Review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

“P.Y.G or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” has a lot to say about appropriation and authenticity, alongside covering a metric ton of other subjects and theatrical styles. Beyond acting as a reality show satire, an adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and a dramatic exercise in dunking on Justin Bieber, the play explores much about the way we interact across races and cultures. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s script, combined with Lili-Anne Brown’s direction makes for a winning combination in a story that stops being nice and, slightly dulling to its impact in the end, starts getting real

Alexand Da Great (Tevion Devin Lanier) and Blacky Blackerson (Eric Gerard) are two Chicago — actually, Black is from Naperville, Xand reminds him — rappers on the cusp of major fame. They agree to star in a reality show with, as well as live with Canadian pop star Dorian Belle (Garrett Young), in an effort to gain more exposure with a larger (read: white) audience, and to make “white people bread.” Dorian wants to make music with them, having recently fallen in love with hip hop. But in order for this white artist to make authentic music, Xand and Black must school him in the ways of their art form. What starts as a series of lessons in history, and putting rocks in Dorian’s mouth to give him a growlier sound, quickly morphs into an unwanted transformation, where Xand and Black must examine whether or not they are losing their own authenticity and sense of self during the project. 

Chisholm’s script covers a lot of ground, but does so with a ton of invention and humor. Characters not only hold Real World-style confessionals, they also speak their deepest thoughts off the cuff directly to the audience, and at one point, literally mark their territory. Xand and Black question what it means to hold the spotlight as black men, something Dorian cannot possibly understand. Digs are made at polished music, such as “Hamilton” and boy band-style pop, with real world violence and injustice creeping in at the corners of every dialogue the men share. The inventiveness compliments Chisholm’s theatricality, which embraces the over-the-top nature of reality TV performances, while allowing character foibles to outstrip even the curated presentations they make of themselves. The scene work borders on the absurd at times, and if the playwright cannot sustain such an energetic dramatic build all the way through the play’s conclusion, that may partly be the point. The questions Alexand Da Great, Blacky Blackerson, and Dorian Belle tackle are not easily answered, so providing any clear answer at all to their conflict might tarnish the progress they have made together.

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

Brown continues to be one of the most dynamic directors in Chicago. She encourages actors to make physical choices, and it pays off well in “P.Y.G.,” with Gerard darting from place to place with smoothness and presence, and Young putting on a hip hop artist air that is at once awkward and endearing. Stuck between the two is Lanier, whose quiet, no-nonsense demeanor marks him the most practical and clear-eyed of the trio. The friction between the men is never less than surprising, and sparks of joy are given their full moment, so that tension bubbling under the surface never drowns out the characters’ sincere appreciation for one another.

Interstitial, absurd commercials for products such as “De-Woke Spray” and “Soundtrax” (a product that allows white people to coolly enter a room to music made and performed by black artists) abound throughout the production. They are cleverly constructed, as they were clearly shot with Jackalope members and friends, and filmed throughout or near familiar Chicago haunts. This homemade, kitschy feel makes the content of the commercials land even harder, as the separate standards held for white people and people of color mount over and over in a ridiculous world that is, sadly, an all-too-recognizable one.

Ultimately, it is hard to encapsulate how good this production is, how big it goes; it hits hard and fast, contains all manner of delightful performances, and speaks to now in a way that can be rare for new plays. Check it out if you’re a fan of electric, thoughtful theatre.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rap, reality, and absurdity combine in this electric comedy-drama.

Show: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle”

Company: Jackalope Theatre Company

Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)

Review: “The Effect” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Review: “The Effect” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Daniella Pereira and Sam Hubbard/Photo: Jesus J. Montero. 

Before the action gets going in Strawdog’s “The Effect,” a projection at the back of the stage helpfully informs the audience that an experiment is about to begin. Said experiment refers to the onstage drug trial being monitored and endured by the production’s characters, but it could just as well refer to the performance of the play itself, which like any experiment, is testing out a hypothesis on a gathered group of test subjects, aka, the audience. As questions about identity and perception swirl around the performers, the viewers are invited to draw conclusions based on the scenes playing out in front of them. Of course, like all people, test subjects have biases, and it’s to this production’s credit that I found myself considering a wild variety of positions about the uses and misuses of medication without experiencing judgment or ridicule.

Directed by Elly Green with a game cast, “The Effects” follows Connie (Daniela Pereira) and Tristan (Sam Hubbard), two young adults who have entered into a weeks-long drug trial to test out a new antidepressant on healthy subjects. Dr. Lorna James (Justine C. Turner), hired by old flame and pharmaceutical conference hot-shot Toby (Cary Shoda), is carefully watching their progress while fighting demons of her own. Tristan is already flirtatious and impulsive, and the doses he’s given heighten his feelings and choices; he quickly becomes infatuated with Connie, the only woman on the trial. She is more hesitant than Tristan, less sure of the reality they both admit to experiencing. Are the drugs responsible for their increasing dopamine levels, and thus responsible for their attraction? If there is an external cause for their romance, does that invalidate their feelings? Are we really ourselves if we are using a substance in order to modify our moods and behavior

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s script could move into some dangerous territory by posing these questions. As long as there have been antidepressant medications available, there has been a backlash to said meds. Many, many people and professionals swear by the positive effect and efficacy of such drugs. Some claim there is no way to anticipate their long-term effects on users. Others claim exercise and exposure to nature will transform one’s mental health completely, without the addition of chemicals. Still others would claim that there is disquiet to be found in taking pills to become a different, potentially better version of yourself. I am not nearly qualified to comment on all these stances, though each is given a certain amount of discussion in “The Effect,” at once astute and perhaps a little mistrusting of its audience’s intelligence, when long-winded discussions of science get in the way of the flesh and blood relationships onstage. I know I came into the play biased — as everyone is, Toby helpfully points out — by my own use of Ritalin over the course of my chilhood into my twenties. You change when you are on medication; the first difference my mother noticed was that my handwriting transformed from overly large yet somehow cramped scrawl into neat, pretty cursive. But I would never say medication turned me into a fraud; it helped me become the writer I am today. However, by giving voice to worries in her script, Prebble is able to plum deep anxieties we all have about the nature of free will and choice, and she does so with humanity and surprise, particularly in regard to Lorna’s journey from antidepressant doubter to potential believer.

Justine C. Turner and Cary Shoda/Photo: Jesus J. Montero.

Pereira and Hubbard develop a rough and complex chemistry as their relationship develops. Hubbard does not shy away from Tristan’s pushiness and sleaziness in his opening flirtations. Pereira embraces Connie’s reservations without judgment, and allows a fuller expression of passion to build over time, so when the two test subjects finally collide, director Green’s stage pictures feel monumental, sharp, and enthralling. Turner has a subtler dynamic to craft with Shoda, and if it takes most of the production’s run-time for them to reach a satisfying emotional resonance, that’s more to blame more on the script’s pacing than on Green’s work with the performers.

Yeaji Kim’s scenic design and projections feel clean and clinical, while Claire Chrzan and John Kelly’s intermittently flashing white and red lights take you from a hospital room to someplace warmer and more intimate with ease. Leah Hummel’s costumes feel just right, particularly during the transformation from street clothes to drab patient wear.

“The Effect” could well be called an experiment on audience bias. It challenges those watching, and if the production does not come to any firm conclusions, that is as it should be. When posing questions about what we all do to make our lives livable, the answer lies ultimately in each of us.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Experiment in how romance forms, with alarming questions at play.

Show: “The Effect”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Review: “The Great Leap” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Review: “The Great Leap” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Glenn Obrero/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

“The Great Leap” begins with a cool beam of light outlining a basketball court. It ends with a flash that implies destruction and sacrifice. To understand all the events that lead from that first image to the last, one must witness how cultural clashes and expectations complicate seemingly simple choices, like when to take a shot during a basketball game. Lauren Yee’s propulsive script, now playing upstairs at the Steppenwolf Theatre, invites discussion not just about who gets to excel in sports, but who gets to excel in our interconnected, globalized society.

The 1989-set story is narrated by Wen Chang (James Seol), though he patiently waits to appear until the second scene of the play, following his interpretation that on the court everyone takes turns. He coaches for the University of Beijing basketball team, where he has worked hard to recruit “tall trees” to play for him. He never wanted the job or the spotlight that ensured the government is always watching his successes and failures. But he was handed the gig from Saul (Keith Kupferer), a San Francisco university coach who taught him the game during a diplomatic visit to China in 1971. Of course, being an American, Saul also felt the need to impart wisdom about trash talk, flirting, and chasing what you want without thinking of the consequences. Though he believes “a Chinese team will never beat an American team,” Saul is in dire straits circa 1989. He needs a win to keep his coaching job, and he’s willing to host a friendly rematch with Beijing in order to make that happen. Enter Manford (Glenn Obrero), a relentless teenage phenom who wants to be the best point guard around, not just the most impressive baller in Chinatown. These three characters are set on a collision course as East meets West, with surprising revelations in store.

Yee’s work always feels personal, even as she admits in a program interview that this story is not her basketball player father’s, but a story reminiscent of her father’s. Basketball serves as a placeholder for political tension between the United States and China here, but we also see the game’s practical outcomes in each character’s story. After all, the people obsessed with and beguiled by the game are playing for much higher stakes than points. Yet the American characters don’t understand that. “It’s always your turn,” Saul tells Wen Chang. He has no idea what a bold statement that is to make when students are demanding more from their government, only to be greeted with tanks. He only sees himself as a personal and professional guide, as a friend offering friendly advice. For Wen Chang, because of where he comes from, friendly advice cannot be refused. And his inability to communicate that to anyone but the audience is what may doom him in the rematch. Though Yee’s conclusion doesn’t quite justify the heights it reaches, the journey to Wen Chang’s “turn” is engrossing and heartbreaking.

James Seol and Keith Kupferer/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Jessica Prudencio cleverly finds a way to make bring basketball into this world through Obrero’s physicality. Obrero is not only an insistent and effortless motor mouth as Manford, he whirls his way around Justin Humphres’ impressive courtside set with lightning speed. One notices upon entering the space that there are no basketball hoops present in the paint. But there is no need for such realism in this cross-continental play. Obrero’s free throws are poetic oopsie daisies that involve him catching the ball as he throws it. He doesn’t even need a basketball to show us how well he moves across the court, passing an invisible ball between his legs to mystify unseen opponents. In “The Great Leap,” basketball becomes a competition against one’s self, a battle between who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Seol’s stillness brands him as quietly desperate, proper in all things because that is what his government demands of him. We sympathize, even as we yearn for the electric charge brought by those who refuse to stand still.

While Humphres’ alley style set makes us spectators at a game, Keith Parham’s lights and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design transport us somewhere more personal, into the minds and hearts of each person holding the court at any given moment. Cool projection beams map out where Manford is going to travel. What is a simple path for a young man’s future is much more complex when it comes to his coach and his opponent. Parham’s harsh lights shrink down or flood the stage in the 1971 sequences, shining so bright at times, it is even impossible for the audience to see what’s coming.

And that’s fitting for a show about unintended and unforeseen consequences. Basketball may be a poetic game with clear rules, but its power comes from how players move the ball forward. In Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” taking steps may be easy or it may be hard, but it is never less than a thrilling leap into the unknown.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Basketball means cultural clashes and introspection in this thrilling drama.

Show: “The Great Leap”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: The Upstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted)

Review: “Women Of 4G” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Review: “Women Of 4G” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Catherine Dvorak, LaKecia Harris, Ashley Yates, Jazmín Corona, Renee Lockett and Judi Schindler/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Even in the vastness of space, gender discrimination persists. Astronauts at the international space station recently had their first all-female space walk cancelled because the only available suits were sized to fit men and not women. In “Women of 4G,” the crew members on a long-distance satellite repair mission are trying to accomplish a feat of their own, finishing this near-Mars mission as their nation’s first all-female crew. Well, almost all-female. Their captain is a man. And when he dies suspiciously mid-mission, the women’s hopes to make their mark on history are put in jeopardy.

Amy Tofte’s play essentially functions as a drawing room murder mystery, only the drama happens in space. Instead of the crew being stranded on an island, they are floating in a vessel they cannot escape. They have reached the edge of communication with the Earth, so they cannot report what has happened, not unlike when a storm cuts out the telephone lines in an Agatha Christie whodunit. Each crew member has reason to suspect the others, and when they split into smaller groups, their resentments at how they were treated by a sexist captain bubble to the surface and shed light on their potential motives. The familiar structure helps ground the fantastical near-future circumstances, and it gives the audience something to hold onto in the early going, when a lot of scifi terminology is thrown around without much context or sense of human stakes.

Director Lauren Katz develops the crew’s interpersonal relationships well, with the two older members of the medical team (Judi Schindler and Renee Lockett) providing much needed perspective and humor, while the rivalry between engineer Baston (Catherine Dvorak) and officer Nataki (Lakecia Harris) keeps things lively, particularly at moments when Maureen Yasko’s action movie fight choreography comes into play. Ashley Yates as the by-the-book first officer Stark is subtly led into violating protocol by a fierce Jazmín Corona as Wollman, the scientist who believes the crew has a right to make history. And Jillian Leff as the youngest, most inexperienced member of the crew seems as jittery as the audience.

If the confines of a storefront space do not allow the drama to soar as high as it might, that is not necessarily a flaw. With a solid script, an open scenic design by Jessie Baldinger, and a grounded set of actors, this Babes With Blades production stands out for the risks it takes in using movement to create an alien environment, coaxing the audience to imagine what it might feel like to walk through space. Even if a woman cannot escape the patriarchy while floating through the stars, at least she can push farther than she ever has before.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: What if Agatha Christie, but it happened in outer space?

Show: “Women Of 4G”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 Howard St, Chicago)

Review: “Life On Paper” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Review: “Life On Paper” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Mary Williamson and Joel Ewing/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

I am endlessly fascinating by the scripts produced at Jackalope Theatre Company. Attend any production created by this open-hearted, full-throated organization, and you are likely to appreciate the sharp, heady stories they tell, even if you find that the narrative onstage isn’t quite your cup of tea. I have never seen a play at Jackalope that I wasn’t instantly involved in; often, I am completely floored by the company’s artistic work. This past few months alone, Jackalope has delivered two electrifying gifts, “In the Canyon” and “Dutch Masters,” both of which had much to say about how we live now. If Kenneth Linn’s “Life On Paper” doesn’t hit quite as hard, or lead to as cathartic of a release for the audience, maybe that’s okay. Sometimes, it is good to sit with characters in their day-to-dayness, to see how they live their lives, and how they make choices to improve said lives and the lives of others.

Linn has a way with concept and dialogue, and that’s apparent from word one in this production. Mitch (Joel Ewing) is a forensic accountant, whose intense need to solve one of math’s greatest puzzles lead to an epic flame-out in his past. He has been tasked with assessing the life value of the sixty-third richest man in the world, who has died in a plane crash and whose Wisconsin hometown desperately needs his posthumous funding in order to stay afloat. Standing by his side is his cousin, Ivan (Guy Wicke), who is a double-A baseball burn-out and a similar math whiz. On the opposite side of the battle is Ida (Mary Williamson), the town’s assessor, who is determined to prove that the billionaire’s value can’t be set in dollars and cents, but in impact on the local lives he boosted. The stage is set for an epic showdown over what it means to succeed or fail, win or lose, preserve or terminate. All this happens in an everyday Wisconsin town, in its many offices, restaurants, and one tiny hill that holds special meaning for Ida.

Plays involving math don’t often have a lot of actual math in them, but Linn stakes whole scenes on whether characters are able to poetically explain theoretical problems and mathematical models. His blend of awe for math and realistic expectations about flawed people makes for a fun cocktail, but at times, the larger ideas at play subsume the character work being done. Mitch starts out a closed-off jerk, and if his descriptions of math cannot make the audience relate to him, the whole project falls apart. It’s particularly important that Ida see his truth, as the two use mathematical understanding to connect romantically. Honestly, I got lost in the numbers a bit, but if Linn gave early scenes of connection as much room to breathe as he does later, confrontational scenes, then the character stakes would be clearer, and the journey we are on would seem less metaphorical and more earth-bound the whole way through.

Director Gus Menary does an excellent job with the actors, really digging into the extra-heady material, and creating back and forth rhythms that generate entertaining tennis matches. Ewing and Williamson have an off-beat chemistry that really suits the Capra-esque “Will the cynical guy make good?” storyline. Wicke is absolutely charming as a humane mechanic of numbers, and Satya Jnani Chavez plays a pivotal role at the end of the play; her upbeat humbleness does a number on the viewer. It also cannot be overstated how deep the waters run in Williamson, whose every thought sings out the depths of her character’s yearning and sadness.

Ryan Emens’ scenic design expertly nails the look of small-town offices, RV kitchens, and hotel breakfast buffets. But his use of a “Welcome to town”-esque billboard at the back of the stage hinders movement during scene changes and slows the comedic pace of the show. Stefani Azores-Gococo’s costumes evoke shaggy corporate style, while Claire Sangster’s lights lift us into the heavens at opportune moments.

If you are looking for an evening of theatre examining success and failure, “Life On Paper” fits the bill, gently unraveling individual problems until we see how our problems are always connected to, and might in fact be solved by, the lives of other people.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Numbers add up in this tale of failure and meaning.

Show: “Life On Paper”

Company: Jackalope Theatre Company

Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)

Review: “Baby with the Bathwater” (Eclipse Theatre Company)

Review: “Baby with the Bathwater” (Eclipse Theatre Company)

Jamie Bragg, Tyler Anthony Smith, and Elise Marie
Davis/Photo by Scott Dray.

Christopher Durang has a lot to say about parent-child dynamics in Eclipse Theatre’s production of “Baby with the Bathwater.” Parents always mess up their kids, but it’s rare you will encounter a play where parents so soundly and profoundly embrace the absurd while exercising their own squeamishness at raising their child. It’s a miracle, frankly, that Durang’s script has held up over the years, that its story of a child robbed of his sense of self by parents who insist on dressing him as the opposite sex does not read as out of touch and offensive in 2019. Most of this comes down to the playwright’s work and the designers’ skills, unfortunately, rather than the performances or the director’s touch.

Helen (Elise Marie Davis) and John (Tyler Anthony Smith) refuse to check the sex of their child upon birth, but are also trained to shout at their crying baby by an uncouth and — to put it kindly — free-thinking Nanny (Jamie Bragg), who may or may not have been sent by the hospital to help them adjust to new parenthood. The two long to divorce at various points in the play, and as their child grows up to be called Daisy (Jose Cervantes), and longs to forge connection with others, including his girlfriend Susan (Susan), the parents struggle to allow him to be himself.

Director Derek Van Barham understands the material he is working with, encouraging performers like Bragg to knowingly wink through their committed chicanery. Smith is particularly strong at building Durang’s ridiculous beats to high tone crescendos. But the pacing of Van Barham’s production is far too slow, allowing the audience time to think about what they are witnessing, and rather than laugh at the over-the-top shenanigans, we begin to seriously consider the abuse being endured, and the comedy turns tragic before Durang intends.

The design of this production is well-considered and smart. Matt Sharp’s lights emphasize the cartoonish nightmare being endured, and Uriel Gomez’s costumes embrace candy-colored sixties fashion, highlighting how often the past can be washed in brighter hues to become more palatable for those controlling history. And Samantha Rausch’s scenic design nicely turns the parents’ home into a nursery, half-organized and half-disheveled, making the psychic torment apparent to everyone who visits.

If it moved faster, and everyone displayed the acuity for Durang’s cutting humor, this production of “Baby with the Bathwater” would be a true achievement. As is, mostly it left me relieved that something I once enjoyed hadn’t become dated and hardened and useless over the years.

Show: “Baby with the Bathwater”

Company: Eclipse Theatre Company

Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Avenue)

DICE RATING: d4 — “Not Worth the Time”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Script and design save this show from obscurity and pain.

Review: “Utility” (Interrobang Theatre Project)

Review: “Utility” (Interrobang Theatre Project)

Patrick TJ Kelly and Brynne Barnard/Photo: Evan Hanover.

The grind is a hard thing to dramatize. In most plays, we expect the characters’ circumstances, outlooks, or choices to change; that’s part of what makes narrative so satisfying. Stories are measurable. Cause and effect can be clear. But in Emily Schwend’s “Utility,” currently running at Rivendell Theatre, courtesy of Interrobang Theatre Project, circumstances don’t change, and choices don’t seem to appear. A life in poverty is a life measured only by how far each paycheck can stretch, and each character exits the play almost exactly as they entered it.

Amber (Brynne Barnard) is especially stuck, as a mother to three kids, struggling to juggle two jobs and an, at best, itinerant husband in Chris (Patrick TJ Kelly), while also planning her daughter’s eighth birthday party. Her mother Laura (Barbara Figgins) helps out from time to time, but never misses a chance to criticize Amber’s routines. Chris is low on work shifts at a local bar; he is renovating their house with his brother Jim (Kevin D’Ambrosio), whose terse conversations with Amber only seem to deepen her growing despair at ever having a better, happy life. And when the electric bill goes unpaid, Amber seems to be the only one who cares to address the issue.

Director Georgette Verdin leans into the malaise and intense realism of Schwend’s script. Kerry Chipman’s lived-in and precise kitchen set has a working fridge and a working sink, from what I could tell. The creation of an entire bag-full of peanut butter sandwiches and the fixing of a smashed-up birthday cake are the largest bits of stage business we see. There is nothing heightened about the deadened conversations the characters hold with one another about bills, and the circumstances are as recognizable as one’s own last set of bills coming due. But I found myself wishing for a little more surprise in Verdin’s direction. The continually monotone colors she encourages in her performers don’t allow them to build much tension within scenes, with the exception of Kevin D’Ambrosio’s word-painting monologue near the end of the play. The lack of intensity or transformation makes sense, in that these characters are always living on the edge, and have possibly gotten used to feeling behind. But the continuously slow pacing and measured tones employed make it hard to suss out just what Amber deeply and truly wants.

Perhaps some of that malaise comes from Schwend’s script. She allows Amber little opportunity to choose a different sort of life than the one she shares with her husband; she doesn’t dare to dream of one, either. Barnard’s performance of held-in frustration is transparent and heartbreaking. But without a stronger sense of connection to other people onstage — particularly D’Ambrosio — it is hard to find a rooting interest in Amber’s problems. Yes, her problems are shared by generation after generation of people in this country, and she matters solely as a human being in the world. So we should want to see her problems solved. But the play, at times, feels like an exploration of misery for misery’s sake.
I left the theater wishing I knew what exactly Schwend wanted me to do with her minimalist story. Observation of a marginalized group has value. But observation alone does not allow for automatic engagement, and may even foster rejection upon reflection.

DIE RATING:d6 — “Has Some Merit”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The intense realism of poverty takes its time and toll.

Show: “Utility”

Company: Interrobang Theatre Project

Venue: Rivendell Theatre (5779 N Ridge Ave)

Review: “Small World” (The New Colony)

Review: “Small World” (The New Colony)

Jackie Seijo, Patriac Coakley and Stephanie Shum/Photo: Evan Hanover.

Disney’s The Magic Kingdom makes a perfect stand-in for the United States of America. Think about it. Happiness is its main goal, just as the pursuit of happiness is highlighted in one of our nation’s founding documents. The Magic Kingdom reinforces the idea of our melting pot in its wide-ranging cuisine choices, as well as in its attractions. And capitalism lies at the center of our democracy as much as it fuels Disney’s ever-expanding brand and fantasies. In The New Colony’s “Small World,” these parallels are reinforced by three poor Disney workers trapped inside the titular attraction during a potential terrorist attack. One is a cynical, community-rejecting lesbian; one is a Bible-quoting, potentially violent fundamentalist; and one just wants everybody to work together in order to achieve their mutual freedom.

Perhaps I am stretching. I do not know for certain whether playwrights Jillian Leff and Joe Lino intended the happiest place on Earth to serve as an allegory for our current political and social divisions. But the three points of view at the heart of this production most certainly invite that reading, and director Andrew Hobgood’s clarifying, triangular staging often places these three characters in debate-like or mediating stances.

So who are these characters? Kim (co-artistic director Stephanie Shum) believes in Disney; she grew up without parental support or friends, and working at the park is a dream come true for her. Unfortunately, she now finds herself pinned to the floor of Small World by a flag that’s impaled her leg. Becca (Jackie Seijo) finds no joy in parading tourists around the Magic Kingdom, and hides her propensity for fleeing conflict by relying on Donny (Patriac Coakley) to rescue them all. Donny knows a thing or two about first aid — though he initially seems unaware that one should never attempt to remove an impaled object — and he is determined to stay alive, with or without the help of his colleagues. He starts hinting at a conservative, if unconventional, religious background early on, and as the workers learn more about their hopeless situation, they push each other farther and farther away. Will they make it out of Small World? Will Kim make any friends in the process? Will any of us be able to get that annoying theme park music out of our heads?!

Leff and Lino’s script piles on a heap of realistic, stakes-raising issues for the characters to confront. First, there’s the matter of Kim’s blood loss. Then a corpse floats by. The stability of overhead beams becomes a question, as does the viability of two potential escape routes. This is all very gruesome stuff, and so it becomes hard to square the realistic dangers with the more absurd, allegorical elements at play. Terror at the happiest place on Earth makes for wonderful irony, but when the logistics of how long Kim would actually stay conscious begin to bump up against the larger philosophical differences between the three characters, I began to wish the absurd had appeared earlier in the play, so I would be more focused on the problems being discussed and the thematic points being made. Perhaps in the next production, these parallel lines will be smoothed out, but here, I found myself getting distracted by reality when the world of the play insisted on discussing something larger.

Still, it’s a bold script, and Hobgood leans into its humor in surprising ways. Though hampered by physical constraints, each actor finds creative approaches to pratfalls, losing his/her lunch, and dealing with the corpse of a co-worker. Shum is particularly engaging as Kim, her desperate optimism never curdling into something darker. She is easily the play’s most sympathetic character, and her command of the stage while working under the weight of an impaling object is impressive. Coakley delivers solid menace mixed with increasing hysteria, and Seijo is easily the most relatable figure, unsure what to do with herself, and uncertain that she will ever find solutions to their growing list of interpersonal and environmental problems.

Sotirios Livaditis’ set evokes a pastel-colored nightmare without laying on the irony too thick. Erik Siegling’s sound proves paramount in understanding how unstable and dangerous the surroundings are, and Jennifer Wernau creates both a believable gruesome injury and a realistic enough corpse to give this audience member the shudders. Uriel Gomez’s costumes evoke the sameness of all work uniforms, and Zack Meyer’s violence design serves the story well.

All in all, this production is an impressive achievement. The artists commit to telling a difficult story onstage, and if the larger thematic concerns get lost amid everything else, at least the ride is exciting. And isn’t customer satisfaction what Disney relishes above all?

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A ride at Disney World turns into a real terror.

Show: “Small World”

Company: The New Colony

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Review: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Elizabeth MacDougald and Brian Bengtson/Photo: Steven Townshend.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” one performer tells another at the start of Idle Muse’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most improbable play, “The Winter’s Tale.” The above line is repeated later in “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” and its certainty evokes morning frost and endless grey skies. Early April in Chicago often features days below thirty, so the audience is perhaps primed for the woe ready to befall these Jacobean characters. But there’s a trick to this story of betrayal, murder, and grief. Not only does a bear save a child’s life, but circumstances turn bright after an impossible rebirth. The play may be improbable, the acting and directing suggests, but that does not make its grief pointless.

Leontes (Brian Bengtson) becomes a tyrant king in the production’s opening moments. Concerned about his wife Hermione’s (Mara Kovacevic) friendship with neighboring ruler Polixenes (Eric Schnitger), he first orders adviser Camilla (Laura Jones Macknin) to poison his imagined rival, and then imprisons his bride once Polixenes flees to his native Bohemia. No one will confirm what Leontes believes to be true, and the innocent Hermione dies after giving birth to Perdita (Kristen Alesia), who escapes death only due to interruption by bear, and grows up in exile as a shepherdess in Polixenes’ kingdom. She and Bohemia’s prince Florizel (Brian Healy) fall in love, and then things get really weird.

Director and adaptor Evan Jackson never downplays or seeks to course-correct the odd coincidences and magical moments of “A Winter’s Tale,” and his production is the better for it. Shakespeare is never insincere, and to laugh at his shortcuts and fantastical leap into miracles is to misunderstand the story being told. “A Winter’s Tale” begins as a tragedy, and ends with the cost of said drama lightened, but not fully lifted. Jackson creates a barebones production, with help from Laura J. Wiley’s evocative lights and projections, while focusing heavily on the script’s heightened language. Also, Wiley’s bear puppet is a lot of menacing fun; it caused several children to jump from their seats and roar at intermission on the night I attended.

Bengtson is terrifying in his certainty, awoken by so very little. Elizabeth McDougald as the magician Paulina hammers home the injustices created by the king’s jealousy, and Kovacevic embraces Hermione’s vulnerability as strength. In this era of tough conversations and expanded awareness, many companies are programming “Measure for Measure.” But perhaps we should all take a second look at “A Winter’s Tale.” In a world where women are wronged and disbelieved, even magic cannot completely set things right. Time is still lost, relationships torn apart, and the cost almost always falls on those who have less power. If you want a sad tale before spring sets in, check out Idle Muse’s unflinching production of this late-stage romance.

DICE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The impossible is given its due in an elegant production.

Show: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works”

Company: Idle Muse Theatre Company

Venue: The Edge Theater Off-Broadway (1133 W Catalpa 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)