Review: “Birds of a Feather” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Review: “Birds of a Feather” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Paul Michael Thomson and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Liz Lauren.

Love is a rare bird. Maybe it’s as majestic as a hawk, or as utilitarian as a penguin, but it is always unique, and all metaphorical bird-watchers would do well to seek it out. So proclaims playwright Mark Acito in “Birds of a Feather,” currently playing at the Greenhouse, and directed with charm by Jacob Harvey. Harvey, who has worked tirelessly over the past few years to establish an arts incubator at the Greenhouse, has created space for new works and electric, engaging performances — some of which appear in this production. “Birds of a Father” is touching without being sentimental, and it is humane as well as being highly theatrical. The show is a rare bird of creative vision, and while its script is perhaps outdated for 2018, its thematic concerns about identity and attention are as ageless as animal nature itself.

Silo (Aaron Kirby) and Roy (Paul Michael Thomson) are two male penguins living in the New York City Central Park Zoo. They are in love, and as such, they struggle with familiar issues of coupledom. Silo wants more space to find himself, while Roy wants a child. The “featherless birds” who watch them all day long are fascinated by their romance, and when their zookeeper (Marika Mashburn) gifts them a neglected egg, the two find themselves the subject of increased scrutiny, and new parents to a little chick named Tango. Their story is published as a children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three,” which soon becomes the most banned book in the United States. As the chinstrap penguins deal with infamy, two hawks deal with paparazzi troubles high above Central Park. They are Pale Male (Thomson) and Lola (Kirby), whose heterosexual courtship is of less interest than their ability to build a nest on a high rise in New York City. They, too, are struggling with their relationship, and how to connect after having babies. Down on the street, a lonely birder (Abu Ansari) watches them, while inside a nearby penthouse, a wealthy couple (Ansari and Mashburn) starts divorce proceedings.

Acito’s script is a sharp mosaic, with a daffy sense of humor connecting all the animals onstage. By taking the birds’ concerns seriously, he sheds light on the ridiculousness of human behavior, and spotlights the ludicrousness of looking at gay penguins as controversial in any way. Acito’s insight expands into examining how seeking excessive attention outside one’s relationship can destroy the very foundations of that connection — or at the very least, confuse one’s identity quite a bit. The only tricky issue with Acito’s work is that his sexual politics inadvertently dismiss those who don’t apply labels to their desires, while conflating sexual expression with gender in moments that created confusion for me as a viewer. That may be the age of the script showing; as far as I can tell, it was first produced in 2011. Whatever the reason, the overall blend of stories works quite well.

Harvey’s direction is breezy when it needs to be, and controlled and quiet when frivolity shifts to conflict. If you had told me at the start of the evening that I would be rooting for two penguins to work out their marital problems … I would have said that sounds like me, because penguins are flipping adorable. But Harvey gives his actors room to explore existential concerns, never asking them to drop their birdlike stances, so that you recognize the humanity in the characters only because you are forced to understand the issues they face as birds. It’s a neat trick; Harvey and his movement director Nick Thornton create distinct worlds for the hawks and penguins, and the actors deserve special praise for the maintenance of their individual personas, as they switch between species. Kirby and Thomson are heartfelt as penguins, and goofy as all get out as hawks. Their human counterparts also switch a variety of roles, all of which Mashburn and Ansari master with aplomb.

There’s much to recommend in “Birds of a Feather.” If you’re searching for a rare bird of a  theatrical experience, you don’t need to look much further than the Greenhouse.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Give me all your jokes, romance, and existential angst, penguins!

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

Show: “Birds of a Feather”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Review: “L’Imitation of Life” (Hell In a Handbag Productions)

Review: “L’Imitation of Life” (Hell In a Handbag Productions)

Katherine Bellantone, Ed Jones, Ashley J. Hicks, and Robert Williams/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

A film as flawed, but as arguably compelling as 1959’s “Imitation of Life” deserves a much more scathing and nuanced take-down than it ever inspired during its original run. It’s a melodrama with the utmost fit-pitching, gown-wearing, swooning and sobbing, but at the same time, it attempts and fails to say anything eloquent about racism in America.

The film offers up broad character stereotypes, easy for white audiences in the late ’50s to swallow; namely, wealthy white women who are inexplicably benevolent to those in need, and saintly, subservient black women. It also preaches the unfortunate messages that career women will fail to love their families sufficiently, and that questioning/subverting racist practices that keep you oppressed will just hurt you and everyone you love. It was Oscar nominated, too. Yikes.  

Ed Jones and Robert Williams/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

With Hell in a Handbag’s parody production  “L’Imitation of Life,” author Ricky Graham and director Stevie Love have one mission: to subvert outdated character stereotypes, and inject some truths that stars Lana Turner and Sandra Dee were definitely not ready to hear in their era.

This campy re-imagining follows two single mothers as they struggle to raise their daughters. Annie Johnson (Robert Williams) is an African-American mother who has been turned out of her home with her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane (Ashley J. Hicks). She meets Lana Turner (Ed Jones, the production opts to skip the movie character name in Turner’s case), a widow, and struggling actress with a daughter of her own, Suzie (Katherine Bellantone). The four successfully cohabitate, with Lana acting as breadwinner, and Annie as maid and caretaker for both daughters. Trouble comes as Lana achieves stardom, and the girls enter their teens. Lana’s daughter Suzie, for instance, falls for her mother’s boy-toy, Steve Martin; no, not that Steve Martin (Chazie Bly). Sara Jane struggles hardest with daily reminders of how the other half lives, and wants to disown her mother and take every advantage afforded her when passing as white.

The cast brings such weirdness and passion to each moment, and this production has done scads of extra credit homework, leaking in some true Hollywood gossip for those who have done their research. Ed Jones is a bombastic, drunken, selfish, horny clotheshorse as this production’s Lana Turner, and is so busy dishing out double entendres, she doesn’t notice her supporting cast as they gleefully steal the show.

Katherine Bellantone, Ed Jones, Ashley J. Hicks, and Chazie Bly/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Robert Williams is the ultimate straight-woman and perfect foil to Lana as Annie Johnson. While Lana is allowed to insult and sexually frustrate anyone in her path, Annie answers only with perfect decorum, demonstrating the strange lunacy she must operate under, but never, ever comment on. She’s the only person in the household with the magic capacity to answer a phone, open a door, or fry up some coffee, as she so often offers to do.

Rounding out the cast are Katherine Bellantone as the adorable, but definitely psychotic teen Suzie, who’s just as oblivious to her own privilege as her mother (“Remember when my mama cried after those boys were killed in Mississippi?” “Not really.”). And because I have so much appreciation for the extra layers of complexity she heaps onto the already complex Sara Jane, I am a huge fan of Ashley J. Hicks. In perfect moments of hilarity, Hicks builds a three-dimensional woman in a two-dimensional world, all while delivering the perfect Charlie Brown, single-note sob.

Director Stevie Love sums up this production as Handbag’s effort to strap on a pair of 5-inch heels and hold a fun-house mirror to our culture and reflect all attitudes in art, but this show does more than that. It’s strange to think of a comedy like “L’Imitation of Life” inspiring powerful emotions, but it does. When Sara Jane delivers a knockout worthy of Mortal Kombat to an angry bigot, it’s humorous and cathartic all at once. Also, as Annie and Sarah Jane negotiate the last time they will see each other, you may find yourself as emotional in the moment as they are.  

DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Bring a gown or three for this woke camp showdown.

Show: L’Imitation of Life

Company: Hell In a Handbag Productions

Venue:  Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave)

 

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Review: “9 to 5 The Musical” (Firebrand Theatre)

Review: “9 to 5 The Musical” (Firebrand Theatre)

Sharriese Hamilton, Anne Sheridan Smith, Scott Danielson and Sara Reinecke/Photo by Emily Schwartz.

The problems that the secretaries of Consolidated Industries faced in “9 to 5,” that 1980 blockbuster comedy now turned stage musical, are depressingly present in the workplace today. There is still sexual harassment at the office. There is still a gender gap in pay. Women are still pitted against one another by male superiors, in an effort to ensure everyone loses allies and advantage. The difference between 1980 and now is one of amplification, making “9 to 5 The Musical” a smart production choice in our #MeToo era. The past several months have shown that women, across many professional spheres, are no longer willing to stay silent about the injustices they face, and that lifting their voices in unison is the only way to change society. Firebrand Theatre’s “9 to 5” may not entirely rise above its clunky book, but when its women join together in song, there is no question that this feminist, women-driven theatre company empowers its artists and emulates a better world for its the audience.

The embattled women at the center of this story are Doralee (Sharriese Hamilton), Judy (Sara Reinecke), and Violet (Anne Sheridan Smith). Doralee spends her days receiving innuendo-fueled cold shoulders from her fellow assistants, while also fending off unwanted sexual advances from the company’s cartoon chauvinist of a president, Franklin J. Hart (Scott Danielson). Violet is due for a promotion from Hart, but loses out to an unqualified man simply because of her gender. Judy has just entered the secretarial pool, since her husband has abandoned her, and she must now bring home her own bacon; Hart insults and demoralizes her on her first day. His executive secretary Roz (Veronica Garza) pines after her employer, though he doesn’t seem to realize she exists, outside of her usefulness as an office spy. Doralee, Judy, and Violet are bound to retaliate, and when the opportunity presents itself, let’s just say that hogtying the boss is only the first step in their impulsive plan.

Tyler Symone, Khaki Pixley, Sara Reinecke, Anne Sheridan Smith, Sharriese Hamilton, Alyssa Soto and Elizabeth Morgan/Photo by Emily Schwartz.

Dolly Parton provides the score and lyrics for the eighties-infused country soundtrack here. The title song is also a hit from the movie, so the audience is ready to move with the music from the opening moments of the show. But Patricia Resnick’s book, based on her own screenplay, cannot match Parton’s musical energy, or the stage’s demand for storytelling economy. Scenes are often overstuffed, with bits of information about each woman’s trials scattered so illogically throughout the show that it is hard to remember their motivations from moment to moment. The excessive inclusion of terrible winks at eighties culture, or what’s to come in the future, do not help move the show along, and only a reference to the Clapper is barely tolerable. The movie’s absurd dark streak is nowhere to be found in the dramatic work, and this is a real problem when we are meant to celebrate the ladies’ revenge caper. Parton’s music lifts the proceedings, but this is not a sung-through show, and her effervescence cannot save a confusing, overcooked mess.

Luckily, Harmony France’s direction smartly infuses music with heart in a way that encourages forgiveness for the story’s structural problems. When our heroines first sing about their troubles separately, and then harmonize about their problems together, they win our undying loyalty; the voices are all excellent. France never makes her actors the butt of a joke, outside of Danielson, whose character is written as a clown, and basically disappears in the second half. She finds the insight in each of Parton’s ballads and group numbers, and draws out individualized emotional expressions that elevate what could seem corny, played out, or too large for life. The ensemble crackles with energy whenever they take the stage, executing Kasey Alfonso’s tight choreography with gusto, while making well-informed and bold acting choices with each lyric. It is no surprise that “Lizzie” was such a smash for Firebrand. Under France’s artistic leadership, the company is developing a reputation for no holds barred, intense theatrical performance, and that suits the office comedy “9 to 5” in ways I never could have foreseen.

Sharriese Hamilton, Veronica Garza, Tyler Symone, Michael Turrentine, Khaki Pixley, Scott Danielson and Alyssa Soto with (back, l to r) Royen Kent, Elizabeth Morgan and Ted Kitterman/Photo by Emily Schwartz.

Andra Velis Simon as music director deserves a separate shoutout for her deft work with the cast and musicians. The orchestrations for this “9 to 5” more fully integrate Parton’s country sound than the original Broadway production, incorporating the washboard, the spoons, the fiddle, the bass, and acoustic guitar riffs. It lends the score a more unique flavor and point of view, and watching the ensemble switch in and out of playing with the live band, while sporting Virgina Varland’s appropriately eighties fashion, is a real treat.

To a woman, Hamilton, Reinecke, and Sheridan Smith are wonderful companions for the evening, but I must say the surprise of the show is Garza as Roz. She takes what could be a pathetic, stereotypically desperate female, and turns her into a stick of dynamite about to explode with confidence in her own weird sexuality. Her solo brought the house down multiple times at the performance I watched, and her follow-up moment featuring a terribly played accordion and equally questionable French was a highlight of the second act. She is a true show-stealer, with France’s direction and Alfonso’s choreography highlighting specifically odd comedic flourishes in her primal torch song. Perhaps it is strange that the most overlooked character at the office receives the highest praise for the night, but I think that fits right in with the female empowerment “9 to 5 The Musical” is celebrating, and the work that Firebrand Theatre is accomplishing in Chicago.

Show: “9 to 5 The Musical”

Company: Firebrand Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: They are women; hear them roar in unique musical arrangement.

Review: “Kingdom” (Broken Nose Theatre)

Review: “Kingdom” (Broken Nose Theatre)

Watson Swift and Christopher K. McMorris/Photo: Devon Green.

“Kingdom” is not so much a story about Disney World, and more a story about a perception of the Magic Kingdom, that it can be a place of acceptance as well as wonder for those rejected by mainstream society. The African American family at the heart of this play are a group of shoved aside gay men and women, and though their individual wishes for a happily ever after ring true, their specific ability to reach their dreams is complicated by the society in which they live.

Arthur (Christopher K. McMorris) has been long partnered with Henry (Watson Swift), and he wants to get married, now that it’s 2015, and marriage for the LGBTQ community is legal in Florida. Henry is dying from cancer, and refuses to tie the knot. Their son Alexander (Michael Mejia-Beal), also gay, has been suffering the aftermath of a brutal break-up to  closeted football star Malik (Byron Coolie), and he is drinking heavily. Their niece Phaedra (RjW Mays) attends classes while also caring for her aging and ailing relatives, and pushing Alexander to seek treatment. A love of all things Disney unites the family, though deep and hilarious discussions about the homosexual subtext of Batman comics also pepper their conversation. Each member of the family must confront their issues and bring closure to the past before celebrating the possibility of their wanted futures.

Playwright Michael Allen Harris has a clear love and understanding for the family at the heart of his script. The patriarchs’ off-kilter interpretations of Disney characters, as well as their struggle to stay together through turbulent times, is well realized, and lifted to a height of poetry that the audience deeply appreciated the afternoon I was in attendance. While there are few bits of backstory that struggle to fit into the present onstage plot, Harris’ empathy for his characters allows the more undercooked moments to pass without majorly upsetting the viewer’s investment. “Kingdom” is apparently the start of a cycle of plays about under-examined lives, and Harris has a good beginning with this cast of lonely and heartwarming characters.

Bryon Coolie and Michael MeJia-Beal/Photo: Devon Green.

Director Kanomé Jones has a less sure grip on the material. Though the family members are tightly knit, the interplay between each felt stiff and poorly paced at the performance I witnessed. There was a lot of air left in the middle of some comedic moments, and a lot of space put between characters during intimate sections. It began to feel as if the play was missing dialogue, or as if Jones was not sure how each moment onstage connected to the last. Perhaps time and further performances will iron out this pacing issue, but as of right now, “Kingdom” carries quite a few dead spots in its middle.

This is not fault of the actors. McMorris and Swift shine as the play’s example of true love. They feel as if they have known one another for decades, and their flights of fancy involving the true love tales in Disney movies never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but just right for them. Mejia-Beal as their wayward son could fall into bratiness, but the actor imbues his tirades and poor decisions with an overwhelming sadness that explains his self-destructive tendencies. And Mays as the niece is a highlight. She brings a snap to her long speeches about growing up a butch lesbian that show how her spirit has not been broken by near constant mistreatment.

The community at the heart of “Kingdom” is no fantasy, thankfully. This group of queer family members creates a kingdom with one another, and that is something all of Chicago sorely needs to see right now. When questions about representation and storytelling occur, it is companies like Broken Nose that are willing to produce the intersectional stories that bring out the best in our society.

Show: “Kingdom”

Company: Broken Nose Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A queer, loving African American family faces an uncertain future.

Review: “Nice Girl” (Raven Theatre)

Review: “Nice Girl” (Raven Theatre)

Stella Martin, Lucy Carapetyan, and Lynne Baker/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Lots of perfect little details ensure that “Nice Girl” is a perfect, lived-in 1984; stacks of Jane Fonda workout tapes, an ashtray on every table and cans of TAB for eager hands. This slick design, coupled with a deluge of timeless laughs, is author Melissa Ross and director Lauren Shouse’s way of distracting us for what “Nice Girl” has in abundance: despair. It’s a blistering picture of wasted time, hollowness, and the feeling of being trapped that resonates no matter what decade you reside in.

Josephine (Lucy Carpetyan) is an underpaid secretary, taking care of her mother Francine (Lynne Baker), who is either ailing, or just likes to be doted on. She’s also fielding new intrusions from co-worker Sherry (Stella Martin), who was just looking for a sounding board for her sexual frustrations until a glimpse into Jo’s loneliness gives her new purpose: “I’m on a mission to get you laid.”

Jo’s only wish is to wrench herself out of her circle’s microscope slide glass and get lost again in her own comforting tedium. That is, until she happens on Donny (Benjamin Sprunger) a handsome old friend, who is happy to lure Jo into participating in her own life, and boost his own diminishing returns.

Lucy Carapetyan and Benjamin Sprunger/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

In a strange way, “Nice Girl” is about the myriad ways people have combated (and still combat) their loneliness. You could apply pressure and guilt to ensure the people you rely on don’t leave, you could avoid your own emotional pitfalls by throwing yourself into someone else’s, you could even compartmentalize the angst you feel about your mistakes by starting fresh with new people! What gives us hope for Jo is the way she unmoors herself from the expectations others have. Her accepting relationship with her own failures and her reluctance to be controlled could be her path to escape.

Lucy Carpetyan and Lynne Baker are perfect as a mother and daughter too smart to fall for each other any more. They’ve never had to set boundaries before Jo’s sudden sprint to adulthood, so there’s a mountain of resentment behind everything. Lucy Carpetyan writes a novel in the 10 seconds Jo vaults from sobbing after a fraught exchange with her mother, to jubilant when she remembers she’s wearing Donny’s jacket. With that, please turn your attention to Benjamin Sprunger’s crass and surly beefcake Donny, and Stella Martin’s relentlessly positive open-book, Sherry. These expert thieves have stolen every available laugh in “Nice Girl”, and will use their incredibly sharp wit and timing to steal your allegiance, too.

But, not everything about “Nice Girl” ends up being a good fit. Thick Boston accents come out strong, and envelop us in a way that feels cartoonish in some moments. Author Melissa Ross tries to tie her characters together with a single love story thread, but the groundwork of these relationships seems hastily established. Instead of the shock we should feel when all is revealed, we’re doing the mental math to account for these characters’ crossed paths, and our suspension of disbelief starts to unravel.

Director Lauren Shouse brings specificity to a show that benefits from every flourish. It feels real down to the copper jello molds mounted on the kitchen walls & hum of the microwave. However, I’d have traded any one of these perfect details to have seen actors of color on stage. If it’s simpler for a story of an era, like of “Nice Girl” to embrace a historic realism, and cast only Caucasian performers, we have to start asking why. What makes this a valid choice? How does this production foster diversity on Chicago’s stages?

DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A life put on hold gets a jumper cable blast.

Show: “Nice Girl”

Company: Raven Theatre

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

Review: “Rose” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Review: “Rose” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Linda Reiter/Photo: Johnny Knight.

She waits in her picturesque 1969 living room, with every surface covered in photos and albums. She’s the figurehead of the wealthy, pioneering, influential, ideal American family — the Kennedys — and the only one returning her calls right now is the damn biographer. So, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, mother to activists, war heroes, socialites and power brokers starts off intending to give perfect accounts of her children’s public facing legacies, then veers into the murky territory of what made those successes possible. With “Rose”, Greenhouse Theater Center’s remount of  author Laurence Leamer’s and solo-performer Linda Reiter’s  2016 smashing tell-all, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and no better woman to do it.

Linda Reiter’s Rose is all at once marooned, desperate for a confessional booth to pour her history into, and very cagey with outsiders. “You can’t trust anybody outside the family,” she tells her sons and daughters. She’s born into wealth and prominence as the daughter of Boston’s first Irish Catholic mayor John F. Fitzgerald, and devotes her life to carrying that legacy into the future. She marries into Kennedys (her father’s political rivals), turns an icy-cold cheek to her husband’s early infidelity and unpopular peace-mongering at the onset of World War II, and channels all her hopes and ambitions onto her sons (mostly) and daughters (somewhat). There’s barely an utterance of the word ‘divorce’, and such a thing would be untenable to a good Catholic such as Rose, anyway. “I always obeyed men,” Rose admits, when her own wants threaten to overtake her.

Linda Reiter/Photo: Johnny Knight.

To her sons Joseph Jr. John, Robert and Teddy,  there are no limits to what they can achieve. Their lavish compound in Cape Code was devoted to their clans’ rigorous mental and physical training, and every member of the family benefited from top notch schooling and induction into international high society.  “My daughters are nice, but I grow tired of them,” Rose admits of Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia and Jean, “They feel I did not love them the way I loved their brothers.” Her daughters are the only recipients of Rose’s disappointment. At every turn, they fail her by pursuing their dreams, becoming divorcees, or — God forbid — holding the men in their lives accountable for their actions.

The only daughter that Rose holds as dear as her boys is Rosemary, who is born with limited mental capabilities. When the once docile and joyful girl became too much of a handful, she was treated to a lobotomy at her father’s behest, and kept institutionalized for years in secret. Rose admits the lies they told for years, even to their own children about Rosemary’s whereabouts, especially during son John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Rose’s past is catching up to her in epic fashion, and she pages through Greek tragedies while reliving her own devastating public losses that mirror them. The dynasty she’s built gets smaller with the loss of her sons, and the addition of scandal. Why her children hesitate to accept the privileges (and costs) they’ve been afforded the way that she did in her youth, is beyond her. To be popular, well respected, and to carry a dynasty is worth any price to Rose, and failure is never an option.

The automatic prestige of a show like “Rose”, and the easy parallels to epic Greek tragedies are what make this production so easily producible. The real-life drama is bursting at the seams, and the scenery comes ready-to-chew by an astoundingly effective Linda Reider, holding court as Rose. She is so intent on inspiring only admiration and respect for her distinguished clan, that her true feelings come upon her by complete surprise; “I am angry — and I never feel angry,” she admits. Complete strength and poise are the only things to convey when you have everything. Never doubt. Never despair.

“Rose” is set lavishly, thanks to director Steve Scott, who gives us a very one-sided parlor drama as the waves crash outside and the phone rings incessantly. The only question I have after viewing this production is, why now? What about this incredibly wealthy, privileged, white story begs telling in 2018? The perspective of this production never quite makes a decision on how to look at Rose Kennedy: Is she a tragic heroine not at fault for living high on the hog while she could, only doing her best to navigate a tumultuous world? Or, was her prominence an ushering in of new levels of white patriarchal complacency we are only just beginning to grasp the devastating effects of, fully?

Theater affords you an opportunity to levy your perspective on a person, a time, or an institution, but what comes through here is better suited for a documentary. Because “Rose” hovers, and never makes a statement on its subject matter, it leaves us with a rather weak punch.

DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Kennedy clan matriarch has a whole lot to talk about.

Show: “Rose”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Review: “We’re Gonna Be Okay” (American Theater Company)

Review: “We’re Gonna Be Okay” (American Theater Company)

Adithi Chandrashekar, Penelope Walker, Kelli Simpkins, and BrittneyLoveSmith/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

When faced with nuclear annihilation, it may seem pointless to ask how your family will gather for dinner after the bomb drops. But that nagging concern about etiquette and connection and the dining room table lies at the heart of “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” now running at American Theater Company. And while the production provides clues for how society would rebuild itself after disaster — changing its essential shape and doing away with all tables — the script meanders once the radioactive threat becomes real, undercutting its examination of progress, community, and timing.

Efran (Kelli Simpkins, owning the stage as in last year’s “Men On Boats”) is the proud patriarch of a tight nuclear family, happy in his marriage to Leena (Adithi Chandrashekar), a crafter and nascent women’s libber, and content to bark orders at his distracted son Jake (Avi Roque). But it is 1962, and Efran worries about war. He wants his neighbor Sul (Penelope Walker) to help him construct a bomb shelter across their shared property line. The clammed-up Sul is reluctant, but his anxious and grieving wife Mag (BrittneyLoveSmith) encourages him to protect his family; their daughter Deanna (Saraí Rodriguez) is as distracted as Jake, absent-mindedly strumming her guitar and ignoring his questions about whether or not they will be called upon to repopulate the planet. Once the Cuban Missile Crisis begins, the families must decide whether or not to take shelter, and how to reconcile their differing points of view once they are underground.

Despite the two-dimensional bombs hanging over the set, ready to strike at any moment, nothing about Will Davis’ colorful and lively production feels dread-drenched or dirge-ready. Obviously, the audience already knows the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so being ahead of the characters helps us laugh at their problems. But Davis also puts the humor in Basil Kreimendahl’s script front and center, with each performer eagerly throwing out 1960s platitudes and attitudes that both seem recognizable and ridiculous to us now. Simpkins is particularly fine as Efran, ranging all over the stage, wheedling neighbors until they give in to the big sales pitch; fear underlines every step she takes. Chandrashekar provides warmth that allows the other characters to grow, and Walker’s grounded presence gives a nice contrast to Simpkins’ wild energy. BrittneyLoveSmith is lovely as someone self-actualizing before the audience’s eyes, while Roque and Rodriguez bumble through adolesence in a way that any viewer will wincingly remember.

The cast./Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Davis’ casting also challenges who gets to have their say in an apocalyptic story. Efran’s pronouncements about the need for a dining room table and a broom down in the shelter become especially fragile when presented by somebody who would not have had the power to make command decisions in the 1960s, simply due to gender dynamics. Walker also admirably presents the quiet archetype of a solid man, and it is through her open performance that we question the danger and suppression behind masculine strength. Both couples are played by women, performatively queering annihilation, a concept that Davis mentions in the program. Roque and Rodriguez’s characters admit to one another that they do not fit with the sexual norms or gender norms of their time. Their attempt to perform what’s expected of a young teen boy and a young teen girl grants an ironic and explosive end to the play.

Unfortunately, Kreimendahl’s script loses most of its momentum once the families retreat underground. The playwright has a lot to say about society when the neighbors are an active part of going to work every day and hosting barbecues on the weekends. But once those routines fade away, the drive for each character to confront their happy facades likewise disappears. The second act in the bomb shelter provides many revelations; the cramped space allows the families to confront one another about squashed-down emotions. But the conflict that arises does not feel organic, and the overall questioning of community and boundaries — so vital in the first act — falls by the wayside, as the children take center stage in a way that confuses the author’s message, rather than completing it.

William Bowles’ set design, with its blue grass, and its background painting of a pancake, prepares the audience to see the artificiality of the characters’ lives, even before they retreat to their tomato red bunker. Rachel K. Levy’s lights turn the pancake into a neon sun, clocking the daylight hours slipping away, and threatening irradiation with a green tinge at the set borders. Jeffrey Levin’s cheerful sound design pulls from absurd 1960s commercial advertisements, setting the proper tone at intermission. Melissa Ng’s costumes present a lived-in reality for each character, but the bright colors suggest change on the horizon.

While the script may not create the full narrative of a new day on the horizon, this production looks and sounds optimistic about our collective future. As boundaries blur and change, Davis wants the audience to know that we can have a good time putting the old world to bed, just as we are creating the new.

DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Annihilation is upon us; it is queer and hilariously energetic.

Show: “We’re Gonna Be Okay”

Company: American Theater Company

Venue: American Theater Company (1909 W Byron St)

Review: “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. ” (Black Ensemble Theater)

Review: “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. ” (Black Ensemble Theater)

The cast of “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. ”/Photo: Black Ensemble Theater.

Black Ensemble Theater has cultivated an ideal retrospective with “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.”; it is a perfect showcase of this company’s fantastic vocalists, and precision numbers from musical director Robert Reddrick and the Black Ensemble house band. Not every number knocks it out of the park, but like most musicals, outstanding moments prove to be currency enough to bypass anything sparse or underdeveloped. “Sammy” is what happens when a tribute concert, a TED talk, and a cast of charmingly unreliable narrators collide.

Author and Director Daryl D. Brooks lets his audience cozy up to a lively, percussive rendition of “The Old Black Magic” then dangles a coy non-answer to the question on everyone’s lips: What exactly is this production going to be? A biopic retelling of Davis Jr.’s life and times? A jukebox musical-style rehash of all the icon’s classics? Maybe a history of the man,  his era, and his role in our cultural lexicon? The ensemble answers our question with a question: Why can’t we be all those things? In that spirit, the troupe is hesitant for any one member to claim the role of Sammy Davis Jr. in this endeavor. They’ll be splitting this entree 12 ways, across lines of gender and race, and it’s a harmonious and hilarious negotiation. Honestly, this performing ensemble is so winning and charming together, they threaten to outshine their subject matter.

What emerges is a love story to a music icon, touching on his struggles and reveling in his hard-won successes. “Sammy” adopts a compelling, biased-documentary style and as the Davis Jr. legacy is laid out, performers thrill at the bits of history we’re not likely to know or believe. The powerhouse vocals of the ensemble are the real draw of this production, with the lions’ share of Sammy Davis Jr. number split among Michael Adkins, Kenny Davis, and Dwight Neal. Each embodies a particular element of Davis’ style to a T;  Michael Adkins is a perfect showman, in a whirlwind of dance and flash, Kenny Davis brings intense power and humor to his numbers and Dwight Neal showcases a well of emotional depth. But that’s hardly scratching the surface, we are graced with many of Davis Jr.’s old friends. Nathan Cooper steps in as a cool, understated Frank Sinatra, Mark Yacullo brings bluster and a booming voice to Dean Martin, and Emily Hawkins steps into the shoes of ex-wife May Britt after delivering an extraordinary rendition of ‘Hey There’.

This production revels a bit in Davis Jr.’s deep cuts, treating us the b-sides, lost albums and covers that have gone under appreciated over the years, like Rhonda Preston’s take on ‘Begin the Beguine’. Ensemble member Reuben D. Echoles is our surrogate in disbelief for each of Davis Jr.’s late-in-life forays into country music (delivered with odd-ball enthusiasm by Trequon Tate) and motown (by a spritely Kylah Williams).

While the show is raucous and uplifting and features a stellar cast and orchestra, it is a fairly sizable undertaking, and not every moment in Sammy Davis Jr.’s body of work has the mark of genius. Some of these numbers can feel like a slog, which is where Daryl D. Brooks smartly allows his ensemble to express their annoyance or confusion. I was so attached to these ensemble members as individuals and historians, that their few attempts to re-enact historic confrontations in Davis Jr.’s life felt a little hollow. The ensemble’s perspective is the original, refreshing thing that keeps the metronome at it’s frenzied tick.

Even if you don’t leave the theater with a stunning new appreciation for Sammy Davis Jr., you will probably find yourself smitten with some of Chicago’s finest singers, dancers and players.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A charming ensemble parcels out an icon’s music and history.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Show: “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.”

Company: Black Ensemble Theater

Venue:  Black Ensemble Theater (4450 N. Clark St.)

Review: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” (Pegasus Theatre Chicago)

Review: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” (Pegasus Theatre Chicago)

debrah neal, Toni Lynice Fountain, Sandra Watson, and Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Show: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery”

Company: Pegasus Theatre Chicago

Venue: Chicago Dramatists (1105 W Chicago Ave)

There is only one way for the women of Shay Youngblood’s “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” to overcome their suffering, and that is through song. Music grants peace in that it solidifies their community, as much as it expresses their pain. Life lessons in this Pegasus production are doled out through music, making them all the more memorable for the characters and the audience.

The unnamed figure at the center of these women is known only as Daughter (Melanie Loren), and she recounts her life growing up with a variety of caretakers who all qualify as mothers to her in one way or another. Big Mama (Felisha McNeal) is her grandmother, and she looks after the girl’s daily bread, and comforts her when she laments the lost presence of her biological mother (Nichole Green in the performance I saw), who has retreated North for work. Aunt Mae (Stacie Doublin) and Miss Corine (debrah neal) weave prophecies and pinch snuff. Miss LaMama (Toni Lynice Fountain) tells our heroine stories in the tradition of African narratives. Together, these ladies prepare Daughter for womanhood, with all its trials and triumphs explained beforehand.

Director Ilesa Duncan has built a strong ensemble for this memory piece. The women age and de-age, depending on the stories and wisdom they impart to their young charge, and this reviewer could feel the history of shared lives vibrating between them at every moment. Such connection is vital, as Youngblood’s script moves in and out of the memories of multiple characters, while the main story is being shared by Loren as a flashback itself. Duncan uses the small space at Chicago Dramatists well, delineating which moments are present or past through blocking and characters’ physical choices. The emotional arc never gets away from the director, as she links all the stories Loren is told to present moments of remembrance.

Takesha Meshé Kizart, Stacie Doublin, Toni Lynice Fountain, debrah neal, Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal, Melanie Loren, and Sandra Watson/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

The actresses acquit themselves well with their varied roles. Loren is particularly impressive as she ages down to play a pre-teen, while Green excels at playing multiple women at multiple ages, each with her own strong sense of self. Sandra Watson stands out as an older woman with mystical sight, and as a lesbian sharing lessons about love with Loren. And McNeal commands the stage as a no-nonsense woman with many people to care for. The rivalry between Doublin and Fountain is entertaining and heartfelt, with a conclusion that satisfies both women and the audience.

Music director Shawn Wallace has a real gift in this cast. These women sing a capella for the majority of the show, performing the ghostly rhythms of memory as easily as they harmonize for gospel music. The balance of voices, each powerful in distinct ways, reinforces the theme at the center of the production: that each woman has something special to pass on to her charge, and each will give wisdom in her own unique way. This pattern is reinforced by Kirstin Johnson’s elegiac sound design, and cemented by choreographer Nicole Clark Springer (of the Duncan-directed “Rutherford’s Travels” last year) in the final moments of the play, where Loren moves from woman to woman, and mirrors their dances, and picks up their rhythms, suggesting she will carry them with her always.

“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” delivers on its title. Youngblood’s script, combined with Duncan’s well-crafted moments, and through diligent work from the performers, shines in a winning production that has the audience humming long after the lights have gone down.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women form a community through song in this lovely show.

DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Review: “The Last Days of the Commune” (Prop Thtr)

Lyle Mays, Barry Lohman, Rory Jobst, and Don Schroeder/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

Show: “The Last Days of the Commune”

Company: Prop Thtr

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

“One or all, all or nothing, it will be.” So sings the collection of French peasants defending their freedom in Prop Thtr’s “The Last Days of the Commune.” And true to Brechtian form, as the play is an unfinished story by Bertold Brecht, adapted by Stefan Brün, Diane Hamm, Kyle Anne Greer, and directed by Stefan Brün, this song of determination is not joyful or defiant. The lyrics reflect the ideal, while the exhausted Frenchmen and women merely go through the motions of throwing up their fists and keeping up with the jaunty melody. This has been a short but costly revolution, their glassy eyes tell us, and the bloody end is in sight.

I had not known very much about the Paris Commune before attending this show, and I will say the history is communicated in fits and starts, the way Brecht liked it. Rather than allow the audience to get caught up in an emotion-based narrative about the months between March and May 1871, we see scenes of political speeches and rallying cries juxstaposed with the almost-too-peaceful capture of a cannon by radicalized French troops and peasants. We meet true believers in overthrowing the Paris government after a military shutdown of the city, like Papa (Lyle Mays). We meet fellow travelers who benefit from protection by the revolutionary National Guard, like the impoverished Madame Cabet (Karen Fort) and her son Jean (Christopher Sylvie). We hear from Thiers (Rick Reardon), the government’s official leader, as he conspires with Prussian leaders to quell the anger of the people. The audience pieces together a colleage of discontent, and must accept the dislocation as a form of intellectual exercise for Brecht’s belief in thinking “beyond defeat.”

Moments like that worn-out protest song make for memorable theatre in Prop’s examination of revolt, but I often found myself stretching to connect the conversations onstage with their historical moment. Perhaps that is the purpose, as Brün and Hamm wisely focus attention on how the men and women of the Commune view their revolution, and how they plan to create a new government in the midst of a military crackdown on personal liberty. Their conversations mirror questions that we ask today. What is the best means to achieving freedom? Who gets to speak and who gets to rule? How does a community determine what is best for the group, especially when a ruling class always steps forward to create institutions? There is a humorous scene halfway through the play where the leaders of the revolution guess at how to pay the salaries of those running the city’s lights and education initiatives, and it proves how unprepared they are to actually lead beyond a revolution.

Paul Brennan, Zoë Miller, Karen Fort, and Lyle Mays/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

The musical performances are the standout in this show. Delivered by various cast members with verve, with compositions and arrangements created by Greer, the songs reflect styles as different as punk rock, jazz, blues, and ballads. Brecht always included songs as a way to further alienate the viewer, and draw them into a greater philosophical examination of the story. Simply by interrupting the story with song, he drew you out of the play and back into your world. But here, the songs provide relief and connection. Early on, the performers stomp around joyously, creating a chorus of optimistic voices. A young woman in love (Zoë Pike) sings a ditty about chives, and I felt connected to her in that moment. So while there is value in Brecht’s epic approach to intellectual stimulation, it was nice to empathize with the characters in those moments.

If the main goal of the production is to motivate those in the audience to think beyond defeat in our own times, I am unsure about the message we are left with; strands of Marx’s writing are spoken via projection towards the end of the play, as this revolt inspired his own political theories. But the value of the loss is still to be struggled with. Are we the failed revolutionaries? How are we to avoid their missteps and to claim their victories? The play doesn’t tell us, and that may be one way it parts with Brecht, who loved underlining his themes. It seems we must work events out for ourselves — the true call to action for anyone living in interesting times.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adapted Brecht provides food for thought in song and events.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”