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: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

It’s a rare thing to find a musical that wrangles fun, simplicity and emotional depth from as much source material as Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels” does. Authors Jeff Whitty and James Magruder’s book, paired with crowd-pleasing songs from The Go-Go’s manages to be sweet, without losing its bite. It’s also smart, without getting bogged down by an overwhelming amount of story, and has a very present moral center of acceptance, fit for a souped-up fairy tale.

Based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Phillip Sidney — it’s a 16th century pastoral romance; don’t worry, it won’t be on the quiz — we follow the royal family of a prospering fictional nation, made glorious by “the beat.” Whatever it is, they’ve got it. But all is not perfect; the king Basilius’ (Frankie Leo Bennett) daughter Pamela (Bridget Adams-King), a prized beauty, keeps refusing every male suitor, and her sister Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) has found true love with a shepherd, Musidorous (Jeremiah Alsop), who the king has refused. 

To make matters worse, a prophetic non-binary oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), predicts a series of changes coming to Arcadia which sound grim and devastating to Basilius. There will be socially inappropriate matches for his daughters, he will become an adulterer with his wife, Gynecia (Liz Norton); then his kingdom will get a new ruler. Basilius decides to keep the predictions to himself and closest confidant Dametas (Shane Roberie), and just … grab his family and run away! But as with many fables, not every grim prediction is what it appears, and sometimes trying to prevent a future that scares you can unintentionally squash beautiful things and valid people. Will Pamela’s attendant Mopsa (Deanalis Resto) be able to confess her true feelings? Will the entire royal court fall for the mysterious amazon Cleophila (also Jeremiah Alsop)? Will Arcadia be able to sustain “the beat?” Only time will tell. 

Directing team Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson make the work of wrangling dozens of performers on a very tight playing space seem effortless. Choreographer Breon Arzell injects whimsy, fun, and inclusiveness into every stage picture. Music director Kyra Leigh ensures audience enthusiasm never wanes; each Go-Go’s song can inspire warmth and nostalgia on it’s own, but when paired with the perfectly engineered stage moment, they catapult things forward. Most songs featured in “Head Over Heels” manage to avoid the trappings of jukebox musicals, just by mirroring a character want, or a community mindset. Not every song’s a winner, however. “Vacation” is a seminal Go-Go’s song, but felt shoe-horned in for the sake of including a favorite. But this musical does such efficient storytelling in the assignment of other hits,  I can’t hold anything against it. 

This may be the hardest working cast of 2019 so far, with the bracing amount of energy they exude. It’s not hard to get invested, and I dare anyone to refrain from hooting and hollering for them. Not only are we getting phenomenal performances, we are observing too-often neglected characters (and performers) that are queer, non-binary and gender fluid individuals, fully seen and fully embraced. 

Bridget Adams-King as Pamela and Deanalis Resto as her attendant Mopsa are both a joy to watch as they navigate their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and learn how to be brave and open about their love. It doesn’t hurt that they both have resonating voices that truly compliment each other. Liz Norton as an understanding queen Gynecia plays magically off of Frankie Leo Bennett’s willful and petulant king, Basilius. The joy comes from how musically and physically different they are; Norton booms in a powerful lower register and Bennett brings a sprightly falsetto. 

This ensemble is freakishly talented, with everyone bringing their own artistic specialty to each role. Caitlyn Cerza as Philoclea ups the ante for inspiring ingenues everywhere by treating us to a magical operatic range. Parker Guidry as Pythio owns the room with the smallest gesture of their hand, along with a rotating line up of sparkling, gauzy lingerie — something new for every entrance, of course. And you can’t take your eyes off Jeremiah Alsop as Musidorous or as the armor-clad Amazon Cleophila. As Musidorous adds complexity to their gender identity, Alsop is a genuine, endearing vocal presence to observe. “Head Over Heels” is  a sterling example of how we should regard self-discovery in the real world: with open arms.   

DICE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This glam-rock fairy tale and gender non-conforming dance party has EVERYTHING.

Show: “Head Over Heels”

Company: Kokandy Productions

Venue: Theatre Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

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: “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: “Othello” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Brianna Buckley and Sarah Liz Bell/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Babes with Blades’ entirely female/ non-binary cast “Othello” is swift on its feet, quietly ferocious, and knits in a deeper examination of male privilege than any traditional production, just by nature of not featuring any men. Part of being a man of great prominence in Shakespeare’s Venice is maintaining a spotless reputation. Building fine, upstanding man credentials takes ages of work, performed by a dedicated wife, staff and social circle. All it can take is one word to cast doubt and bring his house of cards tumbling down. So, when an outsider steps in with a reputation audacious enough to be comparable to white men, those threatened men start work immediately to wipe him out.

For any new-comers, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is the story of military machinations, jealousy and racism that arise when a Moorish general rises in the ranks of the Venetian army over Caucasian men who find his very presence an affront to their assumed superiority. When Othello (Brianna Buckley) promotes Cassio (Meredith Ernst) to Lieutenant instead of Iago (Kathrynne Wolf), the jilted ensign puts an intricate plot in motion to ensure Othello’s downfall. At Iago and Roderigo’s (Rachel Mock) prompting, Othello suspects his new wife Desdemona (Sarah Liz Bell) of cheating on him with Cassio. The lies compound, Othello’s suspicions and rage grow, and every shred of “evidence” Iago can produce brings the general closer to his own murderous implosion.

There’s a poignance that comes from having women convey the bile that pursues Othello no matter what he does. They also enact the violence directed at women whose insistent truths fly in the faces of what supposedly honorable men have said. Director Mignon McPherson Stewart and fight director Samantha Kaufman have kept their staging stark, simple and sparse. The sword and dagger work are swift punctuations, and while a stage angle may obstruct you from the action in a moment, there’s painstaking work to make sure every seat sees some interplay. What then has room to flourish are some of the more stunning performances featured on any Chicago stage.

For exceptional takes on male characters, I tip my hat to Rachel Mock as the sullen, lovelorn and malleable Roderigo, stewing in constant regret. And, as Cassio, Meredith Ernst treats us to both a bit of definitely-NOT-drunk buffoonery, and violently shaking tremors of panic when Cassio’s good name is brought to question.

Sarah Liz Bell gives us a forthright and fearless Desdemona who is left with no voice in her marriage, or ground to stand on as her husband lashes out at her every action. Ashley Fox shines as refreshingly animated and angry Aemilia, who is beyond embittered to discover she has also been her husband Iago’s pawn.

Kim Fukawa, Kimberly Logan, and Kathrynne Wolf/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux .

There are no two better matched for their theatrical title bout than Brianna Buckley’s Othello and Kathrynne Wolf’s Iago. Wolf’s performance trades any villainous mustache-twirling for a presence that is quiet and insidious. I was disturbed at how understanding I was of his deepening levels of personal treachery. Buckley’s Othello is a  powerful joy and despair conduit in response to both encompassing happiness, and the wrenching betrayal of everyone he holds highest in esteem. I was disturbed at how ill-at-ease even the prospect of Othello taking his loved ones’ lives made me. This “Othello” is exceptionally good at forcing you to look at your own biases in the context of what happens onstage. Babes with Blades is asking you to look inward, and that is at the heart of truly compelling theater.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Shakespeare gets a much needed transfusion of bombastic feminine energy.

Show: Othello

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  Factory Theater (1623 Howard St.)


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)