Review: “Take Me” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Review: “Take Me” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Nicole Bloomsmith, David Gordon-Johnson, Kristen Alesia, Carmine Grisolia, Loretta Rezos, Matt Rosin, Kamille Dawkins, and Megan DeLay/Photo by KBH Media.

Chicago is a fantastic destination for musical development; in fact, whenever I’m not reviewing theatre, you’re likely to catch me at work in musical theatre workshops providing dramaturgical assistance. There’s one piece of advice I give constantly, because even the best musical teams forget it: Be certain your songs move your story forward. A pretty melody may be enough for a pop song, but on a musical stage, your song has to carry a revelation, an argument, a plan, or even a delusion to get across. Anything less, and your audience will be checking their watches, waiting for the stage action to proceed once your beautiful music is over.

Strawdog Theatre’s “Take Me,” a new musical from book writer Mark Guarino and composer/lyricist Jon Langford, manages to hit that songwriting pitfall at full bore, and what should be a compelling concept just devolves into tedium. Great dramatic writing and songwriting come from specifics and fully realized characters, and while “Take Me” has scratched the surface, the creators leave significant depths unexplored.

Shelly (Nicole Bloomsmith) is having an understandably hard time on Earth; her husband Matt (Michael Reyes) is in a coma after a flight he captained went awry, and her young son is either being cared for by her mother and father (Loretta Rezos and Matt Rosin), or is missing. She’s in a grief spiral, and every authority she embraces has told her to move on with her life. Everyone except the new alien voices she hears via her corporate wireless headset. They tease a possible reunion with her husband and son, and task her with creating a “connector” space for their arrival. They even ensure that Travis (Carmine Grisolia), an Intergalactic Space Cowboy, is there to assist, mostly by writing sad country songs. Her childhood toy Doggy (Kamille Dawkins) also springs to life, both glad and bitter about being discarded for years in an attic.

“Take Me” can’t seem to make up its mind about what is reality, or what could be psychosis, so everything we see could be both or neither. That particular ambiguity kills the tension and lowers the stakes for every scene. For instance, if Shelly hasn’t really petitioned Roswell’s city council (staffed by Soviet space dogs) to build a theme park, and that park isn’t really a rousing success, and nothing has as deep an impact for her as her real missing husband and son, those events — real or not — have little bearing on her journey. Moreover, Shelly’s actions have no trajectory if she doesn’t have the conviction that doing them will bring her family back.  She is just tossed along in a weird, directionless current. The specifics, world rules, or even a definable want for the story’s protagonist are so vague, it’s hard to get invested.

Carmine Grisolia and Nicole Bloomsmith/Photo by KBH Media.

The strongest moments of “Take Me” come at the introduction of lovable weirdos. Shelly meets a support group of fellow abductees, and a collective of Soviet space dogs that are eccentric and vibrant, but barely factor into Shelly’s journey. Plus, if these characters stand in Shelly’s way, or can offer her tidbits of advice, she must hold for a musical number before that happens. Performers like Carmine Grisolia as Travis the Intergalactic Space Cowboy and Kamille Dawkins as an abandoned stuffed Doggy are spirited and energetic. They deserve writing that ensures they are not placeholders or exposition-fountains between moments of action. Nicole Bloomsmith as Shelly is a beacon of optimism under constant threat of being extinguished. Shelly the character has enough to contend with, like her own psyche, or unfeeling threshold guardians standing in her way. She doesn’t need to be saddled with writer indecision or forced silence as too many characters sing their soliloquies at her.

Director Anderson Lawfer and arranger Anabelle Revak have worked to make everything besides the script as charming as possible. The stage is the curving hull of a NASA spacecraft, swarming with gorgeous  projected constellations. The music is the rolicking Americana strum of guitars and violins. We should be filled with abject wonder, but it’s a real shame about that libretto.

DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This space-traversing new musical needs more time to bake.

Show: “Take Me”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue:  Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W. Berenice Ave.)

Review: “Bright Star” (BoHo Theatre)

Missy Wise and Josiah Robinson/Photo: Cody Jolly.

Mere minutes into “Bright Star,” the audience is treated to the arrival home of a war veteran, the death of a beloved parent, and a journey to the big city in order to find one’s way as an aspiring author. Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s mid-twentieth century, Appalachian-set musical does not waste much time. In fact, it absolutely depends on the audience’s sentimental streak for bluegrass and family tragedy, because without that love, the show’s lack of character stakes and psychological complexity would grate on even the most generous viewer. Boho Theatre’s energetic production has nice toe-tapping moments, but some intense design choices and director Ericka Mac’s push for big acting choices only emphasize the lack of complexity in Martin and Brickell’s story and music.

Billy Cane (Jeff Pierpoint) is the aforementioned soldier returning from war to his small North Carolina town. After learning of his mother’s death, he leaves home and his childhood sweetheart Margo (Kiersten Frumkin) for Asheville, where he courts the patronage of no-nonsense editor Alice Murphy (Missy Wise), who also grew up in a small North Carolina hamlet. Her remembrances begin to wind their way into the narrative, including her teenage courtship with her town’s golden boy Jimmy Ray (Josiah Robinson), and the nefarious loss of her child. Meanwhile, Billy tries to publish his stories, while Margo worries he will never return her growing affections. One of these stories obviously has much more dramatic pull, and the balance never quite evens out between following Billy or following Alice.

Picture Brickell’s story as a bluegrass Greek tragedy, and Martin’s book as an oddly flavorless execution of the same. Anytime conflict can arise between characters, scenes are cut short, or sacrificed for another musical number. When Billy is tempted by a big city girl, barely even a peck on the lip happens before he abandons the dance hall. While Jimmy Ray vows never to tell Alice what actually happened to their newborn child, fast forward to twenty-some years later, and he quite readily admits the truth. Plot, rather than character development, hums along at a brisk pace, with information the audience already knows being repeated over and over for emphasis. The ending narrative turn, when it comes, is likely already known to everyone watching.

The lightness on display would be more acceptable if Martin and Brickell’s music felt more authentic. Both clearly harbor a deep love for the banjo, fiddle, bass, and guitar. But the music stays solidly in musical theatre styling, prettied up and melodically simple, allowing Martin’s simplistic lyrics to jar the ear at least three times a tune. The more mournful, off-kilter harmonies and dark subject matter of Appalachian music stays offstage, and it hurts the grand scale of the doubled narrative being explored. Julie B. Nichols brings out what richness she can in her music direction, but there is something lacking to the score.

All in all, the performances elevate the material. Mac does excellent work with Wise, in particular. While the book and music might not capture her character’s hard life, her performance always carries with it notes of sorrow and regret, and her chemistry with Robinson lights up the stage when the two are together. Pierpoint and Frumkin have a lot of fun as the more off-kilter pair, even if their characters come off as clueless a lot of the time. Overall, the singing is top-notch, though I would beg storefront theaters to stop using amplification in small spaces. It doesn’t always allow for much of a blend, something that’s pretty important to bluegrass.

Lauren M. Nichols’ set design smartly transforms from a shack to a rail car to a roadhouse to an office, and Robert S. Kuhn’s costumes evoke both the twenties and the forties easily. G. “Max” Maxin IV’s light design is vibrant, but the stage fog used to transition us into the past is more a hindrance than a help to allowing the lighting to change time and place.
“Bright Star” may not hit all its marks, but BoHo has leveraged its strengths in this production. The company’s next musical is “Big Fish,” and perhaps that show about tall tales and understanding the past might fair a little better.

DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, not Great”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A youngster finds fortune, while a woman explores her past.

Show: “Bright Star”

Company: BoHo Theatre

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Review: “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies” (First Floor Theater)

Review: “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies” (First Floor Theater)

Jalen Gilbert and Jayson Lee/Photo: WHO IS SHE Photography.

Writing for one’s time is a risk in our current theatre model. The playwright runs into the danger of being too radical to be produced for sedate audiences, or too of the moment with the news cycle constantly spinning, and thus running into irrelevance. Tragically, but also fortuitously, for script-writer Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, his work “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies” is fresh now and looks to sadly remain relevant for time to come.

His story centers on two African-American teens, Marquis (Jayson Lee) and Tru (Jalen Gilbert), who meet in a jail cell one night. Marquis was picked up by the cops for trespassing and he was caught “Trayvoning,” an Internet meme that he is performing with white friends who get away. Tru was picked up for loitering, but it seems more likely that he was picked up for “being black,” as he claims. Tru gets out of jail the same time as Marquis because he plays up to the stereotyping sympathies of Debra (Lauren Pizzi Montgomery), Marquis’ white mother. Tru spends the next couple days shadowing Marquis at his prep school in Achievement Heights, seemingly to get away from his supposedly impoverished street life in Baltimore, but actually because he wants to teach Marquis to abandon the influence of his white peers and learn how to be a black man, as laid out by Tupac. Marquis’ white friends, Hunter (Casey Morris), Fielder (Andrew Cutler), alternate interrogating and mimicking Tru, while Marquis’ white female classmates Meadow (Maggie Scrantom) and Clementine (Caroline Hendricks) debate whether or not he is dateable. Clementine has a crush on Marquis, but it’s questionable whether she likes him or the idea of being with someone who lives a different experience.

Caroline Hendricks, Maggie Scrantom, Lauren Pizzi Montgomery, Jayson Lee, Casey Morris and Andrew Cutler/Photo: WHO IS SHE Photography.

Director Mikael Burke handles the absurdity of Chisholm’s script with intelligent staging and the development of several great comedic bits. Chisholm’s scenes are circular, often leading to a blackout and starting with the same exact dialogue exchange once the lights rise again. Burke never forgets the push and pull of that energy, that Lee and Gilbert are often stuck playing out the same scenarios with white people over and over again, and they must figure out how best to address racism, rejection, and violence in the moment. The Den’s secondary upstairs space is not large, but Burke is able to move a wealth of people around in circles, as each character moves closer or farther away from understanding the two main characters. The young actors he works with have been encouraged to make intense physical choices, and these lead to some amazing stage kisses, a couple of fantastic frozen faces, and a general free-for-all energy that is abruptly cut off in the play’s final moments.

Chisholm’s work is well supported by Lee and Gilbert as a pair of mismatched friends who understand each other better than anyone else onstage. Montgomery is hilarious as Lee’s pushy lawyer mother, and just as effective playing a mean girl underling. Morris goes places I did not expect in his performance, and his seduction scene with Scrantom is as ridiculous as one could hope for. Hendricks sees Clementine with clear eyes, and doesn’t excuse her bad judgment just because she legitimately enjoys Marquis’ company.

I’m not entirely sure why yet, but I feel like the play’s ending lacks a step. Chisholm takes the audience on a sarcastic and vibrant journey, but we end up in a place that underlines the point he is making in a way that felt underdeveloped, or too bluntly stated, or at least utterly sped up in a way that meant it didn’t track for me, so the whole experience became diminished. There is some reference to Greek mythology throughout that pops up at the play’s closing that made it harder for Chisholm’s larger metaphor to land for me. Still, the audience I viewed the play with was stunned into profound silence on the night I attended. They could see why this play needs to be done now, and that sort of speaking truth to power is worth catching in our city.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A timely and satirical script gamely directed and sharply performed.

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Show: “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies”

Venue: The Den Theater (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “The Revolutionists” (Organic Theater Company)

Review: “The Revolutionists” (Organic Theater Company)

Stephanie Sullivan/Photo: Anna Gelman.

In general, there is not much to celebrate about the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror claimed innocent lives, and the massacre that spread from Paris to the countryside is a dark mark on France’s embrace of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But playwright Lauren Gunderson manages to find a bright spot in the women of “The Revolutionists.” When a playwright, a murderess, a queen, and a civil rights activist come together, sparks fly, and Organic Theater’s production mostly ignites those fires.

Olympe de Gouges (Stephanie Sullivan), a real-life historical playwright and feminist figure, is suffering from writer’s block because she is troubled by dreams of the guillotine.  Her friend Marianne Angelle (Taylor Raye), a spy and composite figure of several Caribbean freedom fighters, encourages her to write about her convictions, but before Olympe starts a play about her friend’s espionage intrigues, Charlotte Corday (Sara Copeland), the real-life assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, bursts in the room demanding some infamous final words. Matters become even more complicated when Marie Antoinette (Laura Sturm) enters the room, asking for Olympe to improve her reputation with a witty farce in the style of the national theatre.

Gunderson is cleverly playing with comedy conventions from pre-Revolution times, including the action turning on French scenes — a new character entering, and posing a problem for the protagonist. But she also pulls from de Gouges’ tradition, in that she writes the play as if the characters are aware they’re performing in one. Olympe’s most subversive work involved inserting herself into a debate over forms of government with Marie Antoinette, and while Gunderson lands jokes about meta-theatre and theatrical navel-gazing, she is nowhere near creating anything as subversive herself. This is the first play I have seen of hers, and it helped me understand why she is the most produced playwright on our American stages right now. She is a very funny writer, allowing contemporary colloquialisms and jabs at artistic culture to leak into “The Revolutionists.” She clearly examines issues that concern her: who gets to speak in feminist circles, how one must rise to the occasion during tyrannical times, how hard it can be to capture one’s feelings on the page. But something about this meta-experiment feels hollow, as I think on it now. She writes safely, rather than courageously — the very thing Olympe is accused of in the play! Gunderson is a great humanist, but the danger these women collectively face never comes alive in her dialogue, and it needs to, in order for the history to feel vital to us. We end up with a smart, witty play that does not quite live up to the images of the guillotine it shows us.

Taylor Raye/Photo: Anna Gelman.

Director Bryan Wakefield stages the play simply, with the women circling each other, as their debates about violent action and the proper forms of protest heat up. But he has several missed opportunities to toy with the unreality of the script, so that the audience understands how this meta-exploration will come to mean more by play’s end. Sullivan does excellent work as de Gouges, flitting easily from a writer’s neurotic self-obsession to a woman’s vulnerable need to express terror. Sturm is a hoot as Antoinette, making the queen’s privilege both careless and understandable at the same time. Raye does solid work as Angelle, though she mostly excels in her angry discussions with Sullivan. And while Copeland struggles with the highs and lows of Corday’s roller coaster thought process, she creates a full sense of how her character moves in the world.

Terrance McClellan’s scenic design features doorways that turn into guillotines, and M. Anthony Reimer’s angry mob sound design fills the space with ominous thoughts. Costume designers Jeremy M. Floyd and Morgan Saaf-White highlight both excess and simplicity in their dresses, depending on the character.

Though “The Revolutionists” did not explicitly called me to action, I at least have a deeper appreciation of hidden figures within France’s turning. Gunderson may not ask the audience to rise from their seats in protest, but she does ask that we look at her characters with humor, empathy, and understanding. And maybe right now, that is a revolutionary act.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women find and lose their purpose during the French Revolution.

DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Show: “The Revolutionists”

Company: Organic Theater Company

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Review: “Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort Of Love Story” (Mercury Theater)

Review: “Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort Of Love Story” (Mercury Theater)

Jackson Evans and Dana Tretta/Photo: Mercury Theater Chicago.

Gilda Radner was the sort of performer that inspired instant endearment. Playing fearless, obnoxious, breakable characters so specifically that she vaulted past type or genre — she was her own. A singular sort of comedic presence that women rarely got to be in her pocket of history.

With a piece like “Bunny Bunny” from author and industry veteran Alan Zweibel, we’re no closer to understanding what motivated, troubled or inspired her uniqueness; all we know from Mercury Theater’s production is Radner’s effect on one anxious, self-doubt riddled man. There’s a deep complexity and pain in their subject that “Bunny Bunny” is not equipped to explore, so (as is the case with most comedy), Zweibel and director Warner Crocker ask us to bear with them as they filter her life through the male gaze.

In 1975, while waiting to audition for a live-televised late night comedy show no one had ever heard of, a young Gilda Radner (Dana Tretta) shrewdly grabbed writer Alan Zweibel (Jackson Evans) from the potted plant he was cowering behind, and launched both their careers simultaneously. It was simple, he’d write for her each week, and she’d mug for the cameras. Who could have known just how naturally they’d gravitate together, outlasting various romantic partners, fame, pitfalls, addiction, and sickness in each other’s lives?  

Jackson Evans and Dana Tretta/Photo: Mercury Theater Chicago.

But while Zweibel is desperate to define their relationship, confess his love, and lasso himself to the funniest, most radiant star in his orbit, Radner remains just beyond his grasp. As narrator, Zweibel assigns Radner a manic pixie aloofness, but any woman watching with a mind of her own (and no obligation to tell you what’s on it) could argue Zweibel oozes unwitting sexism. The kind that keeps insisting itself, mounting pressure on a supportive but troubled woman, preventing him from ever regarding her as a person apart from him.

The highest accolades belong to performers Dana Tretta, a sly and persistently sunny (even through pain) Gilda Radner, bouncing off of Jackson Evans as an ever-panicked bundle of neuroses, Alan Zweibel. They are a joy to watch, as well as Jason Grimm (billed as ‘Everyone Else’), who appears anytime our duo could use a doorman, street vendor, or divorcee riddled with quirks. Grimm does his best with what he’s given, but I don’t take great joy in trotting out a man in a dress or increasingly funny hats for an easy laugh. While early Saturday Night Live is packed with everyday oddballs played to cartoonish effect, it becomes overkill here. That really is the crux of the problem with  “Bunny Bunny”: what these performers could use is material that will do them justice, and a story that has something more poignant to say about its title character.

With this production, Zweibel is assuming we’ve already boned up on Radner’s work and struggles, so he’s not going to bore us with all the emotional details. Surely everyone’s seen an episode or two of Saturday Night Live, so we can speed past the comedy (except one glorious comedy song, “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals”), and just take his word that she’s a funny spitfire.

What takes precedence in Zweibel’s story is not Radner herself, but the joys and annoyances she adds to his life, and the path that she sets him on with each moment of acceptance, or each romantic spurn. I mean, what truly matters: one woman’s struggle with bulimia and ovarian cancer, or how much worry Zweibel must devote to her because of them? What’s more interesting: that Radner struggled with intimacy and insecurity in all of her romantic relationships, or that Zweibel really wanted to sleep with her, and she told him no?

I’m so incensed by this show’s entire premise, I don’t have wherewithal to speak nicely anymore: How dare you lure me in with promises of a woman I admire deeply, then treat me to a buffet of your wounded male feelings? Please return this script to the Woody Allen Institute for Hapless Boys for re-tooling immediately.

DICE RATING: d8 — Not Bad, Not Great

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Cool memoir, bro, but Gilda Radner deserves so much better.

Show: Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort Of Love Story

Company: Mercury Theater

Venue:  Mercury Theater (3745 N. Southport Ave.)

Review: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

Review: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

Xavier Lagunas and Elaine Carlson/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Several clues inform you that “The Madwoman of Chaillot” takes place in Paris. There is the Eiffel Tower painted on the set. There is the outdoor seating at the café that features so prominently in the first act, as well as the French national flag hanging over the proceedings. But nothing marks the geography in Jean Giradoux’s satire more than the laissez faire antics of a Parisian neighborhood fighting back against corporate entities and political corruption. There is something definitively French about the defiantly joyful and flippant nature with which the community’s oppressors are tossed off, and the actors all rise to the revolutionary occasion, even if the direction and design of this Promethean Theatre Ensemble production hinders their progress.

Countess Aurelia, otherwise known as The Madwoman of Chaillot (Elaine Carlson), lives every day spreading belief in the beauty of the world. It falls to her neighbors to admit to her that greed and violence lurk just around the corner, when The President (Jerry Bloom) of an vaguely purposed company and a Prospector, (Brian Hurst) with a nose seeking oil underneath Paris, devise a plot to drill Paris and destroy her neighborhood. A forthright waitress named Irma (Brenda Wlazlo), the café messenger (Brendan Connelly), the local Sergeant (Brendan Hutt), a host of Aurelia’s society friends (Jennifer Vance, Laura Sturm, and Jamie Bragg), the Ragpicker (also played by Bloom), and Pierre (Xavier Lagunas), a flunky of the Prospector’s, all band together to save their streets.

Brenda Wlazlo and Laura Sturm/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Giradoux alternates between short bursts of action and long, detailed monologues; this rhythm is hard to realize in performance, but Carlson heads a cast that approaches their speeches with presence, preciseness, and warmth. Carlson stands out as Aurelia, a delicate woman doing her darnedest to bring light into other people’s lives, despite the grief history has dealt her. She sees opportunities in the bits and pieces left in the lost and found, and this empathy comes across especially in her early speech about noticing the wonder of one’s morning routine. Wlazlo is also particularly fine, weaving a speech about declaring one’s love into the fabric of every choice she makes onstage. Bragg excels in organizing a circus trail for the President and the Prospector, and Bloom provides a lot of conviction as he plays the Ragpicker pretending to play the President in the neighborhood’s kangaroo court.

Director John Arthur Lewis draws lovely work from his actors across the board, giving a light touch to this tossed together French Revolution. But his staging hampers the performers’ energy and engagement with one another. For most of the play, Lewis has the actors playing side by side on the same sightline and level, making it hard for the audience to track who we should follow at any given moment. Bits of business for background players distract from larger plot and character moments, and the addition of a higher stage level in the second act obscures actors’ reactions.

The issue may largely be a design problem. Jeremiah Barr’s set takes up a majority of the small Athenaeum space, which becomes a problem when so many characters are onstage at any given time. As I wrote above, the setting is recognizably Paris, but I wonder if a more stripped down approach would have helped move the story along with more clarity and fleet-footedness. The second act calls for the appearance of a basement, so I understand the impulse to transform the stage in a dramatic way. But Giradoux’s words, French and effortless and hilarious, call for a subtler hand.

Still, the actors delight, and good triumphs over evil. Especially right now, the communal raising of voices was reassuring, and felt as American as it did French from where I was sitting in the audience.

Show: “The Madwoman of Chaillot”

Company: Promethean Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: There’s something definitively French about the joy of fighting back.

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Hatfield & McCoy” (The House Theatre of Chicago)

Review: “Hatfield & McCoy” (The House Theatre of Chicago)

The cast of “Hatfield & McCoy”/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

When we know old stories, does that give us the power to merely follow their course, or change them? This question sat at at the forefront of my mind while watching The House Theatre of Chicago’s revival of “Hatfield & McCoy,” a production that takes American history, and attempts to make it new by threading it with spectacle and tying it tightly to the tale of Romeo and Juliet. The final weave makes for disappointing storytelling, even as the acting, music, design, and choreography of the piece all deserve praise.

The Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family of Kentucky are already feuding when the play begins. As the lights rise, recently returned Union soldier Asa “Harmon” McCoy (Cody Proctor) sings a ballad about the afterlife, and is shortly confronted by a pack of Hatfields, who murder him for reasons unknown. Young Johnse Hatfield (Kyle Whalen) was meant to pull the trigger, but finds he hasn’t the stomach for gruesome family business. His father Devil Anse (Robert D. Hardaway) and mother Levicy (Marika Mashburn) expect loyalty from their clan, so it is shocking when Johnse meets and impulsively marries Rose Anna McCoy (Haley Bolithon), daughter to Ol Ranl (Anish Jethmalan) and Sarah (Stacy Stoltz). Ranl believes there is recourse in the law, so while he doesn’t demand prosecution for his brother Harmon’s murder, he does pursue justice in the case of a pig that may have been stolen by the Hatfield clan, involving both lawman Frank Phillips (Jamie Vann) and a relative on both sides of the feud, Bill Staton (Desmond Gray). Troubles escalate when Rose Anna’s uncle Sam (Bradley Grant Smith) shoots Staton in retribution, setting off a cycle of bloodshed that could lead to the destruction of both families, despite Rose Anna and Johnse’s best efforts.

History can be a tricky tool to work with onstage. The theatre artist is able to include fiction alongside truth because the audience can read the facts from historians after the show. The playwright provides one interpretation of the record, an emotional truth; or rather, a thematic truth. By calling to life the stories of those long gone, to examine particular light-reflecting facets of the hard diamond that is history, the playwright can illuminate our lives now. But that mix of fact and fiction can confuse rather than enlighten, when the writer does not trust the audience to grapple with the complexities of history.

The real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud lasted from 1863 to 1881. It spanned generations, and involved land disputes, political machinery, Confederates standing against the Union, and yes, a possibly stolen pig. Squeezing all that down into a two hour and forty minute run time would be impossible, but I wish that playwright Shawn Pfautsch had better balanced the passions at work with the reality of his tale. Centering his retelling on young lovers Johnse and Rose Anna is a smart move, as it gives the audience a concrete emotional foothold amid all the violence. However, Pfautsch chooses to link Johnse and Rose Anna’s romance to Romeo and Juliet’s, not simply via thematic parallels, but by sticking Shakespearean text in their mouths in lieu of their own feelings, and having them beat by beat reenact the same tragedy that those lovers faced. Finding parallels between history and literature is one thing; relying on another dramatist (using one of his earliest, clunkiest tragedies) to infuse your story with meaning is quite another. I found myself disengaged with this tale of feuding families because little about its thematic perspective felt original or lively. If Pfautsch is building a tragedy of his own here, we do not know enough about the events and actions told to discover what mistakes the characters made, what deep grief could have been avoided had better choices revealed themselves.

The cast of “Hatfield & McCoy”/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Matt Hawkins makes up for the lackluster drama by filling the stage with foot-stomping activity. He and choreographer Katherine Scott develop spectacular movement pieces that highlight the energy and focus of the diverse, large cast. As members from each family die, their ghosts wander the stage, and their deliberate, haunting steps, coupled with Lee Keenan’s eerie lighting design and wide-ranging set, become some of the most memorable work of the show. Likewise, a dance of sorrow by the McCoy and Hatfield women hammers home the loss that the script fails to evoke. And a Hatfield home surgery, rhythmically and desperately beat out in dance and slow motion, highlights the gore and guts that typify crude country life.

The script asks actors not only to two step all over the stage, but to wrestle with high-faluting language and abrupt changes in tone, from making corny jokes to swearing oaths of vengeance. Hardaway as Devil Anse and Jethmalan as Rand make formidable foes, with Hardaway bouncing his words all over the space like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and Jethmalan methodically using the Bible to convince his family not to retaliate. Mashburn and Stoltz are secret weapons, unleashing resentment late in the play that could be further developed. Bolithon and Whalen are fine as the dreamy couple, but they are outmatched by the killers onstage, Bradley Grant Smith, Michael E. Smith and Jeff Mills, who all say little but take action with cold precision and focused passion.

Pfautsch and Matt Kahler up the emotional ante by filling this production with songs inspired by the sounds of the Civil War era. A three-piece band — comprised of a fiddle, bass, and drum machine — plays at the back of the stage, and the mixing of voices and live music often lifts the play into a higher register. Grover Holloway’s sound design moves of a piece with this choice. It is particularly noticeable with the continual coming thunderstorm that appears in both acts; it sounds like an ominous drummer at the back of the space, and the roll of thunder only enhances the spectacle Hawkins is creating.

Thus, the power in “Hatfield & McCoy” lies less in its mix of history and literature, and more in the excited rhythms and movements of its design and set pieces. Swapping one old story for another dims its theatrical exploration, but if you can accept that no new ground is being trod here, “Hatfield & McCoy” might provide a thrilling evening of drama, even if it never escalates into full-blown tragedy.

Show: “Hatfield & McCoy”

Company: The House Theatre of Chicago

Venue: The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Family feud, laced with spectacle, fails to land its tragedy.

DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Little Red Cyrano” (Red Theater Chicago)

Review: “Little Red Cyrano” (Red Theater Chicago)

Chorus and Benjamin Ponce/M. Freer Photography

We learn our first moral lessons from fairy tales. We learn not to talk to strangers. We learn not to lie. We learn that kindness is rewarded, and selfish actions are punished. We learn the rules of how civilized society is supposed to work.

But if you look at the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the lessons presented are troubling. Red ends up eaten because of her own choices. She is definitely tricked by her wolf stalker, but she chooses to stray from the forest path on her own. She is responsible for providing the wolf an opportunity to attack her later on. In her case, punishment is inevitable and a warning: do not make unwise choices like this little girl.

Red Theater’s “Little Red Cyrano” is meant as a response to this cultural interpretation. Aaron Sawyer’s mash-up combines an examination of the fairy tale with contemporary topics and the dueling love interests of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” In this telling, co-directed by Sawyer and actor Michael J. Stark (who plays Grandmother and Raganeau here), soldiers Christian (Dave Honigman) and Cyrano (Benjamin Ponce) flee to the forest in order to mount a resistance against the denounced New Patriots. They, like the audience, are thrust into a post-apocalyptic setting, where Chorus members (Brendan Connelly, McKenna Liesman, Les Rorick, Michele Stine, and Jenni M. Hadley, who provides underscoring by playing guitar) have become half-human/half-animals, due to nuclear warfare. Both men meet Little Red (Dari Simone), and fall instantly in love, concocting a scheme to win her heart amid the chaos.

Dari Simone/M. Freer Photography.

I have buired the lede a bit here. Red Theater has marketed this production as a showcase for Deaf talent, and indeed, it features three incredible performances by Deaf actors Stark, Connelly, and especially Simone. The trio bring energy and trenchant humor to their work, particularly when informing Ponce and Honigman that they are misusing or misinterpreting American Sign Language. Sign is used by all the actors onstage, hearing and Deaf alike, and the production has been billed as a union of diverse experiences. The best theatre grows from collaboration and a bringing together of multiple points of view. The strongest sections of “Little Red Cyrano” often involve moments of connection and communication, whether it’s the Chorus teaching ASL to audience members during the pre-show, or Simone teasing Ponce and Honigman. Stark is particularly fine as the depressed Raganeau, a man who longs for the wife who abandoned him; and as Grandmother, he commands others to do their leader’s bidding with little effort. Honigman is set a difficult task, as his Christian displays stilted expression in ASL, and often makes mistakes without acknowledging their impact; but such oblivious behavior becomes key to the character. Ponce fluidly moves between two languages, as Cyrano does in his own tragic tale, culminating in the wonderful balcony scene where Honigman hides his hands behind his back, and Ponce replaces his hands to sign for his romantic rival.

Still, I found myself wondering whether “Little Red Cyrano” makes a great showcase for Deaf talent, when the script mostly revolves around two hearing men who happen to use sign in this world. The Chorus and Raganeau/Grandmother, who use sign exclusively, disappear for the majority of the second act, so the audience winds up watching a lot of back and forth between Cyrano and Christian — using sign, yes, but not to communicate the Deaf experience. Simone might offer more perspective as Red, but the script only lets her in on the plot at its crisis point.

Dave Honigman and Michael J. Stark/M. Freer Photography.

Engagement with Deaf culture is further dulled by the larger point about entitlement Sawyer makes in his script. The deception carried out by the soldiers to win Simone’s heart lands powerfully at the play’s end, when she and Ponce argue in the belly of the wolf (delightfully created by the Chorus’s hands). But I do wonder if the slipperiness of language and its intention is completely realized here. Are Christian and Cyrano adopting ASL in good faith, or are they simply using it to win Little Red? Their manipulation of Red’s situation is chastized by the playwright, but what purpose does language serve in this production? Does it set us free and connect us, or is it not to be trusted, since it can be turned to selfish and deceitful purposes?

I am not sure what moral to take away from this production, except to say that it is not a celebration or a full critique of the fairy tale, Cyrano, and culture. Male entitlement is the blamed culprit in the end, but I struggle to find the roots of that in any of the stories Red Theater combines onstage. After the villains were punished at the play’s conclusion, I found myself asking whether they, or I, had learned a valuable lesson.

DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

TEN-WORD SUMMARY: Deaf talent overshadowed by concept-heavy script and language question.

Show: “Little Red Cyrano”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Review: “1984” (AstonRep Theatre)

Show: “1984”

(front, L to R) Tim Larson, Alexandra Bennett, and Ray Kasper. (back, L to R) Rory Jobst, and Lauren Demerath

Company: AstonRep Theatre

Venue: The Raven Theatre

In America’s current political climate, it’s not unusual to hear reference to doubletalk and newspeak and Big Brother, some people seem to think that 1984’s Oceania is more future than fiction—those people are wrong: Oceania is here, or at least it’s at The Raven Theatre in Edgewater where AstonRep’s production of 1984 is being staged, directed by Robert Tobin and adapted for the state by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr, and William A. Miles.

Before you step into Raven Theatre’s West Stage, Jeremiah Barr’s fearsome scenic design lets you know Big Brother is watching. Propaganda posters featuring “the party’s” slogans line the entryway and are bordered by the same redacted newspapers that paper the stage scrawled with phrases like “Thoughtcrime”, and “DuckSpeak”, and the particularly resonant “Fake News”. All of this resides under the watchful eyes of Big Brother and his security camera pupils with their tell tale red recording light blinking in the relative darkness of the house lights.

When the play does start, it grabs your attention with klaxons blaring the call to watch the morning news loudly enough that I wondered if I should have brought ear plugs. It was not the last time that I would wish for ear protection while watching the play.

Despite my aching ears, Tim Larson as Syme and Alexandra Bennet as Parsons grasped my attention with their one-eyed salute and the dichotomy between Larson’s precise movements and Bennet’s choppy ones which when paired together spoke of group dynamics and group anxiety that I was excited to watch. They and the in group dynamics of a totalitarian regime was at times unsettling to watch with how it mirrored modern day, American Extremism (especially the amount of vitriol spewed at the character Emmanuel Goldstein, including comparing him to a reptile).

Ray Kasper’s introduction as the weary Winston did nothing to quell the mix of disquiet and excitement the beginning of the show wrought in me, and the way he navigated the world of Oceania and the party was fascinating to watch.

My excitement did wane however with the introduction of Sarah Lo as the juvenile and impetuous Julia. To be fair, Lo did not have much to work with, the Julia of Owens et al.’s adaptation like the Julia of the original work is more of an idea or fantasy than a fully formed character. She is the beautiful young girl who falls for a man, many years her senior, and rushes into a romance and rebellion with little thought. It is played this way despite her implied stalking of Winston, but the audience never sees the Julia who followed the object of her affection to restaurants or loitered outside his apartment, weeks before ever actually meeting him. The only version of an in love Julia the audience sees, is a saccharinely sweet young girl who would rather focus on small happinesses than great injustices.

(left to right) Sarah Lo and Ray Kasper

The one note portrayal falls flat, and undermines the rest of the show.

The adaptation as whole fails in respect to Julia, in part because of its poor pacing. Instead of letting the audience see a relationship build on stage, the play jumps from their meeting to their decision to marry, leaving the audience no time to invest in their relationship.

That time is given instead to Winston’s torture, which takes up most of the second act, and since his relationship with Julia doesn’t feel like much, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s fighting for, and after five minutes of Winston’s screams I just felt fatigued, despite the excellent performance of Amy Kasper as O’Brien. She delivered iconic lines like gut punches, and her instant chemistry with Ray Kasper as Winston made Winston’s relationship with Julia pale even further in comparison. Amy Kasper ‘s O’Brien gloried marvelously in the pain she caused Winston, but the eventual outcome still fell flat because what Winston was fighting for in the end wasn’t valued by the script and that textual decision was supported by the directing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: “Julia doesn’t pass the sexy lamp test, sorry lit nerds.”

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “King Ubu” (Organic Theater Company)

Show: King Ubu

Company: Organic Theater Company

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

Organic Theater Company and adaptor/director Alexander Gelman have entered the arena of absurd farce with Alfred Jarry’s “King Ubu”, the tale of a would-be Macbeth brought low by cruelty and incompetence. They’re hoping that we’ve also got an appetite for a good send up of one of the most deluded modern men to hold public office in the United States (I don’t have to give him the satisfaction of printing his name, do I? Good).

The problem may be fatigue, it may be toothless parody, or it may be the sour taste of our most unattainable revenge fantasies playing out in front of us as the title couple is besieged and run out of creation on a rickety boat. Whatever it was, something about obnoxious King Ubu’s short, bloody reign doesn’t quite land with the punch it needs.

In “King Ubu” Ma and Pa Ubu (Alys Dickerson and Joel Moses) see an easy path to ultimate power over the country of Foland laid out in front of them. They just have to murder benevolent King Wenceslas (Adam Zaininger), his queen (Matthew Romriell), his son Beaujolais (Kearstyn Keller), who- oh, darn, the little bugger got away. No matter! They still have all the power of Colonel Baseboard (Colin Jackson) behind them, and all the land and gold they can force from the hands of their increasingly angry subjects. While devoid of charisma, wisdom or any understanding of how their country functions, Ma and Pa Ubu are overflowing with cruelty to make up for it. The royal couple soon discover that when loyalty no longer holds sway, their subjects are only too glad to wage war with them.

What “Ubu” has going for it is a fountain of ingenuity and a wildly dexterous cast, with Joel Moses, able to clear Ubu’s way forward with the power of noxious gas, sallow eyes and a mighty prosthetic belly. Alys Dickerson steps in as Ma Ubu, the brains of the outfit, and conniver in chief. Other ensemble notables are Kearstyn Keller as Beaujolais, really selling her swordsmanship (I should mention: there are no swords, all deaths are administered by a children’s hand-slapping game) and Adam Zaininger, who’d take home a statue if there were a Jeff award for sexiest horse.

Where the show falters is is in it’s mild flirtation with sending up our current president. Every chance he gets, Ubu will insert a hashtag-ready rejoinder proclaiming his leadership style the be big league, or insisting “I have a good brain, believe me.” It’s meant to garner laughs, and the comparison is apt enough, but thanks to the complete saturation of White House dealings, a once laughable man has drained us all of good will. However, if  there were anything adaptor Alexander Gelman could do to silence the ever-yammering presidential maw, I’d line up for a ticket, pronto.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Some despots need to be skewered on a sharper stick. 

DICE RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”