Review: “The Sundial” (City Lit Theater)

Show: The Sundial

Company: City Lit Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

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

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

Show: “Men on Boats”

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: 1909 W Byron St

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

This has been a banner year for the amount of thought-provoking and ground breaking shows I have been ridiculously inspired by. I am so excited about the shows and theater companies that have seen Chicago’s struggle with making room for roles for people of color onstage and off. (A recent survey* of 71 Chicago theater companies in 2016 found over 60% of those surveyed had not showcased the work of a single director of color, and 47% had chosen seasons featuring only white playwrights. I sought out shows that embraced their role in bringing everyone’s stories to life, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or ability, and thanks to Theatre By Numbers (who’s assignments I will miss like the dickens), I got to see a good number of gems by die roll!

#1

Show: “East Texas Hot Links”

Company: Writers Theatre

Venue: Writers Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Open, festering brutality, administered close enough to implicate us all. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

In this story of a quiet night gone irreversibly wrong, actors Tyla Abercrumbie and Kelvin Roston, Jr. ratchet up Charlesetta and Roy’s sexually tense arguments, you don’t expect the come-ons might be the only thing to bring you solace when their world is rocked. When Luce Metrius puffs up his chest as Delmus, annoying his elders with promises to leave them all in the dust, you don’t anticipate that you might rally instantly to him when he becomes a target of violence. You might feel kinship, like I did, with Namir Smallwood as XL, the odd man out, who can’t seem to control his provoking nature. And you might regret that impulse with every fiber of your being when you see exactly what XL is capable of. The heart of East Texas Hot Links lies with the unassuming Alfred H. Wilson as Columbus; in a way, the story centers on how far his forgiving nature will stretch before it snaps. There is something truly affecting to be shown that you don’t exist apart from an active racist brutality that still thrives in the open. Hate is easy to compartmentalize when acts of violence and racism are distant blips on a social landscape far from you. But East Texas Hot Links brings the blood of black men and women close enough to stain your dress shoes, and dares you to look away.

#2

Show: “The Promise of a Rose Garden”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: City Lit Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Female, armed and dangerous: drop and give them 20, maggots.

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve. The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful, with stand outs Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion.

#3

Show: “Matchmaker”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: So much whimsey, it hardly needs ‘Dollys’ cloying musical numbers. 

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The “Matchmaker” ensemble is nothing short of incredible. They finesse themselves into larger-than-life ridiculousness sometimes with little more than throwing on a gaudy purple cape or by stealing a jar of pickles. Allan Gilmore storms in and goes toe-to-toe with everyone he meets as Vandergelder; his bluster is delightful to watch. Likewise, Kristine Nielsen is so unrelentingly winning as Dolly, I found myself wracked with want of a fairy godmother to pluck me from normalcy and place me in an adventure. Another ingenious turn comes from Anita Hollander, who plays a multitude of roles (an elderly Gertrude, a pianist, Flora Van Huysen’s cook); Ms. Hollander, an amputee, is easily one of the most mobile entities next to Behzad Dabu’s table-hopping young Barnaby. This and more makes “The Matchmaker” the ultimate arena to play with audience expectation. Proceeding with abandon (and with author’s blessing), director Henry Wishcamper delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actors of color in substantial roles, not to mention representation for non-cisgender and differently abled performers.

#4

Show: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Gwendolen and Cecily, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. The play revels gleefully in the subversion found in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

#5

Show: “Richard III”

Company: The Gift Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This Richard is out for every scrap owed to him. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Director Jessica Thebus and the unnerving Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard stage a minimal, modern-flavored production that invites you to draw current political and social parallels. In an unnerving way, it plays on the impulses of an impatient and well-meaning audience. In moments that go on just a little too long, and are punctuated only by rustling and shifting, an unconscious thought creeps over the faces of able-bodied audience members: Will Richard make it to his feet? Will we be able to catch him if he falls? Hardly necessary. The ever-dignified Richard rarely lets his compatriots see him in need, and he is outfitted for his coronation with the fine technology from The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, keeping him at eye-level. Range of moment and slowness of time play an interesting part of The Gift’s production; when Richard begins, he effectively stops time with every ‘aside’ to the audience, and drives circles around his abled-bodied adversaries. However, when he transitions to the crown and walks upright with mechanical assistance, cracks in his facade begin to form. His plots against his adversaries are less effective, and his command of time fades as he inches closer to a wartime present.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre), “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre), “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas) and “Wonderful Town” (Goodman Theatre).

*Circulated by director Lavina Jadhwani.

Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

Every year is unique when you work in the theatre world.  For me, 2016 was a bittersweet year.  I saw fewer shows in the past 365 days than I have in any year since 2011.  I was only in the audience for 50 performances this year.  That’s down from 3 times that last year.  However, that was the result of working on more shows myself, and that’s a good thing.  My own theatre company is one of the many that closed up shop this year.  So, it’s on to new things with the new year.  But first, let’s take time to reflect, and celebrate the five best shows that I saw in 2016!

#1

Show: “Byhalia, Mississippi”

Company: The New Colony and Definition Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: How, when, and why do you choose to forgive someone?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

My first top-rated show of 2016 never fell out of the top spot.  No matter what other crap went down in 2016, the year started out really strong and with a lot of promise.  I don’t have much new to say about this piece that I didn’t already say in my original review, so I’ll just quote a bit of that piece here: “Back when I was in grad school for playwriting, one of my professors maintained that no matter what else was true about your script, none of it mattered without the characters.  Well drawn characters can tell just about any story and make it moving.  Addressing issues makes something a platform, creating characters makes it a play.  Linder would have aced that professor’s class.  His characters are real people.  They have real problems.  They have real feelings.  They speak in very real cadences that bring the viewer into the world of the play.  This is a really well-crafted work.”  With this play, The New Colony and Definition Theatre tackled many of the issues that came to the fore in the political landscape of our presidential election.  He wrote a play about working class whites, upwardly mobile blacks, the tensions between races and classes, and how all societally held beliefs and attitudes are built and defined (and hopefully changed) at a personal level.  When we eventually look back on the career of Evan Linder, this play will be studied as his masterwork.

#2

Show: [Trans]formation”

Company: Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studio

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I can safely say that not enough people saw this show.  Even had they sold out every night, that statement would still be true.  Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas put six completely naked transgendered and/or non-binary actors on stage and through powerfully emotional monologues, thoughtful songs, and intellectually challenging concept pieces, they led the audience to more or less ignore the genitalia bared in front of them.  The characters, the tales, the vibrantly colored projections all came together to create an evening of perception-altering art that changed those who saw it.  I came away enriched, informed, entertained, and fundamentally changed.  I can pin-point about five plays in my life that have shaken-up what I consider theatre to be.  Director Gaby Labotka has grabbed hold of my preconceptions and given them a good rattling.

#3

Show: “The Misanthrope”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Piccolo Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A Moliere translation for a new generation. This play matters.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

If one had to pick a French playwright to be declared that language’s equivalent to Shakespeare, one would have to say Moliere.  And yet, in translation, his pieces often feel dated and less universal than the works of the Bard.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by Piccolo’s new translation of “The Misanthrope”.  This was an artfully executed piece that was updated to a modern setting.  The manners of the French court were swapped out for the proclivities of modern show business.  But, the essence of what was being said remained the same.  The script even remained in verse.  It was perfect for this time and place.  We all identified with the characters in a way that just isn’t possible to do when seeing an older translation still set in the 1600s.  One of my first professional jobs 20 years ago was on a production of “The Misanthrope”.  It wasn’t until Piccolo’s production of Martin Crimp’s literal and cultural translation that I truly felt I understood the work at its more basic level.  Ben Muller’s portrayal of Alceste was dynamic and director Michael D. Graham’s overall approach to the work focused on every single detail.  Each movement, each light or sound cue, every item placed on the set was important.  One strategically placed bowl of Skittles still makes me want to go to the lobby to buy a box right now.

#4

Show: “The Drawer Boy”

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: We each live in a myth of memory.  But whose?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I’m pretty sure I could watch Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry act together all year long and be happy.  To see those two bring to life the older gentleman farmers in “The Drawer Boy” was a special treat.  Now, this play isn’t new, and it is a solid part of the contemporary canon, but I’d never seen the play prior to this production.  It is a touching piece that delves into the issues of creating memories, about what is truth, and what damage we do to ourselves and others.  It pack an emotional wallop.  But, it clearly only rises to the level of brilliant when treated appropriately.  Redtwist could not have treated this script better.  The play wasn’t something to be viewed, but experienced.  The total incorporation of all the design elements and a clear directorial vision brought everything together in a way that immersed the audience in a theatrical event, not a play.  There is no way I could have spent an hour and a half on a Canadian farm a year prior to my birth, but earlier this year I did just that.  I’m glad that I did.

#5

Show: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I spent my formative years in an exceptionally affluent suburb of the Twin Cities.  Naperville (the city) has much in common with my childhood stomping grounds.  So it was that I attended this show expecting something that lampooned the nonsense of a society that places far too much value upon material wealth and the attitudes of entitlement that accompany evident affluenza.  Mat Smart’s script is one part character study, one part slice-of-life comedy, mixed with a dash of philosophic nostalgia.  That’s a recipe that results in a play that touches on the pride of those who come from a certain place, but also the doubt that comes from feeling out of place in one’s own community.  At its core, the play doesn’t make fun of anyone.  The humor comes from the very real situations and the human need for identity and companionship in both good times and bad.  Joe Schermoly’s set still amazes me in its complexity, utility, and beauty: not something I’d expect to say about what is really a realistic interior.  With this work, Abby Pierce reinforced her place at the top of my list of my favorite actors in town.  She didn’t carry this show, because she didn’t have to.  The whole cast was stellar.  But, she did bring unexpected depth to a character that had to be done just right in order to make this play work.  All in all, this play was far better and far more than I was expecting.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre); “Rent” (Theo Ubique Productions); “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions); “Dream Girls” (Porchlight Music Theatre); and “The Lion in Winter” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).

Sarah’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

I feel darn lucky to have joined the Theatre By Numbers team in 2016. Courtesy of fortuitous die rolls, I have experienced incredible evenings of theatre, something all the more impressive when you consider I only began writing for the site last spring. It’s been a fantastic year for Chicago theatre, from the storefront scene to the regional giants, and I am happy to report my top five productions from the season. Some I reviewed for Theatre By Numbers, and some I sought out on my own, but I think they speak to the variety and vibrancy that lives in the Chicago scene right now.

#1

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I just reviewed this production, but “The Christians” deserves to have its praises sung twice. Lucas Hnath’s warm and sincere script wrestles with the complexities of faith in a way that’s rarely seen in the theatre. Director Todd K. Freeman urges his actors to embrace their characters’ metaphysical concerns, without pushing the performers into caricature or airy-fairy frustration. The matters of life and death are real here, and so of course, they are also wrapped up in the worship service that serves as the framework for the dramatic action. I gave shout-outs to the design team and lead actors in my review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to name-check the mesmerizing music team onstage: Jaret Landon, Leonard Madox, Jr., Charlie Strater, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, and Mary-Margaret Roberts. They invite us into the world of this play with power and sincerity, and they both alarmed and charmed audiences the night I attended.

#2

Show: “good friday”

Company: Oracle Productions

Venue: Oracle Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Searing portrait of whether or not violence is the answer.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Let us raise a glass to the dearly departed Oracle Production, whose dedication to public access in art has forever changed the face of Chicago’s storefront scene. It is a shame that 2016 was the company’s last season, especially given that they had just moved into a new space. But what an astounding play to end with in Kristiana Rae Colón’s “good friday.” This production about a school shooting confronted the audience with up-to-the-minute issues at every unexpected turn: campus rape, the shooting and abuse of men and women of color by police, economic injustice, the at-moments absurd use of social media, and the short memories we all share when it comes to atrocities. The ensemble of women onstage did the best work of any group of actors in the city this year, and the fact that each performance ended with their embrace — rather than a curtain call — speaks to the community-minded work Oracle has always built. The talkbacks after the show were essential, and the thoughts left behind on Post-Its made for powerful reading in the lobby. An unforgettable experience.

#3

Show: “180 Degree Rule”

Company: Babes With Blades

Venue: City Lit Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A love story to film and women, and their romances.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

The entertaining mystery at the heart of “180 Degree Rule” was actually a love story, It involved two women, but not the two women you initially thought. Written by the late, great M.E.H. Lewis and Barbara Lhota, this Babes With Blades production teased the audience with heart, humor, and a “Citizen Kane” structure that kept one guessing. Along the way, the viewer was treated to lessons in cinematography and Hollywood censorship, and one hell of a fantasia about Nazis potentially invading the American film industry. Director Rachel Edwards Harvith excelled at navigating the flashback structure, and Amy E. Harmon and Lisa Herceg pulled you into their past romance with playfulness and passion. As is expected from Babes With Blades, the violence work was top-notch, but the moment that’s stuck with me many months later is the play’s final image: a projection of M.E.H. Lewis smiling out at the audience. How fitting that a love story ended with a tribute to the beloved playwright.

#4

Show: “The Secretaries”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Stage 773

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I stand by my ten word summary. I still think about the horrific stage moment that Dawn and Susan shared in “The Secretaries,” even though I saw the play all the way last May. The Five Lesbian Brothers don’t mess around when it comes to gore, on and off the boards. And their campy satire about secretaries from a saw mill murdering their way through lumberjacks indulges all of humanity’s worst impulses with an infectious, unforgettable glee. About Face generated a lurid, hysterical fever dream of a production with this script, and while the comedic timing was off from time to time — likely because of the play’s design demands — its biting satire sunk in its teeth all the same. Sometimes literally. Kelli Simpkins ruled her scenes as butch executive secretary Susan, contorting her body to slope around the set, rather than walk. Her demented devotion to cleanliness, appearance, and sisterhood birthed some of the most ludicrous, predatory, and thought-provoking moments in the play.

#5

Show: “The Seagull”

Company: The Artistic Home

Venue: The Artistic Home

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intimate venue and strong ensemble work generate a haunting revival.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Gauzy but not flimsy, The Artistic Home’s “Seagull” displayed how well Chekhov works when his humor and his anguish intertwine. Never has the opening exchange about mourning for one’s life been delivered with more Daria-like disdain, courtesy of Laura Lapidus. Never have I seen a Nina quite as angry as Brooklyn Hébert’s. And never have I felt so sad about the poisonous relationship between Arkadina (Kathy Scambiatterra) and her son Treplev (Julian Hester), fellow artists who will never understand one another. I always roll my eyes at Trigorin, but Scot West made me like him for once. This meditation on shattered dreams benefited from The Artistic Home’s intimate space, and the broken down barn set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec framed the action with an eye towards country winters.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Limiting my list to five productions was difficult, as there was so much good theatre in the city this year. Here are my honorable mentions: “Fun Home” (Broadway In Chicago); “The Hairy Ape” (Oracle Productions); “Julius Caesar” (Writers Theatre); “King Charles III” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).

Review: “Barney the Elf” (The Other Theater Co.)

Show: Barney the Elf

Company: The Other Theatre Co.

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

The Other Theatre’s “Barney the Elf” is tailored specifically to the kind of holiday reveler that prefers their sentiment with a little political bite, a lot of swearing, and just a hint of innuendo peeking out from under the tree skirts. Author Bryan Renaud and director Tommy Rivera-Vega have taken their story telling cues from shows like “Book of Mormon” that turn reality into fairytale, marshmallow landscapes, then skewer their squishy targets pointedly.

In “Barney the Elf”, Christmas just hasn’t been the same since Santa Claus passed away, and left the whole operation to his far less competent son, Santa Junior (Jonathan Parker Jackson). But the titular Barney (Bryan Renaud) has enough cheer to supply the whole workshop, that is, until the Elves find out Barney is gay. Santa Junior quickly banishes him to the wilds of Chicago, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Claus (Maggie Cain) and all the other elves, who could really use a pep-talk in the face of a present onslaught. But in Chicago, Barney finds a community that embraces his love for Christmas and he stumbles upon his first love, a sardonic drag queen named Zooey (Dixie Lynn Cartwright).

Still, with Santa Junior at the helm, there’s a real concern among the elves that his bottom-line obsession will lead to there not being enough cheer to fuel his sleigh. Can Christmas go on without union rules, hot chocolate breaks and its’ cheeriest elf?

“Barney the Elf” parodies the 2003 Will Farrell vehicle “Elf”, but it almost doesn’t need to muddy waters of a very compelling original story. Well, as original as a story can be while working within the strict fictional guidelines of North Pole mythology. It’s poignant, with lightning fast wit, to-the-minute topical humor and the dimmest shade for any malcontent who would attack a persons’ gaiety, Christmas-themed or otherwise. The show is also dotted with an endless supply of compelling song parodies; I mean, aren’t you just a little bit curious to know what Wicked’s “What is This Feeling?” would sound like, if it were about boners?

Terrific performers are the jet propulsion that keeps this show’s engine humming, and the heavy listing comes courtesy of Bryan Renaud as Barney, a singing, dancing, ecstatic, crestfallen force of nature. Maggie Cain and Jonathan Parker Jackson gleefully inhabit alternate reality forms of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as Mrs. Claus and her son, Santa Junior. And don’t worry if you’re not a holiday obsessive, drag queen Dixie Lynn Cartwright’s Zooey is the much needed dry, dry dry ice in this production’s cocktail. I’d also like to distinguish Ben F. Locke, Mariah Furlow, and Molly LeCaptain as the hardest working elves in show business.

At it’s core, “Barney the Elf” is a story of putting aside squabbles to do necessary things, and losing the odd American fixation on never being the first to admit defeat. Only when they address each other as real people, can Christmas be saved.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A heartfelt holiday message from queens, queers and presidents elect!

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Review: “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas)

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
Show: [Trans]formation

Company: Nothing Without A Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studios

Every once in a while I see a show that redefines a part of the art of theatre.  Once in a great while.  Over the years I’ve pretty much solidified what I see as a good show.  And the guideposts that have been set along the way are the ideals that I use when writing for this outlet or any other about what I’ve seen.  But, then something like “[Trans]formation” comes along.  The show, which is now playing at Collaboraction Studios under the dual flag of Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas, takes on the heavy task of redefining language and interpersonal relationships, self-identity and how we look at others.

This production has clearly been carefully crafted by director Gaby Labotka and her collaborators.  It is a devised work that stems from a series of submissions from trans individuals from around the country.  The source material is available in a zine that is offered up at the performance. I highly recommend getting a copy as part of the experience.

Cast of [Trans]formation/Photo by Pete Guither
So, I’ve said that this thing shifted my idea of theatre.  Why is that?  Well, for one, the piece is essentially what I would have called performance art in the past.  Much of the show has no plot, nor characters. Yet it is clearly theatrical. It is constructed around a theme and presented by way of images.  Sometimes these are literal images projected upon a screen, but more often the images are created through a brilliant collage of stage-wide projected textures that are caught upon the myriad surfaces of the stage, and more importantly upon the varied shape of the bodies of the performers.

Part of any production by The Living Canvas involves the actors performing nude, and this is performance is no different.  The images and their interplay upon the bodies of the actors is like a vibrant and vital painting that is constantly shifting before your eyes.  Though the performers don no clothing, this is not a bit of gimmick for attracting more eyes and titillating the senses.  This is a literal baring of one’s body and metaphorically the soul as well.

I have never been to a production of The Living Canvas before, so I can’t comment on how appropriate it seems in other productions, but with the topic of gender identity, the human body seems perfectly suited as the tool to tell tales.  As I sat and watched the six performers on stage, there were often times that their nudity was completely lost among the rest of the presentation.

Through short monologues and songs, physical pieces and proclamations, this piece finds a way to speak to each viewer and touch them deeply.  There are multiple levels of truth constantly being put forth and taken in.  You’ll note that I don’t make special mention of any specific performer in this review.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, I don’t believe that any one individual within this work can be held separate from the others.  I’ve never seen another show in which the meaning of ensemble is better represented.  Second, nothing I saw can be subject to the standard criticisms I might address in a review.  I can’t honestly tell you if these performers are good actors when it comes to a regular play.  But, I can tell you that they are perfect for this piece.  The sum total of their work here is something brilliant and wonderful.  It challenges the audience.  It informs the audience.  It changes the audience.  That’s what this art is supposed to do, and they do it better than I’ve seen in a long, long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Murder On Mount Olympus” (The Public House Theatre)

Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.
Whitman Johnson, Mitchell Stone, and Alexander Baggett/Photo: Byron Hatfield.

Show: “Murder On Mount Olympus”

Company: The Public House Theatre

Venue: The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 6

It is not easy being a god. Regardless of the pantheon, one might be stereotyped as evil, end up utterly forgotten, or live in constant fear of being torn limb from limb by a fellow jealous immortal. For the gods in “Murder On Mount Olympus,” such everyday problems are the least of their concerns. These gods are stuck in a murder mansion of non-belief, and they are getting picked off one by one.

Lucifer, aka the Prince of Darkness (Alexander Baggett), and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Sarah Lavere), are first to arrive on our plane of existence. They have been trapped in a creepy old house that serves as a performance space for murder mystery style dinner parties. By the time the brotastic Zeus (Mitchell Stone) joins them, they know something is wrong. Too many gods existing in human reality must be a set-up. The spell book nearby and the entrance of gods as varied as Cthulhu (a handy giant tentacle wielded from offstage), Cupid (Whitman Johnson), and Isis (Emily Ember) confirms their suspicions. The butler (Ryan Bennett) has no information to aid them, but plenty to say about their behavior and demands on his time.

Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield
Sarah Lavere and Emily Ember/Photo: Byron Hatfield

If it sounds like there is little to this story, you are right! The plot is oblique and events are kept to a minimum, because the Public House Theatre is more in the business of making audiences laugh, rather than making them puzzle through a wild clue hunt. Given the high-stakes nature of his gods, writer/director Byron Hatfield missed the opportunity to flesh out their predicament. Rather than keeping the gods in the dark about whom or what brought them to Earth, Hatfield could have spent time developing relationships between his characters, and complicating their circumstances beyond simply having an elder god show up to wreak havoc. The performance lasts about seventy-five minutes, but there’s really only forty minutes of material here. Thus, the pace is slowed, and some of the jokes don’t land, because the timing is off — I assume, to stretch for precious full-length level minutes.

That said, I did chuckle quite often at “Murder On Mount Olympus,” probably because Hatfield’s snarky characters barely believe the situation they’re in, either. The mystery at the heart of the play is easy to solve, but it’s the down to earth take on the gods that elicits enjoyment of the scenario. Baggett and Lavere have the driest characters, so their job seems easiest. As the eternal bodies pile up, these two display sarcastic human reactions to their imminent death and destruction, and it’s nice to see a catastrophic scene underplayed to that degree. Likewise, Bennett’s stunned reaction to being bathed in blood is worth the price of admission alone.

“Murder On Mount Olympus” will not rattle you to your core, or force you to face spiritual and existential questions. But there is something to be said for a solid troupe of actors doing comedy pretty well. While it may not be easy being a god, it is a lot of fun to watch them operate.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gods get a mystery to solve in entertaining comedy hour.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “Thumbelina” (Lifeline Theatre)

Show: Thumbelinathumbelina_01_web

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue:  Lifeline Theatre (6912 N. Glenwood Ave.)

Die Roll: 16

Mothers and fathers, take your kids to see Lifeline Theatre’s “Thumbelina”, and you might notice them acting a bit differently. They may start asking after things like circus arts intensives and performing arts summer camps. They are definitely going to affect new accents and funky new gaits, you’ve been warned. This fairy tale adaptation by Amanda Delheimer Diamond is exactly the gateway drug to thespian-hood your kids will find themselves hooked on, and it will likely charm you, too.

In “Thumbelina”, you may remember our diminutive heroine (Brandi Lee) is born from an errant magical seed, and left in the care of an over-protective mother (Krystal Ortiz) who shelters her from the dangers at the edge of the edge of the world. She escapes her mother’s confines and loses herself for the winter in the woods. She befriends other creatures like field mice (Bryan Bosque), moles (Nate Buursma) and barn swallows (Dominique Watkins), and while I wouldn’t call anyone her enemy, she learns to recognize when others (say a frog, like Antoniao LaVance Bouie Jr.) don’t have her best interests at heart. No one comes to her rescue or doles out any great favors; to get where she’s going, she’s going to have to figure things out, mostly on her own.

thumbelina_04_webOne especially nice aspect of this adaptation are some of the troubling aspects of the original fable the developers have left on the cutting floor. You may remember the Hans Christian Anderson Thumbelina being passively inundated with interspecies marriage proposals and kidnapping attempts. Not so for Brandi Lee’s title character. This ensemble champions problem solving skills and a sense of humor that the 5-7 year old crowd would deem most impressive. This production also posits that belonging hinges less on what your community looks like and more on what they do. It encourages embracing people, even when their lives are vastly different from your own.

It has amazing charm for such a minimal concept, and the ensemble is quick to latch together, building creatures and plant life at speeds that would make Voltron envious.  Director/Adaptor Amanda Delheimer Diamond and choreographer Dan Plehal have boiled their concept down to the barest minimum, and the performers have made fantastic use of the canvas. Actors with the heaviest story lifting are Brandi Lee, Krystal Ortiz, and Bryan Bosque, and they will have you eating out of the palms of their hands before long. “Thumbelina” is a perfect show for audiences in the single digit age range, but maybe not ideal for most tweens.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A surefire gateway drug, hooking kids on the performing arts.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”