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”

Review: “The Seagull” (The Artistic Home)

Brookelyn Hébert, Larry Baldacci, Kathy Scambiatterra, Scot West, Kevin Gladish, Julian Hester, Kaiser Ahmed, Laura Lapidus, Barbara Figgins, Brian McKnight/Photo: Joe Mazza
Brookelyn Hébert, Larry Baldacci, Kathy Scambiatterra, Scot West, Kevin Gladish, Julian Hester, Kaiser Ahmed, Laura Lapidus, Barbara Figgins, Brian McKnight/Photo: Joe Mazza

Show: “The Seagull”

Company: The Artistic Home

Venue: The Artistic Home (1376 W Grand Ave)

Die Roll: 16

The greatest writing advice I ever received sounds a lot more like discouragement. “If you can do anything else with your life,” a mentor warned, “go do it.” I recalled that moment several times during The Artistic Home’s intimate revival of “The Seagull,” a play during which young and old artists clash, and no one can dissuade anyone from his or her obsessions. Certainly, I could not be put off the creative life, despite its lack of simplicity and instant gratification. And neither can Anton Chekhov’s characters. Perhaps that is where the tragedy lies in this tragicomedy. One can never quit the dreams that haunt them.

Treplev (Julian Hester) is the son of famous actress Arkadina (Kathy Scambiatterra). He is trapped at her family’s country estate, has no degree or money of his own, and longs to step out from her shadow. While she stars in the type of melodramatic pieces that are popular in the 1880’s setting, he devises new forms of abstract theatrical experience, and asks his neighbor and love Nina (Brookelyn Hébert) to bring them to life. She does not understand the scripts, or his willingness to shoot a seagull on her behalf, but she’s willing to put up with his opaque genius until encountering Trigorin (Scot West), a well-known writer and Arkadina’s lover. His fame and glamour attract Nina, even though he vehemently assures her there is little happiness in his story-obsessed life. The two begin an affair that blurs the line between self-realization and self-destruction, razing the relationship between mother and son in the process.

Director Cody Estle uses the smallness of The Artistic Home’s space to great advantage throughout Christopher Hampton’s translation of “The Seagull.” There can be no clutter on the stage, so Mary O’Dowd’s props are kept to what is quite necessary: Treplev’s manuscripts, Arkadina’s umbrella, alcohol for the many who imbibe. The breadth of the estate must be completely communicated by the actors, who marvel at the beauty of an unseen lake, and despair at the lack of horses available to ride to the far-away train station. Estle also draws the eye to small moments between characters. We watch Trigorin warm to Nina’s presence during her performance of Treplev’s play. We see every excruciating movement as Treplev later tears his manuscripts apart in haunting resignation. We laugh at the well-timed intake of servant Masha’s (Laura Lapidus) snuff, a rebuke to the world that cares little about her unrequited love for Treplev. Estle captures the everyday rhythms of Chekhov’s play, from debates over desire to bombastic manipulations that result in Arkadina straddling Trigorin.

Julian Hester and Kathy Scambiatterra/Photo: Joe Mazza
Julian Hester and Kathy Scambiatterra/Photo: Joe Mazza

The performances are equally engrossing. Hester throbs with volatility, attacking anyone who praises his work with a bear hug. If his violent emotions lose power and focus in the fourth act, perhaps that is for the best. After all, Treplev is a defeated man by play’s end. Hébert portrays Nina as a naïf in the first half of the production, but her willingness to stare down the devil in Treplev’s script gives us a window into the challenging life she seeks and eventually accepts with defiant anger. Lapidus stands as a sardonic counterpart to the others’ youthful histrionics, her vulnerability a welcome surprise when she shares her secret feelings. By contrast, West as Trigorin projects a gentle nature that disguises his callowness, and Scambiatterra breezily commands attention any time she enters a scene. The adults of this world may be world-weary, but they’ve learned how to make life work in their favor.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s economical set design calls to mind the frame of a barn, giving the proceedings a rustic, country feel. But sheer curtains forming both stage drops and doorways lend a hazy gauze to the proceedings, offering opportunities to eavesdrop and let one’s fantasies run away with them. Sarah Jo White’s costumes bolster the period feel of the play, while Claire Sangster’s lighting reflects exterior twilight and harsh interior lighting, based on the scene changes. The more reality dashes each character’s hopes, the more earthbound the overall design scheme becomes.

For these unfortunate artists and lovers, mere dreams of fame and fortune and creative fulfillment are not enough. Life has no purpose without art, and they cannot do anything else. Maybe if they could simply farm or fish or work in an office, they’d be happier. But they’d feel lesser, too. And that self-knowledge spurs them on to euphoric highs and disastrous lows.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intimate venue and strong ensemble work generate a haunting revival.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The Secretaries” (About Face Theatre)

Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: The Secretaries

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The secretaries don’t murder the men at their local lumber mill because the lumberjacks are bad people. The women cut up their victims, each getting a turn at the chainsaw, because the ladies themselves are morally bankrupt. An important distinction, it turns out. The Greek chorus of office assistants we meet in “The Secretaries” may declare defiantly that their story has no moral, but the loopy satire that revels in their spilled guts and gore says otherwise. Shot through the play’s campy excess is this grain of truth: women become dangerous simply because they are women, and every action they take deserves scrutiny.

Written by the Five Lesbian Brothers, and now receiving its Chicago premiere production courtesy of About Face Theatre, “The Secretaries” embraces tropes from every trashy outlet possible — from lesbian pulp novels, to B-horror flicks, to tawdry revenge tales — all the while lampooning societal hysteria about women in general. The script tackles ludicrous attitudes surrounding menstrual cycles and the fear that butch women will turn feminine women into lesbians, wrapping the writers’ critiques in an entertaining, sharp-edged package. That this production dulls its knife throughout the run-time does not diminish the laughs and glee, but the lack of frenzy in the pacing, and pauses for breath between scenes, makes this experience a safer proposition than intended.

Patty (Erin Barlow) is new to the office pool at Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. She loves working under demanding executive assistant Susan (Kelli Simpkins), who has formed her underlings into a cult that exercises extreme devotion to Slim Fast and celibacy. Competitive Ashley (Meghan Reardon) doesn’t appreciate coming in second to Patty in the “secretary of the month” contest. Peaches (Sadieh Rifai) is scrutinized by male higher-ups for her weight. And Dawn (Lauren Sivak) nurses a not-so-secret crush on the newbie in the office. Once Patty begins a romantic relationship with foreman Buzz (also played by Sivak), the clique moves quickly to integrate her into their monthly murder scenarios, and she must choose whether to be a good girl or a bad, possibly bisexual, killer.

Director Bonnie Metzgar encourages her ensemble to milk every larger than life emotional breakdown and noirish direct address moment, with mostly stellar results. Barlow is at her best when she transitions into present day, world-weary Patty, speaking to the audience with the dead eyes of a woman who’s in too deep and has seen too much. Sivak’s exaggeration of lunk-headed masculine posture is a real treat, as is her insistent seduction of Barlow while playing Dawn. Meanwhile, Rifai anchors one of the play’s few sincere moments, when she recounts her dieting problems to our heroine. In a role that could be played solely for comedic effect (her lip-syncing to pop songs during scenic transitions provides plenty of laughs), Rifai adds heart to the proceedings. Ultimately, it’s Simpkins as the boss who sets the tone for the other performers; her icy Susan commands the stage with angular poses and ludicrous sexual advances. Her showdown with Sivak over their celibacy agreement is largely memorable because it features sexual gymnastics that defy logic while tapping into the zany abandon of desire.

Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

While the actresses expertly mine the play’s dramatic tropes for comedy gold, the pacing of this production still feels off. I wonder if the two hour run-time is due less to the exaggerated performances, and more to the design elements at play. I thoroughly enjoyed the lurid spray of Rachel K. Levy’s pink, purple, and blood-red lights, which were often contrasted by stark white squares highlighting forbidden office windows. However, there were so many cues to run through from scene to scene, a pared-down approach might have helped the pace. Likewise, William Boles’ revolving set delighted, with the office furniture never arriving in the same spot twice. But the constant movement on such a small stage slowed the performance, and drained some of the energy from busy actors.

At one point during the play, a couple of men in front of me felt the need to look away from the murderous women onstage. Not because anyone held an axe or a chainsaw. Not because their emotional blackmail was reaching a climactic point. No, the guys shuddered because the women held out used tampons, to be collected by Susan for never-explained research. Likely, it is the least sinister thing that happens across the entire production. Yet the Five Lesbian Brothers are smart to know it will evoke discomfort. “The Secretaries” points out, using trashy cultural artifacts, that the only thing we cannot forgive is being female in the first place.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “The Lion in Winter” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

LionInWinter_16-206Show: The Lion in Winter

Company: Promethean Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Die Roll: 4

A classic play is a classic play for a reason.  The script is solid and it still speaks to us across the ages.  So it is with “Lion in Winter”.  Director Brian Pastor’s take on James Goldman’s venerable script is filled with seething passion that boils just below the surface of the very regal and hoping-to-be-regal characters’ faces.

The cast, headed by Brian Parry as King Henry and Elaine Carlson in the role of Eleanor, is made up of a group of actors whom I have come to respect through their other work around town.  So, it was a joy to see them all working together in concert to create a show so fully developed.  Parry and Carlson banter back and forth with barbs worthy of Benedick and Beatrice.  Really they surpass the Shakespearean and go to a level beyond.  These are a king and queen who are battling for control of the country, for the future of their sons, and for each others’ love.  And when it comes down to it, they’ve been at this battle long before the play started.  This is epic political warfare being waged.  There are subtleties and nuances at play here that only a skilled hand can bring to the fore, and Parry and Carlson do just that.

LionInWinter_16-085Jared Dennis as the somber Richard and Nick Lane in the role of Geoffrey are perfectly cast in their roles.  I now have an imprint in my mind as to what those two princes must have been like thanks to these two portrayals.  Only Tom Murphy’s turn as Prince John rubbed me the wrong way.  He was far more presentational than his compatriots, which made his character stick out.  I suppose that might have been an intentional choice, but whether it was or not, he distracted from the content of the scenes he was in.  I’ve enjoyed Murphy in past roles (most notably in last year’s “With Love and a Major Organ” at Strawdog), so I was disappointed that this wasn’t his strongest work.

Nevertheless, the pacing and the action of this play was perfect for the cerebrally challenging work that it is.  Politics and scheming are difficult to make engaging and personal, but the Promethean crew make the mechanations of governance and control into riveting theatre.  In addition to the acting, one thing that I’ve always found important in creating an environment for the positive reception of a difficult work is the soundscape that informs the audience’s reaction. Ben Sutherland’s sound design and original score set a perfect tone for what is happening on stage.

This is not a short show, as many scripts are these days.  It comes from a time when we would sit for longer and listen more carefully.  Because of that, I was thoroughly impressed that Pastor’s cast kept me engaged the entire time, never letting their energy fade for a moment.  This is a refreshing take on a script that many have come to know as a favorite.  Well done!

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Classic play about politics and family shines with fresh energy.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “Dreamgirls” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

Cast of "Dreamgirls"/Photo: Kelsey Jorissen
Cast of “Dreamgirls”/Photo: Kelsey Jorissen

Show: Dreamgirls

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 1

Over the years, I’ve come to expect good things from Porchlight Music Theatre, and “Dreamgirls” certainly kept up with my expectations.  The musical, which has had success on both stage and screen, is a high energy tour through the lives of a fictitious 1960s girl group akin to the Supremes.  The group goes through the highs and lows that come with fame and fortune.

The entire cast, headed by Donica Lynn, Candace C. Edwards, and Katherine Thomas as the titular group, is splendid.  The musicianship is universally high quality, and Brenda Didier’s staging moves with an effortless energy that carries the action along just shy of break-neck pace.  Were everything a step slower, it wouldn’t click.  Were it all a step faster, everything would blur together.  What Porchlight has accomplished here is nigh on perfect.

Eric Lewis is rapidly cementing himself in my line-up of favorite Chicago performers.  I’ve reviewed him before in the Marriott’s “Seussical” and BOHO’s “Parade”.  In the role of Jimmy Early here, he continues in a pattern of charismatic, powerful characters with remarkable pipes.  While his character is largely a plot device to show the evolution of the career of the ladies, he imbues it with a pathos that resonates beyond the world of a soul singer.  Lewis’ Jimmy is one of the characters with which is it most easy to empathize.

dreamgirls2Another hero among the cast is Gilbert Domally, who plays C.C. White.  As the brother of one of the group’s singers, he is the foil to her own tumultuous voyage.  And together Domally and Lynn form the spine of this work.  We root for them to succeed, and when things go wrong, we root for them to come back together and make it all okay again.

So much of this show is carried by the three (really, four — Kyrie Courter plays a new addition to the group in the 2nd act) ladies, that I find myself wanting to point out each of the smaller roles for how well those actors did.  But, this review would be of immense length if I did that.  Suffice it to say that everyone was cast exactly right, and performed even better than expected.

If attending this show, you’ll probably want to sit in the middle section (the thrust stage has about half of its seating divided on either side of the performance space).  It is clear that some numbers were staged specifically to be seen from that angle.  But, seeing the show from the side (as I did) doesn’t diminish the experience all that much.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  I can’t get the theme song out of my head!

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

Review: “The Misanthrope” (Piccolo Theatre)

Piccolo Theatre presents The MisanthropeShow: The Misanthrope

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Piccolo Theatre (600 Main Street, Evanston)

Die Roll: 13

As one walks into the Piccolo Theatre space, one can’t help but notice Sarah Lewis’ set design.  The stage in the particularly small space is in an in-the-round configuration.  There are two modified chaise style couches in the center of the room that form a sort of yin and yang circle through which is it evident that the action of the show will flow.  On the East wall of the space, splitting the audience seating in twain, is a multi-level wet bar which makes it clear that social drinking will play a major part in this show.  The design is pleasant and indicates an upper-class domain.  But the primary thing that captures the attention of everyone who enters the space is a squarish, white bowl that holds over a quart of Skittles (side note to my wife who doesn’t do imperial measurements: “That’s about a liter, dear”).  That bowl of Skittles becomes a star of this play long before the lights come up on the action.  Audience members comment to each other about it across the floor.  Loudly.  Over the twenty minutes I sat in the space prior to the show, I eventually watched just about every member of the audience get up, go to the concession stand/box office, and return with a box of Skittles and/or Reese’s Pieces (I assume that some people prefer their small round candy to be of a non-fruit variety).  I was not exempt from this behavior.  I was amazed at this bit of human behavior.  There was an entire show prior to the real show that is all to blame on the not-so-subtle suggestive action of a bowl of candy.

Anyway… As things get moving, the bowl of candy does play a much more passive role in this play.  Characters occasionally nab a couple of pieces and pop them in their mouths between lines of dialog, just as anyone in any normal setting would.  It makes for beautifully natural moments that are seamlessly incorporated into the play. Within this play there are many of those moments which capture the comfortable and habitual bits of real life that put a very real spin onto Moliere’s satiric comedy of manners from the 17th century.

Director Michael D. Graham clearly paid attention to all the little details in this production, and that level of focused care makes the comedy ring true despite a complicated script by Martin Crimp that embraces Moliere’s original verse structure but updates the piece to the modern era.  Instead of the intrigues of a set of Marquises in France at a time 100+ years before Napoleon, we get a set of actors, writers, and socialites who hover around the world of London’s West End.  The names, with the exception of the titular misanthropic character of Alceste (Ben Muller), have all been changed.  There is no Clitandre here.  Instead we get Alexander (Joe Beal).

As a cultural translation Crimp’s script is brilliant.  The rhythm and tone of the rhyme scheme is spot on in mimicking the scansion of Moliere’s own patter.  But that doesn’t at all hamper the inclusion of cell phones, and references to current societal conveniences.  Current vernacular swirls about fluidly, gracefully, and (when appropriate) coarsely.

One character does not make the leap from the original work into this one.  Alceste’s manservant who traditionally provides much of the farcical comedy has no corresponding character here.  And that puts the onus directly on the other characters to bring the funny.  And they do. But, it isn’t the same funny.  But, then, it also isn’t the same century, and our view of the play’s content differs in this day and age.  Sure, Alceste claims to hate all mankind.  But, we aren’t following the escapade of a strict moralist who suffers the weakness of having fallen in love.  No.  We watch as a self-righteous, emotionally abusive, jerk gets his due… in due time.  Instead of being surrounded by buffoonery, he interacts directly with his world and vicious, rapier-like exchanges cut him as often as he strikes others with his wit.

Muller rises admirably to the challenge of playing a character that has to carry the show while being primarily a one-note melody.  The character doesn’t really grow throughout the play, nor does he have much depth to him, but Muller makes Alceste come alive in a way that brings more to the stage than was originally on the page.  I have known the man that Muller plays.  He is familiar to me.  It isn’t comfortable to watch as Muller’s character expresses his need to control his girlfriend Jennifer (the Célimène analog, played quite convincingly by Callie Stephens).  And it is that discomfort that rings true.  Muller’s Alceste isn’t a good person.  He is trying to be one, but his true nature is so inherently flawed that even his best efforts are completely misguided. We can empathize with him a little, but only just enough to make him real, rather than a cartoon.  He never becomes the one for whom we are cheering.

The verse lines flow off of Muller’s tongue so naturally that one might think that he often speaks thus in real life.  In fact, this is a trait that is shared throughout this cast.  Not every actor approaches the rhymes in the same manner, but all of them do it as naturally as if talking in poetry was an integral part of all English communication.

There are times when the show gets dark in its message.  This is fitting, as it is the consequence of the world into which the play has been translated.  I really think it works.

One of the first plays that I worked on just after college was another “The Misanthrope” which was of a much more traditional bent.  The play has a sentimental spot in my heart, but I never really enjoyed the play itself all that much.  That is no longer the case.  This new translation and Graham’s cast’s realization of it has greatly raised the play’s place in my esteem.  This is now a morality play for a new age that addresses something much more relevant than the silliness of court life in the 1600s.

The script is clever.  The actors are stellar.  The direction is painstakingly exact and insightful.  There isn’t a thing that I can say against this production.  Man!  I want some Skittles.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A Moliere translation for a new generation. This play matters.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”