Review: “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Metropolis Performing Arts Center)

Show:  Peter and the Starcatcher

Company: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

Venue: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

I discovered the novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson back in 2011 at a Half Price Bookstore.  It was an impulse buy.  I loved it, and I subsequently plowed through the rest of the series that serves as a set of prequels to the story of Peter Pan as we all know it.  So, when given the chance to review the musical (or, rather “play with music”) based on the novel, I was excited to say the least.  After seeing the production currently running at Metropolis Performing Arts Center, I am less excited; mostly disappointed.

For any fan of a piece of literature there is an inherent risk in attending an adaptation of that piece, whether film or play, television program or comic book.  The act of adaptation is an act of creation, and that means that there resulting piece is a completely separate work than the original.  And, yet, it is difficult to separate the parts in one’s mind, and emotional reactions to the newer work are often based upon one’s impressions from the first work.

I don’t really want to discuss the merits or techniques of adapting a work to the stage, but I mention the above thoughts because while I love the original book (and the following books in the series), I will try to evaluate this show on its own merits.  Were I to merely compare one side-by-side, I would find Rick Elice’s script lacking, and a bit of an affront to the source material.  Jokes incorporated into the script are anachronistic to the play’s Victorian Era setting. And to a large degree the show seems to be written around a list of terrible jokes rather than telling a story from whence humor emerges.  Parts of the later books were incorporated into this show, which didn’t really add anything positive to the product.  But, what’s it like without taking into account the relation to the source book?

Well, this is a clunky script that depends far too heavily on direct address of the audience as the actors often take turns in the narrator’s voice expressing their own actions in third person.  Despite having a constant tone of there being too much exposition, things often happen with little or no explanation (although, fans of the books will be able to decipher some of the goings-on).  There is a feeling of spoof or parody that runs throughout the show, that cheapens its own delivery.  And then there are some songs.  Make no mistake, this is not a musical.  One cannot call a show that has almost no songs in it a musical.  There are a couple of musical numbers incorporated into the play; and stating that they are incorporated may be a bit far to go. More to the point, they are slapped on and adhered badly.

Now, while I think the script is terrible, and the play itself a mistake, I cannot say that about the production.  Director Lili-Anne Brown puts together a well-rendered version of the show.  Her cast is uniformly strong and they pour more energy into the performance than I’ve seen done in some while.  The live Foley sound effects provided by the pit orchestra add a lot to the show, as does the cleverly realized costume design that allows for a lot of role-doubling.  The scenic design of Ashley Woods impresses upon first sight, and captures the spirit of the scenes both on-board ships and on Mollusk Island.

But, when it comes down to it, no matter how good the performances of the actors, or the beauty of the set, the show barely rises to the level of entertainment that can be had by lounging on the couch at home on standard network TV.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  An assemblage of weak, dated one-liners fails to impress.

RATING: d6  – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Sundial” (City Lit Theater)

Show: The Sundial

Company: City Lit Theater

Venue:  Edgewater Presbyterian – 2nd Floor (1020 W Bryn Mawr)

As the lights went down on the first act of “The Sundial”, the woman behind me was speaking to whomever came to the show with her.  She said, “I’m really glad I read this book before we came.  I’m not sure I would understand what’s going on if I hadn’t.”  Sadly, I hadn’t read Shirley Jackson’s book prior to attending the performance.  Any adaptation that requires extensive knowledge of the source material to fill in the gaps left in the script is not a good adaptation.  I was a huge fan of director Paul Edwards’ previous adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”.  I cannot say that I am a fan of this current production, however.

What was missing from this production, that permeated the earlier one, is a sense that you can tell what the characters are thinking. Motivation is often lacking in the decisions made by these characters.  At least, it isn’t at all clear.  Much of this presentation seems more like an absurdist play akin to “Ubu Roi”, rather than a suspense-filled thriller that influenced the works of Stephen King, among others.  Events happen in an established order.  That’s the closest this show comes to having an actual plot.

Here’s the nitty-gritty:  Leo has died.  This only matters in the fact that he is in line to inherit the manor house in which the play is set.  We never meet him.  We do, however, meet his widow, his daughter, his mother, his father, and the servants and others who reside in the house.  As the lights rise on the scene, the play initially seems to be about an angry pre-teen (Lauren Mangum) who claims that her grandmother has killed her father.  The grandmother (Sheila Willis) is a youthful and comely woman who takes care of her ailing husband (Kingsley Day) while having a blatantly public affair with Essex (John Blick) who is in residence as the family archivist.  With Leo out of the way, Orianna (the grandmother) has become her husband’s lone heir.  And she’s kicking everyone out of the house who has lived there prior to the funeral, including her man-thing, Essex.

That all sounds like a great set up for a dramatic family intrigue.  Murder, suspense, wickedness and spiteful revenge.  But, that’s not what we get.  Instead, there is suddenly a whole bunch of poorly explained supernatural crap that interrupts what could have been an otherwise intriguing peace.  The issue of whether or not Orianna killed her son to get the house is quickly forgotten and instead we watch a frantically obsessed household prepare for the end of the world by essentially becoming the early-1960s version of preppers.

Why does this happen?  Well, apparently because Aunt Fanny (Morgan McCabe) has seen a vision of her father (who is also the father of Orianna’s terminally ill husband).  Fanny’s vision predicts the end of the world, followed by paradise on earth.  Now, why an entirely large household buys into this vision isn’t very clear.  There are two instances that may serve as arguments for the vision’s validity, but no character is a skeptic, no character explains why they are swayed to believe that what the old lady is saying is true.  Everyone just jumps on the bandwagon and fully embraces a massive lifestyle change that involves never leaving the house and believing that they are the ones chosen to survive the apocalypse.

The previous three paragraphs explaining what was happening are only possible for me to write because I looked up the book’s information and summary on Wikipedia.  In truth, I spent most of the first act horribly thrown off by the disjointed storytelling and the fact that it was difficult to tell who was talking about whom and why.

In the second act some things became more clear, although a small subplot about one of the house’s guests trying to leave muddies things a bit.  Nevertheless, the script improves in the 2nd act.  The characters are also better defined.  The show never rises to the level of brilliant, but it’s easier to follow after the break.

I am frustrated in writing this review, as I wanted to like the show.  I really wanted to like it, largely because of how much I enjoyed the previous effort by the same adapter of the same author’s work.  There were some great performances.  Kingsley Day’s performance as the wheelchair-bound invalid, Richard, was great.  As was his turn as Miss Inverness, a shop keeper from the town nearby.  Each time Day came on stage, the show improved exponentially.  John Blick’s turn as Essex was intriguing.  At moments he was despicable, at others he was the easiest to empathize with.  Blick gave dynamism to what he was able to dig out of the script.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: What’s going on? Why are they doing that? Good Question.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Men on Boats” (American Theater Company)

Kelly O’Sullivan, Kelli Simpkins, and Arti Ishak/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “Men on Boats”

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: 1909 W Byron St

Theatre can take you anywhere. Film can plant your field of vision in exotic locales, showing off brilliant sunsets and spotlighting wild rivers cutting through jagged cliffs. But only theatre can transport you into a world entirely of your own creation, where you accept colored gels are the rays of a sunset, and trust that fear in the performers’ eyes reflects an unforgiving canyon rising upwards. Theatre takes you on a journey, and the trip is so delightful because you build its scenes and story arcs with your limitless imagination.

American Theater Company’s “Men on Boats,” a regional premiere by Jaclyn Backhaus, uses little but the human brain to construct its travelogue of, well, men on boats. While the scenic design is sharp and the casting creative, the production provides little in the way of dramatic conflict, and the script’s overreliance on shallow theatricality and repetitive imagery bores after the first thirty minutes.

The plot, such as it is, follows the first-ever government sanctioned expedition to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. Though telling a tale set soon after the Civil War, Backhaus relies on snarky anachronisms to ground the play in contemporary life and attitudes. (When the explorers meet with members of a Native American tribe, the Utes remarks they want to keep everything chill.) Will Davis — as director and in his first turn as ATC’s new artistic leader — has cast a play containing mostly male characters with an entirely genderfluid company, and his sendups of masculine posturing encourage a lot of laughter early on. John Wesley Powell (Kelli Simpkins) leads the adventurous crew, preferring to brave rapids rather than portage boats and cost the explorers time. William Dunn (Kelly O’Sullivan) acts as Powell’s second-in-command, helping the major name natural landmarks, and helping the crew by hunting rabbits. John Colton Sumner (Arti Ishak) knows the wild and the people who live in the West. Bradley (BrittneyLove Smith) has loads of enthusiasm, the Howland brothers (Sarai Rodriguez and Avi Roque) have smarts, Old Shady (Lauren Sivak) is Powell’s mysterious brother, Frank Goodman (Erin Barlow) is British, Hawkins (Stephanie Shum) cooks the food, and Hall (Lawren Carter) keeps the map. These characters do not change over the course of the play’s almost two-hour run time. They do bits, they lose boats; their dynamics strain, but only break once. Dunn believes Powell’s carelessness might get them all killed, but the higher-ups’ continued argument results in little escalation. For a play about losing supplies and facing the elements, danger rarely seems to be a real concern.

Lawren Carter, Stephanie Shu, and Avi Roque/Photo: Michael Browsilow.

This is a problem for a comedy about surviving the length of the Grand Canyon. In order for the audience to believe in the story being told, real risks must be taken in the telling. One could argue that Backhaus has an ambitious theatrical bent; she does not shy away from portraying the crew’s run through raging rapids and waterfalls. Long stretches of the play involve people being thrown from boats and thrashing their way to shore. But Backhaus does not trust the audience in such scenes. When her characters ride the waters, they simply shout which direction they are headed, or they remind us which oars they use to move right or left. This gives those watching little to imagine. What we see is all we get. There are no puzzle pieces to put together, no mess for us to shape up in our minds. Davis is smart to put the crew in tight formations, their movements mimicking the tumult of the waves. But that spectacle is only spectacle. One never wonders whether there is an unexpected turn up ahead.

Kudos should be given to props designer Jamie Karas. Two boards hinged together make up the prow of each expedition boat, and they break up in surprising ways. Similarly, scenic designer William Boles is smart to opt for a simple background; the set’s main wall creates a vanishing point that serves as a cliff or a muddy bank. These utilitarian choices make room for the audience’s imagination, even if the script does not. Likewise, light designer Brandon Wardell paints the set in rich colors to denote every shade of the sky, though the excessive use of stage fog obscures the setting of time and place far too often. Costume designer Melissa Ng gives each character personal flair, whether that be a pair of suspenders or a dead snake wrapped around a cowboy hat; each of the ten crew members leaves a distinct impression, no matter how large or small the role.

Which leads us to the performances, all uniformly good. Sivak stands out for sheer weirdness and her milking of oddly phrased pre-dinner blues tunes. Simpkins dominates her scenes by force of will, and Smith gently reminds everybody that being young and excited is no vice. O’Sullivan has the heaviest lifting to do as the major dissenter, but she manages to rise to Ishak’s goofy level when they debate whether napping has any value. All in all, the ensemble serves the material well. Their work deserved a more daring script.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adventure’s promised; only unimaginative conflict and repetitive imagery is delivered.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

Ira Aldridge was the first man of color to perform Othello on the London stage in 1833. He trod the Covent Garden boards at a compelling moment. As riots surrounding the abolition of slavery raged outside the theatre’s front doors, questions about how best to act classical texts for contemporary audiences stymied traditional actors in the rehearsal room. The Aldridge showcased in Raven Theatre’s “Red Velvet” could be seen as the fiery spark burning down outdated racial and artistic sensibilities, only to usher in the new growth of an open-minded and sensitive performance style. If only the play were actually about Ira Aldridge.

This Midwestern premiere, penned by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarkti, gamely attempts to capture the entirety of the English theatre scene circa the mid-1800’s — introducing issues of race and class, the integration of actresses into Shakespeare’s traditionally gender-bent scripts, and the fevered competition between famously presentational performers like Edmund Kean and the more emotionally truthful Aldridge. That is a lot of subject matter to chew on, and the men and women onstage are sacrificed in the name of maintaining and explaining historical context.

Matthew Klingler, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Tim Martin, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

When Ira Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) arrives for rehearsal at Covent Garden, the white actors in his band of players react with shock. They assumed Aldridge was white, and his taking up the role of Othello represents a vile rejection of tradition for his Iago, Charles Kean (Tyler Rich). Aldridge tries to persuade Kean that he, of all actors, can best embody the doomed war hero, but Kean responds that great theatre is about the magic of transformation and escapism, not about playing what one begrudgingly greets in the real world. Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), Kean’s fiancée and Aldridge’s Desdemona, is willing to work with Aldridge in his more emotional style, even if it means allowing for slips in pronunciation, as well as acknowledging that an African American man must lay his hands on the dainty throat of a white woman before an outraged audience. The two artists develop a bond that could grow to romance, if the play had space for the excesses of the human soul. Alas, stage time that could explore the “make or break” passions surrounding the production is sadly spent delivering lessons on British economics and declaiming over and over again that Aldridge is a game-changer, without clearly demonstrating what made his acting style so magical, or even what he desires to make of his own career.

It is too bad so few scenes are spent rehearsing the tragedy, because the personal story of creation and social justice stashed away in the heart of “Red Velvet” resonates with issues currently facing the Chicago theatre scene. The Porchlight Theater has been roundly criticized for casting a white man as the Latino narrator of the recently opened “In the Heights.” Organizations like the Chicago Inclusion Project have begun working with theatre companies to diversify casting for texts where minority or disabled actors might be ignored. On a national scale, film companies are being asked to reflect the multicultural reality in which we live via campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. The most powerful scenes in “Red Velvet” revolve around the very same concerns and demands.

Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

The actors recognize what is at stake. Greenhouse is an engaging actor, and he does an admirable job distinguishing between his own acting choices and the bombastic style of Aldridge’s day. He packs his lines with conviction and energy, and though he is currently a bit too loud for Raven’s small space, creating echoes that obscure meaning, he leads the play with conviction. White does similarly well by Aldridge’s leading lady, revealing a devilish streak underneath her sense of propriety. Tim Martin is a lot of fun as the abolitionist Henry Forester, who fan-boys over Greenhouse the moment they meet. Meanwhile, Rich and Scott Olson do solid work as the ugly members of the cast who don’t want to act beside a man of color.

Still, the script lacks emotional follow-through, sweeping conflicts under the rug until the final ten minutes of the show, where an undercooked parallel between the false faces in “Othello” and the false faces in the theatre company appears. Director Michael Menendian does what he can to build complex relationships between Greenhouse and the other actors, but the shouting matches that result betray how thin the script is when it comes to flesh and blood choices. Why does theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) not defend his leading man, when London newspapers print racist reviews? What becomes of Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Sophia Menendian), once he is forced to tour on the road again? What is the personal cost of such racism to Aldridge? The playwright cares so much about scope that she loses her sense of scale, and this history play is turned into a dead, rather than a living, thing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Historical drama leans heavily on history and forgets the drama.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Feast” (Red Theater)

1929-300x200Show: The Feast

Company: Red Theater

Venue:  The Den Theatre (1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.)

Die Roll: 19

Red Theatre’s production of Celine Song’s “The Feast” is an interesting choice of play for a company known for producing free theater for all. I can see exactly what makes it so enticing: It’s likely to attract absurd theater enthusiasts, it has the pedigree of being a Chicago premiere, and it shares a communist disdain for the bourgeois. But the show is a slog with very little to reward a hungry audience besides an interesting stage tableau (lots of credit to designer Mike Mroch).

In “The Feast” Wendy Darling (Alejandra Vivanco) is having old friends Sam (Shelby Garrett), Rhett (Carl Wisniewski), and her brother-in-law Xander (Henry Greenberg) over for an opulent dinner. They are waiting on Francis (Ricky Quintana), Wendy’s husband, an incredibly attractive neurosurgeon, who is running late. That said, you’re better off not taking this play or its characters at their word. The reality they occupy is slippery, like a dream, a farce, or a disgruntled toddlers’ game of dress up. I think the minds behind “The Feast” want us to liken it to Brecht or Beckett, but it’s missing a profound notion to keep the engines humming. The only important things to remember are 1) in this world meat is unfit to eat and everyone is a forced vegetarian, and 2) no one wants to lift their forks until delicious, delicious Francis arrives.

1423-300x169

Director Gage Wallace has tasked the actors with discovering and embracing heightened weirdness. They counter storybook whimsy with textbook jargon and whatever meaningless mouth music that fills the space between our ears. I can scarcely imagine what motivates each moment. Maybe questions, like: If your extreme boredom were a song, what would it sound like? Could you fill the void between your massive place settings and have sex on the table without ever touching? As a result no character is particularly compelling, but being compelling is hardly the point. In fact, it’s probably easier for everyone if I award accolades for duties deftly performed. Here they are, in no particular order:

Best human portrayal of a phone, including dialing, ringing, operator, and hold music: Pavi Proczko as the mostly silent Butler.

Best performance of a song consisting of only the word ‘tolerant’: Henry Greenberg as science-minded Xander.

Best application of lipstick to entire face to obtain the youth and vigor of seventeen-year-olds:

Carl Wisniewski and Shelby Garrett as the equally repugnant Rhett and Sam.

Best admission of deep thoughts had while sitting on the toilet: Alejandra Vivanco as our hostess, Wendy.

Best delivery of a line that accidentally describes the experience of watching “The Feast” (“It’s like were not interested in holding it together.”): Ricky Quintana as a quickly devoured Francis.

Brother-in-law Xander assesses “The Feast” with more accuracy than I could possibly drum up when he says, “Calling this a good time would be inaccurate.” He’s right. It’s an endurance test that circles around quite a few potential central ideas. Is this a diatribe against a culture of over consumption? Could be. Is it a mockery of privilege and white fragility? Sure, why not. Is it awarding humanity a failing grade for our deep apathy? Signs point to yes. But, is “The Feast” a recommendable entertainment? It didn’t leave me particularly enriched by the power of good art.  But your response may differ, depending on your affinity for pointedly unhinged and unstructured theater.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Your enjoyment of this dinner party’ll depend on your taste.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Now. Here. This.” (Brown Paper Box Co.)

NHTPosterShow: Now. Here. This.

Company: Brown Paper Box Co.

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 11

No matter how objective a critic tries to be, one does have one’s favorites.  A little theatre company called Brown Paper Box Co. is one of mine.  They consistently produce shows that are sharply directed, with solid production values despite their obviously smaller budgets.  They get good people to work with them, and they are committed to putting up worthwhile theatre. I like them.  Last year, Brown Paper Box Co. was responsible for one of my top 5 shows of the year.

So, when I saw that I would be taking in their newest production, that said production would include 3 of the 4 cast members of last year’s “[title of show]”, and that it would be a show by the same creative team as that stellar work from the year before, I was excited.

Now, it seems somewhat unfair to compare one production directly to another, for they are separate pieces of art.  And, there is nowhere within the script or the publicity materials that the two plays should be seen as being directly related.  But, the four characters are the same.  They are clearly the same autobiographical representations of the four people who originated “[title of show]”.  In fact, unlike that first piece, one of the women is even credited as one of the writers of “Now. Here. This.”

I’ll do my best from here on out to write only about the show that I saw this go-’round.  But, know in advance that I will fail at that endeavor.  That is largely because this play is essentially a prequel/sequel of sorts.  This play is the answer to the unasked question of ‘How did the characters in “[title of show]” become who they are?’

The conceit of this show is that Jeff–I’m sorry… Man 1–has gathered his friends to go to the Museum of Natural History with him.  Several vignettes are seen within the confines of the hallowed halls of the museum, which then trigger flashbacks or philosophical examinations of self.  Each of these is accomplished in song.  If I break it down to its most simple, this isn’t a play (as it lacks plot).  It is a song cycle with a relatively flimsy framing device.

Had I never seen last year’s show, I would have been basically just unimpressed with the tale and wondered why I should care about these people in a situation that has nothing at stake.  Instead, because I’d met these characters before and I fell in love with them the first time, I was all the more disappointed.  Clearly, I am meant to care about these people, and I do, but only because I’ve met them in a previous work.  But I care about them in the way that a parent still cares for a child with whom they’ve recently become very disappointed.  I still love them, but I’m not terribly proud of their recent actions.

Now, I must take a moment to point out that I’m talking about the characters within the play in the paragraph above.  The actors did a phenomenal job with the material they were given.

Susan (I’m sorry… Woman 1), played by Neala Barron, has the best scenes and carries the show.  Her contributions to the work are clearly the strongest.  And Barron continues to be one of my favorite voices on the Chicago stage over the past two years.  Matt Frye (Hunter…I mean Man 2) does an admirable turn as the more random of the two men who write musicals together.  And Anna Schutz (Woman 2, who will otherwise be known as Heidi) brings a fun energy to the character of a successful NYC actress.

And director M. William Panek clearly made the most out of what was on the page.  But, the script itself gave no reason to embrace these people in this time and space.  The group putting on the show do a great deal of good work.  They are merely hampered by a script that doesn’t have a driving through line.  They are held back by songs that don’t stick in the memory once the final notes ring out, let alone after you’ve left the building.  Their wings are clipped by a concept that never fully develops.

Sometimes, after a really good story, the reader (or the audience) asks about what happens next.  And sometimes a sequel is written to tell the further tale.  And sometimes the end is left as the end, wherein the reader has to imagine the future for themselves.  Almost universally, when a good story is told, there is no one asking to be told the particulars of what had gone before.

In the final scene, a philosophic pondering results in our receiving the wisdom contained within the title, and we wonder if we had to sit through the rest in order to reach this pearl of existential thought, and if so, why?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This is a prequel nobody ever asked for or wanted.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Divine Sister” (Hell in a Handbag Productions)

Charlotte Mae Ellison, Maria Stephens, Levi Holloway, Ed Jones, David Cerda, Chad: Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.
Charlotte Mae Ellison, Maria Stephens, Levi Holloway, Ed Jones, David Cerda, Chad: Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Show: “The Divine Sister”

Company: Hell in a Handbag Productions

Venue: Ebenezer Lutheran Church (1650 W Foster Ave)

Die Roll: 2

Religious visions. Forbidden love. Crises of faith. None of these subjects generally invite guffaws aplenty, but when playwright Charles Busch tackles nuns and the Hollywood dramas that wallow in their spiritual conflicts, serious topics become utterly ridiculous. Hell in a Handbag Productions’ of his play “The Divine Sister” excites when at its most melodramatic, and suffers when the lack of clear comedic targets is apparent.

The Mother Superior (David Cerda) of St. Veronica’s School has a lot of problems on her plate. Her best friend and fellow nun Sister Acacius (Ed Jones) struggles to believe in God while trolling for dates at the adjacent convent. The order’s newest postulate, Agnes (Charlotte Mae Ellison), bothers everyone with incessant religious visions, culminating in a ketchup stigmata. Her old flame Jeremy (Levi Holloway) has arrived in town with an eye towards winning back his lady love, and making a movie about Agnes. And the Mother Superior cannot convince wealthy atheist Mrs. Levinson (Chad) to fund upkeep at her institution. Meanwhile, Berlin transplant Sister Walburga (Rachel Hadlock) is hatching secret plans to undermine the school renovations by exhuming a long-forgotten body from the basement.

Busch provides enough plot here for five plays, but he fails to elicit comic frenzy as the storylines crash into one other. Camp is a difficult style to master, though he has excelled at dramatic artifice in the past with “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” But slack pacing and confusion emerge when those being sent up are tied into such a specific set of tropes. Of course, there needs to be a scene where nuns compose a nonsense song, because that happened in “The Sound of Music.” Sure, there should be a sequence where Sister Acacius has a nervous breakdown, and smears red lipstick all over her face, as another emotionally frayed nun did in the haunting “Black Narcissus.” But are nun movies really a genre worthy of such take-downs? Are there really that many similarities between murder mystery “The Name of the Rose” and psychological study “A Nun’s Story,” for example? Busch’s script spends a lot of time on in-jokes that the majority of audience members may not even understand, given the wide range of possible familiarity with nun material. And because his comedy revolves around only a handful of movies, engagement in the silly plot evaporates far more quickly than it should.

Charlotte Mae Ellison and David Cerda/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.
Charlotte Mae Ellison and David Cerda/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Director Shade Murray injects a lot of energy into the production through athletic scene transitions that see the nuns dancing from place to place, with Ellison cartwheeling on- and offstage as needed. He pushes melodramatic discovery moments to the limit, winning great mugging from the entire cast. And he creates delightful frisson between Cerda and Holloway in a fast-talking newspaperman and -woman flashback. But there is something missing from Hell in a Handbag’s production, and that something is hysteria. Look at any movie about nuns circa the 1950’s to the 1970’s, and religious fervor plays a large role, often to the point of driving women insane. Murray does right by the sunnier plot contrivances of Busch’s script, but he fails to exaggerate the fear of damnation and intense sexual repression that typifies these films. By missing such an important target, he robs the play of its inherent ridiculousness, dulling the edge of Busch’s cuts at social norms and expectations for female behavior.

The cast, however, does its best to make the audience believe in the outlandish stakes at play. Cerda presents both a gentle and slightly vampy Mother Superior. Ellison spends half her time as a character from “The Exorcist,” and the other fifty percent as a Sister Maria knock-off. Holloway gives the most physically daffy performance, committing to a spiritual healing by waggling his thumb at angles he shouldn’t be capable of, right before falling to the ground and doing one-handed push-ups. Only Chad seems to realize he needn’t do a little with a lot, barbing his every line as Mrs. Levinson with dripping disdain and clear angst.

Scenic designers Mitch Anthony and John Holt benefit from having the actual stained glass of Ebenezer Lutheran Church to work with, while light designer Cat Wilson drenches their additional walls with red and blue, based on the dramatic reveals involved. Special recognition should be given to wig designer Keith Wilson, as his bouffant for Chad becomes its own character, and his wigs for the other players fail to wilt in the unfortunately non-air conditioned space.

Given all these elements, “The Divine Sister” could have been a camp classic, but due to the nature of the script and the pulled punches of this production, it lands as an amusing trifle without much to say.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Nuns fail to fascinate in a weak camp comedy.

DICE RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The House of Blue Leaves” (Raven Theatre)

Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Show: The House of Blue Leaves

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 9

If a trio of beer-obsessed nuns chasing a bomb-wielding Army deserter around a delusional songwriter’s apartment provides few laughs for this reviewer, then it might be time to admit that John Guare’s work is not for me. I have tried and tried to enjoy his plays, but every time I encounter his daffy characters and attempts at criticizing the expectations of mainstream culture, I find myself counting the minutes until curtain call.

That caveat out of the way, I must admit to being somewhat invested in Raven Theatre’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” due to a few strong performances, and one or two moments of inspired physical comedy. That chase sequence may not have rated a smile, but the scramble around an obstacle course of overturned furniture had my mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Our ho-hum hero Artie (Jon Steinhagen) longs for a musical career in 1960’s Hollywood, writing tunes for all the top crooners. In order to forge this new path, his girlfriend Bunny (Sarah Hayes) convinces him to call old friend Billy (Noah Simon), a hot-shot director who might connect him with the necessary big-wigs. There’s only one obstacle standing in the way of the couple’s move to La-La Land: Artie’s mentally ill wife Bananas (Kelli Strickland), who refuses to take her pills or accept her husband’s half-hearted attempts to abandon her. What the nuns, a wayward soldier, and even the Pope have to do with this conflict, I will leave to the imagination.

Guare’s script needs to be meaner if he intends to pull off the growing desperation Artie demonstrates at play’s end. The playwright’s jokes and insults do not cut, he is overly fond of hokey pop culture references, and his characters are not given the necessary time to elicit our sympathy — unless one counts slapdash direct address moments that fill in context without engaging audience emotions. Director Joann Montemurro overcompensates by having many of the actors ham it up onstage, but that pays few dividends. “House of Blue Leaves” is the very definition of safe theatre; it longs to appear dangerous, but its themes are instantly recognizable, while its whack-a-doodle world gives one little to latch on to in the way of concrete stakes.

The saving grace lies in Steinhagen’s sweaty performance. The audience cares about Artie only because the actor underplays all his biggest complaints. Steinhagen is quieter than any of the men and women he shares the stage with, and that is how it should be. A viscerally angry Artie would not be surprising, nor would we chuckle when an obnoxious Artie played his signature mediocre song over and over again in a mock audition. A milquetoast schlub in a room full of farcical nimrods will grab attention. Our song and dance man is not only an accomplished Chicago playwright (“Blizzard ‘67” being a personal favorite of mine), but he is a smart actor, winning our sympathy by confidently doing a lot with little fanfare.

Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Strickland’s turn lies on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Her Bananas is a human disaster, whose pain may be dulled by medication, but it never fully leaves her. Strickland shuffles from place to place in the apartment, always laser-focused on thwarting Artie’s plans, and her loneliness emanates out to the viewer. Her direct address moment actually works in performance, because Guare sympathizes with her. But he also hampers the lady of the house. Bananas’ tantrums and play-acting as a puppy betray the character’s blend of absurdism and kooky Neil Simon caricature. This is not a welcome concoction, because her breakdowns have absolutely no impact on the escalating comedic proceedings whatsoever. At least Strickland pulls a sense of urgency into the farcical moments of the play. That is desperately needed.

The overstuffed set (designed by Merje Veski, with props by Mary O’Dowd) provides ample opportunity for engaging bits of comedic business. There is the aforementioned chase, generated with abandon by fight choreographer David Woolley, as well as the ping-ponging between kitchen and living room executed by an excitable Hayes. And I have to admit, Strickland’s sitting up for a pet on the head became endearing towards the end of the production.

So the show is not, by any means, a total loss. The actors do what they can with a wobbly play, though the ending is a true head-scratcher, given the lack of investment that’s come before. Do with that what you will. I plan to avoid Guare’s work in the future.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Weak script does not stifle strong performances in revival.

RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Land of Never-Lack” (Cave Painting Theater Company)

Show: The Land of Never-LackTeaser1

Company: Cave Painting Theater Company

Venue:  The Frontier (1106 W. Thorndale)

Die Roll: 5

The myths and superstitions that grew from ancient Irish faery culture (and were held to be true, long after) are particularly fascinating, if you think about the social need for them. Why did my daughter never return home? Probably because faeries lured her away. Why did my wife’s personality change? With limited knowledge of brain chemistry centuries away, we can safely assume faeries did it. Case closed.

You’d think life would a be a torment at the mercy of these fickle beings, but really, what they offer is the shelter of easy answers in the face of cold, endless mystery. Codes of conduct are not just to ensure wives and children stay obedient, but to avoid provoking the wrath of the faeries. With “The Land of Never-Lack”, Cave Painting Theater brings faeries to life, but hardly do justice to the menacing beings. Instead, author Harold Jaffe brings us two fairy tales that are mostly gentle and whimsical. Great if you need a bedtime story, but not if you want thought provoking theater.

In “Land of Never-Lack” a restless newly married woman, Maire (Therin Miller) and young child Siobhan (Gaby Fernandez) provoke mischievous and territorial faeries, and can’t resist their lure of eternal happiness, dancing and freedom, but quickly find that no faery claim can be trusted. When Maire and her husband (Stephen McClure) entertain her pious and judgmental in-laws (Sandra Howard and Michael Dwiggens) and a priest (Gabriel Howard) for supper, she summons an unholy faery child who would give Maire her heart’s desire if she leaves her family.

Rather than exploring the newlyweds in any further depth, another story with unrelated characters emerges, nestled in the folds of the first. Young Siobhan defies her father (also Stephen McClure) and follows a stag (also Gabriel Howard) into the forest, stumbling on a royal faery court (also Therin Miller, Sandra Howard and Michael Dwiggens). They decide to keep Siobhan as their captive, but they have no magic that can outlast a strong father-daughter bond.

Director Gwen Kelly-Masterton weaves together two scant stories, perhaps to distract from the threadbare simplicity of each tale. The concept does less to wed the stories and serves only to stall each scene, just as the action picks up, so that the actors can swap coats in the dark and lose precious forward momentum. It’s almost like encountering a cliffhanger every eight minutes, followed by a long wait for the team to painstakingly recreate where they were eight minutes before.

Therin Miller and Gaby Fernandez manage to stand out amidst coat swaps to step in as each other’s protagonist or antagonist, whenever needed. However, with each story so meticulously segmented, it’s easy for even strong performers to feel more like a place setting than a real person with a goal. The only thing that could salvage “The Land of Never-Lack” from this faery curse- I mean, from script troubles this far-gone, is a concerted effort towards effective storytelling.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Don’t cross Irish faeries, they’ll punish you with lackluster theater.  

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

 

Review: “Dreams of the Penny Gods” (Halcyon Theatre)

Penny Gods_16-021Show: Dreams of the Penny Gods

Company: Halcyon Theatre

Venue: Christ Lutheran Church (4541 N Spaulding Ave.)

Die Roll: 3

Halcyon Theatre has a new home on the third floor of Christ Lutheran Church near the Kedzie Brown Line stop.  It’s exciting when a theatre gets a new permanent home.  It’s even more exciting when the company takes a non-traditional theatre space and through skilled technical work transforms the space into an immersive environment to see theatre.  Halcyon has accomplished this fully.

Michael Chancellor’s set design brilliantly encapsulate the experience of entering a dilapidated multi-unit storage facility that is also being used as a living quarters.  Did I know what that would look like prior to entering this space?  Nope.  But, I instantly felt that I was brought into that world and that it completely clicked as being right.

Penny Gods_16-139The lighting (as designed by Cat Davis) was also impressive as it played back and forth between the play’s realistic moments and its more fantastical ones.

There is an old adage among technical designers that their work is only mentioned in reviews when something goes wrong.  In this case, however, I find cause to mention the work of the designers because they stand out as what went right with this production.  I can also give kudos to a cast that was uniformly solid and clearly fully committed to the characters that they are creating.  And director Jennifer Adams for pulling what she could out of Callie Kimball’s script to guide the actors in creating those characters.

The base problem with this show was that initial script however.  This play focuses on the character of Bug (convincingly portrayed by Caity-Shea Violette), a 13-year-old girl who may or may not be at a coming-of-age moment in her life.   She’s been raised in a cultish atmosphere that has kept her sheltered from the rest of the world and contributed to some bizarre beliefs and behaviors.  She lives in a world of abuse: physical and mental/emotional.  The world changes around her as her father (Ted James) comes back into her life, and the woman who she thought was her mother turns out to really be her grandmother (Denise Hoeflich).  There is a lot that happens within the plotline.  But then, there isn’t.

If Bug is the main character, she doesn’t really go on much of a journey through the story.  At the very end of the show, her life is about to go through some major changes, but the play ends before we can witness the journey that would truly be a coming-of-age tale.

Penny Gods_16-013So, what is this play, then?  Is it a snapshot of a dysfunctional, abusive family with all sorts of problems?  It attempts to be.  But, really it seems more like what you get if a person were to describe that same snapshot to you.  So much of the script’s conversations are exposition presented as a laundry list of all of society’s ills shoved together in one horrible family unit.  In some scripts I might lament plot holes, a lack of needed information.  In this one, I would call them plot speed bumps, extraneous information, topics, and other stuff has been packed tightly onto the surface in concentrated places.  And like real-life speed bumps, we hit them hard, they are unpleasantly jarring, and then they are left behind without making much difference to the journey.  Heck, even the titular line, delivered by James’ character, Bobby, feels like it has been cemented onto the script almost as an afterthought.

Despite all that, we do watch the play wanting Bug to get out of this terrible environment, but that part of the story doesn’t happen on this stage.

Basically, I would want this play to go through one more rewrite before I would want to see it on stage.  There is more than just a kernel of potential for greatness here.  The words that the actors were given don’t provide the loamy earth in which that kernel can grow.

TEN WORD SUMMARYClunky writing hampers script that aims to be something more.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”