Review: “The Consultant” (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Joe McCauley, Ariel Begley/Photo: Johnny Knight
Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones/Photo: Johnny Knight

Show: The Consultant

Company: Signal Ensemble Theatre

Venue: Signal Ensemble Theatre (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Die Roll: 2

At the end of thirteen years of making theatre, Signal Ensemble Theatre is closing its doors at the end of the current run of Heidi Schreck’s “The Consultant”.  It wasn’t the play originally scheduled to close out this season, but it is the one that marks the end of an era.  Sadly, it isn’t the high note that one might want as a company’s swan song.

I find that corporate America is something difficult to represent on stage.  I find this to especially true in small cast productions.  That’s largely because corporations tend to be made of all sorts of people, not just four to eight individuals (in this show’s case, five).  The hustle, bustle, red tape, gossip, middle management, upper management, deadlines, spreadsheets, and all the rest don’t transfer to the stage terribly well.  Schreck’s play tries to alleviate some of the inherent difficulties by having the play take place in only isolated rooms within the offices of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, an advertising agency that specializes in the pharmaceutical industry.  Limiting the setting of the play means we only meet the people who come through the lobby or who go into one specific conference room.  One might wonder why nobody other than the five characters ever goes through the lobby, or why the only other person ever discussed is the presumed executive in charge.  I guess you can make the leap in logic that since there were recently layoffs at the company, most of the employees were purged.  Just to make this review something other than a list of nit-picks, I’ll give the playwright that.

Ariel Begley, Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight
Ariel Begley, Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight

Before I go any further, let me say that Ensemble’s ensemble members who appear in this cast are all very capable and do a good job with their characters.  It is not their fault that only two of those characters are at all interestingly written.  Nor is it the fault of the director, Ronan Marra, that the playwright created a gallery of generally unlikable individuals.

Basically, this play seems unfinished.  I know that it is a published work, and that it has had productions elsewhere, but the piece is comprised of a number of scenes that each on their own seem like something that could be the initial moments of a longer, better work.  This play reminded me of an exercise I once had to do as part of a playwriting workshop.  We were given a setting and a couple of characters.  We had to write five short scenes, each of which was to be the first scene of a different play, but with the same people in it and the same setting.  “The Consultant” feels like Schreck did that same exercise and then slammed her starting scenes together consecutively.  It is a work that goes nowhere.  It starts over and over again, but never proceeds.  I’m often excited when I see the kernel of a good play hiding within a larger, rougher work.  Here I see so many kernels that I feel like I got to the bottom of a bowl of popcorn and all that’s left is what remained unpopped.

Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones, and Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight
Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones, and Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight

Joe McCauley’s character, Mark, has a couple of really solid scenes.  One is about roses and their perceived meaning.  Another is a phone call with his mother.  Either could launch an interesting play.  Instead they are shoehorned into a play that ostensibly is about a 39-year-old designer who has anger issues and a bad case of nerves.  Jun Suk (Ben Chang) is at risk of losing his job so he is seeing a consultant who is supposed to be able to help him in crafting an effective presentation that will save his job.  Enter Amelia (Ariel Begley), the woefully under-qualified titular consultant.  She tries to help this man who has absolutely no redeemable qualities for reasons that aren’t really clear or compelling.  Really, none of the characters do enough to make us embrace them and care about their fate.  So, when another round of layoffs occurs, the one emotional reaction in the audience is thankfulness that the end is nigh.

I feel bad for Signal Ensemble.  They have had a solid run of doing good work.  This isn’t the way I’d want to see them end.  If you have a warm spot in your heart for their past work, and respect the members of the ensemble, then you may want to take this show in to witness the skills of Begley, McCauley, and Courtney Jones in action.  Otherwise, it may be best to remember the group as they were, rather than as they are now.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Signal Ensemble ends not with a bang, but a whimper

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Link to Review: “The Long Christmas Ride Home” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

When I review a show for one of the other media outlets, I also include a link to that review here so you can access all my critical writings in one place.  I also add a Dice Rating and a Ten-Word Summary.

Review: “Target Behavior” (20% Theatre Company)

IMG_1570Show: Target Behavior

Company: 20% Theatre Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N. Elston)

Die Roll: 1

A teenaged girl finds herself in an adolescent psych ward following a dangerous relationship with an older man. While there, she’s forced to confront her fears and relive the events that led to her confinement. For a play dealing with such heavy issues, you’d think it would have more substance.

Poor Kendra (Amanda Forman) is isolated and misunderstood. The adults in her life are all clueless, while the teens are all older than their years. It’s like a John Hughes movie, complete with character tropes. There’s the kind but ineffective counselor; Kendra’s selfish, immature mother; and the “nice” guy she meets in a park who turns out to be the worst kind of predator. Her “best friend” on the outside is a self-involved twit who unwittingly keeps throwing Kendra and her attacker together. In the psych ward, we meet another round of stereotypes: the sweet-but-odd-nature-obsessed-boy, the totally shut-down girl who injects inadvertent humor into tense situations through her actions, and the cool kid who immediately bonds with smart-ass Kendra over being Too Good For This Place.

Aside from the characters, major problem of the play is that Kendra is overburdened with Issues. Not only is she damaged by an absent father and a mother who’s an immature nightmare, the one meaningful relationship in her life ends horribly in rape — and she’s a cutter, which turns out to be her “target behavior”. She doesn’t have just a mountain to overcome – she has the whole range. Every scene has our beleaguered heroine tackling one overly dramatic situation after another. There’s no time for reflection and character growth because the scenes only average about five minutes, so no one has time to react to what just happened. Things just keep clipping along at a high intensity with no clear purpose other than to show us how hard her life is.

I’m frustrated by this play. I think its intention to bring awareness to mental health issues is admirable.  But that awareness isn’t served well by a play that provides cliches instead of characters, and a series of melodramatic events in the place of a compelling story.  For an early draft it’s ok, but it’s a long way from a finished product.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Plays like a tv teen drama about Kids With Issues.

DICE RATING: d6 = Has Some Merit

Review: “A Kid Like Jake” (About Face Theatre)

Show: A Kid Like JakeAKLJ

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: The Greenhouse Theater Center

Die Roll: 15

I had an extreme reaction to “A Kid Like Jake”, which I saw this past Sunday.

When I say “extreme”, I mean that it’s taken me two days to regain some sort of perspective so I can try to give the show a fair shake. Yes, this is now a Jeff-recommended production, and maybe the show deserves it. It’s well-designed, and Michael Aaron Lindner (Greg) is not only the finest actor in the play, he makes the other actors look good, too. Scenes without him tend to drag, mostly because the actors talk past each other instead of to each other.

The play’s premise sounds good on paper: Alex (played adequately by Katherine Keberlein)  and Greg are wading through the wilds of Manhattan’s posh private schools for the perfect kindergarten in which to place their four-year-old son. The thing is, Jake has recently shown interest in wearing dresses and playing a princess, and that places stress on the little family. How do they deal with this?

If the play had continued on as a thoughtful exploration of how parents choose to address cross-gender questions, it would be a show worth watching. However, playwright Daniel Pearle is running a con. Neither Jake and his needs, nor how his parents deal with this very timely complication, are important.

Instead, Pearle focuses on the constructed crises of Jake’s mother, Alex. She’s well-off, educated, white, heterosexual, spoiled, neurotic, destructive, and so focused on what society might think about her son’s choices instead of his welfare that I wanted to call Child Protective Services on her about ten minutes in. Make no mistake: this is not a show about how to nurture a child who may identify outside of his gender. This is a lazily-plotted, cliche-filed hour and forty minutes of a selfish adult behaving badly.

What infuriated me most is that “A Kid Like Jake” has no LGTBQ focus or thought, as is implied in its tagline. It’s barely a nod to an important issue of a very underrepresented population. Surely there are better plays out there that investigate child gender questions in the twenty-first century. Where’s the LGBTQ perspective? Also, are well-to-do white, hetero Manhattanites the only class of people who cope with unexpected child behavior? What does it say about our priorities if we think a prestigious kindergarten will somehow turn a child into a guaranteed success, and that his placement in or rejection from such a place could make or break him for life?

Instead, the play expects us to sympathize with a woman who has everything and still paints herself as a victim. This family has access to all of the resources America offers –  if you’re of a certain demographic.  They have no serious obstacles in life save those they create for themselves. They can afford to send Jake to a progressive pre-kindergarten that will help to prepare him for entry into a top-tier K-12 school. But if he doesn’t get into one of the top kindergartens in the city…then what? What are the fearful consequences? An excellent education? Broader social exposure? It’s implied that public schools are too scary for a kid like Jake because they have no facility to support a “special” child. Even though Greg is the product of a public school education (“But it was in the suburbs!” protests Alex), only the best will do for Mama’s little boy.

All of this elitist, insecure garbage is shoveled out through Alex , who spends her time fretting that her son will be stereotyped, or worse – held up as a poster-child for “difference” if his “choices” come to light.  There’s no room in her life for Jake to just be Jake – his every action must mean something. She exemplifies the stereotype of upper-middle-class, white, self-absorbed New-Yorkness that annoys the rest of America. When she finally pushes Greg past his breaking point and he calls her out on her toxicities point by point, it’s a welcome relief. The only character with a shot at getting through to her is finally smacking some sense into Alex. Finally, payoff!

Alas, no – because Pearle again takes the easy way out. There’s a bizarre dream sequence that is, I think, supposed to rationalize Alex’s actions, followed by a coda that implies that she is capable of change. Except that she doesn’t change. Her final lines cement her inability to think outside of herself. If Lindner hadn’t been present to inject some much-needed humanity into the play, it would be completely unwatchable.

I really had a hard time rating this one. If you want to go see a decently-performed play with good production values, have at it. If you like Michael Aaron Lindner (and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing whatever he does next), fine, go see it. But if you’re looking for a play that take a thoughtful look at gender identity and children, SKIP IT. You’re wasting your time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Token LGBTQ issue sets up drama for contemptible Mama. Unworthy.

DICE RATING: d6 –  “Has Some Merit”

Review: “A Bright Room Called Day” (Spartan Theatre Company)

A Bright Room Called Day, presented by Spartan Theatre Company. Alexandra Gonzalez and Amanda de la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert.
A Bright Room Called Day, presented by Spartan Theatre Company. Alexandra Gonzalez and Amanda de la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert.

Show: A Bright Room Called Day

Company: Spartan Theatre Company

Venue: CIC Theatre

Die Roll: 9

A Bright Room Called Day is one of the earlier works of Tony Kushner, who is probably best known for his epic meditation on AIDS and its impact in Angels in America Parts I & II. As in Angels, this play juxtaposes a real-time storyline with interruptive commentary  – this time in the form of a paranoid young American woman in 1982 who finds herself living in the same apartment inhabited by the characters of the earlier time. And thus, the plot:

In 1932 Berlin, Agnes (Amanda de la Guardia) and her bohemian friends watch as Hitler and the Nazi party move to take over the country. All of them have a strong, left-leaning opposition to the Nazis, but they seems to spend more time arguing the merits of their various ideologies than actively resisting the Nazi takeover. Added into the mix are Die Alt, a ghostly figure that challenges Agnes to confront one possible future; a pair of communists who commission Agnes to come up with a pro-Red puppet show that denounces Hitler; the Devil; and lastly, the ’80s American.

First off, it’s a talky, talky show. Whenever the gang is all gathered, you can be sure that at least two of them will take turns expostulating on their chosen politics to the group. While it’s interesting in its own right – you can’t fault Kushner as a writer, he knows how to turn a phrase – it’s also tends to bring the show to a screeching halt. These are highly complex arguments, and, unfortunately, the poor actors saddled with this rhetoric are pretty much overwhelmed by it. This includes Zillah (Jaci Kleinfeld), our paranoid young lady in 1982, who somehow draws parallels between the rise of Reagan and the rise of Hitler…and this is where the show lost me. I just don’t see the connection.  Hence,  Zillah devolved into a wackjob conspiracy theorist, and I ended up enduring her rants rather than listening to them.  Mr. Kushner also has to take “credit”for this – although I do commend him for his attempt. It just doesn’t work. At all.

There were some enjoyable moments, a lot of them due to an engaging performance by Amanda de la Guardia as Agnes, our protagonist. Agnes is possibly the only sympathetic character in the play – an effervescent actress only interested in politics insofar as it can earn her her next gig. She decides to help out the local communist sect by creating a hilarious puppet show depicting the triumph of communism over Hitler – a great little detour of cheeky rebellion. But, as with most of her friends, Agnes is willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk. In fact, she doesn’t make decisions at all – except perhaps the decision to wait out the Nazi regime.

Some of her coterie do make choices – Paulinka (Alexandra Gonzalez), a fellow actress, catches the Nazi propaganda machine’s eye and quickly rises to the top of her career – which she suddenly abandons at the end of the play to take refuge in Moscow. Other characters get beat up or chased out of town, until suddenly, Agnes is alone – exactly the thing she feared.

I like that Spartan espouses minimalist theatre, and this show works all right in CIC Theatre’s space. The play is wholly set in Agnes’s living room: a sofa, a wardrobe, a table and four chairs, and a side table. The actors fill the space without overcrowding it. Entrances and exits used the door leading into the theater and a curtained-off backstage area. Transitions were covered by the projection of silent-movie-style slides of various tidbits of history onto a screen above the window in the corner of the set.  The transitions themselves, unfortunately, were needlessly long and clunky. This is a show that benefits from instant switches between scenes; in this instance, the concern seemed to be more about covering changes in the dark.

While I can’t recommend this particular production, I give props Spartan Theatre Company for not shying away from a difficult script. They’ve got ambition and they have talent. I’ll be interested to see what they do next.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Biting commentary on pre-war Berlin is buried in there, somewhere.

RATING:  d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (AstonRep Theatre Company)

(left to right) Scott Wolf and John Wehrman in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE by Martin McDonagh, directed by Derek Bertelsen.  Photo by Emily Schwartz.
(left to right) Scott Wolf and John Wehrman in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE by Martin McDonagh, directed by Derek Bertelsen. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

Show: The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Company: AstonRep Theatre Company

Venue: West Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex

Die Roll: 19

Martin McDonagh has written some really messed-up plays.  And he’s also written some really brilliant ones.  More often than not, his plays are both.  “Lieutenant of Inishmore” is one of his brilliantly dark scripts.  So, I was very much looking forward to seeing a local production of the show.

The play is a timeless tale of a psychopathic killer/freedom fighter (played by John Wehrman) whose life is thrown into a whirling tempest when his pet cat is killed.  Basically, it is one absurdity heaped upon another upon another for an hour and a half.

Really, it’s a farce.  And in any farce, the whole premise is that there is a lie, that is then protected by telling another lie.  One lie on top of another results in hilarity as things are done to prevent the discovery of the lie.  Unlike other farces, though, the solution isn’t always that everything works out in the end.  Instead, there is blood and destruction.

So, from the very first scene, the play is put forth with a tongue-in-cheek campiness and self-awareness that destroys the best farces.  For a play like this one to be really successful, the punchlines must be delivered as sincerely as possible.  When Davey (played by Matthew Harris) discovers a dead cat that he assumes to belong to Wehrman’s Padraic (the killer mentioned above) he does a clumsy reveal of the fact that it’s been brained as an attempt at shock humor.  It does succeed in getting the laugh, but it sets the tone for a production that cheapens the work itself.

Because of the approach, the scary man around whom the play revolves doesn’t seem so scary.  Even when he’s torturing a man (Scott Wolf) who hangs from an impressive steel rig, he seems to be a buffoon.  The other men within the cast who are supposed to be villains are also nothing more than clowns.  The set design is somewhat simplistic and scattered, which adds to the feeling of unreality in a show that could really shine were it to be well executed.

Most of the blood work resembled orange watercolor paint smeared on the clothing.  Which is a shame, because the costumes themselves were one of the few things that were well done in the production.  kClare McKellaston assembled a collection of garb that felt both rough and right.

I do recommend seeing “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”.  However, I would recommend seeing someone else’s production to get the real experience of a dark comedy done right.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A dark comedy is neither when played as camp.  Bummer.

RATING: d6 “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Outside Agitators” (20% Theatre Company)

WebsiteImage_girlfriend1Show: Outside Agitators

Company: 20% Theatre Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston)

Die Roll: 13

This is the perfect time for a play such as 20% Theatre’s “Outside Agitators” to emerge onto Chicago’s theater landscape. It joins a dialog already in progress at a moment when tensions are still burning hot in response to systematic abuses and wrongful deaths in Ferguson, MO. Like the uncertain protagonist of “Outside Agitators”, Ava, millions of onlookers contemplate their TV screens, propelled to be more than observers of their country’s unrest, just unsure on how to go about it.

Taking place almost 50 years ago during the 1965 voting rights marches in Selma, AL, “Outside Agitators” casts an eerily similar reflection of modern social upheaval. Seasoned voting rights activist Randall Armstrong (an antsy and maligned leader as played by Aaron Mays) and fresh recruit Leroy Moton (Eric Gerard as a sometimes devoted, sometimes evasive young man) prepare to organize hundreds of marchers to face Selma authorities. They are nursing fresh wounds administered by police batons and the death of fellow marcher, Jimmy Lee Jackson, at the hands of the police has everyone on edge. Meanwhile, two white, middle class mothers far from the turmoil- the adept and knowledgeable Viola Liuzzon (a real champion of voting rights played with bluster by Eva Laporte) and rudderless Ava Mathis (Kristi Forsch, an unrepentant whirlwind)- each dodge their skeptical families and venture to Selma to support and march in solidarity with primarily black activists.

It is here where the production’s conceits begin to unravel, and what could have been insightful storytelling takes a backseat to history, exposition and the mechanics of bringing these unlikely parties together. Author Laura Nessler and director Amy C. Buckler assemble a cast of characters without an ounce of shame, secretiveness or subtext. The characters have no problem unloading their fears and desires on anyone who asks, which gives the impression that nothing is very deeply felt among the activists. Long held prejudices disappear and slights are forgiven not after trust is earned, but whenever it’s convenient. Precautions are followed religiously to ward off the unseen menace of police and incensed whites, but forgotten instantly when the characters could use a violent wake-up-call.

It’s hard to hold out hope for central character Ava, who joins the march impulsively, and struggles to pin-point why even after the marches are over. After arriving and announcing that she has nothing to contribute to the cause, we want her to emerge with her spine a little more developed. Instead we watch her soak up limited resources, endanger her friends, and disappear back home at everyone’s behest. Without much prompting, Leroy’s distraught mother Jessie (Shariba Rivers) admits the hardship that frozen dinner production has dealt her family to Ava. However, Ava returns home to heat up aluminum trays without so much as a flicker of acknowledgement. Maybe her presence is intended as a poignant finger point at the silent majority who forget unrest instantly. It’s hard to say.

“Outside Agitators” comes very close to delivering a well-timed message about organized American revolt and how little circumstances have changed over the decades. It comes very close to doing justice to real activist, Viola Liuzzon, and borders on understanding the circumstances that can spur an impassioned outsider to action.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rebel meets cause, but she doesn’t have much to contribute.

RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Last Cadillac” (The American Demigods)

Arch Harmon and Jamarr Tillman in "The Last Cadillac".
Arch Harmon (left) and Jamarr Tillman in “The Last Cadillac”.

Show:  The Last Cadillac

Company: The American Demigods

Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2)

Die Roll: 3

Sometimes a playwright sets out with the intention of writing something profound. Very rarely does the final result meet up with the intention when the goal is so clearly to shoot for symbolism, metaphor, or allusion.  Playwright Reginald Edmund set his sights high in his attempt for profundity with his play “The Last Cadillac”. You can probably tell where I’m going with this.  A forced attempt at trying to be meaningful falls short, sadly.

I say sadly because I have a soft spot in my heart for a number of aspects of this production. The founder of the The American Demigods is a friend of mine.  Rory Leahy has written for my company, and is the person directly responsible for my return to reviewing after a multiple-year hiatus. The director, Samuel G. Robinson, Jr., spent a number of years in Minnesota, and worked at a number of the same places that I did.  I reviewed his play “Same Difference” back in the Twin Cities, and it was a brilliant piece of writing. The playwright is also familiar to me from Minnesota, and I like to cheer on the folks who developed their craft through The Playwrights Center there, as that institution was integral to the development of my own work.  I’d hoped to see a play that allowed me to celebrate the work of these men.

Now, here’s what I did see… This was a play that tried to meld the concept of “old gods” from Africa with the story of the tale of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible.  Quick Spark Notes version for you:  Anansi the spider and the Moon replace Yahweh in demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac.  The reason they want this?  It will provide the blood sacrifice needed to fuel an old Caddy which can take the gods to El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold, which apparently doubles as some sort of Elysian Fields/Valhalla.  Contained within this constructed framework is a story about a young man who wants to find himself, and old man who wants to protect his own, and a weirdly misplaced love triangle.  That’s the gist of this play.

From the get-go the production is in trouble.  The first scene is a monologue that feels more like a stream-of-consciousness rant than anything else.  Now, that may be because Biggy Daddy (a.k.a. Abraham, played by Arch Harmon) was portrayed as a man who angrily shouts every word that comes out of his mouth.  He’s a one-note man blaring at volume eleven.  Seriously.  The first time that Harmon delivered a line that didn’t sound like he was yelling was an hour and eight minutes into the play.  That’s hard to deal with when, from what I gather, this guy is supposed to be the protagonist of the work.

And yet, perhaps Big Daddy isn’t supposed to be the protagonist.  Perhaps it’s the old gods.  In the second scene which seems to be filled with half-veiled references to things that might be important later, Brother Anansi (played by Johnathan Wallace) and Old Lady Goody (Teresa Champion) rattle off lines of almost-exposition, all the while seeming like they are trying too hard to remain mysterious.  It is clear that their goals may be different from the old man’s of the previous scene.  But, there is little offered to make us care about these two.  So, perhaps they are the antagonists?  Or, perhaps just some character parts for variety?

The third scene involves Isaac (stiffly brought to life by Jamarr Tillman), a young man who has broken into Big Daddy’s shop.  Perhaps it is his story that we are supposed to be following.  Could this be our protagonist?  Who knows?  He doesn’t.  He has a mysterious past that he’s not sharing with the audience.  In this way, he’s not unlike every other person in the play.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  It’s hard to tell what’s at stake in this play.  In order for an audience to care about the action, we must know pretty early on why any of the play’s action matters.  The manner in which information was presented (or, rather, withheld) felt as though Edmund was deliberately being vague in an attempt to be more clever than the viewer.

I can’t really talk in detail about much of the plot line without giving everything away.  And that in and of itself is a problem, because really something needs to be given away for the play to make much sense.

Quick note:  Some elements of the set design were quite good.  I really liked how Tristan James devised a way to have the front end of a Cadillac on stage.  Charlee Cotton, who played Sam (Big Daddy’s daughter), put forth a solid performance, as did Andrew Muwonge as Elijah, Isaac’s rival for Sam’s affections.  While it probably needed to be trimmed from the current play, this love triangle likely could’ve been a story unto itself.  Also, this show had, by far, the best pre-show, intermission and post-show music I’ve heard in a long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  African gods and biblical allusions can’t be united by vagueness.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”