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”

Review: “Rent” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Review: “Rent” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Jaymes Osborne, Savannah Quinn Hoover, Courtney Jones, Matt Edmonds, Charles Benson, Patrick Rooney/Photo: Adam Veness
Jaymes Osborne, Savannah Quinn Hoover, Courtney Jones, Matt Edmonds, Charles Benson, Patrick Rooney/Photo: Adam Veness

Show: Rent

Company: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Venue: No Exit Cafe (6970 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: 9

It’s been 22 years since Rent first came on the theatrical scene and “Seasons of Love” became the most overplayed song in every theatre kid’s CD collection.  Despite owning a copy of the original Broadway cast recording, I was never really driven to see the show.  Over the last 20 years I’ve seen plenty of copycat musicals, ones that through obvious aping of the musical stylings of Jonathan Larson, hoped to catch a bit of the magic that made the updated “La Boheme” the biggest stage hit of the 1990s.

Last week, I finally sat down in the audience of a production of “Rent”, and I’m glad to say that it wasn’t as a huge production.  In fact, the intimacy of director Scott Weinstein’s staging is something that makes this play truly sing to me.  Theo Ubique’s cabaret atmosphere and spacing is always something of a challenge, but it is also one that they almost always successfully conquer.  With “Rent” the staging feels so natural to the play and to the space, that one might think that the work was written specifically to be done just this way.

The environment into which the audience is immersed is created thanks to Adam Veness’ set, and also to an impressive team of street artists who brought an exciting array of wall art into the space.  There is a dilapidated industrial feel to the entire thing.  Into that creative vessel, Weinstein pours his young cast and they fill it up.

I mention that the cast is young, largely because they are all age appropriate to the parts that they are playing.  That also means that they are mostly newcomers to the Theo Ubique stage.  None of the regulars whom I’ve become accustomed to seeing in their work were present.  And though those familiar faces are always well appreciated, it is nice to see a full compliment of young, powerful performances on this stage.

RENT full res-8The cast is headed by Matt Edmonds (the only member of the cast with whose work I was previously familiar) as Mark.  He narrates the action, making a documentary film of his friends’ lives as squatters in a broken down New York City loft.  Edmonds infuses Mark with a solid and comfortable confidence that allows him to carry the show on his shoulders.  The rest of the cast is very good as well.  In fact, there isn’t a weak spot in the group.  That includes the ensemble members.  Mimi (Savannah Hoover) is intriguingly dangerous.  Courtney Jones is liquid sex as Maureen.  Nicole Michelle Haskins gives a performance as JoAnne that makes the character rival Mark as the glue that holds the show together.

Much of the action takes place on three main platforms at the front of the house, yet some of the most refreshing moments are when actors perform at various places throughout the tiny theatre’s house.  And, when the songs call for the full ensemble to sing, and the cast is standing at all the points of the compass, the sound is nigh on perfect.  Whether it was Weinstein or music director Jeremy Ramey who positioned the actors for those numbers, they nailed it. The blend of voices was wonderful.  You know how back in the late 80s we were told that the sound of a CD was like sitting amongst the orchestra?  Well, that’s what this was like.  I could have sworn I was sitting in the midst of the CD recording session of these songs.  It was fantastic.

I wholly and completely recommend this production, even if (like me) you have avoided seeing “Rent” prior to now.  This is what this musical should be.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Play and venue meld together perfectly in this intimate production.

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “The Drawer Boy” (Redtwist Theatre)

Brian Parry and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Brian Parry and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

Show: The Drawer Boy

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre (1044 W. Bryn Mawr)

Die Roll: 14

Normally, I am able to whip out a review within a few hours of seeing a show.  My routine when seeing a show goes something like this:

  1. Get to theatre half an hour before curtain
  2. Meet my theatre buddy of the moment who is attending with me
  3. Watch show
  4. Go get a drink with my theatre buddy of the moment, and discuss what we just saw.
  5. Go home and write review in about an hour.

If I am writing a review for a show that I don’t like, it takes me less time to write than for one that I do like.  I blame the longer time for a positive review on the fact that I have to find just the right way to explain why a show affected me in a way that is not only valid, but important.  Twice in the last year, the time a review has taken me to write has extended into what could be called a really long time.  Such is the case with this review of Redtwist Theatre’s current production of “The Drawer Boy”.  The reason I’ve taken a week to get my thoughts coherently arranged on this play, is that I’m still processing a massive melange of thoughts and feelings that were evoked by the script, the performances, and the perfect staging.  Without reading further, you can probably guess that this play, under the direction of Scott Weinstein, will be receiving my highest possible rating.  Yet, I encourage you to read on, for I’d like to share my thoughts with you. I’m still working through them, so it’s likely that my thoughts won’t be nearly as cogent or coherent as the play itself.

As you may know, Redtwist Theatre is a tiny space in the Edgewater neighborhood.  They recently have made plans to expand into a second storefront adjacent to their current space, but as of this moment, it’s a really small theatre, and so it is always impressive to see the scope of productions that they can make happen.  With the limited space, they create an entire world and immerse you in the environment fully.  The world of “The Drawer Boy” is a farm in rural Canada in the year 1972.

Brian Parry, Adam Bitterman and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Brian Parry, Adam Bitterman and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

The specific setting is the kitchen and front porch of a single farmhouse inhabited by two aging farmers and their house guest, an actor (Aaron Kirby) who has come to town to learn about farming and create a play about the people and animals involved.

The farmers, Morgan (Adam Bitterman) and Angus (Brian Perry), are lifelong friends who grew up together, went to war together, returned home together, and now live together.  Angus suffered some brain damage during the war (World War II) while the two were stationed in England.  Since then, Morgan has been a sort of caretaker for his friend.

There are only three characters in this play.  And yet, there are truly more.  Sure, the dialogue leads to mentions of others in the community, but they are not of whom I speak.  No, I’m talking about the set and the soundtrack.  From the moment that the lights rise, the house in which the characters live is a character unto itself.  Eric Luchen’s set fills the space with a beautifully rendered country kitchen.  The individual boards of the front porch feel as if they’ve been there for years.  The old refrigerator and stove feel like they’re both cared-for and lived-in.  It is a kitchen in which Angus makes sandwiches.  He makes a lot of sandwiches.  And it feels right for him to casually and constantly operate within these walls.  The clapboard siding that extends off stage gives a sense that the rest of the house really is there.  It is a house that has meant much to the two friends, and you get the sense that it is their entire world.

Karli Blalock’s soundscape includes the songs that come from the kitchen radio as well as the sounds from around the farm.  One of the most vivid moments within the play is created entirely off stage as we hear Morgan attempting to teach Miles to drive a tractor.  The recording and mixing of that scene makes it seem like we were on the farm in hearing range of the event.  It is impressive.  There is something special about seeing a show that can make you feel as if you’re within the world that it is creating.  Sure, the acting is important in creating that illusion, but really well executed technical aspects take things to a whole other level, and the sound and set in this play definitely do that.

Another piece of the puzzle that allowed this world to envelop me is the dialect work.  Canadians don’t really tend to sound too far different from Americans.  It would be easy to do this show in standard American dialects and not worry about the subtle differences that make the citizens of Canada sound distinctly different than your average Midwesterner.  But, the work done by the actors and dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric is clearly evident.  They consistently reinforced the play’s universe.

Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

Now… All of those aforementioned aspects of the production were integral to making this play experiential for me, rather than just observational.  And that would have made for an affecting piece of theatre unto itself, but the true effect of this play is in its story of personal myth-making.

Most of us live within a myth of our own making.  We are the heroes of our own stories.  Or, if not the heroes, then at least the protagonists.  None of us look at ourselves without some sort of subjective filter that we apply in order to get through the daily drudgery.  Seldom do we confront the whole truth of who we are, because we aren’t even capable of it.  We tell ourselves stories of who we are and we believe them.  At our most basic level, we are those stories.

Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy” is a play about the stories that help us know who we are.  More importantly, it is a play about what happens when someone lives within the memories that are created through someone else’s stories.  Angus’ head wound, which occurred in England during WWII, has left him with little to no short term memory.  He is skilled at mathematics, and he’s a gentle soul who bakes and prepares food for his best friend.  He likes to hear stories.  One story in particular is his favorite, the story of the Farmer Boy and the Drawer Boy (Morgan and himself, respectively).  This is probably the best place to mention that I had always thought the title of this play referred to drawers in a cabinet or dresser, not a person who draws.  But, seeing the play clears that up after about half an hour or so.  Anyway… Morgan has spent many nights over the last thirty years telling Angus the story of how they grew up, ran away to the army, fell in love with two British girls, and how they came home again.  The story isn’t necessarily a happy one, but it rings with truth.  The problem is, it isn’t true.  Much of it is based upon things that really happened to the men, but because Angus can’t remember much, Morgan has been free to alter the details and create a better story.

For Angus, that story is his world.  His world is constructed around the falsehoods that Morgan put into the story.  Those falsehoods are only discovered when Miles, the actor, appropriates the tale for his show after overhearing it one night.  Seeing the story performed by someone else unlocks some blocks in Angus’s mind, and eventually leads to some repressed memories surfacing.  That’s really an over-simplification of the plot, but I don’t want to recite the play to you.  It would be better for you to make the trip to Redtwist to experience it for yourself.

There are so many issues addressed in this play.  It’s a tale of well intentioned brainwashing.  It is a story about repressed memories.  It is an exploration of what it means to be a friend.  It is an inquiry into who gets to protect who, and what is fair.  It is a challenge to those who believe they have a right to force others to confront their truths and falsehoods.  It is a study of love, loss, human frailty, and human responsibilty, all mixed into a little bit of hope and clinging to what give us meaning.  If everything is subjective anyway, then what is truth?  It isn’t easy to encapsulate, but it is important, vital, and vibrant.

As this is getting to be a long article, I’ll put this in a nutshell for you: This play made me feel and think.  That’s sort of the goal of all theatre, really.  How this production stands out is that it makes me feel and think still, over a week later.  I believe I’ll be parsing through those thoughts for some time, sorting through the feelings many months from now.  It is beautifully written, wonderfully staged, and skillfully acted.  I’ll recommend it to anyone who’ll give me a moment to mention it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: We each live in a myth of memory.  But whose?

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Byhalia, Mississippi” (The New Colony & Definition Theatre)

Cecelia Wingate, Liz Sharpe/Photo by Joe Mazza
Cecelia Wingate, Liz Sharpe/Photo by Joe Mazza

Show: Byhalia, Mississippi

Company: The New Colony & Definition Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 6

Representing authentic characters on stage is hard work.  Just generally.  Creating authentic characters from a region that is often treated to stereotyping and near parody when presented on Northern stages is remarkable work.  Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi” is a very real look at the people of Northern Mississippi (the part a stone’s throw from Tennessee and Arkansas).  It’s a corner of the country that many from the Midwest would look down upon as being populated by racist hillbillies.  And, sure, there have been racial issues in that area, and still are.  But, that’s true here in Chicago, too.  One of the beautiful things about this play is that it addresses a plethora of social and political issues, but does so subtly by focusing on the characters and making them as real as possible.

Back when I was in grad school for playwriting, one of my professors maintained that no matter what else was true about your script, none of it mattered without the characters.  Well drawn characters can tell just about any story and make it moving.  Addressing issues makes something a platform, creating characters makes it a play.  Linder would have aced that professor’s class.  His characters are real people.  They have real problems.  They have real feelings.  They speak in very real cadences that bring the viewer into the world of the play.  This is a really well-crafted work.

When that script with great characters is then put on the stage with great care, you get a show like this one, which is surely the best that I’ve seen in a while, not just in the brief beginnings of 2016.

Liz Sharpe, Evan Linder/Photo: Joe Mazza
Liz Sharpe, Evan Linder/Photo: Joe Mazza

When entering the Den’s upstairs main stage, one has to walk across a sliver of the gravel path up to the house of Jim and Laurel Parker (played by Linder and Liz Sharpe, respectively).  This is a momentary, tactile introduction to the physical environment created by John Wilson’s set.  The house is clearly not part of an upper-class existence, and it helps define the characters before we even meet them.  Jim and Laurel are struggling.  Laurel’s mother Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) is the first person we meet who regularly points that out.  But, it is evident from the get-go.  So, at lights-up, this is a play about class struggle.  Poor, working people trying to make it in a world that is trying to keep them down.  Laurel is pregnant.  Sharpe’s movement work captures the carriage of a woman atop her due date accurately enough that those who have been with child, or those who have lived with a woman ready to be done with their pregnancy, may have difficulty telling that she isn’t really in a motherly way.

Celeste doesn’t care for Jim, and isn’t quite about it.  So, now we have a play about family dynamics.  Also, Celeste is not of the lower class, and didn’t raise her daughter to be.  And now, we have a play not only about class struggle, but class conflict.  For much of the first scene, that is what the play appears to be.  But, then there’s a sharp turn that takes us down a new road.  Laurel gives birth (off stage, thankfully).  We don’t see her or the child for a while.  Instead, we see Jim come home in despair.  His best friend Karl (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.) has been decorating the house for the baby’s arrival. Almost as soon as he’s through the door, Jim attacks Karl.  You see, Karl is a black man, and the child that came from Laurel’s womb is black, not white like Jim.  So, now we have a play about infidelity.  A play about race.  A play about betrayal.  But, most importantly, it is at this moment that the seeds of the play’s real arc are planted. This is really a play about forgiveness: seeking it, wanting it, giving it, withholding it, rejecting it.  Each of these characters has opportunity to forgive and be forgiven.  This isn’t a religious thing.  It is a personal one that resonates at a most basic level.

Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr./Photo: Joe Mazza
Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr./Photo: Joe Mazza

Director Tyrone Phillips guides his cast through all of the surround issues deftly.  Each is touched upon in ways that indicate how much an inherent part of life they are, without employing a moral sledgehammer to talk about them.  From the moment the baby is born, myriad issues around the topic of race come to the fore.  Ayesha (Kiki Layne) is the wronged wife whose husband fathered Laurel’s baby.  She directly raises the issue of white privilege when comparing her life and Laurel’s.  She also addresses assumed racial roles by calling Karl an Uncle Tom, a move which shifts his perspective, rocks his world, and has massive repercussions on all the characters’ lives.

This is complex stuff.  Everything is there all the time, the tough issues are just under the surface of every moment, and they come through with regularity, but through skillful direction, the play never slams into an issue with enough force to derail the action.  At one point there is a stutter-step in the flow, as the audience audibly reacts to Celeste’s declaration that she is not racist.  However, outside of that, the underlying issues propel the story and leave topics for thought and discussion in the minds of the audience members.  That’s a huge accomplishment.  I don’t need to be slammed over the head about most of the problems in “Byhalia, Mississippi”.  I need to care about the characters, to see their struggles as real, and to see realistically how they are all affected by the issues at hand.

Do I come away thinking about the racial problems in the rural south?  Yes.  But, I come away with perspective on how they affected a small group of individuals.  Some of whom are ready to forgive each other for their mutual sins.  Some who will be ready someday.  And some who will never forgive.  And because they struggle with a very personal and very real issue of forgiveness, this becomes a play that I cannot forget.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: How, when, and why do you choose to forgive someone?

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “The Christmas Schooner” (Mercury Theater Chicago)

Stef Tovar and Brianna Borger in "The Christmas Schooner"
Stef Tovar and Brianna Borger in “The Christmas Schooner”

Show: The Christmas Schooner

Company: Mercury Theater Chicago

Venue: Mercury Theater Chicago (3745 N. Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 17

When John Reeger and Julie Shannon wrote “The Christmas Schooner”, they penned a musical that really is the perfect holiday show for Chicago.  Sure, if you look at what is offered in this market as holiday fare, you might assume that sketch comedies on holiday themes are what we want, but that’s not the case at all.  We want what everyone wants at this time of year: a bit of nostalgia, a bit of cheer, and a holiday show that we can relate to.  And we can certainly relate to a play set in Chicago itself… well, at least, part of it is set in Chicago.  This musical, under the direction of L. Walter Stearns, is a vibrant, celebratory, and touching look back into a simpler time when Christmas trees weren’t made of plastic, and when men risked their lives to spread holiday cheer by sailing a ship full of firs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

It is easy to become jaded by Christmas shows, especially for those of us who have made the business of holiday productions our livelihood.  But, that just makes it all the more special when a show comes along that rekindles the holiday spirit in our own hearts.  “The Christmas Schooner” did that for me.  When the scene first opens on a family’s home in the UP, we meet Alma (Brianna Borger), Karl (Peyton Owen), and Gustav (James Wilson Sherman).  Life seems pretty good for this group, especially when they are then joined by Alma’s husband (and Karl’s father), Peter (Stef Tovar).  Peter is the captain of a ship who fondly remembers his childhood Christmas celebrations in Germany.  And, because a cousin in Chicago writes him about how she misses those bygone times around the tree, he conceives the idea of an annual trip to sell Christmas trees in the Windy City.

Mercury Christmas Schooner - Men of The Christmas SchoonerThis is a story about standing for something that means something.  It is a story about faith, trust, honor, and hope.  And when it comes down to it, it is a story about family and legacy.  What can each of us do in our lives to matter when we’re gone?  Peter Stossel made a massive difference in hundreds or thousands of people’s lives through his Christmas Tree Ship.  Within the play we only get to see a tiny handful of his customers.  What we see more of is the group of people around him: his family, his crew, and the people whom he touched directly.  And it is clear that one man can make a huge difference in people’s lives for the good.

This story would stand on its own no matter the production qualities, but in the hands of Mercury Theater Chicago, it is elevated to something special.  Jacqueline and Richard Penrod have made a set that does admirable double duty as both the Stossel home and the “Rouse Simmons” (Stossel’s ship).  It allows the cast to inhabit the two worlds seamlessly, and captures both the comfort of the warm hearth, and the exciting danger of the open expanse of our inland freshwater sea.

I didn’t come away from the performance with any specific song stuck in my head.  This isn’t a musical filled with catchy hooks.  The music here is such that it bypasses the part of your brain that grabs firmly onto pop tunes.  Instead it goes straight to the heart.  Each time singing entered the picture, it was because that was exactly the right way to tell that part of the story.  The music of this musical resides in a world where singing is a completely natural way to express oneself.  That’s wonderfully refreshing.

I know why theatres put on holiday shows, and why they bring the same ones back year after year.  Much of that has to do with money.  But, not all of it does.  Just as Peter Stossel and his crew discovered on their first trip to Chicago, there are some traditions that are worth doing year after year for their own sakes.  And I believe that Mercury Theater Chicago has found one of those traditions in this show.  I know that I’ll be back next year, for sure.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Some traditions are worth saving.  Others are worth spreading everywhere.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”