Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Lawrence Grimm and the cast/Photo by: Evan Hanover.

Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.

Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.

Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.

Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.

Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.

Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.

“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.

DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

 

Review: “United Flight 232” (The House Theatre)

Show: United Flight 232

Company: The House Theatre

Venue:  The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Almost three decades after departure, The House Theatre gives us a glimpse into “United Flight 232”; it’s more than a factual account, more than a documentary, it’s a moment in the beating heart of a disaster in progress. We’re there to peer through the fuselage that still unravels for the few lucky men and women who walked out their flight’s burning wreckage alive and into a sunny Iowa cornfield one devastating day in the summer of 1989.

We follow head Flight Attendant Jan Murray (Brenda Barrie) Captain Al Hanes (Abu Ansari) and the hundreds of crew members, passengers, and hands on the ground that prevented doomed flight 232 from becoming the encompassing tragedy it surely would have been if luck had not intervened. When an explosion rips apart one engine on their passenger craft, the pilots (Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena) think they may be able to manage to O’Hare airport with just their remaining engines. They soon find they are stranded in the air with no ability to bank, turn or pull up. The enormous plane must be coasted to an unpopulated crash landing zone in Sioux City, Iowa.  One pilot likens the experience to “surfing a 500 ton whale”.

When the extent of the damage becomes clear, the crew members (Jessica Dean Turner, Alice Da Cunha) are made aware of the shrinking likelihood that any of them will emerge from the aircraft (as the captain codes it) “standing up”. They have no choice to devote all their energy to staving panic among the passengers (Elana Elyse, Dan Lin, Carlos Alameda) by treating this as normal air trouble, and going about flight routines.

As this plane lumbers through the air to what will be a bloody, ruinous mess of seats, metal and fire, we get a moment with everyone. Unaccompanied minors, businesspeople, mechanics and air traffic controllers all cycle through their regrets and mistakes before they make touchdown. But there is no panic and very little hesitation among a crowd of hundreds solidified enough by their better instincts to blink the terror away and care for each other. There are those who perish, those who flee when they find their feet, and those who glimpse the safety of the corn, just off the tarmac, but go back in to help, because they can. 

Director and adapter Vanessa Stalling filters author Laurence Gonzales’ account of the crash (“Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival”) by borrowing some very effective storytelling from documentary features. The actors step into the footsteps of dozens of survivors, asked to retrace their steps and remember the minute details burned into the backs of their eyes over time. The trembling hands collecting scattered miniature vodka bottles. The infant without  a seat being held between her mother’s feet. Stalling has crafted a story far more powerful than a theatrical fictionalization when she allows her subject’s remembered experiences to take focus.

The cast does a great deal of the heavy lifting in this minimalist production. Statements have been gathered from hundreds of survivors, and with he flip of an internal switch, actors must go from retiree to frightened teenager as the tension ratchets up. Elana Elyse is a joy to watch as she volleys between regretful mom Martha Conant and rookie in the control tower, Kevin Bachman. Likewise, Abu Ansari is fantastic both as Captain Al Hanes and as the airport chaplain who meets passengers departing from he wreckage.

As Jan Brown, Brenda Barrie is at the center of everything, one hand in the engine, one hand on your tray tables. It’s no accident that we have her guidance, her clockwork memory as our default authority,  this is the very person you’d want managing your crisis, no matter what. Barrie builds an unbreakable veneer, just to allow us peeks through the cracks. In wonderful counterpoint, Jessica Dean Turner allows us behind the curtain of her fears as coach flight attendant Susan White, who’s sole focus is to see her family once more. And for a beam of weird and wonderful optimism, look no further than Dan Lin as coach passenger John Xiu who managed to rescue a number of passengers with purely accidental good instincts.

So, without delay, I can advise stowing any reservations you may have about crashing planes under your seat, and make plans to move about this cabin. Fair warning: you will need copious tissues where you’re going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The human mechanics behind what goes wrong in the air.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)

Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.

After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.

This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.

Margaux Fournier and Chloe Baldwin/Photo by: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.

Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.

Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.

Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.

Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Red Theater Chicago)

Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Show: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Every professional wrestler has a signature finishing move. Chad Deity’s is called the power bomb, and it involves lifting his opponent into the air and then slamming them hard onto the mat, back first. In Red Theater’s energetic production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” what makes this move stand out is not its sheer power, but the wrestler’s showmanship. Before hoisting his fellow wrestler high over his head, Chad gyrates his hips and moves his hands around in a preemptive celebration, almost surigical in its precision. Without that bit, the move would simply be fight choreography. With it, Chad displays why he’s the best loved champion in wrestling. He has charisma. By contrast, the man lying on the mat lacks panache.

More often than not, that man is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a career underdog and true believer in the art form of professional wrestling. Chad (Semaj Miller) is the face of a wrestling company referred to only as “the wrestling,” though one can discern enough details in playwright Krisoffer Diaz’s script to peg the organization as the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Mace sees himself as a storyteller, since his primary job in each match is to make poorer wrestlers look like winners, a service he provides for Chad Deity often. But he longs for more space to tell his own stories. He wants an opportunity to win. Once he meets the motormouthed VP (a role usually performed by Priyank Thakkar, though I saw a performance with gifted understudy Harsh Gagoomal), he sees a chance to train a partner, someone to pump up the crowd before an entrance, someone who will support him to victory. But EKO (Mickey O’Sullivan), owner and operator of “the wrestling,” has other plans for the pair; they are to become villains, opposed to Chad Deity and all things American, and they will be billed as racist stereotypes.

Will Snyder, Dave Honigman, and Mickey O’Sullivan/Photo courtesy of M. Freer Photography.

Diaz’s script is a wonder of craftsmanship. I can understand the impulse to revive the play in Chicago so soon after its original celebrated run at Victory Gardens in 2009. The playwright knows wrestling inside and out, and understands how the drama and showmanship of a great match is not too far from the dynamic work at play in the best theatrical performances. He uses wrestling as a metaphor for art and achieving the American Dream, and then complicates the entire scenario by highlighting how society regularly asks people of color to undermine their own identities in order to get ahead in their chosen fields. The fact that Mace addresses his tale of woe directly to the audience only makes its impact hit harder, as we become his fans, and watch while he struggles to reconcile new-found success with lost integrity.

Director Jeremy Aluma emphasizes the performance aspects of wrestling in hilarious bits. Each actor has a pratfall or excessive use of finger guns to mark their appearance. The referee (Dave Honigman) has as much of a stake in winning audience applause as anyone else, flinging himself onto the stage with a rolling sommersault. Aluma’s attention to detail places us in a world where what’s real and what’s fake blur, and what can be considered a drama or a fight can be debated. Fight choreographer Kyle Encinas adds to this with brutal and punishing bouts that make the small theatre space ring with bodies hitting the mat.

Such a landscape creates real problems for VP and Mace, who pretend to be stereotypes, only to question whether they are becoming stereotypes as they add more and more detail to each performance. The only area where I found Aluma’s work with the actors to be lacking was in the descriptions of Chad and VP’s elaborate entrances. The actors painted the imagery well, but I never got the sense of scope and bombast that Aluma and Encinas brought out in the performers physically at other moments. Of course, Michael Lewis’ wrestling ring set and Brian Lawrie’s projection work to flesh out those entrances, and costume designer Hailey Rakowieki’s wrestling outfits highlight the exaggerated nature of the profession.

Tey connects with the audience on an open-hearted and sincere level, an important accomplishment, given that the world around him relies on showing off first, and emotion second. He walks you through the industry he props up, and prepares you for the most shattering moments in the play. He is a great companion for the journey. Miller is tons of fun as Deity, helping you understand why his bravado works so well on others. Gagoomal is smooth and honest as an operator with a soul. And Will Snyder as numerous Bad Guy characters highlights how ridiculous wrestling characters can become.

In this production, whether or not Chad Deity should be the champ is rarely in question. He dominates any scene he is in, using flare and machismo to charm the audience; the true question is not whether Chad Deity will win using his signature finishing move, but what will happen to the guy hurled to mat after the final bell is sounded.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An energetic tale of charisma and hard choices about art.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: Sister Africa (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Melissa Nelson (left) as Miriam and Takesha Kizart (right) as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman

Show: Sister Africa

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

“Sister Africa” written by Stephanie Liss and directed by Elayne LeTraunik is a play advertised as being about efforts to aid the women and children victimized during the Congo’s ongoing civil war by the Jewish World Watch. It’s a description that brings up mental images of the white savior narrative. The white savior narrative is a narrative in which an outsider, usually white, travels to a place, usually full of black or brown people, and rescues them from the horrors of their existence. It’s a prevalent narrative, that puts the lived experiences of the people being ‘saviored’ on the back burner often with a side helping of criticizing them for the savagery of their lives. The set, dominated by a pristine desk on one side, and a straw hut with a tin roof on the other does little to wash away those images. However, audience members who stick it out will learn the play is more of a loosely connected series of monologues framed by one woman’s journey to collect the stories of people surviving in the midst of a war’s horrors so she can share their stories with the larger world. The lived experiences of the Congolese are front and center.

Or more accurately, centered. The first third of the play is a series of monologues by Miriam (Melissa Nelson) the aid worker who conducts the interviews, based on both the author Stephanie Liss and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamener Reznik and by Rabbi (Jimmy Binns), Miriam’s Rabbi. They give the audience background into Miriam’s life as the child of two Holocaust survivors and into the Jewish World Watch and it’s mission to stop genocide worldwide to ground the play’s narrative in a Jewish tradition of justice work and what it means for a Jewish person to refuse to be complicit in mass atrocities, even when that complicity is only silence and consumption. The monologues would have been more effective if Nelson and Binns did not hold the emotional history at arm’s length. Nelson, in particular, was disappointingly disconnected from the text, which made her appear as a high schooler in a recitation contest and a trauma tourist by turns.

Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman.

The disconnect was made startlingly apparent when the first of the actor’s playing one of the Congolese characters arrived on stage, Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette, the sole survivor of her family after a night raid, a woman carrying the title “Mama” even after witnessing her children’s slaughter. Kizart, the true star of “Sister Africa”, breathed fresh life into a performance that already had the audience growing restless. She managed to capture the audience’s attention with the tilt of her chin and kept it for the rest of the play with her vast emotional range and stamina.

The other Congolese characters were played by Ahmed Brooks as Amani, the teacher running a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, and by Chris McClellan as Cesar, the pain-ridden child soldier. Ahmed tackled the job of giving both the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgian colony to now, while also managing to be a fully realized character with aplomb. While, McClellan as Cesar completely changed the feeling in the theater when he stepped on stage. A much quieter presence than either Kizart or Brooks, McClellan can gave a full monologue with the tug of his shirt and Cesar’s sorrow was immediately visible and undercut with a seething anger that made it clear: to watch him, is to watch a bomb waiting to explode.

Jimmy Binns as The Rabbi. Photo by Ron Goldman.

As these characters, Mama Jette, Amani, and Cesar, tell their stories, questions are asked: What does it mean to be a responsible global citizen? How do women become worth so little to a group of people that rape becomes “big business”? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Congolese man, when every Congolese man featured carries a gun?

They are questions that need to be asked, and different characters offer varying levels of nuance that range from rhetorical condemnation to childish desperation, but at the end the questions are still left unanswered, leaving the audience to carry the questions home, along with a mother’s grief.

Ten Word Summary: Hundreds of hours of interviews about atrocities in one play.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Show: Machinal

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Die Roll: 10

My favorite sequence in Greenhouse Theater’s 1928 “Machinal” is at an unnamed bar at the site of just about everyone’s clandestine encounters. In one corner, a woman helps a friend in the family way (they arrange an abortion), near them is a man inviting another man to have a look at his Poe collection (join him for sex), all as our protagonist pairs off for an extra-marital affair. Each of them is allowing their impossible fantasy to play out, knowing that time spent away from the grooves they occupy in the great machine is fleeting, at best. They will have to let a few of their unproductive traits wither and die if they wish to keep surviving in relative comfort.

It is in that fleeting space, we keep meeting our protagonist, Helen or maybe Ms. A (Heather Chrisler); don’t worry, names don’t mean much in this dreamy, expressionist landscape. She’s employed as a stenographer, and unfortunately/incredibly for her, the boss (Sean Gallagher) develops a crush on her dainty hands. The problem? Helen recoils at his every touch. Still, when he proposes, she’s simply not in any position to turn him down, no matter how disgusted she is. In what seems like seconds, she’s married, and after a few more seconds, she’s the mother of a newborn girl. She’s always enveloped in the anxious call of eerie strings, until she meets a free-spirited lover (Cody Proctor), who, of course, cannot stay. He gives her a moment’s happiness, a potted plant, and a terrific idea for how to kill her unwanted husband. There’s always the pestering clack of typewriter keys to follow her, however, and train cars full of anonymous bodies too close for her to breathe free.

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 script is almost like watching what would happen in a person’s subconscious mind. Our protagonist only remembers her darkest and most exhilarating moments, burned into her memory with the intensity of regret and longing. What comes between those moments is the most beautiful nothing and strangeness that director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius can conjure with just light, eerie music and their actor’s bodies.

The performances from start to finish are what keep things tense, sometimes frighteningly so. Heather Chrisler at the center of it all, is quite amazing to take in as Helen. She has nothing to sell us, no persona to hide under, and no want for anything more than just an inch or two more of her own breathing space away from everyone. Her asthmatic physical constriction at her own confinement is downright compelling. She volleys between jovial husband extraordinaire, Sean Gallagher, who is carefree in the way only successful white men are allowed to be, and Cody Proctor, who unwittingly attracts where he means to repel women like Helen, as her lover.

There are no slouches in the show’s ensemble either; notably, Sarah Rachel Schol is a ferocious office efficiency tyrant, Jonah Winston is barely containable as both a judge and an excitable restaurant diner, and Scott Shimizu is a whirlwind both as a doctor and a philandering husband.

Despite its advanced age, “Machinal” still has a lot to say to us in our new century, and mines a very cut and dried true historic event for all the deep lonesomeness and fear that the courtroom stenographers tend to leave out.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Going to battle against the patriarchy? I hear ya, sister.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

(left to right) Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Show: Shockheaded Peter

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Imagine Brecht meets a roving band of insouciant faeries and you have Shockheaded Peter. Directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by T.J. Anderson, Shockheaded Peter is Black Button Eyes Productions’s delightfully macabre cabaret of cautionary tales about the naughtiest of children and adults. Adapted for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with music by The Tiger Lillies, the play is based on the German Children’s Book The Struwwelpter, and weaves the fates of misbehaving children in between chapters of the tale of Shockheaded Peter’s misbehaving parents.  In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect a musical based on a German children’s book to be.

The audience is led through this cheerfully grim collection by the Master of Ceremonies, a self-important showman who takes joy in the little things, like child pyromaniacs, played with wonderful affectation by Kevin Webb. Webb’s performance, which incorporated just the right amount of physical theater to make the sinister Master of Ceremonies an impish, Puck figure, kept the audience laughing and ready for the next twisted tale.

(front, l to r) Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon

Webb’s playful narcissism and booming voice, would have completely stolen the show, if it weren’t for the ensembles’ skill at clowning. Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre might have burst if they added more of the contortion, stilt work, and puppetry that made the show. Without the work of contortionist Genevieve Lerner and the stilt walking Ellen DeSitter Shockheaded Peter would have been a lesser production. As a whole, the ensemble fully committed to the physical comedy of Shockheaded Peter, with enough vibrancy and life that there was rarely a dull space on stage.

The show was supported by Jeremiah Barr’s puppets which kept the production walking the thin line between bleak and whimsical that is the space where Shockheaded Peter lives. It is worth noting, that Shockheaded Peter is a musical, full of the discordant, minor key tones that bring Kurt Weill to mind or the circus from a horror movie; however, it doesn’t stop them from jaunting from merrily irrelevant tunes to beautiful and haunting numbers and back again, under the musical direction of T.J. Anderson. One of the show’s standout voices is ensemble member Kat Evans, who manages to sound beautiful as both a cat and a storm. Not all of Shockheaded Peter’s soloists are as strong, but their harmonies bring to mind sirens and other auditorily pleasing harbingers of doom.

(front, l to r) Ellen DeSitter and Genevieve Lerner with (back, l to r) Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen Tulin in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Shockheaded Peter isn’t a world changing show—it is fun and full of the sort of darkness that you won’t see on the evening news. It is a sixty-six minute respite from the heavy world shifting events that hit when you turn your phone back on after the show.

Ten Word Summary: Brecht and Weill and faeries attempt a musical for children.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre)

Show: “Triassic Parq”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

If someone had walked up to me and told me there was a show out there that re-imagined “Jurassic Park” from the perspective of the dinosaurs, there is no way that I would have guessed it to have been anything like what the folks at Circle Theatre have put up at the Heartland Studio.  On the surface the play is a parody that places its footing firmly upon the “Life will find a way” statement from the 1992 movie that explains a hatched brood of dino eggs from a supposedly all-female population of prehistoric creatures.  Had the show stopped right there conceptually, added a handful of songs about eating goats and humans, and the like, and this would have been a fun, light romp.  But the script by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo is far more sophisticated than that, and the audience is treated to a thoroughly enjoyable romp that is still quite fun, but not always so light.

Each time I enter the tiny Heartland Studio, I instantly look to see how the producing theatre company chose to deal with the remarkably restrictive confines.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some abysmal wastes of space, and a few reasonably successful and creative ways of making the space work.  But, I have never been as impressed previously as I am with Jimmy Jagos’s set.  The design extends into the lobby, as well as up the walls into the audience.  And the mobile set pieces that first confront the audience hearken directly back to the sense of awe one feels upon the first viewing of the gates into Jurassic Park.

With the mood set, there’s a bit of time for some absurd fun prior to the more serious content of the show, as so we meet our narrator, a woman (Caitlin Boho) who claims to be Morgan Freeman.  In that character, the tone of the evening is set.  The fourth wall is broken, the cabaret nature of the show is established, and the premise of the show is explained.  Life must find a way, despite the fact that all the dinos are females.  Now, it might be noted here that not all of the actors are female.  This helps a bit with the harmonies of the songs, but it also makes for a fluid gender-scape from the get-go.  When, partway through the play, a T-Rex suddenly sprouts a penis, it naturally does so on an actress-portrayed dinosaur.  Of note, the two dinosaurs who morph into male specimens are both played by women.  The female dinosaurs played by men remain female.  Some of the humor grows out of the sexual and romantic relationships that grow out of the gender changes, and some of it is pretty low-brow, but it is skillfully offset by other bits of commentary-based comedy that takes a hard look at the battle between science and religion.

These dinosaurs aren’t just ravaging reptilian monsters.  They are members of a well defined, if somewhat naive, society with a church-like organization at its core.  And the religion seems to have grown out of the population’s circumstances in an understandable manner.  We witness crises of faith, confrontations with new information, and the struggles of leaders and followers in their dynamic relationships.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Jacob Richard Axelson) drives much of the action of the show through her struggle to maintain control of a world that she recognizes less and less of.  The Velociraptor of Innocence (Parker Guidry) is her foil and the main character for much of the rest of the show.  It is her struggle to discover herself and her meaning that leads to the conflict between the old and new realities for the dinos.

Co-Directors Tommy Bullington and Nicholas Reinhart have put together a tremendous show.  The cast takes what could be just a campy bit of fun and creates something at least two notches of quality above that.  It is an evening of song and dance, and inventive drag costumes, and while it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, “Triassic Parq” is indeed more than what one expects, and is better for it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Blue and Yellow make Green. See the show. You’ll understand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

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 Fair Maid of the West” (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Show: “The Fair of the West”

Company: Oak Park Festival Theatre

Venue: Austin Gardens (167 Forest Ave Oak Park, IL)

“May that man die derided and accursed that will not follow where a woman leads.” So says a soldier of fortune in thrall to the fair maid of the west, known in taverns and back alleys simply as Bess, though her theatrical adventures grant her a swashbuckling reputation and the admiration of any she meets. The Oak Park Festival Theatre audience at “The Fair Maid of the West” certainly hooted in agreement on the night I attended. Brought to glorious life by Amanda Forman and a cast of hilarious and game fighters, this sixteenth century drama is a rollicking good time, a treasure that has been luckily saved from the history bin by director and adapter Kevin Theis.

Bess Bridges is a simple tavern wench who finds herself swept up in international intrigue when Spencer (Zach Livingston), a nobleman and the love of her life, is banished from England for murdering a man in self-defense. His man Friday, a captain by the name of Goodlack (Debo Balogun), alternately betrays and assists his friend, and a braggart by the name of Roughman (Aaron Christensen) pledges fidelity to Bess after she tricks him into admitting his cowardice outside the tavern. When the two lovers are separated, Bess chooses to pursue her partner across oceans — war with Spain and encounters with indecent sailors be damned.

Theis has crafted a sprightly script to suit his strong actors. His take on Thomas Heywood’s swashbuckler is fresh and immediate, with actors using asides to wink at the audience with contemporary flourishes. As the action moves from England to the sea to Fez, Theis keeps the shenanigans moving at a quick pace, and embraces all the devices of Shakespeare’s day, up to quick-turn redemptions, and even including the infamous “bed trick.”

Forman and the ensemble are clearly having a hell of a time onstage. She imbues her heroine with a confident center and a surprising sense of humor. Livingston is a great match for Forman, and his true blue love for her shines through, even when he is choosing honor above his personal attachments. Christensen steals the show in the coward soldier role, flexing his muscles and passionately screaming to the heavens once his plans go awry. Clem (Bobby Bowman), Bess’ assistant, gamely plays the clown, spouting truths to the audience that his fellow adventurers will not hear.

Fight choreographer Geoff Coates take special care with each sword fight, creating dramatic storylines to each battle. Spencer’s final attempts to reach Bess was particularly impressive, as it involved the entire cast attacking, twice. Also fun were the localized bouts between ensemble members. Each fight made a statement about the characters, their skills, and where they were at emotionally within the performance. It is not easy to tell a story through violence, but Coates makes it spectacular and important to the audience.

Michael Lasswell’s set design encompasses a ship, several taverns, and one royal palace, with rooms popping up out of nowhere — proving that the humblest of settings can still birth great things. Julie Mack’s light design highlights the romantic moments onstage, and the rousing music provided by Christopher Kriz set the epic tone needed for the play.

“The Fair Maid of the West” should entertain and delight audiences throughout the Chicago area. Its every detail is full of joy and innovation. Look no further for a lovely summer treat.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A rollicking adventure awaits the audience, along with killer fights.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”