9e_kDirector Jeremy Wechsler’s approach to the script is one that makes a light slice-of-life comedy one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.  It is simple, direct, and completely truthful to the situation.  The characters talk directly to one another, so the actors do just that.  These are the people you would meet in a suburban coffee chain store.  They aren’t on epic journeys.  They are each dealing with the little troubles that life throws their way, or that they have brought upon themselves.  Wechsler’s cast is extreme adept at capturing the quiet desperation in which they are all living.

I find it intriguing and worthwhile that Smart’s characters are all likeable, but only up to a point.  His writing makes me care about Anne and Howard.  But he strategically places some of their most glaring flaws out in the open as well.  It is easily seen that they are not good people.  None of the folks in this show are.  Even Roy, who goes through most of the show as an inexplicably good version of a born-again Christian (lacking any of the hypocrisy that is often associated with those who adopt that label), eventually fails us as he is part of the force that ruins TC’s day/life with very little concern for the barista’s well being.

This is a play that creates hope in the heart of the viewer, only to dash it and then build it up into something better.  That’s the way one begins anew.  That is what this play is about.  And the audience gets to go on that journey over and over again with this crew of five on a voyage of discovery into what makes real life so inherently dramatic.  I cannot recommend this show enough.  It is well-crafted in every aspect.  The writing is really good.  The design work is amazing.  The directing and acting are the real deal.  All the way around it’s tremendous.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “The Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre)

Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Show: “The Good Person of Szechwan”

Company: COR Theatre

Venue: A Red Orchid Theatre

Die Roll: 4

Some plays reflect the time in which they are written.  With translated plays, they will often reflect the original time and culture, as well as the culture of the translator and the time at which the work was translated.  So, this version of “The Good Person of Szechwan” by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Tony Kushner is a work that crosses times and cultures to address the question of what is it that makes a person good.

Director Ernie Nolan takes the act of translation a step further and crosses gender lines in his casting.  From the moment lights come up it is clear that this production is both a reflection of our world and a altered version of it.  Wang the Waterseller (Dawn Bless) takes the stage to tell us what life is like in this part of Szechwan.  Wang is a street savvy huckster with a good heart, but isn’t the titular good person.  No, that’s Shen Te (Will Von Vogt), the town’s notorious lady of the evening.  When three gods come to town, she is the only one to take them in and give them a place to stay.

Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

If one watches this play looking for answers as to what makes a good person, the answers found aren’t easy.  Is it what is in your heart that makes you a good person?  Somewhat.  Are your deeds what make you good?  Somewhat.  But, throughout the story, neither option is really the end-all/be-all.

What does become apparent is how someone who is trying to be good can easily be taken advantage of.  When the gods give Shen Te some funding as compensation for their lodging, she is able to buy herself a business and also provide charity to those in need.

This production is a thinker and a feeler.  Days later I am still pondering everything I saw, and in the moments of the show I was hit with waves of empathy for Shen Te’s plight, as well as anger toward those who would disabuse her and the a sense of victory when her plans went well.  The lighting and soundscape were integral parts of an immersive experience that dragged me into the world of the show despite some very Brechtian moments that pointed out that I was watching a play.  Kudos to Claire Chrzan and Matt Reich for their respective designs.

The show has a large supporting cast, and across the board they were stellar.  Most played multiple roles and every one was well defined and contributed strongly to the overall picture created by the tale.

I was solidly impressed by this work.  It is what theatre ought to be: a piece that calls upon us to look at ourselves and the world around us; a piece that challenges us to be better; a piece that looks at the very essence of what it would mean to be better, in the first place.  Well done, COR Theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Beaten down by the world, the good can rise again.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The Promise of a Rose Garden” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Promise_BWBTC_9470-cropShow: The Promise of a Rose Garden

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  City Lit Theater (1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.)

Die Roll: 20

At the outset of Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of Dustin Spence’s “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, a foursome of new recruits stand, ready to be tried by the military’s most notoriously difficult proving ground. Their commanding officers offer little solace, but assure, “The fact that you don’t have a dick between your legs makes you more aerodynamic.” With this, Babes With Blades offers up one of the most unique and thrilling productions I’ve seen in recent years.

In “The Promise of a Rose Garden”, Captain Josephine Rockford (Maureen Yasko) is training a squad of four officers on passing the notoriously brutal US Marine Infantry Officer course. It’s such an unforgiving course that only three women have ever passed it, Rockford herself, her commanding officer, Selmy (Kathrynne Wolf) and a third female officer, whose death casts a long shadow that still divides the two officers. The rookies, however, are indignant at any underestimating party who insinuates that they’d do anything less than pass the course with flying colors. Lieutenant “Sunny” Sharif (Arti Ishak) has defied her Muslim family’s wishes to be there, pragmatic Ruiz (Izis Mollinedo) is hoping to spin her success into a book deal, and whatever you do, don’t cross Nichols (Charlie Baker) a laid-back Southerner who will cold-cock you for looking the wrong way at her candy stash. Newest grunt Ferguson (Sam Long) may be the most gifted Marine among them, but must swear, spit and scrap for her honor from the bottom up.

What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion. Reminders of Captain Rockford’s past failures are so potent to her, they appear as Deciding Angels (Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim) who taunt her from her bleak subconscious and threaten to expose her mania.

Promise_BWBTC_8707The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful; take the Deciding Angels, played nimbly by Catherine Dvorak and Aaron Wertheim, who twist themselves into unsettling shapes that add to their nightmarish air. In amazingly rough-hewn turns, Sam Long, Izis Mollinedo and Charlie Baker breathe brute force and sweat into Ferguson, Ruiz and Nichols. The true stand outs of this production, however, are Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.

The air is always alive and tense with radio chatter, bullets, Marine chants or the whispers of the Deciding Angels. Director Elyse Dawson and violence designer Rachel Flesher bring together an artful staging, cobbled from a bullet riddled blast zone, and paint stage images that are beautiful and ambiguous. It’s an incredible gift when you as an audience member are entrusted with puzzle pieces of a scene or a relationship unfolding in front of you, and all the more rewarding when those pieces begin to come together.

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Female, armed and dangerous: Drop and give them 20, maggots.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “DOUGLASS” (the american vicarious)

De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Show: “DOUGLASS”

Company: the american vicarious

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

Early on in the american vicarious’ “DOUGLASS,” one white abolitionist admonishes another: fine speeches about the illogical nature of slavery are well and good, but what about the lack of sentiment involved in such diatribes? More citizens would be won over to the anti-slavery movement if their hearts were engaged, as well as their heads. Has her friend, by chance, read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” He dismisses the popular novel (and eventual stage play) as melodramatic claptrap, but agrees that a man of color must speak to the experience of slavery, in order to horrify audiences into action. That man is Frederick Douglass.

Now revered for his amazing mind and oratorical skill, world premiere “DOUGLASS” focuses on Frederick (an excellent De’Lon Grant) at the start of his journey in the 1840’s. After reading William Lloyd Garrison’s (Mark Ulrich) uncompromising anti-slavery words in The Liberator, Douglass becomes convinced that he, too, can help the cause, by starting and sustaining the first newspaper run by an African American man in Boston. But wealthy abolitionist Miss West (Carrie Lee Patterson) and Garrison hold back financing for Douglass’ paper in order to motivate him to speak about his experiences as a former slave. The more time Douglass spends making speeches on behalf of others, the more he begins to wonder if he is merely a puppet for the abolitionist movement, rather than one of its leaders. As Douglass’ views on compromise and the Constitution change, Garrison’s become more unyielding, and the two men head towards an ideological conflict.

Mark Ulrich and De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
Mark Ulrich and De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Which sounds like dry viewing, I am sure, given that oratory and publishing are the major dramatic concerns here. But playwright Thomas Klingenstein never misses an opportunity to highlight how Douglass’ development is hindered by the society he lives in. This is the story of a man hampered by the large ideals and small crimes of others. We watch Douglass as he builds support and debates whether or not he is too ambitious or too compromising for white abolitionists. The debates between Douglass and Garrison touch on matters as continually contemporary as the perception of black skin and the organization and silencing of black voices. And the differences cut to the bone, as Garrison uses increasingly personal attacks to win Douglass back to his way of thinking.

Director Christopher McElroen stages a spare production, with the actors shaping the action and time on set designer William Boles’ splintering wooden platform. Grant is an imposing figure, always in charge of any room he enters, and his command breaks only in his speeches about the slave experience. Ulrich ping-pongs around the stage, his fiery demands gathering strength with each affront (though he seemed to struggle with his lines at moments in the first act). Patterson represents a calming influence, as does the unpretentious Kristin Ellis, who plays Anna, Douglass’ wife. Ellis has the difficult job of acting as a naysayer to her husband, and while the script does not flesh out the dynamics of their marriage, Ellis makes them clear simply in the way she moves around her home. Likewise, Kenn E. Head as Delany, a Back-to-Africa proponent, provides a sounding board for Douglass when he is surrounded by white voices, and his sardonic nature suits the character.

De'Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.

“DOUGLASS” is touted as a multimedia production by the american vicarious. Projection designer Liviu Pasare paints the back wall of the space with portraits of Douglass and Garrison, as each addresses the public. In the second act, their faces are covered with hashtags and at signs, possibly calling to mind the Black Lives Matter movement and its Twitter presence. The flourishes are distracting, as the script easily connects Douglass’ concerns about power and justice to those we harbor today. More off-putting is Sarah Espinoza’s sound design. The transition music between scenes is well-chosen, ranging from hip-hop to hymnals, but the sound levels were ear-splitting in the production’s intimate Theater Wit space. The music took me out of the performance, rather than drawing me deeper in.

Early in the play, Douglass abandons discussion of his life as a slave for philosophical statements about whether African American men and women can be considered full citizens of the United States. Garrison finds his switch as distasteful as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The irony, of course, is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was melodrama meant to enlighten white audiences, just as Douglass’ tortured descriptions were. “DOUGLASS” posits that Frederick’s power to disrupt and compromise came from his insistence on speaking to men and women of color, as well as whites. Thus, the real engagement comes not from sentiment, but from speaking one’s truth, especially if those around you are not ready.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: History comes alive in well-written debate over slavery.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions)

Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

Show: Firebringer

Company: StarKid Productions

Venue: Stage 773

Die Roll: 4

The experience of a StarKid show starts in the lobby.  The place isn’t decorated, or thematically connected to the show.  It’s not immersive in that way.  However, because of the energy that permeates the place from about an hour prior to curtain, it’s worth showing up a bit early.  My daughter and I arrived for the show 50 minutes prior to curtain and there was already a line fifteen to twenty people deep.  That line wasn’t at the theatre door.  These were folks who already had their tickets and who were now eagerly, if not aggressively waiting to purchase tank tops and other swag from the StarKid productions kiosk in the lobby of Stage 773.  Now in their 7th successful year of combining live theatre with YouTube stardom, the company has throngs of fans between the ages of 15 and 25.  When I told my daughter (who usually resides in Minnesota) which show we would be attending this week, she filled me in on the history of the company and made me watch a few segments of their first Harry Potter-themed hit online.  So, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the audience is young and excited.  And, while youth can never really be recaptured, their exuberance was easily caught.

So it was that I went into the Proscenium stage ready for something big.  And, what I expected, I received.  “Firebringer” is a rock musical about a tribe of cave people comprised largely of individuals who seem most likely to be left far behind in the race for survival.  None of them seem to be the “fittest”, to be sure.  But all that changes when one of their own discovers fire and rocks the then-known world to its core.

Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The show is narrated by a past leader of the tribe, Molag (Lauren Walker), a staff-toting combination of Rafiki (“The Lion King”) and Slappy the Squirrel (“Animaniacs”).  It is her snarky wisecracks and blunt insults which set the tone for the show.  Walker’s energy and comedic chops help create the world of the play instantly.  Her self-aware presentation allows for a brilliant combination of story-telling and social commentary.  From her first time addressing the audience as “privileged fucks”, you know she’s not going to pull any punches.

Molag’s replacement as leader of the cave people is Jemilla (played by the charismatic Meredith Stepien, who also co-wrote the show’s music). Jemilla is known as “The Peacemaker” and rules an orderly society.  Not everyone is happy, though.  Zazzalil (Lauren Lopez) strives to do more in order to do less.  She is motivated to accomplish big things so that eventually all people can be lazy.  She somehow lucks into finding fire, and defeating a prehistoric monster, which leads to her assent to the role of chief in the tribe.

All of that happens before the intermission.  It’s a fast-moving, tightly scripted piece, and the energy is electric.  The script itself is a bit campy and far too dependent on the shock humor of hearing people say “fuck” a lot.  But, the production quality is really high.  And the dancing and singing are top notch for a storefront production.  Only one song has the familiar sound of a piece searching for the right notes like so many local (and mostly improvised) musicals do.  The rest have solid melodies, harmonies, and even clever rhyme schemes.  The set was simple, but effective.  The band was great, if a little too loud at times.  Russ Walko’s puppets are impressive works of art, and Yonit Olshan’s shadow puppets create a suspenseful sequence in the middle of the show.

Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, and it has a lot of parts.  The action flits around from scene to scene, and yet the audience follows along well.  It all seems geared for the quick edit style of those raised on modern television.  One scene takes place in the wilderness, the next at an impromptu open mic night, then it’s back to the cave for a duck-worshiping ceremony.  It’s all a bit ridiculous, which makes it all the more fun.

For a group that normally lampoons major works of pop culture, it is cool to see them do something wholly original.  The cast gets it completely right, and the audience leaves one hundred percent enamored with the show.  The high energy that entered the theater two hours earlier, leaves still energized and positive.  And still wanting more of the company’s swag.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Smart snark and pop rock sent from the stone age.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “Wastwater” (Steep Theatre Company)

Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Gregg Gilman.
Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin/Photo: Gregg Gilman.

Show: “Wastwater”

Company: Steep Theatre Company

Venue: Steep Theatre Company (1115 West Berwyn)

Die Roll: 12

The Wastwater Lake in England contains so little oxygen that it possible to preserve bodies drowned in its depths. This scientific oddity is spouted off by one half of a couple during a hotel tryst that may or may not end in sexual congress. Such is the nature of Simon Stephens’ writing in “Wastwater,” a script that places human connection right alongside the crumbling fact of a finite planet. Steep Theatre Company’s production of the play emphasizes a similar combination of yearning and danger that serves its actors well.

“Wastwater” works as a circular, not linear narrative. The plot is more a triptych of events that reverberate with each other, without the characters ever realizing their connectedness. Each scene takes place near Heathrow Airport, giving a sense of impermanence to every sequence. In the play’s first scene, Harry (Joel Boyd) bids a hard farewell to his foster mother Frieda (Melissa Riemer), who wants him to stay home rather than work to save the Canadian wilderness. In the second, Lisa (Kendra Thulin) and Mark (Nick Horst) navigate whether they will move forward with their affair. In the final scene, Jonathan (Peter Moore) negotiates with Shauna (Caroline Neff) over a delicate and highly illegal travel arrangement.

Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer/Photo: Gregg Gilman.
Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer/Photo: Gregg Gilman.

Stephens, now famous for his Tony-winning adaptation of “Curious Incident In the Dog At Nighttime,” works more like a novelist or an Impressionist painter than a playwright. It is only when you step away from his plays, days after the viewing, that you understand what he wants you to see. In “Wastwater,” the tenuous bonds between parent and child, teacher and student, buyer and seller are laid bare. What we do not know about one another is vast, as deep as the deepest lake in England, and that troubles Stephens. Yet he is more successful at digging into missed opportunities and missed communications in the first and third scene, where the thematic ties of parents and children are clear. The second sequence gave me pause, as its incendiary trajectory led Stephens to draw an unbelievable and anti-climatic conclusion. But that is the danger of working more in theme and conflicted image than plot. Clarity is lost, but deeper emotional entanglements can be illuminated.

Director Robin Witt uses Steep’s black box space to marvelous effect in this production. Each scene is blocked differently, with the mother and foster son standing on a rooftop with only a few feet of space between them. Lisa and Mark bound nervously around their entire hotel room. And Jonathan and Shauna move between keeping the entire length of the stage between them and hovering uncomfortable inches apart. Witt thus creates a unique signature in each set of circumstances, where the actors are able to play their relationships memorably and with imagination. She’s generated subtle and engrossing work with the entire cast.

Caroline Neff and Peter Moore/Photo: Lee Miller.
Caroline Neff and Peter Moore/Photo: Lee Miller.

Thulin has the most difficult role by far. Her fluttery nervousness initially tracks as typical for an unsatisfied but ordinary wife. But as her scene progresses, she must convince both Horst and the audience that her desires are more complicated than a simple yes or no would indicate. Smartly, Thulin never falls into pleading or demands; she is as matter of fact as possible, and that goes a long way to clearing up a scene that should really be its own play. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Neff dominates the stage as Shauna, using forceful body language and blunt dialogue delivery to dig what she wants out of her charge. I last saw Moore in “Brilliant Adventures,” where he played a smooth and terrifying gangster. Here, he radiates a nebbish Everyman quality, getting the audience on his side, despite the questionable nature of his actions.

Steep’s designers always deliver a cohesive vision, and “Wastwater” is not exception to that trend. Joe Schermoly’s set is sparse, but provides a stage-length window that suggests a roof, a hotel room, and a shady warehouse, all in one. Brandon Wardell’s lighting plays against Schermoly’s smoked glass, evoking planes flying overhead between each scene. And Thomas Dixon’s airplane engines almost rattle the seats. I was uncomfortably reminded of afternoon commutes when the planes bank a little too low over the highway merging into O’Hare.

There is a lot in “Wastwater” that looks and feels familiar. Stephens has said that he writes in order to build faith in the human spirit, but he never excises the unromantic or discomforting truths about life. After all, the lake may look beautiful on the surface, but you ignore what’s lurking underneath at your own peril.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Tension between infinity/impermanence brought to great life by actors.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”