Review: “Mother of Smoke” (Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company)

Kelsey Shipley, McCambridge Dowd-Whipple, Emma Ladji and Stephanie Shum/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Mother of Smoke”

Company: Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company

Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway St)

Die Roll: 2

At the beginning of “Mother of Smoke,” a performer informs the audience that we exist in an in-between space. We are living outside time and experience, so we are safe in the theater. Yet we are not at home. We are constantly in transit. This is a fitting introduction, given that home and safety form the twin concerns of the experimental performance, and the script itself is a mash-up of “The Trojan Women,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and monologues about the crumbling of the American Dream. The destruction of Troy occurs simultaneously with the ruling class’ loss of their orchard property, and in the middle of all this, food deserts in Inglewood are discussed. It is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, and while the cast valiantly brings life to each set-piece, the end result feels disjointed and taxing, no matter how much the safety of drama is heralded.

Co-created by Thom Pasculli, and the Walkabout Theater and Red Tape Theatre ensembles, the production includes writing from Charles Mee, Ellen McLaughlin, Anton Chekhov, Euripides, and company writers Emma Stanton, Morgan McNaught, Lucas Baisch, and Lucia Thomas. If that seems like too many cooks in the kitchen, your instinct is correct. While the acting ensembles generate affecting visuals and excel at the contemporary material in “Mother of Smoke,” the older texts create contrasts that blur the performance’s overall context. While it is an interesting academic exercise to ponder how the loss of the Russian nobility’s cherry orchard matches up with the ravages of war experienced by the women of Troy, the script cannot link the two directly enough to generate dramatic friction or worthwhile meaning. Loss of home can be much more viscerally felt when it comes to military refugees. How that trauma connects to gentrification in Chicago is anyone’s guess, because we hear so few speeches about it. I appreciate that the writers left the audience to their own conclusions, but a stronger spine, or clearer deconstructions of each text, would have provided us more entertainment and a clearer set of tools to work with as fellow collaborators.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Mazzini particularly stands out in her performance as Helen of Troy. She moves from sardonic wit about her plight to a fevered shout about how her beauty and the war are meaningless. Kelsey Shipley as Lyubov in “The Cherry Orchard” single-handedly holds that storyline together, simply by providing a grounded presence for the other actors around her. Alex Rodriguez as Lyubov’s lost tutor, and as Aeneus in the play’s final section, brings a raw emotional quality to haunted speeches. And Emma Ladji as Dido proves a wise teacher in a world born after war.

Movement collaborator Carrie Drapac provides the most memorable moments of the production, using each actor as a piece of the storytelling. Women wave their hands frantically while men roll around on the floor, desperate for connection and clinging to one another. The strongest parts of the play involve silence and movement, rather than worked-over monologues. The times I felt most affected by the colliding scenes all arrived during dances or scenic transitions.

When we enter a theatrical performance, we implicitly agree to live in an in-between space for a few hours. We do this because we hope to learn something about the world, something about ourselves. By listening to others’ stories, we become more human, and hopefully, find some semblance of safety and community during that reinforcement. “Mother of Smoke” wants to unsettle in order to educate, but its stitched together parts form a patchy whole, and leave us wanting clarity.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Uneven script hampers strong emotional and physical acting from cast.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Sycamore” (Raven Theatre Company)

Show: Sycamore

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 11

The Raven has turned out a miniature work of art in the new world premiere of Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore”. Despite the need for a few touch-ups, it’s a lovely introduction to a hyper-modern theatrical family that bears the mark of a generation not hampered by the name hang-ups you’d expect from say, William Inge or Paula Vogel. The households in “Sycamore” accept their children, even if they don’t understand their sexual preferences or can’t step in when they make a poor decision. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to keep these parents and children at odds.

In “Sycamore”, two affluent, suburban families find themselves becoming too close to expect neighborly privacy, or to properly hide secrets that loom too close to the surface. John (Johnathan Nieves) and his mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) struggle under the weight of their novelty as former artists, city dwellers, and accidental bohemians. Meanwhile, the teen siblings next door, Celia (Selina Fillinger) and Henry Jacobs (Julian Larach) tread very carefully around their well-meaning parents Louise and David (Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey), but mostly around one another. A recent traumatic event keeps them on their best behavior, until John appears and both Celia and Henry become a little infatuated.

But, order must be kept and everyone on stage feels obligated to cling to their own status quo, rather than embrace the growing desires that hide just under the surface. Celia tries to squash her growing interest in John out of respect for her brother, who she blames herself for hurting and sending into a tailspin. At the same time, Henry, well aware that there’s a romantic spark that is not focused on him, tries to escape the despair that almost succeeded in engulfing him once. Parents Jocelyn, Louise and David aren’t immune to the turmoil, either, and fester unhappily with their children in the same uneasiness. They mull returning to unsatisfying jobs, and loneliness despite being surrounded by their children and spouses. There’s an undercurrent of envy that crackles like a bolt of lightning seeking out a ground current. Something has to snap soon.

“Sycamore’s” strengths and emotional depths are solidified by a cast of ridiculously talented young actors.  Julian Larach gives Henry the apprehensive energy of a deer leaving the safety of the woods; he fears his own strong feelings more than anything. Johnathan Nieves is both sides of a free-spirited coin as John, at home in an emotional minefield, but vastly unprepared for the fallout. And Selina Fillinger is the real ticking time bomb of “Sycamore”. As Celia she puts herself under so much duress to be a rock for her brother that we can see the cracks forming as soon as we meet her.

On paper, “Sycamore” has a problem with homogeny. Characters speak in the same white, affluent cadence and struggle with very elite circumstances. Director Devon De Mayo combats this with a superb color-conscious cast, and allowing the actors help us find ourselves onstage. You’ll experience fantastic moments of authentic awkwardness, compelling performers sweating out modern dissatisfaction, and a visually stunning stage to house them all out in the open.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: For this patched-up family, returning to normal won’t do.

DICE RATINGd10- Worth Going To

Review: “Venus in Fur” (Circle Theatre)

Zach Livingston and Arti Ishak/Photo by: Cody Jolly Photography.

Show: “Venus in Fur”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio Theatre (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

Die Roll: ?

Who controls a dramatic scene, the actor or the director? Who has final say over the movement, the emotions expressed, the power dynamics that play out? Circle Theatre’s “Venus in Furs” provides a simplistic answer in an audition sequence that goes horribly awry.

Thomas (Zach Livingston) is looking to cast the ideal sexy, feminine, bold woman. He has adapted a real-life sadomasochistic novel into a full-length play, and he bemoans his inability to fill the role of his leading lady, Vanda. Then an actual woman named Vanda (Arti Ishak) walks into his office, and he must square her apparent ditziness with her strong performance in the role. She has somehow obtained a full draft of the script, and she has a remarkable ability to recall her lines on very little study. Mostly, Thomas is annoyed that she refuses to see the play from his point of view. The two act out various scenes, switching roles, and controlling one another’s choices, playing out an exercise in dominance and submission.

David Ives’ play-within-a-play directly spells out the power struggle his artists experience. The director wants the actress to adhere to his commands, just as his in-script character wants her to dominate him sexually. The actress has her own interpretation of the story, and will not back down simply because she is told to; this mirrors her in-script character’s resistance to being manipulated into certain actions by her lover. The lines between reality and fiction blur as the drama progresses, and the characters’ desires become more complicated. The outside world seems to vanish, as the two become involved in a dangerous one-upmanship that may destroy their real lives. Ives leaves us on a revelation that fails to resolve the conflict, and plays more as an excuse than an answer to the behavior displayed, but the journey towards destruction is fascinating enough to forgive a silly ending.

Arti Ishak/Photo by: Cody Jolly Photography.

Director Charlotte Drover pays keen attention to Livingston and Ishak’s physical relationship throughout. The two exist in Thomas’ space, but he quickly loses ownership of his office once Vanda starts changing outfits and moving furniture around to transition from scene to scene. Drover has the actors maneuver one another into corners, staking claims to specific pieces of the set in order to control the action. The constant movement and comedic energy she draws from Ishak, in particular, buoys the play’s momentum.

The intimacy and violence, designed by Kelsey McGrath, rarely resembles real-life interactions. The slaps and canings take on a theatrical flair; the audience sees Ishak missing by a mile in the small Heartland Studio space. If the script does not tip us off that something magical is afoot, then the fight sequences do.

Ishak and Livingston never shy away from the serious themes at play. Livingston claims space and bullies without much care to whether or not the audiences like him. Ishak transitions between flake and goddess and artist so quickly, it is difficult to tell when she is playing a trick on Livingston or on herself. While the play fails to land with the same complexity it displays in its set-up, the performances and direction offer the audience more than enough entertainment to fill an evening.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Man auditions woman; woman disciplines man; disaster and desire follow.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Gentle” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Tom Dacey Carr and Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

Show: “Gentle”

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 20

“What’s happening?” I asked my friend. “I’m already nervous.”

A man had walked onstage, looking severe in a business suit and holding his own shoes. Something was wrong, though I had no idea what. I sensed bad news, and my instinct turned out to be correct.

In TUTA’s “Gentle,” a theatrical adaptation of a short story by Dostoevsky, the man’s (Tom Dacey Carr) serious nature and bitter disposition do, in fact, harm those around him. He is a pawnbroker, and he happily parts people with their keepsakes, secure in his knowledge that he need only run his shop long enough to raise funds for a new life and career. His plans change once he encounters a young girl (Dani Tucker) desperate to escape her awful family. He offers to marry her, and confident of his rescue, he sets out to make her the model wife for him. His housekeeper (Lauren Demerath) approves of the match, but keeps a watchful eye on the girl, concerned about the pawnbroker’s silences.

Dani Tucker/Photo by: Austin D. Oie.

The pawnbroker narrates the story to the audience, and it is clear from the first moments of the play that his tale is a tragic one. Adapted and directed by Zeljko Djukic, the drama is trimmed with Dostoevsky’s religious themes; the Virgin Mary and Jesus serve as the ultimate paragon of selfless love, and everyone else falls short. What eludes the people onstage is crystal clear to the audience, as an icon hangs over the proceedings. Djukic must preserve Dostoevsky’s tone while bringing his words into a real world inhabited by dialogue and scenic conflict. This proves difficult, as Dostoevsky’s abstractions about love and faith rarely lead to concrete choices being made before the audience. Djukic has actors delivering long speeches about the day-to-day life of the household, and it can be difficult to tie one event to the next, especially since the pawnbroker bathes the girl in disapproving silence, often to teach a lesson.  There is a lot of monologuing between domestic squabbles, and most of the girl’s relevant activities occur offstage, so we understand only what the pawnbroker perceives. This is clearly the point of Dostoevsky’s tale, but tense silence can only keep its sharpness for so long, when enacted onstage. I found myself frustrated by the pawnbroker’s lack of insight, though Djukic alleviates the annoyance with his hero by cleverly having his characters move about the space and shift props in a variety of ways, showcasing how the man of the house, his wife, and the housekeeper control various aspects of one another’s daily lives.

The actors are uniformly excellent. Carr never begs the audience’s sympathy, barely earning it when he attempts a fragile act of love at the story’s end. Throughout, he is stubborn and exacting and clings to a belief that he is unlovable. Tucker must complete a harder task. She must remain a mystery while still seeming more in touch with her emotions and empathy than her husband. She becomes a literal whirling dervish at one point in the script, and I absolutely could not blame her desperate need to be seen and accepted as she is. Demerath is delightful as the housekeeper, using a shuffling walk and wry smile to suggest that she is more in touch with humanity than the others.

The production design is impeccable. Keith Parham’s lights flicker on and off, suggesting a world on the verge of crumbling. Kurtis Boetcher’s scenic design evokes nineteenth century traditions, with a border framing the pawnbroker’s immaculate rooms, where people appear as if out of nowhere. Natasha Djukic’s costumes reflect the smoldering inner life of each character, changing with the seasons, and offering some relief from the blank whiteness surrounding the actors.

The pawnbroker troubles his wife because he cannot see past the borders of his life. He believes people should act in certain ways and express themselves appropriately. Everyone must adhere to his views. The way he stares at the audience, daring us to contradict him, mirrors this. We have right to be nervous. We will be given no ground in his world.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Lonely man grapples with mysterious wife in well-designed production.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Private Eyes” (Piccolo Theatre)

Kurt Proepper, Megan DeLay, and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

Show: “Private Eyes”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 8

“Lie to everyone but me,” says a husband to his wife.

This line of dialogue from Steven Dietz’s “Private Eyes” has always stood out to me. It has been stuck in my mind since first seeing the play during my undergraduate education, when I could hardly be expected to understand what it meant. But I sensed a delicious irony in the line. In a relationship, truth is often held up as the highest virtue. So what does it mean when your lies are accepted, as long as they belong to others? Piccolo Theatre, dedicated to making audiences laugh, attempts to address such thorny issues of intimacy and illusion in their current production of Dietz’s script. While the end product is tonally inconsistent, the dizziness of Dietz’s script means the characters’ desires and doubts linger.

Matthew (Kurt Proepper) and Lisa (Megan DeLay) are married actors cast in the same play. Adrian (Edward Fraim) is their pompous director. Adrian and Lisa are having an affair that Matthew knows about, though he refuses to confront the pair. That is the play’s predicament in two sentences, and it lacks color when laid out so bluntly. In reality, the audience watches this conflict unfold as a play within a play within a play within Matthew’s mind. Each scene eventually reveals itself to be a performance or possibly a figment of our protagonist’s imagination, where nothing is certain for the characters or the audience.

A large part of why this play can be so thrilling comes from Dietz’s ability to turn one scenario into another with a snap of the fingers or an appearance by the mysterious Frank (David W.M. Kelch). Rehearsals become closed door conversations. Revenge fantasies become mundane lunch hours. The appearance of an actual private eye (Shantelle Szyper) is not even worth batting an eye at; she may have a license to kill, but for Matthew, she only represents the possibility of being wanted by a stranger — the same way his wife is wanted by another.

Shantelle Szyper and Edward Fraim/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III.

In order to follow these men and women through all their theatrical twists and turns, you need sharp, bold direction. While Michael D. Graham excels at comedic character bits, such as the anal retentive addition of dressing to a salad, the transition between fiction and reality is so slippery that at times the emotional arcs can become hard to follow. Similarly, I was unsure what to make of the characters’ squared off entrances and exits, mirroring the squares of the set design (by Milo Bue and Lee Moore, based on abstract art). Were they following set patterns, only to bust out of them later? I could not put the pieces together, as I never noticed a change.

While the actors are all solid as people who want more than others can give or communicate, I found myself craving more gravity from the production. There are elements of danger here, and the destructive impulses all four characters share should not be turned into the same type of meta-theatrical joke Dietz favors in the rehearsal scenes. Real relationships are at stake here, and only one of them is feverish and new. The others involve years of knowledge being put in jeopardy, and I never got the sense that all of Matthew and Lisa’s philosophizing grew from feeling stuck in their same routines. Either Graham needed to guide his performers to make broader choices, or subtler ones. They land between wacky and tortured, and at odd times. In order for their discoveries to matter to the audience, the revelations need to be clear to the actors, and as of now, the emotional life is drained for some scenes in the middle of the play.

Dietz has called this work a “comedy of suspicion,” and that is apt. The story is steeped in deceit, and it is impossible to apply logic to Matthew’s unraveling spool of evidence. Truth is impossible, Dietz seems to be telling us, and so our promises to one another should take that into account.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Inconsistent storytelling hamper choosing whether play is fact or fiction.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Review: “Transit of Venus” (Saint Sebastian Players)

Heather Smith and Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams/Photo: Saint Sebastian Players.

Show: “Transit of Venus”

Company: Saint Sebastian Players

Venue: St. Bonaventure (1625 W Diversey Pkwy)

Die Roll: 6

The human heart is as mysterious as the heavens in “Transit of Venus,” a drama that showcases how obsession and ambition can eternally stall one’s life. Based on the true story of Guillaume Le Gentil’s tracking of Venus, Maureen Hunter’s play, currently in production by the Saint Sebastian Players, follows everyday patterns as well as celestial ones. And while this current incarnation of the story showcases one excellent performance and a keen sense of wit, the dividends do not make up for the script’s repeated beats and predictable conclusion.

Le Gentil (Jake Baker) plans to serve God by assisting the French government in measuring the distance from the Earth to the sun. In order to accomplish this, he must chart the transit of the planet Venus, and in the 1760s, one can only do that on a sailing journey. As his assistant Desmarais (Leo LaCamera) packs for the voyage, Le Gentil must say goodbye to his mother (Maggie Speer), break off an affair with housemaid Margot (Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams), and declare his love for her daughter Celeste (Heather Smith). As Celeste predicts, danger arises on his journey, and Le Gentil is kept from home and a promise of marriage repeatedly while tracking Venus.

Hunter’s script runs three acts, and that is too long for pretty much any drama written after 1965. (Her script hails from 1992.) The three most important scenes of the play involve Le Gentil and Celeste, and their ongoing debate about whether his dreams are destructive to their future. One could string those sequences together to build a fine, time-jumping one-act. But I must take the play on its own merits, rather than imposing my structural instincts on the work. That said, I have to admit that where we land at the end of the play is set up so clearly by the end of the first act, there is little dramatic tension in watching events unfold. Hunter gifts her characters fiery spirits and sharp tongues (particularly in the cases of Smith and Speer), but their arguments about who gets to leave the country when struggle to connect to present-day questions of inequality and opportunity. Thus, the play feels older than its 1992 publishing date, and has less to offer the audience than it promises.

Smith as Celeste represents the production’s beating heart. When we first glimpse her, she throws herself about a drawing room, moping in all her teenage glory over her loved one’s departure. As each act progresses, and Celeste ages, so does Smith’s physical and emotional life. By the time we hit act three, she has matured beyond Le Gentil’s understanding, and her command of the same drawing room she flounced about before is telling. Smith knows that Celeste is the one most affected by Le Gentil’s projects, and she embodies the weight of her love well across the play.

Director Kaitlin Taylor is smart to let her actors perform the play in contemporary style. The dialogue is semi-heightened, and the costume and set design could lead to broader presentational performances. Taylor always grounds the actors in the emotional turmoil of each scene, but she diminishes the play’s impact by staging two of its most important scenes far upstage in an observatory setting. Far from the audience, Smith and Baker’s expressions are hard to read, as they wrestle with their relationship to one another. The quiet moments they share are also hard to hear, so it becomes difficult to care about their romance later on.

“Transit of Venus” asks some elementary questions about how we value those we love in relationship to our chosen purpose. Though the play does not surprise, it does embrace the uncertainty of romance, and draw the audience into asking larger questions — even when the answers are not satisfying. That seems somehow appropriate, since Le Gentil and Celeste end up so unsatisfied themselves.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Astronomer seeks uncomplaining wife, but gets an independent woman instead.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Squeeze My Cans” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Cathy Schenkelberg/Photo by: Greenhouse Theater Center.

Show: “Squeeze My Cans”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 17

Roger Ebert once wrote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But that statement applies to any narrative form of storytelling, really. In fact, that quote came instantly to mind while watching “Squeeze My Cans,” a solo piece written and performed by Cathy Schenkelberg. In this one-woman show, Schenkelberg details her journey into and out of Scientology, and if you know even a little bit about the cult’s obsession with aliens and its notorious financial filchings, no new information is provided here. What does enchant is Schenkelberg’s rip-roaring performance, which engages the audience with heart, humor, and a little naiveté. So while the play itself does not break any new ground, its star provides a breath of fresh air concerning an old topic.

Taking us from an idyllic childhood to a teenage loss, and a twenty-something search for meaning, Schenkelberg gives the audience plenty of time to warm to her company. A working voice-over actor, she is recruited into Scientology by an older, successful mentor. Cathy dreams of being as put-together and unshakeable as the glamorous movie stars she meets via the many seminars she attends regarding the cult. While she searches for complete control over the way the world perceives her, she also longs for a deeper spiritual meaning. As her debt racks up, she nears a nervous breakdown, and must decide whether it is better to stay in the cult she has known for twenty years, or escape and rebuild her life in a society she has shunned.

The most engaging element of this performance is Schenkelberg herself. She has mined her life as a Scientologist for hilarity, recounting an audition to date Tom Cruise with the same verve as she describes an awkward interview where she must tell a fifteen year-old fellow member about her sex life. Our heroine throws herself into the performance with gusto, moving from memory to memory — and dead-faced interrogator to dead-faced interrogator — with little room for breath. She simulates her whirlwind romance with Scientology at such a quick pace, the audience understands how she ignored the hundreds of thousands of dollars she gave away without much thought. As she reaches new heights in the organization, she never underplays the ridiculous discoveries she makes at every level. She knows now that she was suckered, and we root for her to find a way off this ridiculous ride.

Though the play is largely built on Schenkelberg’s body, as she ages from being six to middle-aged, some nifty tricks show the passage of time. Her racked up debt is displayed on a projection screen as she rises through the Scientology ranks, and the ever-increasing numbers she ignores almost caused panic in this audience member. Other projections showcase her fondest memory, fishing with her father. These quiet moments are far and few between, so they stand out for the viewer.

One does wish that Schenkelberg had slowed down enough to deliver the more emotionally charged revelations. Her near nervous breakdown, brought on by excruciating self-analysis required by Scientology, is harrowing. But reveals involving the manipulation of her daughter do not land as heavily as they might, given that little in the script involves her family. She does reconnect with her father at one point, and learn a greater lesson about the universe and our purpose within it. But we do not see the journeys to these particular moments. We land at a healthier destination after the umpteenth reenactment of a Scientology seminar, and while those interrogations are chilling, they involve more reaction from her than dramatic tension over her choices. I would love to have spent more time with her decision to leave Scientology, in order to truly understand how painful the process would become.

But it is fortunate that Schenkelberg escaped, and it is fortunate that she found the will and humor to turn her experience into theatre. While no new discoveries will be made about the horrible nature of Scientology within this work, Schenkelberg puts a warm, human face on the difficulty of belief.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Woman rejects Scientology, and she lives to tell the tale.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Scottsboro Boy” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys”/Photo by: Kesley Jorissen.

Show: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

At its most basic level, live performance of any story is a lie. Actors pretend as if they exist in a certain time and place, and expect us to buy in to their perceptions and expectations. Any scripted story is a manipulation; the audience is asked to imagine that the events unfolding before them have never happened before, that the outcome is not already planned, that the themes of the narrative are not super-imposed on us by the playwright.

John Kander and Fred Ebb play with suspension of disbelief in all their musicals, but in “The Scottsboro Boys,” they may have reached the outer limits of performance as a lie. In recounting the tragic history of nine young men falsely accused of rape, the authors ask the audience to endure a minstrel show in order to get at the truth of the story. Which is a misdirection. Because minstrelsy was nothing but a cultural lie, a performance of racist stereotypes and hoary jokes (often completed by white actors in blackface) that extravagantly claimed plantation life was fine and dandy, and that African American men and women did not suffer and likely even enjoyed slavery. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the crucial tension between that myth and what these falsely convicted men endured does not quite reach thematic coherence. But the production does offer excellent performances and several cutting images, alongside a real-life miscarriage of justice that speaks to contemporary problems in the justice system.

Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, and Mark J. Hood/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Of the nine men, Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) receives the most attention from book writer David Thompson. He is arrested with eight other rail-riders, after being accused of molesting two white women, each played by one of the Scottsboro boys. He insists on his innocence, as racist jailers and incompetent lawyers sink their chances at a fair trial. He develops a mentoring relationship with his youngest cellmate Eugene (Cameron Goode), and he encourages his fellow men to stand up for their rights. As the Scottsboro Boys endure appeal after appeal, the Interlocutor (Larry Yando), along with Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood), orchestrate their interactions with the outside world, calling on them to sing and dance to minstrel tunes throughout.

Because the men are telling this story from beyond the grave, they cannot alter its trajectory, particularly under the influence of the white Interlocutor. Kander and Ebb musicals often treat the act of performance as a shambling, dead-eyed, ghoulish affair, and while director Samuel Roberson, Jr. aims to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible with the moments of minstrelsy, the robotic performance of his actors only chills about fifty percent of the time. I am unsure why this is so, as the music commands plastered on smiles and herky-jerky, dehumanizing gestures, all aptly performed by the actors. When it comes down to it, I wonder if the minstrel performances should not have been pushed even farther, into flamboyant grotesquerie, as is often done with the Emcee character in “Cabaret.” If we are physically frightened by the racist caricature, we can better understand how the men are commanded to act in order to make headway in court.

James Earl Jones II/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Jones as Haywood shines as the voice of righteous fury in “The Scottsboro Boys.” His early testimony number, “Nothin’,” provides both the requisite politeness required of him in court, but is performed with enough of a sneer that the audience is in on the injustice. Goode has a clear voice packed with innocence that makes his nightmares about the electric chair all the more horrifying. Tsopang and Hood have thankless roles as the Interlocutor’s collaborators, but neither shies away from their terrible jokes or terrible actions as several side characters. Likewise, Trequon Tate and Jos N. Banks as the lying white women excel at selfish, stardom-seeking behavior.

Andrei Onegin’s scenic design resembles a train car and a gallows, and it serves the small Stage 773 space well. Samantha Jones’ costume design evokes the 1930’s period while also commenting on the sameness of the men’s dress once they are imprisoned. Lighting designer Richard Norwood paints the stage in lurid and stark colors, depending on the monstrosity of the minstrel performance on display. The more horrifying aspects of the play are definitely elevated by the design elements, even if the production as a whole could have gone farther and shown how lies dehumanize and destroy us all.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The Scottsboro Boys speak truth, but show business demands lies.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Wolf at the End of the Block” (Teatro Vista)

Gabe Ruíz and Ayssette Muñóz/Photo by: Joel Maisonet.

Show: “The Wolf at the End of the Block”

Company: Teatro Vista

Venue: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 14

Abe likes to run. He tells us as much when he first appears onstage. It’s difficult to focus on what he’s saying, though, since his lower lip is split open, blood runs down his temple, and his knuckles are purple with bruises. In Teatro Vista’s “The Wolf at the End of the Block,” a world premiere by Ike Holter, what people say and how they look are often at odds.

Abe (Gabe Ruíz) is not a reliable sort. His sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) wishes he paid the rent on time, and his boss cum best friend Nunley (Bear Bellinger) spouts empty threatens about firing him for tardiness and potentially stealing from his store’s safe. But when Abe admits that his pain is the result of a hate crime, both members of his support system motivate him to stand his ground and speak. Nunley interrogates a man (James D. Farrugio) who may or may not know what happened to Abe, while Miranda enlists investigative reporter Frida (Sandra Márquez), a crusading Oprah type who demands Abe be unimpeachable before she report his story and calls for justice. As information from the attack comes to light, however, Abe’s reliability as a storyteller is called into question, and his motives become murky. Is he unimpeachable? Did events unfold as he said they did? Is he ready to stand in as a symbol for all victims, or would he rather run from another fight?

Holter is a powerful writer, and he plays expertly with perception and the parsing of language in this script. He excels at bombing the audience with a discovery mid-scene, altering the trajectory of personal relationships and often entirely changing what an ongoing conversation between characters had previously meant. His Chicagoans speak with verve and poetry, and it is no wonder his plays have been greeted with acclaim both here and in New York City. But because so much of this play’s structure hangs on what happened before the lights rise, characters remain flat for much of the eighty minute runtime. Their perceptions may change, but their points of view alter with insufficient onstage evidence. I speak particularly of Miranda, who claims to love the fuck out of her brother, but is given little direction in investigating his attack. The exploration of Abe’s psyche also suffers, with his revelations about the night in question creating holes in logic that other characters fail to adequately address. Yet when Holter gives a scene more breathing room, decisions build organically, and the sense of danger in the air is palpable once perceptions shift. This is true of the play’s best scene, in which Nunley encounters a stranger, and learns how he’d react in a crisis.

Director Ricardo Gutiérrez is a strong fit for this script. His actors never remain in the same place for long, bounding across the stage, shouting over and sizing up their targets. Each relationship feels lived in, even if the script doesn’t flesh out every motivation. Ruíz and Bellinger tower over one another, depending on who needs validation most. Farrugio moves from being friendly to being menacing with only two steps towards Bellinger. Muñóz is the most nervous of the bunch, hugging corners and observing how her brother’s mental state deteriorates with each interrogation of his actions. Márquez provides a nice contrast as a no-nonsense woman who barely has to wave a finger in order to command others to pay her the proper attention.

But these poses are fronts, and Gutiérrez emphasizes that fact in quieter moments. When his actors are alone, they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves; they fidget, they look around, they crumple in pain. They are freed from performing, but they don’t know how to be comfortable in their own skin. The world gives them little reason to feel easy.

Perhaps that is why Abe enjoys running so much. If he’s running, he has a destination, someplace else to go. But if he stands still, and confronts what’s happened to him, and what he’s done, he feels unsafe. Alone. Disconnected. If he’s always moving, he’ll never have to deal with the consequences. And he can tell us whatever he thinks we want to hear, whatever it takes to keep us from noticing the blood.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: One must choose to fight or run in this thriller.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Weekly Preview: 2/8 – 2/14 (Chart and Musings)

What on Earth?!  We’re finally back with weekly previews?!  Yes.  It is true.  Finally, after a few months away, you can join us in rolling your dice on the chart to determine the show you’re going to attend this weekend.  We’ve got two shows on our docket.  Exciting stuff!  As you look over the chart to the right, you’ll notice a number of terrific pieces opening this weekend, and a few on there that are just in their second week.  Should be a lot of fun!

For Something Completely Different:

If you’re thinking you’d rather not go all random, and put your fate in the luck of a roll.  Then, perhaps you’d prefer to take in a surefire laugher… Here’s a show that isn’t listed on our charts because it doesn’t have quite enough performances to meet our minimums for inclusion, but it’s one that is close to our hearts here at Theatre By Numbers: “Hot Buns & Beefcakes: Linda Belcher’s Love Connection” is playing at The Playground Theater every Saturday in February.  For those familiar with “Bob’s Burgers”, you’ll note that the show is named for one of the TV cartoon’s characters.  For those of you not familiar, well, why aren’t you?!  C’mon!  So, we seldom get to see one of our own on the stage (we’re writers, after all)– but in the instance of this show, Theatre By Numbers regular contributor Maggie Wagner is starring in the production.  Click here for more info, and Click here for tickets.

Do You Have A Critical Eye?

We are looking for at least one critic (most likely, two) to join our ranks here at Theatre By Numbers.  We’re expanding our coverage, but in order to do so, we need another pen or two to join up and help us tell the world about the awesome theatre scene here in Chicago.  If you’re interested, please send a couple of writing samples to cokidder@theatre1234.com along with a blurb about you and why you’d make a good theatre reviewer.  We’d love to read your stuff and help to ensure that other people do, too!

Well… that’s it for this week.  More next week. And a few reviews in the meantime!