Review: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas” (Subtext Theater Company)

Hilary Hensler and David M. Hartley/Photo: John Oster.

Show: “A Prayer for the Sandinistas”

Company: Subtext Theater Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

Die Roll: 2

I am unsure where to begin. “A Prayer for the Sandinistas,” as an exploration of faith and family loyalty, is generally fine, if too gentle in its challenges to the status quo. The production is well-acted, and seems suited to the Prop black box space. But there are some dramatic choices that gnaw at my mind when thinking about the performance I saw this week, so I find myself unsure how best to give readers a fair impression of the production.

Let’s start light and easy with a taste of the story. Johnny (played as a child by Jack Edwards, and as an adult by David M. Hartley) lives in 1979 Chicago, a place the Pope is about to visit. His devout mother Kassia (warmly brought to life by Hilary Hensler) has spent months preparing the local parish for the event, and during this time, she opens her home to her arriving sisters, nuns Eva (Julie Schlesinger) and Anna (Laura Brennan). The women have been serving at an orphanage in Nicuragua, where Johnny sent money and letters to the orphaned Maria (Gloria Alvarez) as a child. Maria has come with the sisters, bringing along her boyfriend Carlos (Victor Maraña), a Sandinista with whom Johnny, his cop uncle Stanley (Phil Troyk), and everyone else clashes.

The play involves debates between atheists and Catholics, questions of social justice and family responsibility. But there are two elements of the script that deserve addressing outside of those thematic concerns. First, Johnny was born with a sizeable port wine stain birthmark on his face; playwright Leigh Johnson makes it a focus of the story, serving as a reminder of guilt to Johnny’s mother, and acting as an obstacle for Johnny’s advancement at work. Johnson expends a lot of energy and dialogue in regards to what is essentially a make-up choice. Though he is willing to attach the birthmark to Kassia’s complicated psychology, he offers little follow-through in regards to how Johnny’s feelings about it change, marking the “othered” party as less important than his more typically beautiful mother. This would be of little note, if not for the play’s presentation of Anna, the second concerning element of the play for me.

Victor Maraña and Gloria Alvarez/Photo: John Oster.

Anna has some sort of developmental disability. She is viewed simply as “slow” or a handful by those around her. She is childlike and innocent, and Brennan works overtime to display a curiosity and understanding in Anna’s eyes that the script does not support. Johnson never gives his nun the definition necessary to draw a conclusion about her condition. Because his work is set in 1979, the attitudes of characters in his world would not reflect how we address identity labels now, possibly. But Anna is constantly referred to as the “heart of the family,” and it is her lack of understanding and individuality that makes her an asset and a burden to everyone onstage. So she becomes a caricature and stereotype played by a neurotypical actress, who does her best not to look down on the character.

By play’s end, I wondered why exactly Johnson has included Anna and Johnny with his birthmark. The same story about faith could have functioned without unsurprising pronouncements that trumpet acceptance but do not give characters their full voices or humanity. Add to that an outdated discussion about how the Catholic church influences and traumatizes its parishioners, and the script becomes so old-fashioned, it is difficult to connect its 1970’s concerns to the contemporary world.

Director Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch allows for some quiet character work, but he also gives so much breadth to awkward pauses that the play shuts down throughout much of the first act. The design work by Subtext Theater Company members is minimal and adequate, while Hartley and Hensler build a warm relationship over the run time. This production might best be viewed as a museum piece, a portrait of a different time, in which principles about faith can be resolved within a week.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Troubling portraits of two “othered” characters muddy a domestic drama.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “The Radiant” (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Debbie Ruzicka and James McGuire/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Show: “The Radiant”

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Scientific discovery should provide a wealth of material for theatrical exploration. Nothing is more engaging than human curiosity and effort. However, STEM-based plays often fall into traps of plot contrivance or confusing jargon, for fear of misleading or boring the audience. Such is the case with the Chicago premiere of “The Radiant,” an exploration of Marie Curie that is less interested in her achievements, and more invested in how romance sets her on a path to melodrama and potential ruin.

Marie Curie was a total boss, known for the discovery of polonium and radium, as well as her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was also the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes. As portrayed by Debbie Ruzicka in Genesis Theatrical’s production, she is shy and overwhelmed after her husband Pierre’s death. She does not fight for his teaching position at the University of Paris, and only weakly steps into his lectureship after receiving encouragement from his former assistant, Paul Langevin (James McGuire). She fears entering Pierre’s lab due to the memories it will dredge up. And once she develops romantic feelings for Paul, any dramatic focus on her research goes out the window, even as she fights (mostly) offstage to isolate radium and defend her work as a chemist. Her niece Katarina (Chloe Dzielak) acts as her confidant and caretaker to the Curie children, while Michael Lomenick takes on the roles of every man who tries to undermine Curie’s work.

Michael Lomenick/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Playwright Shirley Lauro clearly understands the gender double standard that Curie experienced in academia; her secret relationship with Langevin caused a scandal that threatened her second Nobel Prize. But the author is unwilling to push Curie into high-stakes decisions. Her affair randomly begins at her husband’s graveside, only moments after she laments how much she misses him. Her scientific work is referenced often, but the isolation of radium is never given context. There is little to root for in this biographical piece, when the audience is whisked from scene to scene and year to year with little information given about what Marie outside, outside of time with her boyfriend. Ultimately, the science feels lost, Curie’s goal is unknown, and the relationship at the center of the play ends by giving gratitude and power to Paul. I doubt that was Lauro’s intention, but the affair storyline carries little weight, while the effect of an affair on a prominent woman’s work could have unleashed a longer, more nuanced dramatic exploration.

Ruzicka is dutiful to the script, emphasizing Curie’s insecurity about her appearance, as well as her melancholy. It doesn’t make the scientist easy to root for, but she is recognizably human amid time jumps and announcements regarding her affair. McGuire is less able to flesh out Paul, whose inner life is left mostly a blank; why he loves Marie remains a mystery by play’s end. Dzielak starts the play using broad humor, which is jarring, but settles in to a more subtle, serious vein by her final scene. Director Kaitlin Taylor tries to pull the threads of romance and science together, but she has the actors speak at such a slow pace, it’s hard to find momentum or conflict in their love and work.

I am not sure why set designer Harrison Ornelas chose to use movable pillars as a marker for different spaces in a black box theatre. Eric J. Vigo’s lights could have delineated offices and living rooms from the outdoors well enough. Continual movement of the pillars added time that the play did not need, and actually hemmed the actors in, creating a couple of unnecessary blind spots from where I was sitting.

Across her career, Marie Curie dealt with xenophobia, gender discrimination, and loss. “The Radiant” skims across these issues, and minimizes her work onstage. A better portrait would develop her steely resolve, and display how she chose to move past these obstacles into exciting new discoveries.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Marie Curie was a badass; she deserves a stronger play.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Review: “Dating & Dragons” (The Factory Theater)

Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.

Show: “Dating & Dragons”

Company: The Factory Theater

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard)

Die Roll: 16

Games, whether you’re talking about Monopoly, Risk, Magic, or Dungeons & Dragons, are governed by rules. Players can make prescribed choices at specific junctures while playing. Despite the comfort such routine may bring, games are also governed by chance. More often than not, a player rolls a many-sided die to determine his or her fate. And they have no control over what which way the roll lands.

This is a truth that Jack (Nick Freed) struggles with in The Factory Theater’s “Dating & Dragons,” currently running at the company’s new Howard space. Jack is a dungeon master for his group of friends; he controls the high fantasy adventures and card games they play multiple times a week. Gus (Josh Zagoren) takes the rules and routines of each game most seriously, clearly finding real life a boring slog. Paige (Savanna Rae) enjoys the multitude of choices that come along after she rolls the die. But Jack’s best friend Sean (Joe Faifer) is happy to interrupt their gaming sessions to discuss the girl Jack has been flirting with at work. Her name is Diane (Rebecca Wolfe), and Jack’s evolving relationship with her sparks what little conflict exists in “Dating & Dragons.” Jack thinks he can see where the romance is headed, but sadly, people are not predicated by game dice.

Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.
Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.

Playwright Mike Ooi pays a lot of lip service to the idea of rules throughout his script. However, Jack’s dedication to consistent game play is not what gets in the way of his connection with Diane. So the many sequences in which Jack or various other characters explain the games they are playing — often named by generic terms as an in-joke for the characters and as a safety measure for Factory itself — waste valuable stage time that could be spent developing dramatic stakes for Jack and Diane. The audience does not need to know how to play the games these characters enjoy, unless those rules impact the real world they live in, and much to Gus’ pleasure, they really don’t. Some characters voice concern that Jack will be taken away from their meetings by his new-found love, but we never see the consequence of lost gaming time. Ooi’s enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and video games is baked into the quips the group trades in each playing scene. But there isn’t a shred of connection between Jack’s love life and his friendships or their recreational pursuits, so I’m hard-pressed to call “Dating & Dragons” a play, when there’s little story to involve myself in.

Diane is another conundrum in the script. Wolfe gives her a lot of charm, but we learn little about her wants and needs, given how solely we live in Jack’s world. The most we see in her is what Jack sees: that Diane is pretty, is willing to hang with his nerdy friends, and wants to sleep with him. Ooi brings up the fact that Diane has her own wants and needs a few times, but by the time we find out what she desires, she’s too much of a cypher to invest in Jack’s heartbreak. For a play that is attempting not judge nerdier activities, Ooi inadvertently creates a world where women have little say, and are around mostly to be saved by the hero — Jack, in this case.

Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.

Director Scott Oken keeps things lively by having separate actors act as avatars embodying the games the group plays. And while the actors are having a blast mimicking the self-serious tropes of “Game of Thrones,” as well as the halting mechanics of video game graphics, the theatrical device grows stale over time. Do we really need avatars showing the audience giant cards that Jack and his friends are throwing? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch the game and imagine the adventure in one’s head? A late attempt by an avatar to take on Jack’s role broke the formula, but I remain unsure what purpose this moment served in the story.

Kaitlyn Grissom’s set admirably captures Jack’s toy-filled apartment and workplace, though the transitions between the two eat up stage time that could be used by the avatars or the gamers themselves. Sarah Espinosa’s sound design, especially the pre-show, captures the feeling of a good mix tape, with some Nintendo soundtracks thrown in. While costume designer Gary Nocco doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, he makes do with clever nods to each game played, making for enjoyable visuals.

Chance is a part of love, as much as it’s a part of any game (whether or not the players realize it). While the creators of “Dating & Dragons” clearly love their games and all forms of gaming, injecting a bit more chance into their plot may have given this play a greater sense of risk, and helped me fall in love with the production.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A story about gamers is less story and more games.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “Out of the Blue” (Organic Theater Company)

Adam Zaininger and Will Burdin/Photo: John Jennings.
Adam Zaininger and Will Burdin/Photo: John Jennings.

Show: “Out of the Blue”

Company: Organic Theater Company

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 1

Is it possible to glimpse into the life of another person and truly, deeply understand their thoughts and actions? By simply listening to others’ stories, can we gain a full sense of their trials and tribulations? Acting as mere witnesses, can we transcend our own circumstances in order to empathize with those who are not like us? These are questions I ponder frequently as a theatre-goer. If the aim of good drama is to intimately connect strangers sitting in the dark with strangers standing onstage, surely more is required than a space, people to walk across that space, and people to watch the walkers do it. Magic can be made from such simple elements, but I still wonder if certain experiences remain untranslatable.

Case in point: “Out of the Blue,” produced by the Organic Theater Company. This U.S. premiere of a script by Russian playwright Vladimir Zaytsev could be known by two titles. In Russia, and in all of the news articles about the play’s controversial run there, the play has been called “All Shades of Blue,” a moniker that carries a different meaning. “Out of the Blue” is an American idiom, and the phrase is spoken in the play by a shocked father upon learning his son is gay. In Russia, the word itself is used as a slang term to describe gay people, while in America, the color could suggest sadness, a beautiful sky, “a bolt from the blue,” or many other possibilities. We as an audience are not prepped by translators Tatyana Khaikin and Robert Duffley to interpret blue in the way that Russian audiences are, and the original author’s melodramatic posturing further pushes away a Western audience that likely already believes LGBTQA people are not possessed by demons and should have the right to love and live how they choose. Perhaps “Out of the Blue” is necessary for Russian audiences, where the play was dogged by bomb threats, protests from a right-wing religious group, and speculation by Putin’s government that it is harmful homosexual propaganda. But Organic’s production does little to justify its existence or illuminate its cultural moment in America, offering several one-note characters, strange scenic transitions, and lots of dramaturgical information in place of compelling dramatic action.

The plot follows predictable beats. A teenage boy (played with pep by Will Burdin) faces the audience and tells a coming out story. We watch him try to date girls in school; his most lasting and unsuccessful relationship scars pop music fan Vika (Amy Powell, demonstrating eight thousand ways to dance to vacuous songs). He has finally decided not to date at all, when he meets Andrey (Adam Zaininger, cocky and entertaining), a jock who coaches him in the art of love, while instructing him to never, ever tell his friends and family that he is gay. The truth slips out, unfortunately, when his parents (Bryan Wakefield and Laura Sturm) announce they are getting a divorce. Plans are made to correct their son’s behavior, but no attempt is successful, leading the father to take drastic, over-the-top action.

Bryan Wakefield, Will Burdin, and Laura Sturm/Photo: John Jennings.
Bryan Wakefield, Will Burdin, and Laura Sturm/Photo: John Jennings.

The script breezes through its first forty minutes, as Burdin delights in talking about first kisses and confusion with the opposite sex. Once the confession occurs, however, any semblance of story structure vanishes, and the audience is forced to endure the same conversation for two more hours: “How can our son be gay?! What kind of monster is he?! What are we going to do about this problem?!” Sturm in particular tries her best to vary Mama’s concerns and allegiances, but the script and its direction by Alexander Gelman leave little room for surprise. Zaytsev has said in interviews that the play is meant to shine a light on bigotry; those who resemble this boy’s parents are the real monsters. But zealots will not see themselves in the characters onstage. The dialogue lacks any sense of raw emotion and damaging judgment, so the narrative holds absolutely no power over the audience. Likewise, we are meant to empathize with Burdin, but that is easy. He does nothing wrong over the span of three hours, nothing to make us question his choices. He, in fact, makes almost no choices throughout the play. He is acted upon, reacted against, never in control of his own destiny. It is unclear, even, why he tells his parents he is gay, so the Russian press material provided by Organic calling him courageous rings false.

The entire production itself lacks follow-through; the set is an after-thought and the costume design begins and ends with the gay men onstage wearing blue. Gelman fairs no better in directorial concept. There are dream sequences sprinkled throughout the script, where side characters from the boy’s school either accept or reject him, while sharing their own stories. Why are these scenes performed? Gelman gives them no personality or impact on reality. They are theatrical embroidery, and cutting them entirely may have helped the play’s final gut punch, which landed with a wimpy knuckle-rap at the performance I attended.

One might argue that the turmoil of this play — family secrets, coming out, struggling with one’s identity — makes it relatable to an American audience. And if the boy’s story was told in a complex way, if we were given a clue as to whether or not we were watching Russians or American stand-ins, if the words of the play felt remotely real or involving, then theatrical magic might have taken place. We would understand a stranger. There is no more powerful experience than identifying with others, particularly in a play about marginalized people. “Out of the Blue” is not that play.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Russian boy comes out and melodramatic predictability ensues.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “Twisted Knots” (TTKD Productions)

Ryan Kitley, Mary Cross/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.
Ryan Kitley, Mary Cross/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.

Show: “Twisted Knots”

Company: TTKD Productions

Venue: The Royal George Cabaret Theatre (1641 N Halsted)

Die Roll: 6

Role-playing carries a particular power in the theatre. Not simply because drama requires actors to stand onstage and pretend to be people they are not. And not just because so many classic comedies deal in mistaken identity or women impersonating men for various plot-driven reasons. No, playing a role allows any character, and any audience member by extension, the freedom to make bold choices and take courageous action. Because if you are not who you say you are, maybe you won’t have to deal with the consequences.

That seems to be the hope for the couple at the center of “Twisted Knots,” a world premiere comedy presented by TTKD Productions, now playing at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre. When we first meet businessman Frank (Ryan Kitley) and escort Gina (Mary Cross), they are negotiating the cost of spending an evening together. It is New Year’s Eve in a swanky Chicago hotel, and Gina reasons that the financial details should have been decided before her arrival. But Frank is preoccupied by a sales deal gone bad, and does not have the thousand dollars he owes his companion. I hesitate to write more about the plot. Suffice it to say, the allegiances and identities of each character shift multiple times between midnight and morning, and the lost money takes on a deeper significant in the daylight.

Playwright Dale Danner clearly holds a lot of affection for his mismatched pair. If only that affection translated into dynamic dramatic conflict. His set-up promises relationship intrigue and kink. But Frank immediately bogs down proceedings by lecturing Gina on what makes a good salesman — the answer seems to be good luck. One could make the case that Frank gets in his own way here, thus delaying pleasure; but that lack of flesh and blood involvement with the woman onstage raises suspicions too early, as opposed to elevating tension. Sure enough, the two are not strangers, even though they speak in first level language, as if they have never met before. Danner’s command of character seems to begin and end with didactic philosophizing, and leaves out the human factor. We spy only the briefest hints of desire onstage, as the second act opens after an evening’s passion has been spent, and the role-playing leads to little in the way of social or emotional upheaval. The one bright spot in the script comes in the debate over the changing meaning of payment in the morning. But perhaps if Danner were less involved in speechifying, and more involved in what actually happens when two people with separate hearts negotiate their needs, the play would pulse with life.

Mary Cross, Ryan Kitley/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.
Mary Cross, Ryan Kitley/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.

The director and actors do their level best to invest the play with moment-to-moment feeling. Kitley brings a nice unease to the morning after, speaking and moving delicately across the room. He evokes haplessness well throughout, but meets his partner’s energy in a James Bonds scenario that plays out in the first half of the script. The production’s real stand-out is Mary Cross. She creates distinct personas for each major beat of the play, and when every façade rolls away, the audience is left with a raw, flinty woman, who is a better actor than her partner realizes. Meanwhile, director Tara Branham uses every inch of the large hotel room, pushing actors through child-like gymnastics in their make-believe games, generating ceaseless vibrant stage pictures, when the script fails to excite.

The furnishings for “Twisted Knots” come from the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago, and the most that can be said of Greg Pinsoneault’s handsome design is that it perfectly resembles a blandly stylish hotel room. Like the play itself, there is little distinguishing about the set, other than what the performers bring to it. Turns out playing a role can only generate so much spice, especially when the imagination is used to mask problems, rather than face them.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Two (maybe?) strangers meet in a hotel room, evoking snores.

RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “A Number” (Runcible Theatre Company)

Stephen Fedo and Owen Hickle Edwards/Photo compliments of Runcible Theatre Company
Stephen Fedo and Owen Hickle Edwards/Photo compliments of Runcible Theatre Company

Show: A Number

Company: Runcible Theatre Company

Venue: Royal George Theatre (1641 N Halsted)

Die Roll: 10

As you may guess, not all critics see a play on the same night.  While many of us make any given opening night, there are enough shows opening each evening that sometimes you have to see one show over another.  In such cases one might have to see a show on a different night than the other critics did.  That is the only thing that I can think of for why others rated Runcible’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” so favorably, while I basically saw it in a completely different light.  I’m hoping that I saw the show on an off night. There were only six people in the audience when I saw the show, and despite the fact that audience size ought not to affect the performance of a cast, it does often affect their mood and result directly in a sub-par performance.  So… perhaps that explains what I saw.

On the level of first impressions, I was encouraged by the set design as I arrived.  The floor and two walls are stark white, flat, and imposing, all while remaining sterile and creating an air of clinical disconnection.  One metal chair inhabits the space.  Once lights come up, the simple-yet-powerful set houses two men who banter back and forth about “a number”. About three minutes (which felt like at least five to ten) passed while the two talked at each other saying lines that obfuscate the point of their discussion.  This is a weak start that is mostly to blame on Churchill’s script.  As the playwright intentionally keeps things vague, the actors struggle to make a connection with each other, and therefore with the audience as well.

DSC_0163EditEventually it is learned that the character played by Owen Hickle-Edwards establishes that he either one of a bunch of clones, or that he is someone who has been cloned.  I can’t tell you if he is playing B1, B2, or Michael Black at this point in the show.  Hickle-Edwards is credited with playing those three parts. As you can probably ascertain, he portrays two of the clones and the original man from whom the others were derived–although, not all at once. Salter (Stephen Fedo) is presumably the father of one of Hickle-Edwards’ characters.  The thing is, a few more minutes into the show, I knew exactly which iteration of the son Hickle-Edwards was playing in each scene, and the story fleshed out in front of us, but by then the show had already lost me.  It pushed me so far away in the beginning that coming back into its embrace was difficult at best.

Fedo’s performance was solid, though static.  The character doesn’t go much of anywhere.  I believe that there is growth indicated in the script.  The words imply a journey of both discovery and contemplation, despite a reluctance to not change.  Salter wanted a second try at raising his son, a son who he felt went wrong somewhere along the way.  He doesn’t really exhibit any regret for what he’s done, nor any pride.  He’s not morally good, nor morally evil.  He’s on a flat path.  He reveals pieces of expository information, but doesn’t accomplish much else.

Hickle-Edwards’ turn as the three different characters is mostly separated by way of vocal shifts.  Strangely three men who look identical but have lived drastically different lives all move in exactly the same way, stand with the same posture, have the same mannerisms.  Basically, were it not for the fact that the second iteration was angry, there would have been no way to differentiate the characters from one another.

The show’s staging didn’t help the situation.  Much of the movement felt unmotivated.  From time to time the chair would be relocated.  Hickle-Edwards picked up the chair and looked as if he might be threatening his scene partner with it, only to have that impulse disappear as he slung the thing over his shoulder and carried it to one of the walls.

The thing is, the script started rough, but it hit its stride and the topics it discusses are interesting.  Sadly, the production never did truly find its footing.  It was awkward, and slightly painful to watch.  Luckily, it is a brief trip through the world that play creates, and if other reviewers’ experiences are any indication it is often a better trip than the one I took.  That being said, I can only review what I witnessed myself.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: At sixty minutes, this show is an hour too long.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”

Link to Review: “Unspeakable” (Broadway In Chicago)

As you know, when I write a review for another media outlet, I also post that review here.  I then write up a new 10-word summary for the piece, and a Dice Rating to make everything  that I review uniform and comfy for you.  So here it is…

Link to Review: “Picture Imperfect” (Bread & Roses Productions)

In an attempt to keep all of the reviews that I write cataloged in one convenient place, I post links to the pieces I write for other press outlets.  Here’s a review I wrote over at Newcity Magazine:

Review: “Dividing the Estate” (Raven Theatre)

Estate-336 - HurleyShow: “Dividing the Estate”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre

Die Roll: 01-07 on 2d10

“Dividing the Estate” is one of Horton Foote’s final plays. Set in 1987, it concerns the non-existent fortunes of an old Texas family that spends most of its time worried about preserving each individual’s status quo. Like many Foote plays, it’s more about the everyday relationships in a family than a single dramatic event.

Reviews of the 2008 Broadway run praise the show’s humor and humanity. Unfortunately, neither was present in the Raven’s production. There are a paltry few characters that seem to live onstage; the rest simply wander around the house and wait for their turn to speak.

The first issue I have is with the set itself. It presents beautifully: the foyer, parlor, and formal dining room of a grand old dame of a house that has clearly passed its prime. It’s also enormous. It dwarfed the actors. Especially in the first act, actors ended up in small clumps on one side of the set or another. The set pretty much swallowed them whole and left them fighting to own the space. If I could rationalize this as a choice, I would, but there was nothing in the acting, direction, or text that suggested that this was so.

Furniture is arranged in straight lines from upstage to downstage so that actors consistently face away from the audience while speaking. The worst example is a rather long scene toward the end of the first act when the whole family sits down together to eat, and the entire table is blocked by one actor who sits with his back to the audience. I had no idea what was going on or who was talking because I couldn’t see a damn thing. At that point, I pretty much gave up and instead tried to find something interesting to look at for the next ten minutes.

Another issue was volume. Between the set design, the choice to block actors facing away from the audience, and the inability of some of the actors to project, a lot of dialogue floated off into the ether. Too many actors ended up speaking past each other instead of to each other.

On the whole, individual characters came off as one-dimensional. Exceptions included solid turns by Tim Martin as Son, and Jon Steinhagen as Bob.  By far the most genuine performance was Eliza Stoughton’s Pauline, who seemed to be in another (much better) play.  Hillary Horvath as Irene was also a treat in a small but hilarious cameo at the end.

This was altogether a disappointing experience. There was little to engage an audience, and the show went from mediocre to tedious awfully fast. While I applaud Raven for focusing on one playwright this season, I wish they would honor him with a production worthy of his work. I rarely give out the lowest rating for a show because I try to advocate for all theatre experiences – but this one is not worthy of your time or your hard-earned money.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Frustratingly mediocre play about a family of money-grubbing jerks.

Dice Rating: d4 = “Not Worth The Time”

Review: “Myths and Hymns” (BoHo Theatre Ensemble)

Elizabeth Telford and Kevin Webb in "Myths & Hymns"
Elizabeth Telford and Kevin Webb in “Myths & Hymns”

Show: Myths and Hymns

Company: BoHo Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Heartland Studio

Die Roll: 14

I have been very lucky in rolling the dice this year.  I’ve seen a lot of really good theatre in the last six months.  And yet, there comes a day when even the best Las Vegas high roller sees his luck run out.  Fate can be cruel.  It was this week.

Not unlike when a turn of luck happens to a gambler, it leads you on, makes you expect good things and then slaps you in the face with the bad.  Such is the way of “Myths and Hymns”, now playing at the Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave).   I was really looking forward to this show, especially since its purported goal was to show the melding of lives of a Christian woman and her new husband who is of a different faith (one that is informed by myths of the past).  As I am married to a woman of a different faith than my own, I expected to see something that I might identify with.  What occurred however, was a staging of a piece that I couldn’t even comprehend.  I spent the better part of the evening exceptionally confused, baffled, and contemplating if I needed to be ready to start a review in the same manner as Katy Walsh did for hers of “The Way West”.

This is a song cycle by the composer of “The Light in the Piazza”.  The music is good stuff.  The lyrics had problems.  Mostly in that they often had very little to do with the construct that doubled as a plot.  In truth there was no plot.  A wildly inconsistent through line is there one minute, gone the next.  It’s almost impossible to tell what character any of the actors are trying to portray.

And that’s what’s so frustrating about this show.  The actors are doing their damnedest to act the hell out of this show.  But there isn’t a lot to work with.  The singing was great.  In the same week in which I had just written about seeing some actors in multiple shows, I got performances from Elizabeth Telford (who was able to show off her voice much better in this show than in her previous stint in “How to Succeed”) and Kevin Webb (who I am starting to believe is one of the best young dramatic tenors in town… I know I’ll be calling him if I am ever directing a musical).  These two, and the other four who make up the ensemble blend really well, and the harmonies touch the ear in a really pleasing way.  The set and costumes do as much as they can to elevate the show to a piece of theatre, rather than a concert.

And yet, this was not a good play.  I fear that this play didn’t have a chance from the get-go.  From the first song on it felt more like an awkward attempt at converting the male character and the audience as well.  As the songs went along, it more or less just felt awkward.  The main thing I wanted to know as I left the theatre is why this play was chosen by the folks at Boho.  What was the goal here?  Who thought this was a good idea?

I wish I could tell you more about the play itself, but I can’t.  In the last 20 years of working in theatre, I’ve never left a performance more confounded about what I’d just seen.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Inherently flawed script can’t be fixed by further flawed concept.

RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”